Bombay, early morning of April 18, 1981 at Sahar international airport. A Thai passenger arrives from Bangkok on Air France Flight 191. He casually picks up his solitary suitcase from the baggage delivery counter and saunters through the green customs channel. The man is almost out of the control zone when an alert customs officer, his senses honed by years of experience on the job, abruptly asks him to open the case. Inside, hidden beneath a false bottom, are concealed 2.96 kg of white crystalline powder in eight plastic bags. It is the biggest ever heroin catch in India, worth more than US$1 million – almost Rs 1 crore – in New York.
* Varanasi, the evening of April 10, the lobby of a five-star hotel. Three men are seated with an American, talking. After a while the American gets up and disappears in a lift. An hour passes before the three sense that something might be wrong. In a blind panic they rush out of the hotel, straight into the arms of the Central Bureau of Investigation (“CBI”) Narcotics division, which set them up. The CBI recovers two kilos of morphine from them, a small catch, but is astounded when it is led to the laboratory in a biscuit factory in Gaibi Road and told that the morphine has been made there. Along with a similar, but much smaller seizure in nearby Ghazipur just four days before, this is the first time in years that morphine labs have been unearthed in India.
* Madras, Meenambakkam airport, late January. Tipped off that a large consignment of cocaine is due to transit India on its way from South America to Colombo, sleuths of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence DRl start to probe manifests and records of all cargo that has entered India from the west in the last two months, looking for clues that might lead to the cocaine. Finally, agents in Bombay stumble on one consignment of Bolivian handicrafts shipped from La Paz which landed in Bombay end-December 1980, and was sent on to Madras early January en route to Colombo. They also report the presence of two foreigners who have kept an anxious eye on the shipment. The DRI opens the packages in Madras and finds 2,275 kg of cocaine concealed in plastic bags hidden inside eight hand-crafted statues. One foreigner has already fled the country; the other, an Australian, is nabbed at Bombay on Republic Day as he is about to board a British Airways flight to Singapore. The cocaine is worth more than Rs 60 lakh, and the seizure is the biggest ever in Asia – almost three times the average annual cocaine haul in any single year.
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A few years ago, international anti-narcotics sleuths would probably have put a not-so-important yellow flag on the map of India. For them, it was just a country wedged between two gigantic sources of illegal opium-based drugs, the “golden triangle” formed by Burma, Thailand and Laos, and the “golden crescent” formed by Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.True, drug smugglers trafficked across its borders and it was an acknowledged mecca for the dropout generation of the west, in search of spiritualism, sex and stimulant. True, also, that India grew the world’s largest crop of legal opium for medicinal uses and large quantities of hashish which sometimes found its way to the west. But the hashish wasn’t very good, the opium cultivation was well regulated, and the addicts and hippies generally managed to stay out of trouble.
No longer. From a modest transit country and a relatively harmless fun time destination for soft drug addicts, India is fast burgeoning into a major transit country and even a possible source of opium-based narcotics to the drug-dazed western world. The recent hauls of heroin, morphine and cocaine were described by one narcotics official as “the tip of the iceberg”.
Coming in rapid fire succession, these record-breaking seizures, coupled with intelligence reports, clearly indicate that the country has climbed several notches higher in the twilight world of the drug smugglers, much to the despair of the multifarious ill-equipped and under-manned outfits which have to combat this cancerous and quite often insurmountable evil of modern civilisation. International narcotics agencies may not as yet be breaking out their red flags, but the signs are unmistakable:
- Interpol’s latest confidential Drugs Intelligence Bulletin, a basic source of intelligence on narcotics smuggling, states quite explicitly that “Pakistan and even India are now said to be major exporters” of opium-based drugs. The Bulletin elaborates: “It is believed by many that considerable amounts of Indian/Pakistani heroin, through Nepal, are reaching Australia and New Zealand.” Though described as a “theory”, this was the first time that Interpol or anybody else had said that India might be making its own mark in the world’s estimated $100 billion (Rs 80,000 crore) traffic in opium derivatives, a sudden development considering that the UN International Narcotics Control Board reports for 1979 and 1980 make no mention of India in their discussion of illicit traffic.
