By Animesh Roul in New Delhi for ISN Security Watch (27/06/06)
In one of the biggest ever illicit drug hauls in Asia, India’s Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in early June seized approximately 200 kilograms of cocaine with an international market value of US$20-US$25 million at Mumbai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT). The drug-filled container reached Indian shores in a merchant vessel that came from South Africa via Hong Kong.
The haul is considered to be the largest-ever in India and one official estimate indicated that it was more than the total amount of cocaine seized in a decade.
At least three people have been arrested so far in connection with the case.
It was only in June last year that an official from India’s Narcotics Control Bureau, A P Siddiqui, claimed that drug trafficking in India had declined considerably in the last couple of years.
On 26 June, many Asian countries commemorated the UN-sponsored International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by burning confiscated narcotics. Police in Thailand burned more than three tonnes of drugs, including methamphetamines, heroin, opium and cocaine, to mark the day. Burmese drug enforcement officials torched approximately 170kg of heroin and 691 kg of opium among other narcotics worth a total of US$148.4 million.
High routes to Asia
In early May, over 140kg of cocaine were seized in Hong Kong and in China’s Guangdong during a joint operation conducted by agencies from the US, Hong Kong and China. The agencies traced the drug syndicates involved in the trafficking to Colombia and mainland China.
Ajit Patel, a senior official at the Narcotics Control Bureau, Mumbai, told local media that the drugs originated in Colombia, were then transported to Hong Kong and then made their way to Mumbai.
“The [Colombian] cartel that dispatched the drugs could have been testing India as a transit route,” an NCB official in New Delhi told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity. The official said “the seized cocaine was heading to lucrative European markets, possibly to the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal.” He said the NCB had acted on intelligence and monitored the movement of the suspect containers from their source in South America to Southeast Asia and then Western India before interdicting it of the coast of Mumbai.
Dr Nihar Nayak, a New Delhi-based researcher currently visiting the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, disagreed as to the cocaine's final destination, telling ISN Security Watch that the drugs were more likely meant for India or perhaps Nepal and Pakistan.
Downplaying the chances of European bound cocaine consignments, Nayak said recent trends showed that while European cities were not out of bounds, the demand for Andean cocaine had been declining over the years due to a saturated market.
“If we look at Interpol reports on international drug trafficking, most of the cocaine consignments find their way to Pakistan, India and Southeast Asian hot spots like Singapore and Bangkok,” he said.
The NCB is hoping that interrogations of those arrested in connection with the latest seizure will reveal the contraband's intended destination. The three arrested, Omprakash Nogaja, Umesh Bangur and Vijay Thorne, will remain in NCB custody for interrogation until 28 June.
Cocaine and heroine for India's nouveau rich
According to Nayak: “After a remarkable decline of cocaine usage in the North American countries and even in the Latin American countries, which largely produce cocaine, international drug mafias are eyeing India and China as the new markets where sizable populations are youth and working.”
Until recently, unlike cheaper drugs such as heroine and marijuana (cannabis), cocaine abuse was not widely prevalent in India due to its exorbitant costs and scant availability. Heroin and other opiates used to pass through Afghanistan and Burma and were even cultivated and manufactured in India. Of late, India and Nepal have been the safest transit routes for international heroine trafficking due to their proximity to Asia’s opium producing Golden Triangle (Burma, Thailand and Laos) and the Golden Crescent (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran).
Illegal narcotics from these regions make their way through India's porous borders and ports.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has raised concerns over the increasing flow of illicit drugs – primarily heroin, amphetamines and other opiates – into India’s northeast region from neighboring Burma.
At least four Indian states that share a border with Burma (Myanmar) – Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – are among the worst affected. Officials link the rise in narco-trafficking to recent crackdowns on drug lords in Thailand and Laos that have pushed Burmese traders to focus attention on northeast India.
But India is also becoming more vigilant and authorities there have recently interdicted major consignments of illegal drugs across the country. In the central Indian town of Bhopal, police earlier this month seized at least 25 kg of opium worth US$1 million on the international market. In the capital Delhi on 6 June, agents with the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized four kilograms of heroin. The arrested trafficker reportedly confessed that the heroin had been smuggled from neighboring Pakistan.
Demand for cocaine in India itself is on the rise, especially among working class youth and upper class elites, experts say, and there is now a sizable market for cocaine in the country's cities.
Delhi police sources say the “the stringent laws notwithstanding, cocaine is sniffed and snorted virtually every night in the capital in private high society parties.”
ISN Security Watch learned that one pouch of consisting two grams of cocaine costs between US$100 and US$250, depending upon who buys it, in Delhi.
The recent death by cocaine-champagne-heroin cocktail overdose of an aide to the late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Pramod Mahajan and the hospitalization of Mahajan's son helped to reveal the extent of cocaine use among political and other elites.
Three Nigerians were arrested in connection with the case in southwest Delhi, but the trail of drugs reached as far as Indian Jammu and Kashmir, with the arrest of Sahil Zaroo, the prime suspect on the supply end of the case.
Nigerian connection: India and beyond
In the past year and a half, over 35 Nigerians have been arrested by various law-enforcing agencies in New Delhi alone. Nigerian peddlers are very active in the cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi party circuits, officials say.
On 11 June, NCB officials in Delhi arrested Nigerian national Khayush Ibrahim and confiscated 415g of heroin, 15g of cocaine and 20 ecstasy tablets.
“Nigeria has only re-emerged as a transit point for drug trafficking activities over the years,” said Mpho Mashaba of Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Cape Town. Mashaba, a researcher at the ISS' Organized Crime and Money Laundering Program, told ISN Security Watch that West Africans in general had managed over the years to establish solid networks and had "ready access to the infrastructure to smuggle drugs across the world" and had "developed a specialty in the recruitment of couriers to transport drugs on their behalf.”
He said the couriers were paid anywhere between US$1,400 and US$3,500.
Recently, Nepal’s Narcotic Drug Control Law Enforcement Unit (NDCLEU) arrested Nigerian soccer player Ozor Michael who had swallowed over one kilogram of heroin in 64 plastic-coated pellets. Five other Nigerians were arrested i
n separate incidents in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, for smuggling heroin in the false heels of their shoes.
While the anti-narcotics cell in Mumbai and Delhi claim to have curtailed peddling with regular raids on hideouts and night clubs, targeting mostly Nigerians, much of it still slips through their fingers.
Meanwhile, the UNODC’s World Drug Report released on 26 June observed that cocaine use was reaching alarming levels in Western Europe and the consumption of marijuana (cannabis) continued to increase world wide.
According to the report, there are an estimated 3.5 million cocaine users in Europe, with the largest concentrations in Western and Central Europe.
The annual report, which showcases trends in the production, trafficking and use of drugs, however, said there had been a drop in poppy (opium) cultivations in Asia, “but in a balanced way.”
The UN agency observed recently that coca crops in the Andean region (primarily in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru) remained stable despite eradication efforts.
However, Asian nations witnessing a rise in cocaine consumption recently are positioned much lower on the cocaine market vis-à-vis heroin and cannabis in the 2006 report.
The report observed that while “cocaine use in Africa showed an upward trend, partly reflecting the increased use of Africa as a transshipment location for trafficking of cocaine to Europe […], its use in Asia is still very limited.”
However, India tops the list among the south Asian nations where most of the cocaine consignments were seized by enforcement agencies between 1999-2004, according to the report.
Animesh Roul is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in India.