On the road with Iraq’s drug squad as the country struggles to keep up with the deluge
At the heart of this doom is the heat that engulfs and crushes the poverty of Basra, where cells fill up and traffickers have police on their payroll so the kingpins remain untouched. But the roots are far away, in the cool mountains of Afghanistan and the underground laboratories of Iran, where new supplies and techniques have led to a thriving trade.
Colonel Ehab said: “We have a disaster here, A professional intelligence officer was directing a house raid on a recent night. He said on the condition that only his name be used because of his security concerns.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion opened Iraq’s border with Iran, there has been a constant stream of people, religious pilgrims, traffickers – and smugglers, including drugs. But around 2017, a new threat emerged: crystal meth.
A domestic crackdown on Iran’s growing drug problem has made basic ingredients difficult as manufacturers in Afghanistan unlock the secret to extracting the main ingredient methamphetamine, ephedrine, from the local ephedra.
Today, the fruits of that discovery are found throughout the region.
On the night that Washington Post reporters accompanied Basra’s drug squad on its raids, nearly 700 people were crammed into the unit’s three cells, built for a total of 200 people.
When Ehab and his drug squad break into the slums on the northeastern edge of Basra, they worry that their nightly arrests will only add to the problem, as traffickers take advantage of the time. their time to recruit more people.
According to regional officials and experts, seizures of methamphetamine from Afghanistan and Iran have increased dramatically across the Middle East in recent years, as it continues a long route of the opium and heroin trade. more life.
In Turkey, security forces seized more than 5½ tonnes of methamphetamine last year with raids along the Iranian border and in Istanbul. In just the first 7 months of 2022, this figure has skyrocketed to 8.6 tons.
The Turkish authorities reported that this smuggling network involved Iranian nationals with links to organized crime networks in the country and that part of the supply was intended to be transferred to the Union. Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian Drug Enforcement Administration reported the number of methamphetamine seizures spiked to more than 45 tonnes in the first nine months of 2022 – more than 20 times more than during the same period last year.
“[The year] 2017 was a game-changing year,” said David Mansfield, an expert on Afghanistan’s illicit economy whose work draws from field and aerial images. Local manufacturers switched from using over-the-counter drugs – used in the rest of the world to make ephedra – to the widely sold ephedra, which grows wild in the hillsides of Afghanistan.
“Suddenly you have this new player on the block that is producing methamphetamine for half the price,” Mansfield said.
With a booming market for drugs already in existence in Iran, manufacturers decided to start using cheap ingredients, said Alexander Soderholm, an analyst at the European Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Monitoring. than imports from Afghanistan.
“So the logic works: why don’t we outsource all of this so we focus on the distribution side of things and maybe also the production for external markets,” he said. speak.
The spike in crystal meth supplies quickly spilled over into Iraq, where decades of conflict, corruption and dysfunctional governance brought the country into crisis.
Reports of drug seizures are broadcast almost daily. While the reported annual seizures of hundreds of kilograms may be a very low number, even these numbers double every year.
According to Iraqi security, border and justice officials, the trade is protected by powerful armed groups, some with links to Iran, as well as tribal networks and corrupt officials. .
“We have had officers arrested for this. They cover criminals and they are on the agents’ monthly payroll,” said Ammar Shaker Fajr, a judge at Basra’s Third Investigative Court.
Basra’s drug squad is also receiving a growing wave of threats. “There are days when I just think about quitting,” says Ehab. “I was feeling like a dead person.”
The flow of drugs is growing rapidly, in what civil society workers and health officials describe as a growing crisis of despair among young Iraqis.
Public services have been destroyed by corruption and mismanagement, and unemployment is increasing as Farmland dries up and cities provide few organisms.
“Our young people want a way out, but they don’t understand what they’re using,” said Enas Kareem, founder of Iraq’s only charity dedicated to helping users. She said there are no firm numbers on addiction rates, but some officials estimate that as many as 40% of young Iraqis in some areas have tried the drug.