- India’s delegation rang warning bells at the 29th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna last February. when it signalled to the collected delegations that drug smugglers may well be trying to convert the country into a vast staging ground between Asian source countries and the end of the pipeline in north America and Western Europe.
- In March, to beef up preparedness among Indian anti-narcotics agencies, the Government organised a two-week long international training course-cum-seminar on Narcotics Control and Enforcement, the first time an effort was made on this scale.
- Last fortnight, western experts assessing the importance of the CBI’s seizures in Varanasi and Ghazipur, described them as a breakthrough. “This is a big thing,” said one. Most western countries with serious narcotics problems maintain close liaison with their Indian counterparts, and often play an important role in passing on information. “As we see it,” said one foreign narcotics official, “India is becoming a source country for opium and morphine.”
While there are differences of opinion about whether or not India is, in fact, a source of narcotics made from home-grown opium, nobody doubts that unless there is a substantial increase in vigilance, there is likely to be trouble ahead. “India is in for a hard time,” confesses an official with long experience in the drug trade as he surveys the scene on India’s borders.
Traditionally, the opium trail has snaked its deadly way to the west starting in two mountainous, lightly policed and fiercely independent regions of Asia. To India’s east, the “golden triangle” has pumped an estimated 400 to 600 tonnes of illicit raw opium – worth up to Rs 2,000 crore on the streets of Hong Kong today – into the world markets. To India’s west, UN reports say that the “golden crescent” has recently overtaken the triangle in importance.
Hashish which was found in the false bottom of a sitar case: Frightening possibilities
Marked Rise: But to the dismay of Indian officials, there is mounting evidence that trouble in both regions could cause a dangerous diversion of the narcotics traffic through India. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has reduced opium production but enforcement activity is now largely confined to Kabul. The war hasn’t killed the poppy fields in the remote valleys, but along with the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, it has squeezed direct traffic from Afghanistan to the west. Consequently, smugglers are bringing more drugs through India a fact noted by Interpol which recently reported allegations that “the bulk of Indian and Pakistani output of opium and heroin may very well be of Afghanistan origin”.There’s also evidence that opium from poppy fields in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is finding its way to India. According to a recent question in Parliament, the Border Security Force (BSF) seized 315 kgs of opium on the Indo-Pakistan borders in 1980 compared with a trivial 8 kg in 1979. Part of the increase can be explained in terms of better policing on the border. But, as CBI director Jagjit Singh Bawa says: “Opium is smuggled from Pakistan in substantial quantities.” That is hardly unexpected: the UN’s Narcotics Control Board describes Pakistan as “a major centre for opiates production, trafficking and abuse.”
To the east, the Burmese and Thai governments have cracked down hard on narcotics smuggling. The UN report for 1980 says the Burmese have “scored impressive results” in their drive against illicit opium, destroying vast fields of poppy. It also says that bad harvests in the triangle have pulled down production in the last two years.
However, as last fortnight’s Bombay heroin haul shows, and intelligence reports confirm, Burmese and Thai origin drugs are increasingly transitting India. In contrast with the overland Pakistan/Afghanistan connection, India’s Thai connection is made up for air bridges from Bangkok to Bombay, Delhi and Varanasi via Kathmandu.
Lax Laws: What lures smugglers more than anything else is the laxity of Indian laws. While Iran shoots drug traffickers after its dubious, summary trials, south-east Asian countries achieve the same result the death sentence through a better judicial process. Indian narcotics sleuths fear this is a powerful incentive for smugglers to stage through India. “They think India is a safer place to take drugs out from,” says a CBI source.
Unfortunately, past experience only tends to confirm this. Far from getting a death penalty, first time offenders in India are usually let off with just six months in jail and a paltry fine of Rs 1,000. The sentence seems to apply equally to offenders who may have a few grammes of morphine for their own use – and to those trafficking in large amounts.
Four smugglers caught in connection with a Rs 60 lakh seizure of more than one tonne of hashish in 1977 – the Derrick case – had to spend a mere six months in jail. Had they been caught in Canada, where they were headed, they’d have been lucky to have got seven years. “Because they’re foreigners,” complains one prosecution lawyer bitterly, “the courts take pity on them, without realising they’re bloody crooks.”
