Great report

Captagon connection (2/4): traffic, borders

Audio 7:30 p.m.

Traffic, borders... © Baptiste Condominas / RFI

By: Nicolas Feldmann Follow |

Nicolas Keraudren Follow |

Nicolas Falez Follow

13 mins

RFI devotes an investigation to captagon, a drug produced and consumed in the Middle East.

Tens of millions of pills have been seized in recent years in the Gulf countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

After meeting captagon consumers and dealers in the first episode of this exclusive series, Nicolas Keraudren, Nicolas Feldmann and Nicolas Falez explored several borders through which this traffic passes.

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Hidden in oranges or pomegranates, cans of oil or sauce, captagon arrives in many forms in Kuwait.

The hunt for this little drug pill that travels clandestinely in the region is not easy, explains Osama Al-Shami at the wheel of his big 4x4.

“ 

We have a lot of captagon arriving from Abdali, the border post between Kuwait and Iraq

,

 ”

says this representative of Kuwaiti customs.

But small amphetamine tablets also travel by air and by sea. “ 

The pills also arrive

via

the airport.

And then, the large quantities arrive mainly at the port of Shuwaikh because of the size of the containers 

”, explains this man with an imposing build dressed in a

dishdasha

, this long white garment, traditional dress of men in the Gulf countries.

According to an official document that RFI was able to consult, more than 37 million captagon pills were seized last year alone in the commercial port of Shuwaikh, the most important in Kuwait.

To get there, the customs vehicle takes a winding path along a very busy road axis.

At the end of the road, trucks form a long queue.

Their drivers, all apparently from the Indian subcontinent, wait in the heat and dust for their shipments to be first inspected by customs.

Investigations and inspections

At the same time, the customs officers are busy on the inspection platform.

When they unload the goods – mainly food products imported from abroad – they open some samples to check if captagon pills are hidden there.

An often complex operation.

Because it is generally necessary "to 

take out the whole load 

" to make sure that drugs are not there, details Osama Al-Shami.

But " 

sometimes we just take out what's in the middle of the container so that we can make a line to check on either side 

." 

These verifications are part of a long process.

First there is an investigation, the documentation is analyzed to check “

 whether the information is doubtful or not 

”, explains the customs official.

The cargo is then X-rayed. If the scanner reveals nothing, it is sent to the inspection area.

 And we make sure to have the canine squad with us if we have the slightest doubt.

 » 

According to an official document, more than 37 million captagon pills were seized last year in Kuwait's largest commercial port of Shuwaikh alone.

© Baptiste Condominas / RFI

Osama Al-Shami points to a shipment from Lebanon.

He explains that the scan spotted a darker area at the front of the truck that could be a load of drugs.

But, in this specific case, the excavations turned up nothing.

 The dogs sniffed, there is nothing in it.

So it's clean cargo.

Now we're just going to put everything back in and seal the container again.

This truck can go. 

»  

The customs representative acknowledges that the origin of the shipments is important, because there are " 

high-risk countries

 " for which the Kuwaiti authorities "verify

 the documents more before receiving the shipment 

".

Countries he refuses to name so as not to create a diplomatic incident.

 But whatever happens, we systematically scan each container for security and customs reasons

 ,” he says.

Although the Kuwaiti customs officer does not want to name these " 

high risk

 " countries, all eyes have been on Syria's borders since the captagon arose in the Middle East.

Smugglers who stop at nothing

In Jordan, the governorate of Mafraq is an important point on the captagon route.

Because this vast desert region to the north shares its borders with three other countries: Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the southeast, and to the north, nearly 300 kilometers in common with Syria. 

About ten kilometers further north of the regional capital is the Jaber border post, the last crossing point before entering Syria.

On this May afternoon, the traffic is calm on the large asphalt road.

500 meters from the border post, a dozen trucks are parked on the side.

Two drivers are resting in the shade of their semi-trailer after a long journey.

We were transporting oranges.

We come from Lebanon, we left our load at the Iraqi border and we came back to Jordan

 ”, they say.

These two Lebanese drivers operate in this border area conducive to trafficking.

They throw a coffee on a small stove and agree to talk on the condition that they do not give their names.

“ 

Just yesterday, a car was stopped with products on board.

We try to stay away from all that. 

But you have to be careful, they point out, because the traffic is sometimes at their expense.

“ 

You have traffickers who put products in your vehicle without you even knowing it.

But, of course, some drivers agree to work and make money. 

» 

At the Jaber border post between Jordan and Syria, drivers say that some of their colleagues agree to be paid to smuggle drugs from one country to another.

© Baptiste Condominas / RFI

To thwart the surveillance of the Jordanian authorities, the smugglers do not hesitate to use unexpected techniques.

Beyond the pills hidden in fruits or various products, several sources confirm that they are also sometimes transported

via

drones, loaded on the backs of donkeys or hidden in the intestines of sheep. 

But smugglers also sometimes take advantage of the climate to traffic, explains Mohanad al-Rantissi, program coordinator for the NGO Generations for Peace: " 

When there are sandstorms, controls are reduced, because visibility is less good, that's where the traffickers take advantage of it to bring in their goods 

".

Sitting in the stands of the Mafraq stadium, this 30-year-old who has been involved in civil society for ten years says that the little pill circulates a lot here, because of its proximity to Syria. 

 As a transit region, we find ourselves with much larger quantities of drugs passing through our country and going to Saudi Arabia

 ,” laments the Jordanian humanitarian.

This situation generates violence between the traffickers who multiply the smuggling operations with ever more varied methods and the authorities who reinforce the controls.

Mohanad al-Rantissi recalls that there have been clashes at the border very recently.

