From a smugglers’ paradise comes hell

David Kline November 8 1982

From a smugglers’ paradise comes hell

David Kline November 8 1982

From a smugglers’ paradise comes hell


David Kline

Fierce looking men on horseback, rifles slung across their backs, saunter up and down the hot, dusty scar that is the main street of Landi Kotal, Pakistan.

Looking up from their work, the blacksmith, druggist, iceman and dry-goods merchant stare out suspiciously from their hole-in-thewall shops, as if waiting for something to happen. Across the street still more armed men sit on their haunches on the second-storey veranda of the town’s only hotel, muttering and spitting into the street below.

At first glance this scene could be the set of a Hollywood western.

A sense of place returns, however, at the sight of the camels, donkey carts and brightly colored, passenger-stuffed buses chugging up and down the street, avoiding each other only by nerve-tearing inches. And a sense of time is restored by the screeching cacophony of rusty metal, impatient taxi horns and angry men and animals which boils up in the air like the suffocating 43 C heat itself. But probably the most striking images missing in this Moslemized Dodge City are saloons and ten-gallon hats—Moslems do not drink (at least publicly), and the locals hereabouts usually wear turbans.

Landi Kotal, sitting at the very top of the legendary Khyber Pass in the no man’s land between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been a smugglers’ town for more than 2,000 years. Anything, from exquisite handmade copies of almost every fighting gun in the world to equally exquisite qualities of hashish, is bought and sold here. Wild and sometimes dangerous, Landi Kotal is a place without formal laws, without courts, without police of any sort. Men’s actions are governed only by two instincts: Pushtunwali, the violent code of honor of the Pathan tribesmen, and the search

for profit. Women’s actions are governed by men. It is a clear-cut way of life.

Until recently, few people paid attention to what happened here as long as too many people did not die from it.

The makeshift lab produces about eight tonnes of heroin annually -twice the yearly consumption of Europe

Now this has changed, and suddenly Landi Kotal is the subject of intense concern in Ottawa, Washington, London, Bonn, Rotterdam and Rome. For Landi Kotal, and the whole tribal belt of Pakistan of which it is the unofficial capital, has become the chief supplier of heroin to the entire world. Indeed, somewhere between 55 and 70 per cent of all the heroin coming into North

America, and as much as 90 per cent of the narcotics smuggled into Europe and Great Britain this year, will come from Southwest Asia, and that usually means Pakistan. Heroin seizures in Pakistan have reached a staggering 850 kilos so far this year, almost 10 times the amount seized in Pakistan the year before. A further indication of the trend: in the five - year period from 1974 to 1979 only 28 kilos of heroin were confiscated by police or drug enforcement agents.

So alarmed are officials worldwide at the sudden explosion of Khyber heroin production that a co-ordinated effort is now being or¡2 ganized to slow or stop I the traffic. The U.S. £ Drug Enforcement Ad9 ministration (DEA) has I doubled its staff in 1 Pakistan in the past 12 * months, and British customs agents have begun training their Pakistani counterparts in antismuggling tactics. Explains Doug Wankel, the chief DEA agent in Pakistan: “The heroin problem is far eclipsing anything we have seen before in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia or in Turkey. The labs here are operating openly and freely in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and we’re lucky if we catch five or 10 per cent of it before it reaches Europe and the United States. Most people are simply not aware of the immensity of the narcotics problem here.”

Wankel and most other experts trace the explosion of trafficking to the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Before that, most of the opium produced in both Pakistan and Afghanistan was sent to Iran to supply the estimated one million addicts there (out of a total population of 38 million). With the internal turmoil and breakdown of law and order in Iran that followed the revolution, however, domestic Iranian production soared. The door to the Iranian market was then shut even tighter by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a

year later, which blocked some of the traditional smuggling routes through Afghanistan.

