In the popular American crime drama series Queen of the South, cartel leader Teresa Mendoza builds a vast narcotics empire, stretching from the United States to Mexico, and even Europe. At the core of her operation was one underlying strategy: finding ingenious ways of concealing the cocaine. In cardboard boxes, in wine bottles, and sometimes in her stomach.
But they say reality is stranger than fiction. It indeed is.
In what appears to be an international drug racket stretching from Kandahar, Jalalabad and Helmand areas of Afghanistan, for a while now, hundreds of tonnes of heroin is being transported into the country using equally ingenious methods. Recently, afer busting a massive Afghan cartel, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police found that the routes are not limited to land, seas or even skies.
In July, over a span of eight days, the police seized more than 300 kilograms of pure heroin, which according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is worth about Rs 1,300 crore. On the first occasion, on July 17, the police found the drugs concealed in cavities of upmarket sedans like Toyota Camry, Honda Civic, Toyota Alti, Toyota Coralla, etc. Six days later, heroin was unearthed at a cold storage in east Delhi’s Kondli area where it was hidden inside double-layered cartons, buried underneath innocuous looking raisins.
“These are the worst quality raisins. If you want some for personal consumption, I can get you the world’s best ones from Afghanistan."
On 25 July, as many as 260 jute bags containing soaked and dried heroin were seized that were being snuck in as a basil seed consignment. Manishi Chandra, deputy commissioner of police, Special Cell, said that it was first shipped from Islam Lila in Herat, Afghanistan to Bandar Abbas in Iran and then finally made its way to Mumbai via sea.
To put all the three seizures in perspective: 300 kilograms of pure or uncut heroin can be packaged into 1,000 kilograms of the substance for the market by putting into 100,000 packets. And that probably is just the tip of the iceberg.
It was the quality and quantity of the seized heroin that confounded the cops. When an investigator casually teased the Afghan national who was arrested along with the narcotics, to let him taste some raisins, the accused replied, “Janab ye sabse ghatiya quality ka hai. Agar aapko apne istemal ke liye chahiye, to humare mulk mein duniya ke sabse behtareen kish-mish hote hain, wo mangwa dunga (These are the worst quality raisins. If you want some for personal consumption, I can get you the world’s best ones from Afghanistan).”
Drugs of the Afghan Cartel seized by Special Cell. (Photo: Special arrangement)
THE MODUS OPERANDI
As the global fight against narcotics consolidates, it has become increasingly difficult to transport drugs. With not many options left, the drug lords who survive have to find more and more ingenious ways of smuggling the shipment. This is where the importance of this operation lies. Cartels of international smugglers have been using two primary routes to transport drugs inside the country, by land and sea.
Despite being a landlocked country, Afghanistan was sending drugs through the sea route via Iran. Jute bags which are used to carry spices are soaked and dried in heroin solution. This is then covered with a thin plastic bag and a gunny bag on top of it.
The Afghan cartel used the spice trade routes between India and Afghanistan to spread the narcotics network. Though the heroin in its purest form is mostly odourless, to avoid suspicion at the borders and in customs, these jute bags would have spices like cumin and basil. The strong aroma of the condiments would overpower even the hint of any heroin odour.
The consignments in heroin soaked gunny bags were moved from Herat in Afghanistan to Bandar Abbas port in Iran and finally made its way to Mumbai via sea.
Meanwhile, the land route used specially made cartons to deliver tonnes of drugs using the highly sensitive Wagah border. The heroin were concealed between two layers of cartons. In packs of 100, these cartons, that were filled with raisins, were then interspersed among a consignment of over 600 cartons and placed in trucks which them transported them through Pakistan to enter India through the Wagah border.
For important and urgent consignments, one of the most common routes of smuggling heroin into the country has been through the air. The human carriers would consume the packets which would later be excreted out. But post Balakot, this method became dangerous. With Pakistan shutting down its airspace for any India-bound traffic, the travel time from Afghanistan went up by at least one-and-a-half hours. Too often, this resulted in heroin balloons bursting inside the carrier’s stomach.
THE DRUG FACTORY
Almost taking a leaf out of the popular show Breaking Bad, drug lords from Afghanistan had set up factories in the country to process the heroin soaked gunny bags into powder form.
The team of Special Cell busted a laboratory which was being set up for reconstituting and processing the drugs. Two chemical experts from Jalalabad, Afghanistan were in charge of the facility. DCP Chandra said that the employment of chemical experts is an indicator of the scale and sophistication of the operation.
