Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a new trade route for drugs of a different kind has emerged, baffling India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). Sourced from Africa, smuggled into South India and then shipped North – this is the latest channel for the illegal trafficking of heroin in India.
The NCB and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) have found that heroin loads have been landing at airports in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana. Heroin – popularly known as smack – is consumed intravenously and sniffed in powder form. The destination for much of this heroin is reportedly New Delhi, where consumers wait in line.
Here’s an inside look at India's South-North Heroin route, its drug mules, and its consumer market.
States That Raked in Heroin
On 21 June, a Tanzanian citizen arrived in Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi international Airport, carrying a trolley bag. DRI officials intercepted him based on specific information about the arrival of heroin in the city.
Officials found three kilograms of heroin powder stashed in the base of his trolley-bag. The man had travelled from Johannesburg to Doha and then Hyderabad. The seized drugs were worth Rs 19.5 crore.
In neighbouring Kerala another arrest was made on 19 June 2021. NCB’s Kochi sub-zonal unit apprehended a Zimbabwean woman named Sharon Chigwaza, at Cochin international airport.
She was carrying 2.9 kilogram of heroin, again in a specially made trolley bag with a false bottom.
Just two weeks before this arrest, on 5 June, a Ugandan woman passenger was apprehended at Hyderabad airport on her arrival. She too had taken the route from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, Doha and Hyderabad. She too was carrying a substantial quantity of heroin in her checked-in baggage.
Later, on 6 June, another woman passenger from Zambia who had taken the same route to Hyderabad, was apprehended and heroin was seized from her baggage.
In total, the two passengers who were apprehended in the first week of June had carried 12 kilogram of heroin worth Rs 78 crore.
Similar arrests were made in Bengaluru and Chennai international airports where 25 kilogram of heroin worth Rs 100 crore was seized. Four Tanzanian nationals were arrested in these cases.
From the arrests, a new drug route emerged. The heroin was flowing from African countries to Indian states in the south. In total, the heroin seized between May and June from the southern states is worth Rs 215.5 crore.
Why a South to North India Passage?
The origin of the illicit drug remains the golden crescent – the south-west Asian countries of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan – where most of the world's poppy is grown, from which opium, and then heroin, is produced.
The NCB, in a formal statement, said, “Over the last one year, NCB has identified an unusual pattern of trafficking of heroin produced in South West Asian countries… Heroin from south-west Asian countries is being trafficked into African countries including South Africa, from where it is again trafficked to India by human air couriers”.
NCB further clarified that the route from Africa was further explored because the continent was never the source of heroin that reaches India. As there are many drug traffickers of African origin who travel to India, the route needs special attention, officials said.
Talking to The Quint, sources in the Department of Revenue Intelligence confirmed the existence of a drug-route to Delhi. “There is very little consumption of heroin in the southern states. The drugs were slated to be transported to Delhi after arrival in these states,” a DRI official spoke on the condition of anonymity. Upon arrival in the south, the drugs could be transported either by air, road or rail, the official said.
“In the south, consumption of cocaine is high where as in the north the consumption of heroin is staple. We are exploring the possibility of intra-country transportation of the drug from the southern states to north India,” the source explained.
Usually, the drug flow for heroin has been through Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, smuggled in from Pakistan. “Due to increased vigilance by India’s border forces, especially the BSF, along the Indo-Pak border, it has become increasingly tough for drug traffickers to push heroin into India using this route," a DRI statement read.
DRI authorities, however, declined to comment on the south-north trafficking route. This report will be updated when they respond.
Women Drug Mules, Suspicious Checked-in Baggage
Among natives of African countries who were caught while transporting the drug, a good number are women. For instance, four out of seven people apprehended for heroin smuggling recently were women. According to DRI sources, most of these women were between 25 - 30 years old. In Bengaluru, a Tanzanian married couple, including a 30-year-old woman, was arrested.
From false bottoms in suitcases to hollow pipes that contain the contraband, the traffickers use different methods of transportation. A DRI source said, “Off late those there were no arrests of people who had hidden drugs in their body cavities”.
According to sources, apart from Delhi, the drugs could have also been headed for Mumbai. “There is a market for heroin in Mumbai, but maybe not as much as Delhi,” the DRI official said.
All those apprehended were booked under provisions of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act-1985.
The Delhi Market
Once brought into India, the drugs are sold through peddlers, many of whom get caught by the local police. Drug peddling is a male dominated trade. Most peddlers are Indian, who reach out to trusted customers.
In the recent heroin busts, peddlers from African countries too were caught, DRI sources said. “What we need to identify is the source and the destination. In such cases, these are difficult to identity,” a source said.
In most cases, small fish get caught in the net, such as peddlers and "drug mules", even as the big drug overlords do not get apprehended. “Most arrests are made on specific intelligence received about trafficking. We are gathering intelligence,” the DRI source said.