What to do with all the opium stockpiling in Pakistan thus posed a major problem for smugglers by mid-1979. An estimated 800 tonnes of opium was produced in Pakistan alone that year—a third more than was ever produced in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. In addition, several hundred more tonnes had probably been grown in Afghanistan and moved east for handling, over the border into the tribal area of Northwest Pakistan.

With their traditional markets closed and stockpiles overflowing, the relatively unsophisticated tribal traffickers decided to move into the Western market. But here there was a problem: opium is not a drug of choice in the West, as it is in the East, and addicts prefer the more potent heroin that is refined from opium. So, drug officials now speculate, a few Southeast Asian chemists were imported in late 1979 to teach the simple conversion process to tribal entrepreneurs. Soon, a network of primitive “bathtub” laboratories had sprung up throughout Northwest Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Ravi Jan (not his real name) is one of the Afridi Pathan tribesmen who made it all happen and he wonders what the fuss is about. A heavyset man in his early 40s, Ravi Jan speaks in the way of most of his Afridi tribal brethren: vociferously and with much arm-waving. “People want it and they pay well, my friend. So I make it,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders and a toss of his open palms. Scratching his unshaven face, Ravi Jan adds: “I must take care of my family, which is very large. This is accepted by my people.” He is only

dimly aware that others, outsiders not from the tribal areas, regard his trade as illegal and immoral.

Whatever slight trepidation he might have about his trade is outweighed by the pride Ravi Jan feels in his accomplishments. He therefore gladly shows off his bathtub heroin laboratory on the outskirts of town. Inside a four-metrehigh mud-walled compound containing several tribal homes, Ravi Jan gives a tour of the courtyard housing the laboratory. It contains three neat rows of buckets filled with a heated water-andopium solution mixed with lime. Every three days or so the morphine sulphate base residue of each bucket is drained off. When mixed with a hydrochloride compound, the base from each bucket will produce approximately 2 lá kilos of pure heroin. Ravi Jan and his friends have 28 buckets of opium. That means that this makeshift laboratory produces about 140 kilos of pure heroin a week if running full time, or about eight tonnes of heroin annually—twice the entire annual heroin consumption of the United States or of Europe. Ravi Jan’s laboratory is just one of two dozen or so major operations in the tribal area and not even the biggest one at that.

Inside the compound half a dozen young men and boys, most of them relatives of Ravi Jan, work in the stifling heat. They pour opium liquid into a dozen buckets here, filter the leached residue out of a dozen others there, and mix the morphine base from the second set of buckets with a hydrochloride—in wheelbarrows, using shovels. The scene presents an incongruity as immense as the rugged mountains that rise up in the distance behind the laboratory compound: an old man is kneeling on a rug

in the corner of the compound, pressing his forehead to the ground, praying to his God; beside him lie seven straw mats, each containing about five kilos of pure injectable heroin.

For Ravi Jan, an illiterate trying to survive in a tribal milieu in which the average life expectancy is 39 years and the per capita annual income hovers at about $185, the brownish-white heroin powder means a better life. Indeed, some of these tribal operators have become absurdly wealthy, although this is not apparent from their dress or their living conditions.(How many color TVs can one put in a mud hut in the mountains?) There is simply no way for Ravi Jan to see—or seeing, care—that his simple enterprise leads in a twisted but * discernible line all the way to some excrement-filled tenement basement in New York or Montreal, where some young kid lies crumpled on a heap of rags, eyes glazed in passive wonder at the fate that left him dying there with a filthy needle dangling from his arm.

Even for those traffickers who do have some sense that their handiwork sustains entire armies of walking wounded roaming the major capitals of the West, they must balance that realization against the overwhelming profits involved. Ravi Jan probably pays $40 or $50 per kilo to the grower of raw opium, and out of 12 kilos or so he nets one kilo of pure heroin. If it is injectable rather than simply smoking grade, he will sell it for about $7,000 or less in multiple-kilo lots.

