Vol. 5 Num 741 Wed. June 28, 2006  

Countering drug trafficking in Bangladesh

South Asia is wedged between the world's largest illicit opium producing areas, the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos) and the Golden Crescent (Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan). The region cultivates illicit opium and cannabis, produces heroin and hashish, and trafficking and diversion of precursor chemicals for drug manufacture takes place. According to UN reports, drug abusers in the region are estimated at 4 million and spreading among the youth. The region is used by traffickers as transit point to destinations around the world.

The threat posed by drug trafficking has grown with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis spreading through injection needle users. With a turnover around $500 billion, the drug trade has assumed the proportions of the third largest business in the world, next to only petroleum and arms. It presents a potent national and international security threat with the proceeds of the narcotics trade also funding terrorist activities.

The problem with drug control efforts in South Asia is that despite signing regional and bilateral agreements for cooperation, the political differences in their relationships hinders effective cooperation. The Saarc Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances signed on November 23, 1990 largely remains on paper like other bilateral agreements between these countries. Issue specific and problem based cooperation, despite other differences is vital. South Asia must work towards such cooperation, which will help not only in tackling specific concerns like drugs control but also promote an overall spirit of regional solidarity to strengthen cooperation in the region.

Many non-governmental actors in these countries are involved in combating the drug menace. The primary focus of counter-narcotics efforts in the region includes surveillance, interdiction, prevention and enforcement at entry and exit routes, control measures at export points like air and sea terminals, identification and eradication of cultivation, strengthening intelligence apparatus, improving interagency cooperation in the region and increasing international cooperation.

While international and regional efforts are indispensable, the ultimate actors in the fight against the trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs are national governments. International and regional efforts can provide a framework of cooperation, enhance expertise, facilitate resource pooling and monitor progress, but implementation of control measures rests with national authorities.

Because of its geographic location in the midst of major drug producing and exporting countries, Bangladesh is used by trafficking organizations as a transit point. Seizures of heroin, phensidyl (a codeine-based, highly addictive cough syrup produced in India), and pethidine point to growing narcotic use in Bangladesh. Phensidyl is popular because of its low price and widespread availability.

While unconfirmed reports of opium cultivation in the Bandarban district along the border with Myanmar exist, there is no evidence that Bangladesh is a significant producer or exporter of narcotics. However, a limited amount of cannabis is cultivated in the hill tracts near Chittagong and in the northeastern region, reportedly for local consumption. But the country's largely porous borders make Bangladesh an attractive transfer point for drugs transiting the region.

The government's Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) lacks training, equipment, continuity of leadership, and other resources to detect and interdict the flow of drugs in country. The DNC is chronically under-funded and understaffed. Moreover, there is minimal coordination among the DNC, the police, the BDR and the judiciary's local magistrates in charge of orchestrating counter-narcotics operations. Corruption at all levels of government, and in particular law enforcement, hamper the country's drug interdiction efforts.

The DNC's counter-narcotics activities are seriously hampered by the ineffectiveness of the National Narcotics Control Board (NNCB), the highest governmental body to fulfil the objectives of the Narcotics Control Act (NCA). The 19-member NNCB, made up of twelve ministers, six elected members, and the DNC Director General, is charged to meet quarterly, but such meetings are not held regularly. Article 5 of the NCA directs the Board to formulate policies and monitor the production, supply, and use of illegal drugs in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has a memorandum of understanding on narcotics cooperation with Iran, and it participates in information-sharing with the government of Myanmar. The Bangladesh government and the US government signed a Letter of Agreement (LOA) in September 2002 to provide $140,000 in equipment to the DNC and its central chemical laboratory. The LOA also provided for $338,922 in training to law enforcement personnel involved in counter-narcotics activities.

There is some evidence that Bangladesh is used as a transit country for heroin to Europe. There were seven seizures of heroin hidden in fresh vegetable shipments from Dhaka to the UK in 2003. The UK customs in May 2005 accused five Bangladeshi business firms of smuggling heroin to that country in the guise of food, toiletries, cosmetics and floor tiles.

Bangladesh's air, sea, and land ports are guarded by officials, who have little, if any, training on counternarcotics operations or equipment to carry out their job. Although the DNC is authorized 1,277 positions, only 932 are filled. There is no DNC presence at the country's second largest airport in Chittagong, which has direct flights to Myanmar and Thailand. Customs officers are untrained in detecting and interdicting drugs. To date, no random searches of crews, ships, boats, vehicles, or containers are being conducted at the country's largest seaport in Chittagong. Personnel responsible for land border security within a twelve-mile swath inside the country, are widely believed to abet the smuggling of goods, including narcotics, into Bangladesh.

Some drug addicts rehabilitation organizations operate some long-term residential rehabilitation centers. Bangladesh government sponsors rudimentary educational programs aimed at youth in schools and mosques, but there is little funding for these programs and no clear indication of their impact. A recent DNC study estimated the addict population at two million and growing.

Lives are being ruined by drugs. As the number of drug users is increasing every day, a humanitarian crisis looms with the growing threat of HIV/AIDS, the cases of which are linked to intravenous drug use. The ultimate effect of drugs and HIV/AIDS is death. The younger generation of our society is increasingly falling into this trap. So, it is incumbent on all of us to do our best to enhance the drug prevention programs, organize adolescents and young adults in the vulnerable areas to keep their community free from abuse and illicit drug trafficking. The DNC should be strengthened and regional and international cooperation increased.

Siddiqur Rahman is a former Research Fellow of the Islamic Research Institute, Karachi.