A foreign van with its hiding place for hashish laid bare (right): Lax laws and easy access to the West
Enforcement agencies generally press for the maximum sentences of three years when an accused is actually brought to trial. Indian courts invariably respond by letting smugglers out on bail or personal bond. Result: one source estimates, off-the-cuff, that at least half those caught in narcotics cases jump bail.Last fortnight, a Delhi court learned to its cost that Frances Mullins, one of the prime culprits accused in the alleged smuggling of almost 900 kg of hashish to Canada and the US inside rubber tyres for fork lifts, had vanished to London. Mullins, a colourful personality who was also known as Frin, jumped bail of Rs 25,000, a trivial restraint for someone who was allegedly involved in a racket worth more than Rs 50 lakh.
Traffickers also confess that they are lured by the large number of flights that leave India for western airports and their relatively easy access. “Kathmandu, Bombay and Delhi are considered soft airports,” says one official who has interrogated large numbers of traffickers. “For the same reason they prefer to go into North America through Vancouver or Montreal rather than New York,” he adds.
What worries enforcement agencies even more are several potentially explosive trends noticed in recent years. First, there is an increasing tilt towards harder and more refined drugs. The big catches of 1977 and 1978 were of hashish – usually good quality ‘hash’ being smuggled from Nepal or Afghanistan. This year’s seizures are of a different dimension: record breaking hauls of heroin and cocaine, which figure at the top of the killer lists of narcotics.
Official data on seizures, which is only a very general indicator, confirm this trend. While seizures of relatively mild drugs like hashish (charas in India) have remained fairly steady or fallen slightly in the last four years, enforcement agencies have pulled in growing quantities of harder stuff. In 1977, they seized 900 gms of heroin, which declined to 250 gms in 1978 and a mere 22 gms in 1979. But the catch suddenly jumped to 1.5 kg in 1980 and last fortnight’s haul in Bombay has tossed the score into an altogether different dimension. In morphine, the trend set in still earlier: from under two kg in 1977, seizures jumped dramatically to almost 13 kg in 1978 before settling down at above six kg each in 1979 and 1980.
International agencies don’t generally rely on data of seizures to estimate the actual traffic. This is because with the best efforts, anti-narcotics agencies are believed to catch between 2-15 per cent of actual traffic. What is really getting through is usually anybody’s guess.
Shoes used to hide morphine: Few are caught
Drug Violence: Another alarming trend is the explosion of drug-related violence in the country. For the first time that is actually known, an international smuggling syndicate late last year sent a professional killer to India (India Today, March 16-31) to try and eliminate a key witness in a case and in which 860 gms of 95 per cent pure heroin was seized from an American and his Canadian girl-friend at Palam Airport in June last year. The two were couriers for an international drug syndicate.Last month, Delhi police cracked open a case dubbed the ‘chicken corner murder’ in which Shamsuddin, an accomplice of one of the capital’s biggest narcotics peddlers, was shot dead in cold blood, when a drug running operation turned sour. Shamsuddin was the third to die in a series of gangland killings in the last three months. Earlier victims, Bhikram Jagish and Tyagi, also had local narcotics connections. A similar slaying in Bombay, where Mohammad Sabir was shot dead in broad daylight at a petrol station tends to confirm the trend that drug killings are here to stay. The man was believed to have turned informer: and in the sordid underworld of narcotics, death has always been the biggest persuader.
A third trend that is giving enforcement agencies sleepless nights is the growing sophistication of smuggling methods and the growing size of individual seizures. This amply reflects the presence of efficient organisation and big money, sources point out. Indian intelligence actually learned that back in 1977 or 1978 a large gathering of big-time traffickers and financiers was held in a Juhu hotel. The meeting was called to improve coordination and to decide who would smuggle what and how. “Previously we had people buying in drips and drabs,” says one source, “now you catch five or ten per cent in one case. People who handle the amounts of money involved, let me tell you, they are big.”