Crystal meth floods the user with a sense of euphoria and invulnerability. When addiction flares up, paranoia is receptive and the immune system is disrupted as organs are pushed to the point of failure.
In many cases, former addicts say they started using drugs as a solace from a troubled life. They said on the condition that only their names were used, due to the social stigma that accompanies addiction.
Maher, a 30-year-old baker in Baghdad, said he joined the crowd that introduced him to alcohol and drugs after becoming crippled alone at home. His sister was killed during the invasion of the United States, his brothers in the ensuing sectarian civil war, and his parents, three years later, in a car accident.
In Basra, a 37-year-old taxi driver, Firas, was struggling to stay awake during long trips when a shopkeeper showed him a white powder – which turned out to be methamphetamine – which he promised to open. secret key for longer working time and better income.
He used three years ago when his wife begged relatives to intervene after he began physically assaulting her, he said.
Aware of the growing problem, a law was passed in 2017 requiring the establishment of government-run rehabilitation facilities within the next two years, but five years later, only three nationwide and only one in Basra.
“Let’s say we have 30,000 addicts in Basra, and there are only 22 beds where each patient needs three months to recover. Well, how does anyone get a place in those beds? ‘ asked General Ismail Ghanem, head of Basra’s anti-narcotics unit.
When Firas goes to bed at night, he will ask himself if he can stop using it. When he wakes up in the morning, he will buy his next dose from the taxi hangar where he works.
He said it was a volunteer with Kareem’s charity that saved him. The young Hassan Majeed al-Maliki visited and said that a nearby hospital had a spare bed.
And without a bed?
“Then I told them there was nothing we could do,” Maliki said.
Beneath the chandeliers of a luxury hotel in Baghdad in June, officials from all major ministries outlined their thoughts on how to get to the root of the crisis. They talked about the need to give young people space for sports and social activities, about the need to improve the education system and launch awareness campaigns. But no action was taken in the months that followed, as political factions argued over the shape of a new government, preventing ministries from taking on any new initiatives.
“The Iraqis speak very well, but where is the action? We don’t see it,” said Ghanem. “All we do is arrest people.”
That’s why many of Maher’s friends are afraid to seek help with addiction. “If they get someone to take drugs, they beat them up,” he said.
New raids, more arrests
The drug squad’s first objective was down an unpaved road with no street lights. They say an informant was located, and when the SWAT team stormed out with guns ready, a man in his 40s surrendered. no need to fight. Inside his one-story home, the unit found dozens of small bags containing a white crystal-like substance that officers believed to be methamphetamine, a small scale and a loaded gun in each room. out of three rooms.
But at a house a few districts to the north, the scene was even more chaotic. The two women shouted obscenities at the police force as they reached the front gate. Four young men were dragged out for questioning, a 17-year-old boy with messy hair was whimpering.
Inside the house, an officer found three captagon tabs, one amphetamine, and one of the women began begging him. “It wasn’t the drugs, it was his wound,” she continued.
Around the corner, another officer was scrolling through the teenager’s phone as the boy nodded rapidly with tears in his eyes. The unit later said he had been asked to cooperate with future investigations – a new informant to spur the arrest cycle.
It was well past midnight when the convoy finally ended the evening. The streets were deserted and the cars sped, gliding on the highways and turning corners with pictures of clerics and politicians.
Back at the station, the suspects were taken into cells and taken out for questioning one by one. Finally, there was Moslem Dawoud, the alleged trafficker whose home, police said, contained 16 doses of methamphetamine. He barely kept an eye on the floor and no longer protested his innocence.
An officer looked down at a faint tattoo on the man’s forearm and asked if he had ever been in prison. Dawoud nodded.
“We can help you, you know,” the officer told him.
Downstairs, the screams of other prisoners were wafting through the night air. After a long silence, Dawoud shared what he said was his agent’s name.
Ehab looked down at the stack of case files on his desk.
“It’s like this every night,” he said hollowly. “You do the raids, you do the paperwork, you’re in a loop. Then you lie down, you wake up and you start over. “