In coastal south, a new drug transit map

Credit: Ashish Asthana/Mint
Credit: Ashish Asthana/Mint


Drug busts are now common near big port cities, like Kochi, and in tiny fishing jetties of south India

Ernakulam: On 13 May, B.A. Aloor, a lawyer in Kochi known to defend those accused of murder, rape, and drug trafficking charges, received a call to ‘bail out’ Zubair Derakhshandeh.

In his 40s, Derakhshandeh is from Balochistan, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. And he is a suspected accomplice in an international drug trafficking network run by Pakistan-based gangster Haji Salim. Earlier in the day, he was the only one found on an Iranian ship that India’s anti-narcotics investigators searched, off Kerala’s Kochi coast.

The investigators unearthed 132 sealed bags—white, orange, pink, and green in colour. Some jute bags, from two Pakistani rice companies, were kept alongside. All of this looked like normal cargo. Except that they weren’t.

The bags packed over 2,500 kg of ‘white crystals’, or Methamphetamine, a highly-addictive synthetic drug. Estimated at 25,000 crore, it turned out to be one of India’s largest drug seizures to date.

Aloor appeared for Derakhshandeh’s bail but the plea was rejected by the Ernakulam district court. Mint could not verify if Aloor was contacted by a cartel, or he volunteered himself. Nonetheless, he continues to be in great demand, representing people accused of drug trafficking in southern towns like Kochi and Chennai. “Those who entrust us with such cases are always concerned that their cover will be blown. They will keep changing lawyers," Aloor said.

The arrest of Derakhshandeh and all the effort to get him out, underlines a complex network operating in the shadows. In the past, drug-related cases and violence have plagued several northern states including Delhi, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. Now, a series of drug busts have led authorities to wonder if south India is becoming a major transit point for drugs originating in the ‘Death Crescent’—drugs grown in Afghanistan, shipped in massive Iranian vessels, and smuggled out of Pakistan—to major transport hubs such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Drug busts are now common not only in the port cities of Kochi and Chennai but even in tiny fishing jetties, like Thoothukudi and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. In September 2021, a prominent Tamilian YouTuber, known for his fishing skills and cooking videos, was held. Customs agents reportedly confiscated 150 kg of ganja (cannabis) from his boat near the port of Nagapattinam.

In December last year, the media reported on Mohamed Imran, a Sri Lankan drug kingpin, who is believed to have slipped into Rameswaram, days after his release on bail by a court in Sri Lanka.

Such incidents tell us that the South is not just a transit point. A network of couriers and suppliers actively market the drugs in metros such as Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The modus operandi spans from usage of the darknet to, hold your breath, contact-less delivery! Some fishermen and influencers have turned part-time drug lords, escalating the competition between law enforcement and bigger traffickers trying to control the international routes as well as local consumption markets.

Sea and land

A top anti-drug investigator, stationed in Kochi, who did not want to be identified, said that in the past, he used to catch a fisherman’s boat or a flight traveller’s baggage that carried synthetic drugs. The weight of these seizures never crossed a kilo. Things have changed more recently.

Once, he followed a large ship in a small coastguard vessel, climbed over its rails in the high seas and seized packages labelled with symbols like ‘999’ and unicorn inscriptions—brand trademarks of Haji Salim’s cargo.

According to the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)’s records obtained by Mint, the total weight of synthetic drugs seized by the agency in Kochi, in 2019, was just 2.491 kg. Compare this to the drug haul made on 13 May—the ship carried 2,525.675 kg of Methamphetamine. The NCB is India’s drug law enforcement agency.

This also fits into a pattern of large seizures. The ship was the fourth such capture of a cargo originating in Pakistan or Afghanistan recently caught near Kerala seas. On 25 March 2021, the NCB confiscated 300 kg of heroin off the coast of Thiruvananthapuram, near the upcoming Vizhinjan port. Another 337 kilograms were seized in Kochi a month later. On 6 March, they seized 199 kg heroin, 15 gm hashish oil, and 400 gm opium near Kochi.

“The network, the syndicate, is definitely bigger than we could imagine," said P. Aravindhan, the NCB’s Chennai zone chairman. He also heads the Kerala and Karnataka areas. He emphasizes this as a troubling trend: southern India’s coastline districts have become major transit routes for narcotics smuggling.

“When it comes to trafficking by Sri Lanka-based syndicates, they find the usage of these ports easier," Aravindhan said. “Not only the sea route, even via land routes," he added.

The NCB has noticed a pattern in the land route—drug consignments find their way to Kolkata from Myanmar and then travel to Chennai and Madurai. Next, the consignments are sent to Rameswaram before being finally smuggled into Sri Lanka.

The final journey to Sri Lanka may not involve a ship or a port. Instead, the traffickers use smaller vessels, luring fishermen or locals with money.

But then, some seizures can completely bring forth a new trend.

