Rising levels of amphetamine production in Lebanon and Syria have prompted the UN to call for more investigations into the illegal trade which may be connected to corrupt politicians and the militant group Hezbollah.
Thomas Pietschmann, an expert at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said Lebanon and Syria had in recent years become the region’s biggest manufacturers and exporters of amphetamine pills.
Captagon in the Middle East
The Vienna-based UNODC collates data on the global drugs business provided by governments, law enforcement agencies, Interpol, the World Customs Organisation and other agencies.
Captagon — also known as the “poor man’s cocaine” — has proliferated, owing to an industrial boom centred predominantly in government-held and recaptured areas of war-torn Syria.
“There have been a couple of laboratories where there’s some strong evidence that Hezbollah was involved,” Mr Pietschmann told The National.
“Can people operate [there] on a large scale without Hezbollah knowing it? No. So there must have been some kind of agreement. But it’s still difficult to say Hezbollah was organising it.”
Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and militant group, has denied involvement in the narcotics trade, though members of the group have been slapped by US sanctions for running criminal enterprises to finance their operations.
The situation is murkier still in neighbouring Syria, where President Bashar Al Assad has regained control over much of the country after a decade-long civil war along multiple fronts against the various rebel, extremist and Kurdish forces.
At its peak, ISIS “may well” have profited from Captagon labs, said Mr Pietschmann. Records of amphetamine production in Syria often relate to areas that were taken over by several armed groups in succession, making it hard to finger anyone even if there is evidence implicating several prominent businessmen close to the regime.
“It’s very fluid, very difficult for us to find out the ultimate truth,” said Mr Pietschmann.
The UNODC’s annual World Drug Report this year found the coronavirus pandemic had spurred an increase in drug use globally, especially cannabis.
In the Middle East, Captagon remains the primary concern. The pills, which take their name from a once-legal treatment for hyperactivity disorder, are typically a cocktail of fenethylline, caffeine and other uppers.
They are popular among night-workers, dieters, students cramming for exams and others in the Middle East region, and are a drug-of-choice for fighters in Syria and elsewhere, who say they sharpen wits on the battlefield.
According to the UNODC report, the Middle East accounts for nearly half of all amphetamine seizures globally between 2015-2019, the latest period for which data are available.
The most significant police raids in that period were reported by Saudi Arabia, which seized 146 million amphetamine tablets. Other major hauls were made in the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The pill trail leads as far as Libya and Sudan.
Drug busts in Europe have linked the Middle Eastern network to the Camorra, a Mafia-style Italian crime gang. A police bust in Austria in March connected Captagon traffickers from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.
Officials are wising up to the problem. Saudi Arabia banned imports of Lebanese fresh produce after the kingdom discovered some 5 million pills in a shipment of pomegranates from Lebanon in April.
While the Saudi ban may have prompted Lebanese officials to crack down on illicit amphetamine labs, it also hurt Lebanon's already struggling farmers. For Mr Pietschmann, blanket bans do not provide a long term solution.
“If you ban fruit, they find something else to put them in,” he said.
Instead, Middle Eastern governments should crack down harder on corrupt officials and consider dropping the death penalty for drug trafficking crimes, which blocks many European police forces from cooperating and sharing evidence with Arab counterparts, he added.