Drugs traffickers 'targeting UAE'

UAE is increasingly being targeted by criminals as both a destination and trafficking-post for drugs trade, UN report says.

Dubai police are actively searching for drugs, here at a vegetable market in Al Awair Souq.
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NEW YORK // The UN's latest drugs report confirms that the UAE is increasingly being targeted by criminals as both a destination and trafficking-post in the illegal narcotics trade. The World Drug Report 2009, released today by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), warns of a growth in the smuggling of amphetamines and heroin to the Emirates. The data accord with figures from the anti-narcotics unit of Dubai Police, which has seized 41 per cent more drugs between January and May than during the same period last year.

The agency's director, Antonio Maria Costa, said Dubai's busy ports are increasingly targeted by criminal gangs seeking alternative supply routes with less-stringent customs checks. "Drug trafficking today has become a global business. Even if the main markets are still North America and Europe, criminals can go through other areas where there is the least risk of being arrested with the least controls," said Mr Costa.

"The logic today is not to send drugs from Colombia to Spain - it is too dangerous. Everybody would be waiting for containers to arrive and inspect them thoroughly. Instead, it is sent through other ports and disguised with Chinese tea or cashew nuts from Ivory Coast." The Vienna-based agency's 314-page report says Dubai is emerging as a new transit point for opiates as they pass from the world's largest heroin producer, Afghanistan, through Pakistan and onwards to destinations such as China and Malaysia.

Researchers also highlight "dramatic increases in seizures" of fake Captagon pills, commonly an addictive mixture of stimulants such as fenethylline and caffeine that can induce paranoia among a range of psychological ills. Although their use has "skyrocketed" across the region, Saudi Arabia remains the core market, where amphetamine seizures were greater in 2007 than those in China and the United States combined.

Bearing the brand name of a formerly-legal stimulant, Captagon pills change hands for a few dollars on the streets of cities such as Jeddah, Dubai and Doha, often mistakenly used by young men to boost sexual performance. Growing drug use in the UAE and other Gulf countries results from the increasingly affluent middle-class lifestyles of local populations combined with an influx of illegal migrants looking to make cash through crime, Mr Costa said.

"The Emirates is in a difficult situation. It needs to maintain the status of an open country, welcoming trade, investors and tourists, on the one hand. But, on the other hand, when you open the windows, as well as fresh air, you also let in mosquitoes." The drugs chief said his agency was working with the Government to boost security at borders, ports and airports, particularly through hi-tech systems that use shipping logs to identify suspect container units.

Tougher policing will reduce the amount of drugs being smuggled into the country and help tackle related crimes, such as the laundering of narcotic gang profits, which is also on the rise, he added. Speaking in advance of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which is celebrated annually on June 26, Abdul-Jaleel Mahdi, head of Dubai Police's anti-drugs unit, told Reuters that the UAE has become a "transit country" for drug dealers.

Dubai Police have caught 467 people in connection to drug trafficking this year, a third up on early last year, with heroin the main drug seized. The number of drug-related cases was also up a fifth to 288, against 242 last year, he said. "The financial crisis may have played a role in the increase, as unemployment levels rose and the number of people involved in financial disputes increased," said Mr Mahdi.

Last week, Mohammed al Marri, the executive director of cargo operations at Dubai Customs told The National that the UAE faces a growing domestic drugs problem, on top of dealing with international traffickers. Mr al Marri said Dubai Customs had undergone a huge overhaul since 2003 and said millions continue to be invested in the latest equipment and technology to combat traffickers. jreinl@thenational.ae