A month after the Kochi seizure made national headlines, a truck was seized on the Nellore-Chennai highway near Sullurupeta in Andhra Pradesh. It contained 240 kg of ganja. Eight people who worked for a big ganja distributor in Chennai were allegedly trafficking it to a Sri Lankan national. The men were promised payment in gold instead of cash. The police believe such rewards are a new trend.

Too long, too few

Rishiraj Singh retired as Kerala’s director general of police of prisons but he had made headlines earlier in a different role—as the former excise commissioner, he was known for surprise raids. This year, he published a book, Before It’s Too Late, which warns of rising stress and drug abuse among young people. Contrary to popular belief, he believes it is far easier to transport drugs into and out of southern India.

Kerala alone has a 600-km-long coastline. “You could see people going in their fishing sails, exchanging something with ships, and returning," he said. “It cannot be halted because the investigators are severely underfunded," he added.

According to Singh, the coastguard has only one ship to patrol between Kochi and 200 km south of Thiruvananthapuram. The NCB in Kochi, on the other hand, does not have any ship and must rely on the coastguard and the Indian Navy for searches and seizures.

At the state level in Kerala, at least four agencies are involved, and none of them can provide payment for informants (because it isn’t legal), limiting their efficiency, Singh informed. These agencies are the excise, the railway police, the coastal security group and the police force.

The excise departments, with the exception of Kerala, are also not permitted to make arrests under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the strongest legislation available to prosecute such crimes.

Nonetheless, the NCB is the only central agency that has made significant arrests. Despite its sensitive work, it is severely understaffed. In Kochi, for example, its team consists of roughly six senior officers who do not even have a full-fledged office.

Ecstasy and pain

Let’s circle back to domestic consumption where cartels have targeted cities that are wealthy.

A top-ranking intelligence officer in Kerala, who asked not to be identified, said the cops are closing in on a trafficker who has shifted from the illicit alcohol trade to narcotics. But tracking him down is quite a task—he refrains from using cellphones. “We were surprised to learn that one of his close associates is a nursing professional in Bengaluru with A+ grades in all subjects in Class XI," the officer said. Having such associates in the city helps. The wealthy in Bengaluru can afford narcotics like Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as ‘ecstasy’. It reportedly costs upwards of 500 per gram.

Perhaps no one sees the threat as clearly as B Dayananda, the police commissioner of Bengaluru. According to him, a record number of synthetic drugs were confiscated last year, worth almost 30 crore. But the worst came this year. The hoard seized till March 2023 grew to over 90 crore, totalling about 4,000 kg—predominantly marijuana but also MDMA. By June, the hoard grew again by another 2,000 kg. The pile was destroyed by the cops.

Dayananda, who took over as the commissioner in May, links the increase in drug trafficking to the use of the darknet, which is a popular route for drug ordering. The darknet is an encrypted portion of the internet that is not indexed by search engines. It can be accessed using specific software and authorization.

“The covid-19 lockdowns have inadvertently provided individuals with easy access to online platforms, facilitating drug transactions from the comfort of their homes," he said.

Dayananda acknowledges the complexity the police face in their effort to nab the traffickers. Contactless deliveries are offered. “Once the order is placed through the darknet, they (peddlers) will tie it (a pouch containing the drug) up behind an electric pole or so, and send you the coordinates. It’s impossible to catch or track such supply chains," he said.

This supply-chain, oddly, even involves public services.

“Courier services such as India Post or the private ones are supposed to have security cameras in their surroundings to verify the sender’s identity before accepting the purchase. However, this is not always the case," said the anti-narcotics investigator mentioned above. “There are incidents where drugs arrived in Kochi by sea and ended up in Gurugram through post," he added.

At the bottom of the supply food chain are the street peddlers—they are also the ones most likely to be arrested. According to officials, several cases involving peddlers arrested in the south frequently lead back to Bengaluru.

According to Dayananda, drug networks use a lot of naive, poor African nationals as peddlers who don’t even know the value of the contraband they carry. Over the previous four years, Bengaluru has deported at least 100 African nationals suspected of being drug peddlers, he informed.

The missing ganja

Aravindhan of the NCB, meanwhile, pointed to something both interesting and concerning. Pre-pandemic, the agency had seized about 2,000-3,000 kgs of ganja in the south. Post-pandemic, the amount seized is down by more than half. Where have all the ganja gone?

Turns out, there is a shift in supply and consumption—from plant-based drugs like ganja, which are predominantly grown and processed in India, to synthetic drugs, which come from abroad.

State governments are now realizing that combating narcotics requires not just addressing the supply side but also the demand side. Every state government in the south now has initiatives that address the problem. Kerala, for instance, has at least one de-addiction facility in each district—the majority of them opened in the last five years.

While maritime reasons may have helped the advent of narcotics trafficking in the south, it spread because of the region’s affluence. “Drug traffickers see the south as an emerging market," Aravindhan said.

India’s law enforcement agencies, therefore, have a long and tiring battle on their hands.

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