Evidence of big time penetration already exists. Operations like the Derrick case and the attempt in 1978 to smuggle nearly 900 kg of hashish concealed in more than 450 fork lift tyres, requires investment and organisation. The tentacles of drug runners now run deep into the diplomatic world. The Indian authorities know of a particular route by which narcotics are being smuggled by diplomats to a Scandinavian country but they are unable to catch them.
The modus operandi could not be simpler.A diplomat from a third country accredited to the Scandinavian destination recently flew into India, where he joined another diplomat from his own country, but accredited to the Indian Government. The two then flew back together to the Scandinavian country. According to sources, the diplomat accredited to India used his diplomatic immunity to smuggle narcotics out while his colleague accredited to the Scandinavian country used his privileges at the other end to take the stuff in.
There is also evidence that the trade is attracting an increasing number of Indian entrepreneurs, lured by the promise of easy money and no longer willing to play second fiddle. “Indians in the trade feel they don’t have to be middle men, to get into the act,” says one source, “they actually want to see it to the final markets.”
Some, indeed, have and achieved notoriety in doing just that. Punjab-born Gurdev Singh Sanga was sentenced to 14 years in a Canadian court in 1979 as the mastermind of a drug syndicate. A self-made man, who learned laser technology by correspondence course during a four-year stint in a British jail for an earlier offence, Sanga was immediately dubbed by the Canadian press as the ‘Dutch Connection’. Ashok Solomon, who was using airline crew baggage to smuggle hashish into the US via Canada, was sentenced to 14 years in a US court in 1978. Indian narcotics smugglers in the US may not be Mafia league but, as one western source put it, “They’re not at the bottom of the list, that’s for sure.”
A real battery cell and its fake counterpart with hashish tucked away: No end to ingenuity
Illegal Growth: There are, indeed, signs that the Indian connection can only grow in time. Though India has a un-endorsed monopoly in world trade in opium – a monopoly it yields marginally to a small share for Turkey there is trouble ahead. Sensing this, India sponsored a resolution at last February’s Vienna meet which accepted the importance of India – and Turkey – as traditional opium exporting countries and asked other producing countries to restrain their output and seek a supply and demand balance.The resolution, which won approval and will be implemented by the UN, was a logical response to the growing over-supply of opium and derivatives in the world market. With its primary use in medicines, pharmaceutical companies have discovered substitutes developed from poppy straw rather than the liquid opium, which has depressed India’s exports in recent years. From a high of 872 tonnes in 1978, India’s exports of 90 proof opium have come down to 730 tonnes in 1980 as production – which is regulated by export demand – was brought down sharply from 1,647 tonnes to 933 tonnes.
Scientific developments in countries like Holland, Poland, Hungary and Australia have added to the flow of synthetic substitutes. In fact, an Australian drug company with interests in poppy straw cultivation has filed a case in the US seeking a share of its import of opium derivatives. The US and Soviet Union are the world’s largest importers, and if the case is won, it will be a bigger blow to India’s exports which have already fallen from Rs 53 crore in 1977-78 to Rs 23 crore in 1980-81. The Carter Administration decided in early 1980 to confine its opium buying to India, but the Reagan Administration has yet to make up its mind.
If it decides on a change, the effect could be more than purely economic. Though Indian control over its poppy cultivation has been acclaimed, and the Indian system adopted as a model by the UN Convention of Narcotics Drugs in 1961, there is little doubt that some of the opium has. leaked into the illicit narcotics market. “Because of the stringent control exercised in India over opium cultivation,” says M.M. Bhatnagar, the country’s Narcotics Commissioner. “opium of Indian origin has seldom been intercepted in the illicit market in any significant way.” Bhatnagar regulates legal opium cultivation from his Gwalior headquarters which are at the centre of the swathe of poppy fields which cut across central India.
There are no estimates of just how much of India’s legal opium cultivation finds its way underground – and to laboratories like the ones uncovered in Ghazipur and Varanasi. Some unofficial estimates suggest it could be around 10 per cent – worth between Rs 20 crore and Rs 30 crore in India’s own illicit market, compared with the average official value of Rs 15 crore put on the country’s entire crop last year.
