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How drugs are brought into India: In weddings cards, by drones and hidden in sea cargo

A 3,000 kg heroin catch last week at Gujarat's Mundra port and other recent big seizures have raised questions on the flow of narcotics and their availability in India.

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New Delhi: The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) last week seized 3,000 kg of almost-pure heroin — worth over Rs 21,000 crore — from Gujarat’s Mundra port. The catch is being claimed as its ‘biggest haul’ so far. The estimated price of the contraband in the international street market is about Rs 7 crore per kg.

The consignment of Afghan heroin had been brought into the country from the Bandar Abbas Port in Iran and been declared as “semi-processed talc stones”.

Earlier, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell had recovered 354 kg heroin, worth over Rs 2,500 crore, from a house in neighbouring Faridabad in July.

The size of the recent hauls has raised questions on the amount of drugs being brought into, or circulating in, India and mentions of “narco-terrorism” by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and others.

ThePrint examines recent drug smuggling episodes in India, how they are brought into the country, distributed across states, and peddled.


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Drugs in India’s system

According to data from the Narcotics Control Bureau accessed by ThePrint, between January and July 2021, security and law enforcement agencies seized 3,040 kg heroin, 4,30,264 kg poppy straw, 3,35,052 kg ganja, and 215 kg of acetic anhydride (chemical agent used in producing the illegal drugs heroin and methaqualone).

The list of hauls also includes opium, morphine, hashish, ketamine, cocaine, methaqualone, ephedrine, and other pharma drugs including codeine-based cough syrups.

“We cannot say for sure if the consumption of drugs has increased in recent years, but detection and seizures have definitely increased,” said a source in the NCB.

According to sources across agencies (Customs, DRI and police), heroin is the most consumed and in-demand contraband in India.

“Ganja, heroin, small amounts of cocaine, MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and other pharma drugs find a market in India,” said the NCB source.

While opium is also cultivated in India, one of the biggest hubs is Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

An opioid drug, heroin is made from morphine, taken from seed pods of various opium poppy plants that are cultivated across parts of South-East and West Asia, Mexico and Colombia. Cocaine, meanwhile, is made from the leaves of the coca plant. Both cocaine and heroin can be injected, snorted, or smoked.

Hashish or hash is derived by collecting and compressing trichomes from cannabis plants.

Methylenedioxy-Methamphetamine (MDMA or ecstasy), amphetamines, mephedrone (also known as Meow Meow) are synthetic recreational party drugs popular in rave parties in India. These drugs are taken in the form of tablets, or snorted as powders, much like heroin and cocaine.


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How the contraband is brought in

“Most of the drugs come into the country from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar. The routes have changed over the years, but the modus operandi continues to be similar,” a second source in the NCB said.

According to officials in Customs, the DRI and the NCB, drugs are transported into the country by land, sea and air.

“Drugs are packed in small gunny bags and thrown across the border into Punjab from Pakistan. But border security and checking has increased manifold over the years, due to which smugglers have incurred massive losses and the land route has taken a hit,” said the second NCB source.

The smuggling by land happens in small quantities, he added. “Smugglers have grown tech-savvy over the years and also use drones to send small packages of drugs now across land borders. Most of the dealings are done on the dark web,” a senior Delhi Police officer said.

Innovative techniques are used to smuggle drugs through the air, said sources.

Speaking to ThePrint, an Air Customs officer said, “There have been instances where people have consumed drugs like heroin and cocaine in tablet form and have flown into the country. The narcotics are later ejected or extracted from their bodies by operation. Some stitch the drugs into their luggage or seal them into their garments, gadgets, and other items.”

A DRI source added that “in one instance, smugglers had put ephedrine drugs into wedding cards, between plastic covers. The catch was worth over Rs 5 crore”.

However, sources said the sea route is the easiest way for smugglers to bring in high quantities of narcotics into the country. Some of the ports from where seizures were made in recent months include Mundra and Nhava Sheva in Maharashtra.

“Heroin often is concealed in legitimate export — talc stone, gypsum powder, basil seeds and packed in gunny bags and cartons — and then smuggled across ports and countries,” the Delhi Police officer quoted above said.

The curb on international flights and other restrictions on movement during the Covid lockdown earlier this year had affected smugglers. “Drug smuggling into the country reduced during the Covid-induced lockdown as flights remained suspended and the country was shut, movement restricted. Large quantities couldn’t be brought in,” said the NCB source.

Once the drug enters the country undetected, it is taken to makeshift factories in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and other states for extraction, sources said.

“It is difficult to track down entire cartels and locate the kingpins, since most of them involved in the process are unemployed youth, who even if arrested, have little to no knowledge of the entire operation. The distribution is no longer done in stolen cars, as it once was. They buy second-hand cars and the communication between two operatives is also very limited, so they often don’t know the exact chain of command themselves,” the Delhi Police officer added.

The drug trade also gives rise to other petty crimes by addicts, the severity of which may increase with time. In order to support the addiction, addicts become peddlers or distributors themselves or be employed in the extraction process as well, the officials quoted above concurred.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


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