Explaining the process, he said, “The crude heroin is dissolved in a preservative solution and ordinary jute bags are soaked and dried in it. Once these jute bags, filled with spices and other condiments, reach the wholesale market or the mandi, they are emptied and one of the accomplices brings them back to the lab. Here, the jute bags are processed to make it high quality heroin.”
Police suspect more than one laboratories could be active in the country. New labs were also being commissioned in high consumption areas like Punjab. The operation is still underway and it will not be a surprise to find another such laboratory, said a senior police officer.
Luxury sedans with special cavity used for drug transport. (Photo: Special arrangement)
The mastermind of this entire racket has been identified as Haji, an Afghan national. However, he has not been traced yet. “Investigations have found that he uses an Afghan phone number to communicate,” revealed a senior officer.
Haji chose Tifal Nau Khez, a 35-year-old resident of Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, to set up the processing laboratory in India because of the contacts he made in Amritsar jail. An auto driver by profession, Tifal was arrested in 2013 in Punjab for carrying 250 g of heroin. When he was released, he resumed his work as an auto driver but with an intention to make contacts with Afghan smugglers.
Another active member of the operation, Ahmad Shah, had been staying in Delhi under the garb of a wholesale dry fruits dealer and was well-known in the city’s markets. Haji directed him to set up an import-export company through his contacts in India. Shah was also given the responsibility to handle the consignment of basil seeds from Mumbai port.
But the processing laboratory needed chemists and that is where two Afghan nationals, Shinwari Rehmat Gul and Akhtar Mohammad Shinwari, emerged into the frame. These two chemists were given with the job of setting up the laboratory.
Gul belongs to Helmand, a province controlled by the Afghan Taliban that has the highest density of poppy (the raw material required for heroin) cultivation in Afghanistan. He had developed such plants in Nauzad & Musa Qala areas of the province. While the biggest plant could produce up to 50 kilogram of pure heroin a day, smaller ones produced 25-30 kilograms daily.
These factories were owned by Haji Mohammad. After the success of the Afghan plants, Gul was sent to India to set up the chemical operations.
Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin. The total area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 263,000hectares in 2018. A UNODC report notes that “it can be estimated that 5,000 to 5,300 tons of opium are potentially available for heroin production in and outside of Afghanistan. This can potentially yield to 610 tons of heroin of export quality (between 50 and 70 per cent purity) or 250 to 300 tons of pure heroin base.”
With 136,798 hectares in 2018, Helmand province is one of the highest producers of heroin in Afghanistan. The central points of distribution are Kandahar and Jalalabad. It is important to note here that while Kandahar is the power centre of the Afghan Taliban, Jalalabad is the province where Indian assets are most vulnerable. The Indian consulate there has been attacked four times in the last 12 years, the last one being in July 2018, which led to the death of nine people.
This is where the design to tap into the large ‘Indian Market’ is made. The Special Cell of Delhi police has so far arrested nine people, of whom five are Afghan nationals. Of these five, two are from Kandahar, two from Jalalabad and one from Helmand.
These Afghan nationals, have been exploiting friendly ties between the two countries. Thousands are granted medical visas to visit India every day. Of the five arrested Afghan nationals, two have visited India at least five times in the recent past using medical visa. To evade the Indian law enforcement agencies these accused never settle in India. They come on medical or tourism visa, deliver the consignment and go back.
IS DELHI THE TRANSIT POINT?
Cavity inside a luxury sedan used for moving drugs. (Photo: Special arrangement)
While 150 kg of heroin was recovered just from the national capital, the police say the consumption in Delhi is “petty and inconsequential in comparison to what is being sent out”. The city is mostly being used as a transit point. “The 150 kg heroin recovered from the processing lab in Delhi was to be transported to high demand markets like Punjab, also for onward transnational movement through the southern states from where they reach Sri Lanka and eventually other territories,” said Chandra.
The 50 kg consignment of heroin which was sneaked in from the Attari Wagah check-post was kept in cold storage in Sonepat, Haryana. This was supposed to reach Delhi for processing and then back to Punjab.
According to the police, the consignment was deliberately not kept in Punjab because of the high level of surveillance and vigilance. “Punjab traders getting dry fruits from Afghanistan exporters will attract the attention of authorities more than them getting it from Delhi. Traders’ movements are minutely observed there. Hence, the consignment is sent to Delhi and then back to Punjab,” said a senior officer privy to the investigation.
The probe now is looking at the biggest beneficiaries of this trade. Where is the money trail leading to? And who in positions of power are aiding the trade? The Special Cell plans to seek further custody of the accused. These are the angles which it intends to probe.