The danger, of course, is that if international demand continues to decline, channels will open up for illicit trade in opium. Thousands of farmers know how to grow it, refine it and sell it. And, India’s overstretched enforcement agencies would be hard put to keep a check on it. As it is, narcotics are handled by enough separate departments to ensure they keep getting in each other’s way.
Currently, there are five separate agencies: the Gwalior-based Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN), the DRl and the customs under the Finance Ministry, the CBI Narcotics Wing under the Home Ministry, and local police authorities working under the direction of local governments. “It does create problems at times,” admits a police officer. In the Varanasi seizures, for example, the CBI operated independently of local police who later claimed they would have been able to add valuable information had there been better coordination.
Underequipped: Nor are the various agencies particularly well equipped to do their job. At one office, for example, officials working overtime on cases are obliged to walk up several flights of steps after office hours because the lifts are switched off. In most countries, anti-narcotics sleuths commonly use dogs to detect hidden narcotics; India’s first dog squads, two teams of two each for Bombay and Delhi airports, are still undergoing training at the BSF centre at Takenpur near Jhansi.
Hashish concealed in a cashew fruit: Indian entrepreneurs are no longer willing to play second fiddle
The Government budgets a mere Rs 5 crore each year for anti-narcotics operations including administration costs, negligible compared with the booty they are chasing. Currently, the emphasis is on better enforcement at the airports, like Varanasi. Delhi and Bombay. A new Air Intelligence unit was set up last year which will have 10 officers each in Delhi and Bombay. But the DRI which must cope with the entire narcotics traffic in and out of the country has a grand staff of five for its anti-narcotics operations. The CBI does a little better with 11, while the CBN has 14 officials to police the country’s entire opium cultivation.Belatedly, the Government is at last trying to plug at least one loophole. A new anti-narcotics law is likely to come up before the monsoon or winter session of the Lok Sabha. This tries to end the confusion that exists in present statutes in which opium is dealt with separately from morphine, heroin and cocaine, and there’s nothing to cover synthetic narcotics. More important, the new law will increase punishments to between seven and 14 years in an attempt to deter drug running.
Though clearly a case of better late than never. India’s anti-narcotics efforts are dwarfed by the traffic already cutting through the country. “There-are so many opportunities,” sighs a narcotics agent with a shake of his head, “if only we had the facilities…” Behind it all lurks the fear that if the cancer isn’t controlled, it may well spread deep into Indian society. Currently, surveys show that thanks to tradition and the joint family Indians shun narcotics. But the “It can’t happen here” syndrome has all too often been proven wrong because of complacency.
Half a generation ago, hardly anybody in western Europe thought it would go the way of the United States. Today. US addiction has come down, and western Europe has leapt to first place. In Rome they talk of the “heroin plague” and speak of peddlers giving preteer school children candy spiked with narcotics to hook them while they’re young. Almost 400 drug-related deaths were reported in West Germany last year – more, per capita, than in the US. Hundreds more died in Sweden (150), France, Denmark and Switzerland (100 plus each).
These are headline grabbing statistics. At a less dramatic level several hundred thousands of addicts in each of these western countries are steadily laying waste their way of life. Even the normally conservative UN recently said global drug abuse had “now reached pandemic proportions and continues to increase.”
At present, however, the “end user” ramifications of the Indian drug connection are strictly international. In India, drug-related deaths involving Indians are virtually-non-existent. However, the Indian connection has blossomed dramatically in the last few years and the increased availability of hard drugs in India has led to a parallel increase in the prospects of Indian soft-drug addicts turning to harder drugs. Big money attracts big sharks and there is indisputable evidence that international syndicates are behind much of the drug trafficking in India, only heightening the dangers. “If big money really comes to India.” warns a narcotics official, “it will eat into our vitals.”
Some years ago, an award-winning series of photographs by free-lance photographer Pablo Bartholomew showed a malnourished woman, obviously a foreigner, injecting herself with heroin. The photographs, which had a stark and almost surrealistic quality, were exhibited all over the world and reproduced in many Indian magazines. Most parents who viewed the photographs adopted a rather distant and superior air which expressively suggested “it couldn’t happen to our kid”. It could.
Narcotics Control Bureau fails to curb cannabis cultivation in Shopian
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