On May 22, a week before our report, the military

announced that they had killed four traffickers 

who were trying to smuggle captagon 

through

Syria.

Four months earlier, on January 26, another army operation to combat smuggling had

led to the death of 27 traffickers

.

He feels " 

that the drug circulates a lot more 

", because " 

the captagon is one of the resources of the Syrian regime

 ", estimates the young man, who assures that the drug is mainly manufactured in Syria.

Gray areas on the Lebanese-Syrian border

A finding shared at another border, between Syria and Lebanon, in the Lebanese region of the Bekaa Valley.

In the office of Bashir Khodor, the governor of Baalbek-Hermel province since 2014, a map decorates the wall next to a large fireplace.

The border between the two countries is very extensive, its limits not always very clear and its course imprecise, recalls the Lebanese official.

In these mountains, he evokes "

 grey areas 

" where " 

we don't know

 " whether it is Lebanon or Syria.

We haven't drawn the entire exact border yet, there are villages where half is in Syria, the other half is in Lebanon

 ."

Sometimes there are even houses whose "

 half of the house is in Lebanon, the other half in Syria 

”. 

Bachir Khodor, governor of the province of Baalbek-Hermel since 2014, explains that the border between Lebanon and Syria is particularly porous in his region.

© Baptiste Condominas / RFI

A situation that makes controls difficult.

Especially with the diversity of means used by traffickers: cars, 4x4s, sometimes animals or even simple individuals with suitcases of drugs.

 In these mountains, it is in fact impossible to be present on the entire border

,” laments the governor.

Despite this, the fight against drugs is one of his priorities, he underlines.

In recent times, the captagon more specifically has taken on " 

great importance for Lebanese security

 ".

Bachir Khodor ensures that traffickers are arrested every week. 

Not far from Baalbek, famous for its spectacular Roman ruins, stand the low houses of the village of Brital, with the mountain as their horizon.

Kassem Mazloum, the mukhtar – the mayor – of the village, knows the region very well.

At the wheel of his car, he points to a high snow-capped mountain.

“ 

It's the limit between us and Syria

,” explains this round-faced, smiling man.

When asked if there is traffic in his town, the city councilor answers without answering: “

In all the border villages with Syria, there is traffic. 

»

As his vehicle drives between Brital homes, Kassem Mazloum prefers to list everything that is grown here (potatoes, wheat, barley, apricots, apples, cherries, etc.) rather than talking about captagon trafficking.

The 50-year-old knows that his region does not have a good reputation.

This border between Lebanon and Syria has always been a place of trafficking of all kinds.

He also points out that many cars here drive without license plates.

And it only takes a few minutes of observation to realize that there are indeed quite a few of them circulating without identification.

Where do they come from?

Where are they going?

Mystery…

Mystery too, these individuals who seem to have privileges in the region.

Kassem Mazloum doesn't really like it.

These people are outlaws.

You arrive at a security force roadblock and you wait your turn like everyone else to be checked.

Not them.

They don't wait like everyone else.

They pass to the right. 

»

Known for its Roman remains, Baalbek is also known for being located at a crossroads of captagon traffic between Syria and Lebanon.

© Baptiste Condominas / RFI

A porous border, inhabitants embarrassed when it comes to talking about the captagon... Difficult to break through the thick silence that surrounds the subject, because the Bekaa plain is not only a place of trafficking: according to our information, this area is home to 50-70 sweatshops making captagon. 

Recently, a spectacular operation by the Lebanese army took place in the area to track down a major drug trafficker.

The region is a crossroads: captagon produced in Syria transits through this region of Lebanon and captagon produced here, in eastern Lebanon, crosses the Syrian border before continuing on its way to Iraq or Jordan, then to the Gulf countries.

Clandestine laboratories

At the start of each of these roads, there are clandestine, inaccessible laboratories… What do they look like?

How is captagon made?

The first step is to first obtain amphetamine sulphate

via

a chemical process, says Laurent Laniel, senior analyst at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, based in Lisbon.

This amphetamine sulphate is then mixed with other substances intended to increase the volume and with excipients, which have the function in particular of facilitating the shaping and the administration of the product, so that the pill "

 does not fall apart

 ", for example.  

Once in possession of this powder mixture, " 

we put it in a machine, we press a button and the machine produces pills on the basis of the powder we put in

 ", explains Laurent Laniel.

Knowing that the machine stamps each pill “ 

with the logo of your choice 

”.

In the case of the classic captagon, the analyst recalls that the logo is generally that of the two half-moons facing each other.  

Illustration of a clandestine captagon laboratory based on Lebanese army photos.

© Baptiste Condominas / RFI

And these machines are one of the main problems facing the authorities.

Because once in possession of the amphetamine, all you have to do is buy one – which you can even “

 install in your dining room 

” – to produce your drug.

However, they are relatively easy to access, since they are available over the counter for the pharmaceutical industries, emphasizes Laurent Laniel.

Even if these machines require a financial investment, the manufacture of captagon is then done “ 

relatively easily

 ” and “ 

by a large number of separate actors

 ”, explains the researcher.

A drug that is relatively simple to produce and within reach of a multitude of potential players makes the fight against trafficking all the more complex.

Especially when there are sometimes badly demarcated borders and traffickers who redouble their inventiveness to escape checks.

But these are not the only difficulties.

Captagon trafficking also has a geopolitical dimension, proliferating on the tensions and antagonisms of today's Middle East.

The main trade routes of the captagon.

© RFI

Editing and drawings: Baptiste Condominas

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  • Geopolitics of drugs

  • Dope

  • Lebanon

  • Syria

  • Kuwait

  • Saudi Arabia

  • United Arab Emirates

  • captagon login

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