Indian police officers escort alleged heroin smugglers, both masked, during a press conference in Amritsar, Punjab. Photo: AFP/Narinder Nanu

Following the shutdown of other traditional routes, Pakistan-based drug cartels are using the coastline of India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, to traffic drugs to Europe, the United States and Canada.

Even as the two neighbors’ diplomatic relations plummet over Kashmir’s loss of special status, they’re fighting a drug war.

Since July last year, 2,200 kilograms of heroin, worth more than 60 billion rupees and belonging to Pakistan and Afghanistan-based drug cartels, have been seized by Indian agencies. Indian officials suspect the cartels have terror-funding links and believe they are facilitated by elements of the Pakistan government.

A senior officer of the Narcotics Control Bureau who was involved in the investigation that led to these seizures, said the drug had been processed in Pakistan. “Opium from Afghanistan is taken to Pakistan, processed into heroin and brought to Gwadar and other ports to be taken up to international waters in speed boats or other vessels,” he said.

“The money from this trade is used for terror activities and even the army and intelligence agencies of Pakistan take a share from it,” he continued. “All seizures on Indian borders, sea and land, are directly or indirectly connected to Pakistan.”

Given its 1,600-kilometer coastline, dotted with hundreds of unmanned jetties, Gujarat has become an easy entry point for Pakistani drug cartels.

Himanshu Shukla, superintendent of police in the Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad, said: “Due to tightening of the noose by international authorities including the American Navy on the other traditional drug trafficking sea routes including the one around Iran, Gujarat has now become [the drug traffickers’] favorite.”

The Pakistani cartels and their Iranian and West African counterparts used routes including the Gulf of Oman to reach  Europe. Increased vigilance by the combined maritime task forces of the west, including the United States and Australia, has made it difficult for drug cartels in the “Golden Crescent” (the top drug-producing region in Asia, overlapping Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) to use the traditional routes. Thus the Pakistani cartels are looking to India.

Drug seizures

With security tightening around this new drug frontier, the Border Security Force (BSF) found packets of heroin worth 500 million rupees on four consecutive days after June 1 in the marshy creek area of Gujarat’s Kutch district, which borders Pakistan.

A recent major success for the Coast Guard involved the interception on May 23 of a Pakistani vessel called Al Madina with a crew of six off Gujarat’s Jakhau, close to the international maritime boundary line. The Coast Guard recovered more than 200 kilograms of various narcotic drugs even after some had been dumped into the water by the crew. The Pakistani sailing master told investigators that they had carried about 330 kilograms of drugs into Indian territorial waters, said an official from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, which has been involved in the drug cartel investigations.

The same vessel had earlier made a similar journey without getting caught. It had departed from Mahadi port in Balochistan on May 10 and, delayed by bad weather, reached India two days later. However, the recipient failed to show up and after waiting for two days, on the directions of the Pakistani handler, Al Madina returned to Pakistan and the crew hid the 330 kilograms of heroin at Petiyani Creek.

They again sailed to India from Ibrahim Haidari Port in Karachi on May 18, with an almost new crew and the previously hidden consignment. But this time, they were nabbed by the Indian Coast Guard.

A month earlier, the Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad seized five kilograms of methamphetamine worth 240 million rupees from a house in the Paharganj area of Delhi. The police had been tipped off by two people – Mohammed Abdul Salaam Kunni from the southern Indian state Kerala and Niyamat Khan Ahmedzai from Logar Province in Afghanistan.

The two had been caught in connection with the seizure of about 100 kilograms of heroin, worth five billion rupees, from a burning boat off Porbandar coast on March 26. An ATS official said the drug consignment had been brought from Pakistan by nine Iranian smugglers who were on board and were taken into custody.

Bumper crop

Since July last year, Indian authorities have frequently seized drugs off the Gujarat coast from boats coming from Pakistani ports.

In a key narco-terrorism case, investigators learned in August last year that more than 300 kilograms of heroin worth more than five billion rupees were being transported from Gujarat to Punjab in trucks laden with cumin seeds. Five people were arrested in connection with the smuggling and the racket was busted.

But even after so many arrests, Simranjjeet Singh Sandhu – who is alleged to be the main link between the Indian smugglers and the Pakistan-based cartel and is also suspected of having terror links – is still at large. Gujarat ATS chief Shukla said the police had definite information about terror links in the case.

In October last year, the Gujarat ATS arrested another key accused – Manzoor Ahmed Mir, a native of Badgam in Kashmir, who allegedly had links with terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Mir is alleged to be a primary fund conduit in the case. The ATS claimed that proceeds from the sale of the heroin were being used to fund terror activities of JeM in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Another arrested smuggler, Aziz Bhaghadh, told investigators that the drugs had been smuggled from Pakistan via Dubai sea route to Mandvi in Kutch district of Gujarat and then sent onward to Punjab.

The biggest drug haul off the Gujarat coast was in July last year when the Coast Guard seized 1,500 kilograms of heroin worth around 45 billion rupees from an old foreign merchant vessel that was being brought to Alang ship-breaking yard. The heroin was concealed in a horizontal pipe on the top of the vessel. An NCB official said the heroin on the ship was from Pakistan.

The NCB official also said that drugs were also being smuggled from Bandar Abbas port in South Iran along with petroleum fuel illegally sent out of the country in the wake of the international sanctions against the country.

To make matters worse, a bumper opium crop harvest of around 10,000 tons in Afghanistan this year, the highest in recent times, has contributed to the surge in smuggling cases. “We only know about the larger seizures,” said the NCB official. “If a fisherman brings five kilograms of heroin along with 500 kilograms of fish in his boat, it is very difficult to catch him. Despite the presence of the Coast Guard and Navy, it is not possible to track all the boats, especially Indian fishing boats.”

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