Captagon produced 'on demand' in Netherlands for Middle East export

EU countries are increasingly used as trans-shipment points for Captagon smuggling to avoid detection, report finds

A member of Finance Crimes Squad displays confiscated Captagon pills in Athens. Greece is among seven EU countries to report activities related to the amphetamine. AP
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The Netherlands has emerged as Europe’s main producer of Captagon, with the rate of seizures standing at “one to two a year” since 2018, a report has found.

Dutch police told EU investigators “large quantities” of the drug could also be produced “on demand” in the Netherlands.

This is where most of Europe’s amphetamines are produced, and drug gangs there have seized the opportunity to manufacture Captagon in response to specific requests.

The largest seizure by Dutch police was in 2019, where an estimated 3 million Captagon tablets weighing 354kg were found ready to be shipped to Saudi Arabia.

In 2021 an amphetamine production location was dismantled and 63kg of amphetamine and 37kg of caffeine seized, as well as tablet punches used to make Captagon tablets.

But there were no signs of the cheap drug – which has been found to be mixed with caffeine and paracetamol – being used significantly in Europe, the report adds.

“It’s quite a niche trade, because we don’t have consumers of Captagon tablets in the EU,” Andrew Cunningham, the report's co-author at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, told The National.

Europe has become a “key trans-shipment area” for the addictive amphetamine, where millions of tablets, predominantly produced in Syria and Lebanon, were destined for Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

“Ports in Europe are being misused by organised crime. Some of the people who are from those production countries are residents of the EU and may be citizens,” said Mr Cunningham.

Beyond this “on demand” production, drug-related criminal networks in the EU did not appear to get involved in the Captagon trade. “It's an opportunistic way for Dutch synthetic drug producing groups to make a few euros. They have the raw materials and tableting equipment,” Mr Cunningham said.

Countries in the EU are increasingly being used as trans-shipment points for Captagon smuggling to avoid detection. Saudi Arabia banned agricultural shipments from Lebanon in 2021 due to repeated seizures from there, a move that was backed by other Gulf countries.

“What the traffickers are trying to do is create a circuitous route by sending the Captagon into an EU port, and then on to Saudi Arabia. This makes it less likely to be selected for control, because it is not as suspicious,” Mr Cunningham said.

The Harley Street doctor fighting Captagon addiction in London

The Harley Street doctor fighting Captagon addiction in London

In one case in Austria, the drugs were removed from the container and transported to a separate location, then repackaged into pizza ovens and washing machines before being shipped to Saudi Arabia. “To do that, you need people on the ground,” he said.

The report by the EMCDDA and the German Federal Criminal Police Office is the first comprehensive study of Captagon within the EU.

The amphetamine is believed to be mainly produced in Syria and Lebanon, and exported to the Gulf.

But since 2018, 16 seizures of the drug in transit have prompted concerns that the Captagon trade is spreading to Europe. These seizures were followed by three cases of production in the Netherlands, and one in Greece.

Between 2018 and 2022, over 137 million tablets of Captagon have been seized within the EU. The largest reported seizure was in Italy, where 84 million tablets were found concealed in large rolls of paper in July 2020.

Greece has reported the largest number of big seizures – eight in total – one of which included tablets wrapped in bags marked with an inverted swastika. This was followed by four cases in Germany.

The UK and US estimate the industry to be worth $57 billion, with 80 per cent of the world’s supply produced in Syria as a source of revenue for the Assad regime.

Suspected involvement

In March, the UK and US imposed sanctions on people linked to the Syrian government over their suspected involvement in the production and trafficking of Captagon.

Senior politicians from the UK and the US also told The National earlier this year that they feared the drug would soon be “flooding” their shores.

Mr Cunningham declined to place a value on the Captagon trade in Europe due to a lack of data on its consumption. “We calculate how much is being paid for a particular drug which is used by consumers. We don’t account for seized drugs,” he said.

The new report was based on information from seven EU countries that reported Captagon activity: Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Romania.

These countries are part of the European multidisciplinary platform against criminal threats. The UK and 10 other members of EMPACT said they had no “material information” on Captagon.

German authorities have concluded that Captagon is produced “under the patronage” of the Assad regime, which “benefits financially from the shipments”, the report adds.

This was ascertained through testimonies by witnesses in Germany and reports from German embassy staff and the German intelligence service.

In one investigation, a Syrian national told German law enforcement that organised crime groups have to pay for each container of Captagon shipped from Syria. The payment is requested by the Syrian 4th Army Division and the choice is to pay for each container that leaves a Syrian port or to pay a monthly fee.

By contrast, Captagon’s links to ISIS and other terrorist organisations were dismissed. The drug became associated with ISIS after terror attacks in Paris and in Sousse, Tunisia in 2015.

However, various autopsies and forensic reports have since found no evidence of Captagon use among ISIS members who carried out attacks in Europe.

Forensic examination of the drugs found in Europe confirmed that they were produced illegally and contained less than 20 per cent amphetamine.

Other ingredients included caffeine, theophylline – which is used to treat asthma – painkillers such as paracetamol and lidocaine, and diphenhydramine, an antihistamine used for allergies.

Europe is not often used as a trans-shipment point for drugs trafficking. “[It] happens quite rarely,” said Mr Cunningham, who hoped the report would be used to dismantle the Captagon networks.

“It’s important to follow through with the seizures with robust investigations into the finances so that organised crime networks can really be dismantled instead of just disrupted,” he said.

Updated: September 13, 2023, 1:35 PM