On the cocaine trail

Courier Briefing
Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Even as the American crime drama Narcos, a serialised portrayal of legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the infamous Medellín Cartel gathers popularity among users of Netflix in Bangladesh, there is a growing concern among officials of international cocaine smugglers’ use of the country as a transit destination in their efforts to smuggle increasing amounts of the Class A drug to more lucrative destinations in Europe and North America.


That Bangladesh has been used as part of the the transit route for cocaine smuggling by the international drug mafias is confirmed by the fact that the final destinations of three big consignments of cocaine, which were seized by the officials of the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) and the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) since June 2013, were all outside the country.


Though the final destinations of the seized drug consignments are yet to be confirmed, the investigating agencies say that the most expensive contraband drug item was scheduled to be redirected to India as Bangladesh is not so far a lucrative market for cocaine. Officials of Department of Narcotics seized 3.08 kg cocaine, valued at over $6 million, from the luggage of a Spanish national Chiases Tjo Julian, 52, from the Shahjalal International Airport on December 8 evening.


DNC Inspector (Uttara circle) Kamrul Islam filed a case with Airport Police Station in this connection on December 9, while DNC inspector Raju Ahmed (Lalbagh circle) was made the investigation officer (IO) of the case. Contacted, DNC deputy director Mukul Jyoti Chakma told our sister newsagency UNB that during the primary interrogation, detained Julian claimed he had no idea about the consignment.


Claiming that he came to Bangladesh as a tourist, the detainee said he could not understand how the consignment was put inside his luggage. Mukul Jyoti Chakma said Julian is now in jail. “We will confirm the final destination of the cocaine consignment after interrogating the Spanish citizen. A Dhaka CMM court already put Julian on a 3-day remand for interrogation. The investigation officer will start interrogating Julian,” he added.


Julian came to Bangladesh via Dubai from Sao Paulo of Brazil by an aircraft of Emirates Airlines from Dubai at around 4:55 pm on Tuesday, December 8.


Earlier, officials of CIID seized 107 blue plastic barrels of sunflower oil from a container in Chittagong Port on June 8 this year, as Special Branch of Bangladesh police got information from a British intelligence agency that a big cocaine consignment was being brought to Bangladesh from Bolivia in liquid form mixed with sunflower oil.


Officials estimate that between 60 and 100 kilos of cocaine were mixed into the oil. The cocaine likely hails from land-locked Bolivia, listed as the source country for the sunflower oil and a leading cocaine producer. It was shipped from Uruguay to Singapore on March 30 in a container that Bangladeshi police say was owned by a company called South Freight Logistics.


The container was then transferred to a smaller ship that sailed to Chittagong. It isn’t clear whether India was the final destination for the cocaine, worth as much as $14 million, or whether it was a transit point for other markets in Asia and Europe.


“They wanted to redirect it to India when it got stuck at Chittagong,” Bangladeshi police official Mohammad Kamruzzaman told Reuters. Kamruzzaman said they found correspondence that said the shipment was headed for “any port in India”.


Then on August 31, officials of  the Department of Narcotics Control with the help of Immigration Police detained a Peruvian national identified as Jaime Bardales Gomez, 52, and recovered 2.3 kg cocaine from him at Hazrat Shahjalal International airport. The DNC officials had received information about the seized drug consignment from an intelligence agency of India. Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police also seized six pounds of cocaine and arrested six people in this connection from the capital’s Nikunja on January 24 last year. The cocaine  consignment was brought to Dhaka through Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport under the pretense of importing raw materials.


Earlier on June 22, 2013 the DNC officials detained two foreign nationals—Zagaceta Al Varada and Juana Pabalo Rafael—from Hotel La Vinci of Karwan Bazar area and seized 3 kgs of cocaine from their possession. Officials involved in investigating the three seized cocaine consignments told UNB that cocaine is usually produced in South American countries and  it has highest demand in North American countries followed by Europe and South America.


They also said international drug smugglers bring the cocaine consignments to North America, Europe and South American countries amid strict security surveillance but when the consignments are sent to those countries through transit countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal, they face much more relaxed security screening procedures. It is very easy to use transit countries like Bangladesh for the advantages they offer in terms of soft security at its ports, they added.


Lines in transit


When his attention was drawn to it, director general of CIID Moinul Khan told UNB that the liquid cocaine in the drums of sunflower oil seized at Chittagong Port has been brought here for using Bangladesh as a transit route as there is no technology even, to turn liquid cocaine into the powdered form in which it is consumed here in Bangladesh. “From this, we can further understand that Bangladesh is being used as a transit route for the cocaine,” he said.


However, he said consignments of drugs as well as other smuggled goods including gold bars are increasingly being seized as law enforcing and intelligence agencies are now very much efficient in exchanging information with other external as well as internal intelligence agencies.


“So there is no reason to think that law enforcement as well as intelligence agencies are weak. I think smugglers and international mafias will be marginalized as the exchange of information between law enforcing and intelligence agencies both at home and abroad will increase day by day, ” Moinul Khan added.