While Ravi Jan thus makes a profit— he surely could not earn this much in any other endeavor—the really big money is reserved in geometric incre-

ments farther down the Khyber trail to the West. The same kilo of pure heroin that Ravi Jan sold for $7,000 will wholesale a week or so later in Europe for $75,000; in the United States, again wholesale, it will fetch nearly $200,000. Distributors in the West then dilute the pure heroin to a powder, barely threeto five-per-cent pure, that sells in halfgram packets for $30 or $40 each. In the end, Ravi Jan’s $7,000 kilo of heroin— which cost him maybe $500 to produce-nets about $2.2 million on the street.

The traffic is not going to be easily slowed. To be sure, Pakistani authorities have made progress in weaning farmers in some areas off opium cultivation. However, a cut in Pakistani production from 800 to 400 or even 200 tonnes, as has sometimes been claimed by authorities here, does not solve the problem: it only takes about 48 tonnes of the stuff to supply all of the addicts in the United States with enough heroin for one year. And programs for Pakistani opium farmers have no effect on growers in Afghanistan, who supply the tribal areas with several hundred more tonnes each year for conversion to heroin.

More useful than any decline in poppy production would be a halt to its conversion to heroin. The conversion process, however, takes place entirely in the tri-

bal areas, which are off limits to army, police or law enforcement personnel, except in certain designated outposts or forts established by treaty with the various Pathan tribes. They traditionally view any interference in their internal affairs as a threat to their sovereignty and, potentially, as an act of war.

This was demonstrated quite clearly last March when a freelance narcotics agent, working for the DEA’s Doug

Wankel, located a major heroin laboratory on the main street in the Pakistani town of Darra, about 160 km south of Landi Kotal. When drug agents moved in, thousands of tribesmen massed and armed themselves in response to calls from the local tribal elders who warned that, if they allowed the troops to come onto their land to arrest smugglers today, tomorrow soldiers would come to take away all their rights. A tense

three-day standoff ensued between heavily armed tribesmen and an elite force of Pakistani Frontier Scouts, backed by armor and artillery. In the end, after a few minor skirmishes, the government forces retreated. The lab was merely relocated down the street.

Since the Darra incident there have been a few minor raids on the tribal areas. But officials fear that any major offensive against the heroin trade could alienate the tribes from the Pakistani central government in Islamabad and perhaps even precipitate a generalized tribal war in the border areas. Only the Soviets, currently bogged down by the tribes’ attentions in Afghanistan, could benefit from such a conflict.

The only other means of slowing the traffic is to seal the export points—first those leading out of the tribal areas and then those out of Pakistan. Not far from Landi Kotal this reporter witnessed one seizure made by customs agents from two trucks carrying, in secret cavities, more than 110 kilos of pure heroin and several thousand kilos of opium and hashish. Looking very proud standing next to the catch, the chief customs agent claimed that “after a fierce gun battle, the smugglers escaped.” Oddly, this is the same story always given after customs seizures—that the smugglers “escaped.” Observers close to the scene claim that smugglers, more often than not, buy off the police and customs agents, paying at most a “toll” to keep everyone happy. With the average salary of a customs officer barely more than $100 a month, it is no surprise that local law enforcement would be influenced by the sort of superprofits generated in the Khyber heroin traffic. Explains Jehangir Khan, the Northwest Frontier Province chief of customs: “Yes, there is corruption. Ours is a poor country, and the smugglers have a lot of money.”

On top of that, it should not be forgotten that this area contains some of the most rugged, least regulated frontier in the world. In the words of one U.S. diplomat in Pakistan, “If the Russians cannot control these frontiers with their 100,000 soldiers, how the hell can the Pakistanis?” In any case, law enforcers feel that the only surefire way of stopping narcotics trafficking is to do so at its source—in this case, the Pakistani tribal areas.

So, while officials ponder their next move, men such as Ravi Jan continue to manufacture Khyber heroin in everincreasing, ever-profitable quantities. Though Ravi Jan cares not a whit for any others, one would think that even he must find it strange that what starts out as an innocent, even beautiful, redand-white poppy could, in the end, lead to such riches for some and such disaster for others.