Lebanon gateway for Captagon drug to reach Gulf region

Millions of pills have been found, hidden in contraptions ranging from furniture to wood processing machines.

Production of the drug Captagon has increased in Syria as the country's lawlessness deepens amid the three-year civil war. Joseph Eid/AFP Photo
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BEIRUT // Khaled has been on drugs since he was 11. “I take everything,” said the scrawny 19-year-old, dressed in skinny blue jeans and a black zip up hoody.

His pupils are clearly dilated and his skin pale. For two years, he’s been hooked on Captagon, an amphetamine that looks like a white or brown M&M that is popular across the Middle East.

“You forget the people, hallucinate, things are better, you have so many ideas, your thinking improves. It’s like people don’t exist,” he said of the drug which has been banned in most countries because of its addictive properties.

Large amounts of Captagon are manufactured in Syria due to the lawlessness pervading the country amid the civil war. Neighbouring Lebanon has become a gateway for the drug to reach the rest of the region.

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) have seized 55 million pills over the past year, hidden in contraptions ranging from furniture to wood processing machines.

On Tuesday, ISF busted another drug ring that included a Bulgarian chemist.

“Most of Captagon is made in Syria, and it is then smuggled to Lebanon and exported to the Gulf area,” says Colonel Ghassan Chamseddine, the country’s drugs czar, in an interview last week.

On Beirut’s streets, a Captagon pill retails for US$8 (Dh29); that amount rises to $10-20 once they arrive in the Gulf.

Col Chamseddine’s first Captagon seizure, in August 2013, turned up about five million tablets hidden in a custom-made air conditioning unit that was built in Syria.

Ten days later his men arrested a drugs dealer from Homs who was welding the pills inside truck frames. He had intended to move seven trucks, carrying five million pills in total, overland to Saudi Arabia. Sentences for such crimes are usually two to three years, though the justice department is trying to increase the time for drug trafficking.

Such large scale seizures of Captagon in Lebanon were unheard of until last year.

Customs officials at the airport used to seize smaller shipments, with pills hidden in artwork, picture frames, and even 11,000 pills stuffed into Ramadan cookies.

But, now, the quantities that the Lebanese security forces are discovering are larger.

Even the bags used to smuggle the pills have increased in size, now containing 50,000 tablets a bag, up from 1,000 originally, according to Col Chamseddine.

Captagon smugglers are becoming more inventive. Pills have been found inside furniture, a container full of corn and even stone-cutting machines.

A shipment of five million pills seized in October was found stuffed into pipes of a wood-pressing machine, headed to Dubai. The smugglers had wrapped aluminum bags around the pills to throw off the scanners in a port in Beirut.

The same technique was used in a shipment discovered at Dubai's Jebel Ali port two weeks ago; 17 million pills were discovered in two containers carrying wood-pressing machines.

Although Col Chamseddine said that the smuggling of Captagon has been going on since the 1990s, the pace has picked up at the start of the civil war in Syria.

“Before the war in Syria, most of this quantity would go without passing through Lebanon, but now because of the situation in Syria, most of it is being smuggled via Lebanon,” he said.

Captagon is another name for fenetylline, a synthetic stimulant invented in 1961 as an alternative drug to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It was outlawed by the World Health Organisation in 1986, but has found a new lease of life on the illegal market.

The drug is especially popular in the Middle East. Seizures in the region account for almost 64 per cent of global amphetemine seizures and most of them were Captagon pills, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The drugs’ properties make it an attractive choice for fighters battling in the region’s multitude of conflicts: it prolongs their stamina and numbs fatigue and pain. Both sides fighting in Syria trade accusations that enemy fighters are under the influence of the drug. Syrian state news regularly reports finding large stashes of Captagon when it captures rebel bases.

While Syria has a history with the drug, 22.7 million pills were seized in 2011, there is a growing demand for it in Lebanon, according to Captagon dealer Abu Ali.

The drug is especially popular with students. “It’s a new thing, but now it’s made its way into universities and schools. It’s really taking off,” he said.

Abu Ali sells Captagon for $8 a piece and in a good week he sells 150 pills. His supplier gets the pills from the Bekaa Valley, long a hub for cannabis and other illicit substances.

It is also where the ISF busted two Captagon production labs last year and three laboratories that produce amphetamine base, a key ingredient for Captagon.

Production facilities, which mostly use converted chocolate machines that are imported from China, can churn out up to 100,000 pills a day.

The area is a stronghold of Hizbollah, which has long been accused of being involved in the illegal trade.

In 2012, two brothers of Hizbollah MP Hussein Moussawi were embroiled in a scandal that found Captagon production facilities in two Shiite seminaries in Baalbek.

Although the security forces have been catching more drug dealers than in the past, it is still an uphill struggle.

“We will do our best to catch any operation of drugs dealers trying to smuggle drugs to the Gulf area, and any place in the world. But the drug dealers keep trying. We can’t stop these operations 100 per cent,” said Col Chamseddine.