Contacted, Narcotics Inspector Md Mofazzal Hossain, who is the investigation officer of 2.3 kg cocaine case, said the cocaine consignment was scheduled to be sent to India as detained Peruvian national Jaime Bardales Gomez revealed as much during interrogation.


Jaime also said that he is a taxi driver. He was introduced with a drug smuggler Marco who lured him into getting involved in carrying drug consignments.  Narcotics Inspector Md Mofazzal  said Jaime agreed to carry the consignment in exchange of $10,000 as he thought with this amount he can repay his bank loan of $3,000 and also he can buy a taxi.


The arrested Peruvian citizen was asked to stay in Hotel Victory in Naya Paltan with the drug consignment for three days from where a South African national known as Joseph was supposed to receive it. But finally Jaime was arrested with the drug consignment in the airport, Narcotics Inspector Md Mofazzal added.


Replying to a question, Narcotics Inspector Md Mofazzal, who was also the plaintiff of the cocaine recovery case of Hotel La Vinci in 2013,  said  though the arrested carriers were not informed about the final destination of the seized cocaine.The seized consignments were supposed to go to European countries through India.


Talking to Dhaka Courier at his Tejgaon headquarters, Director General of DNC Khandker Rakibur Rahman admitted that an international mafia syndicate has been trying to use Bangladesh as transit route. He emphasized taking immediate cautionary measures to prevent the international drug cartel from using the country as a transit route. “People lack the financial ability to use cocaine as drug here,” the DNC DG added.


The United Nations believes more cocaine is moving through South Asia undetected.


“This is a huge wake-up call,” said Cristina Albertin, the South Asia representative for the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), referring to the Bangladesh bust.


Up until now, much of counter-narcotics agencies’ work in the region was focused on the smuggling of heroin and synthetic drugs and especially on Afghanistan, which produces some 90 percent of the world’s illicit opiates. The recent hauls of cocaine have taken them by surprise. The UNODC has been training port officials in Chittagong on how to better follow paper trails that help spot suspicious cargos and gave officials drug testing kits. But the kits were adapted to the region and so didn’t have the test for cocaine.


“Now we will also have to give them that,” Albertin said.


Rich man’s poison


Cocaine use, while still low compared to Europe and North America, is on the rise among newly wealthy party-goers in the top cities of Asia’s fast growing economies.


“Latin American drug trafficking organizations, those who are well structured, are now looking for new markets, particularly for their cocaine and methamphetamine production,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative in Mexico.


“Asia is that market nowadays,” he said.


In India, drug seizures almost tripled between 2009 and 2013, data from India’s Narcotic Bureau shows. They dipped last year, but have been increasing in recent months. One Peruvian man, for example, caught in June with a kilo hidden in his suitcase had previously visited India four times. The drugs appear to be for local use in cities such as Bengalaru, Delhi and Mumbai, according to police reports.


Cocaine-trafficking is risky but enormously profitable. As Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist, points out in his book Zero Zero Zero, a kilo of the drug costing $1,500 in Colombia fetches $12,000-$16,000 in Mexico and $77,000 if it makes it to Britain. According to the accountant of Colombia’s Medellín drug mob, the group was trafficking 15 tonnes of cocaine into America every day in the 1980s. Thirty years later, the figures are still staggering. In Italy the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta has now overtaken the Sicilian Cosa Nostra as the country’s most powerful mafia group. It turns over an estimated €53 billion ($59 billion) a year, almost half of which comes from drug-trafficking.


From Dhaka to where?


This past week, on December 23, the Spanish national arrested in connection with the seizure on December 8, C.T. Julian, made a confessional statement under Section 164 of the CrPC, that back in Spain, in his home province of Sevilla, he had met another individual in September who made him the offer of carrying a bag to Bangladesh in exchange for $10,000, according to court sources.


The contents of the bag were apparently unknown to Julian, who then travelled to Spanish capital Madrid, where he was handed 2300 Euros and asked to travel to Brazilian city Sao Paulo. Julian travelled to Sao Paulo on November 11. He would stay there till December 6. During his stay in the Brazilian city, he met someone who handed him an air ticket for the trip to Dhaka via Dubai, plus the consignment in a bag, that he claims to have had no knowledge of. He was also handed the details of a booking at the Pacific Hotel in Motijheel.


Julian was told that an individual would meet him at the Hotel Pacific, who would identify himself by showing Julian’s own passport photocopy. But of course, the meeting could not take place, as Julian was caught by officials at the airport. Hence investigators are in the dark about the identity of the individual he was supposed to meet.


The IO, however, confirmed the racket involved individuals from at least four countries (Spain, Brazil, Singapore and Bangladesh). The Singaporean involvement was confirmed by the fact that the hotel booking was placed by a firm in the Southeast Asian nation.


The confession was made before Magistrate Mohammed Zakir Hussain of Dhaka CMM Court. When contacted, DNC Inspector Raju Ahmed said “We are still in the dark as to the ultimate destination of the cocaine, and who else was involved at this end.”


Additional reporting by M. Jahangir Alam.

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