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    Volume 9 Issue 32| August 6, 2010|

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An Ignored Menace

Shudeepto Ariquzzaman

Smuggling this powder is one of the world's most
profitable illegal enterprise.

On July 28, 2010 an article was published in the Telegraph (Kolkata, India) under the heading 'Glare on African drug cartels' written by Pankaj Sharma. The article focused on the increased participation of African nationals, especially Nigerians, in the regional drug trade. Among other things, the article quoted one unnamed customs official as saying that these African (Nigerian) syndicates who traditionally operate from the heroin trafficking routes (the drugs are trafficked from the Golden crescent in Afghanistan through Pakistan) in the Western border of Pakistan and India are increasingly using the North Eastern states (in this case the drugs are trafficked from the Golden triangle of Myanmar) for achieving their business purposes.

So what does this have to do the current or future scenario in Bangladesh? Barely 24 hours after this article was published in Kolkata, only 252 km away in a city called Dhaka, a Nigerian national Afolayan Oladipupo Zaccheaus was apprehended in the Shahjalal International Airport trying to smuggle six kilograms of heroin estimated to be worth 6 crore taka to Malaysia using Bangladesh as the transit country. Credit for this discovery lies with a customs official named of Rasheda Parveen. The customs official at Departure gate no. 3 noticed some anomaly in the colour of the steel handle of the luggage. She immediately suspected that something was amiss. Had the steel handle been vacant i.e. if there was nothing inside the handle, the scanners would have displayed a slightly different colour. As it turned out, she was right, the steel handles did contain something -- 58 small foil packs with white powder inside a total of 10 aluminium packs. Zaccheaus tried to flee the scene but was quickly apprehended by the Armed Police Battalion. His partner Ratmi Aziz however, managed to escape. Investigation in the case is currently ongoing.

This is hardly the first time that foreigners have been caught for drug trafficking in Bangladesh. As his passport shows, Zaccheaus himself has been to Bangladesh seven times. This year alone, he has been in Bangladesh four times. "He is very familiar with our country," comments Shahidul Mannaf Kabir, Superintendent, Department of Narcotics Control, Airport in-charge, the agency that is handling the investigation. "I asked him in Bangla, 'what is your name' and he replied promptly. As he was taken to the prison cell, he shook hands with all the other prisoners and exchanged courteous greetings. I was astounded by the astuteness of this foreigner. He knows that he is likely to languish here for some time and under such circumstances he needs to be on good terms with the other local prisoners."

His words were echoed by an officer of an elite law enforcement agency: "He has been in Bangladesh seven times. What do you think he was here for? Playing football for Rahmatganj?" quips the officer on condition of anonymity. "Since the 80s, Nigerians are regular visitors to this country. The High Commission of Bangladesh has been giving them tourist visas on a regular basis, no questions asked. Bangladesh is not exactly a tourist's paradise, especially not for citizens of another third world country situated in another part of the world. There are many international students who come to Bangladesh from those parts of the world and their presence in our country is mutually beneficial. About the others I have my reservations." Incidentally, Zaccheaus was posing as a stock lot broker of ready-made garments, although he has always been travelling to Bangladesh on a tourist visa. An identity card found on him dating back to 2008 reads that he is a member of Rahmatganj Muslim society.

Zaccheaus's passport has revealed that he is a regular traveller and his places of frequent visits include India, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, UAE, Nepal and the Philippines.

In recent years, Nigerians have been heavily involved in Indian drug trafficking, ranging from Mumbai on the West coast to the North Eastern states, often known as the seven sisters. UAE, the last destination of Zaccheaus, has also been suffering from operations of international crime syndicates.

The world’s major heroin smuggling route.

In June 2006 the arrest of a footballer Ozor Michael in Nepal revealed the existence of a flourishing global drug syndicate linked to Afghanistan and Europe. Michael was a footballer in a top Nigerian club. His passport raised suspicions among Nepalese narcotics officers as it revealed that he had travelled on a very suspicious route -- Afghanistan, Dubai and Doha. Like many Nigerian drug traffickers arrested before and after him, Michael claimed that it was his love for football that brought him to this country.

In Thailand, Nigerians also have a heavy hand in drug trafficking operating from the capital city Bangkok. The presence of foreigners in other places is too conspicuous and drugs are brought from the Burmese border by Thai local smugglers who then sell it to the Nigerian 'mules' who carry the merchandise by air to their destined places. Bangkok has one of the world's busiest airports and accordingly this makes smuggling drugs a lot easier. Proximity to the Golden Triangle of Myanmar has made Thailand a haven for local and international drug syndicates. Nigerian syndicates also operate in other South Eastern countries in conjunction with local criminals.

Zaccheaus has himself claimed that in the last few days he has been to Cox's Bazaar and Comilla. Cox's Bazaar lies near Teknaf, the main border town with Myanmar, which is the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan. Comilla lies in close proximity to the border with Tripura, the gateway to the seven sisters. As mentioned earlier, Nigerian organised groups are very active in the North Eastern states of India. So it would have seemed appropriate that he had good reasons to be in Comilla or Cox's Bazaar for his 'business' purposes.

However, there is one setback in this initial testimony. In Bangladesh, foreigners are a rare sight, especially in the countryside, and they attract a lot of attention from curious onlookers, many of whom have never seen an outsider in their life. Consider the fact that this particular foreigner is a drug trafficker and it would be literally impossible for him to be involved in underhanded dealings in most places in Bangladesh without attracting the undue attention of hundreds of locals. “He is definitely not telling us the truth. By stating Comilla and Cox's Bazaar as the places he last visited, he is only trying to misdirect the investigation and cover up the point in Dhaka from where he actually receives the supplies,” says Shahidul Mannaf Kabir. “We shall hopefully get to the bottom of the whole affair once he is placed on remand.” The magistrate court granted three days remand on August 3.

A law enforcement official specialising in Narcotics expresses similar views. “The Nigerians cannot operate clandestinely unless they are in the posh areas of Banani and Gulshan where the sight of foreigners are more common and they can mix among their own people,” he says. The official requesting anonymity also expressed disappointment concerning the immigration system of Bangladesh.

“The airport is operated by 18 different agencies. There is little co-ordination between the different agencies. As far as the Immigration Police is concerned, they can only check the passports, make sure they are not forged and then authorise the traveller. They cannot open the baggage, which is done by the Customs officials. The Customs officials have played little role in stopping the flow of drugs from the international airports,” says the official. “Most custom officials are more occupied with other affairs from where they can derive an income.” He, however, praised the efforts of the official who had detected the white powder but maintained that such people were a rarity. “The system needs an overhaul. Bangladesh has long been a transit point for trafficking drugs to other countries and the vast majority of the consignments pass through the international airports, especially the one in Dhaka.”

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