68.59 billion dollars. That’s the valuation of India’s vice market, a figure you’re unlikely to see being flashed across scores of our business news debates and reportage. While the trafficking of drugs is said to be valued at $3.3 billion in India, the numbers seldom point out the extent to which narcotics have pervaded the daily life of millions of Indians. A DNA sting in 2014 found that one could procure drugs like cocaine, marijuana and heroin almost as easily as vegetables in Mumbai, while the city topped Drug Trafficking in 2012 with 1,512 cases being registered. If the recent concerns over drugs like Meow Meow and the sustained campaign against it had put the spotlight back on the evolving drug use in the country, the startling increase in cocaine use is likely to be India’s next grave concern.
For the uninitiated, cocaine, also known as coke or crack, is made from coca leaves grown primarily in South American countries of Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia though its use is widespread enough that the trade has multiple export and import points across the world. Considered to be one of the most deadly recreational drugs, largely due to its addictive nature, cocaine has traditionally been smuggled into India by West African drug traffickers. However, drug cartels from South American countries still exert maximum influence on the world’s drug trade, regardless of direct involvement. Pablo Escobar, the wealthiest outlaw in history with a net worth of $30 billion controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine trade at the height of his power and though the infrastructure of cartels, which was setup by Escobar and Carlos Lehder, crumbled after their death and arrest, it played no role in denting Colombia’s significance in the drug trade, with a $10 billion drug industry and an annual export of 309 tonnes of the purest forms of coke.
But if the Breaking Bad loving Indian youth thought that the show would be his/her only brush with the cartel, they might be in for something of a surprise.
Bangladeshi officials seized Asia’s largest known shipment of cocaine at the Chittagong port in late June of this year. The shipment of 107 barrels, marked as Bolivian sunflower oil, arrived from Uruguay on May 8 after which it was seized, and subsequent testing proved that the barrels contained cocaine. The correspondence that they recovered revealed that the ship was headed for ‘any port in India’.
The police officials initially told VICE that the ports of India, Myanmar and Thailand were often used to send the drugs to their final destination in America or Europe, thereby hiding its true origins from South America. But new evidence suggests that this might not be a simple case of just using Indian ports as decoys.
“Latin American drug trafficking organisations, those who are well structured, are now looking for new markets, particularly for their cocaine and methamphetamine production. Asia is that market nowadays,” Antonio Mazzitelli, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime told the Guardian, as Indian and foreign officials reported that a higher than usual amounts of high-purity cocaine had been seized with multi-kilo hauls turning up even in Kathmandu.
“A large chunk of the cocaine that is brought into India is from Colombia, but the suppliers usually use nationals from African countries to smuggle in the drug,” said Prem Anand Sinha, zonal director for the Narcotics Control Bureau in Chennai, highlighting the trend of West African nationals acting as mules to traffic drugs into India. This is perhaps the reason why some of the drug arrests in the past few months have an unfamiliar pattern in them.
A 64-year-old Peruvian national was arrested at Delhi’s IGI Airport in April of this year with 1.3 kg of pure Colombian cocaine, which when spiked with other substances like Sodium Bicarbonate, would have been available for more than Rs. 70 crores amidst Delhi’s users. The police’s probe revealed that the trafficker was a part of the Bolivian cartel in what was one of the largest and the first ever pure quality consignments of the drug. However, the arrest of Colombian National Edwin Enrique in June, with 2.35 kgs might be the surest sign of the Cartel’s latest ventures in India.
Enrique was arrested in Chennai with 200 markers pens, each of which were stuffed with 10 grams of cocaine, collectively said to be worth Rs. 5 crores internationally. “We are pretty confident that the drugs we seized in Chennai were actually meant for other major cities, such as Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai,” said Prem Anand Sinha after the arrest, as years of speculation within the anti-narcotic circles came true - the Cartel was officially thriving in India. Or at least, it was trying to.
The powerful cartel, who would even go to the extent of using submarines and human mules to transport their drugs, had now deployed nationals from South America to deploy these drugs specifically in India. The NCB states that the cartels are known to divert their consignments into smaller quantities through multiple points of entry, which reach one centre from where the drugs are distributed. But a looming threat of the drug cartels is not a new one.
A 2006 seizure of 200 kgs of cocaine at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust revealed the massive extent to which the cartels were exporting their products to India. But the real question is, why?
Affluence Drives Supply
“These gangs have shifted their focus following crackdowns in their traditional domain of the Americas. Europe had also become saturated, resulting in drug cartels looking for new markets much more urgently,” an officer with the Mumbai branch of Narcotics Control Bureau told Hindustan Times in 2013. “India, particularly Mumbai and Delhi, make for ideal targets, given the growing disposable incomes here and the growing popularity of high-end drugs such as cocaine, despite the retail price of Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 a gram,” added the officer.
The most widely reported cases involving cocaine have been the arrests of actor Fardeen Khan and the near fatal death of Rahul Mahajan, son of politician Pramod Mahajan, with the recent arrest of the CEO of a digital publishing firm cementing an image of the drug’s affluent user base. “There are an estimated 2 lakh cocaine users in Mumbai, most of them affluent people and frequent users. Cocaine has become the way for people to announce ‘We’ve arrived’,” said Dr. Yusuf Merchant, psychiatrist and President of UN-affiliated Drug Abuse Information Rehabilitation and Research Centre. While this quote might be up for debate, the disposable income in the hands of a generation who are also going through an experimental phase of sorts could be just the environment the cartel needs to thrive in.
The price range for the drug, based on its purity, can be anywhere between Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 20,000 per gram, with the sources of buying including the internet and home delivery by couriers in Mercedes. While the number of cases have seen a dip, the amount seized has seen a steady rise each year.
A state-wise breakdown of cocaine seizures made in 2013 showed Maharashtra leading the pack with 21.24 kgs, followed by New Delhi with 20.37 kgs.
The brutality and long-standing influence of the cartels in their respective countries saw violent and tumultuous years, which derailed economic and social growth. They were able to create a complicit setup within existing governments, with Pablo Escobar even elected to the Colombian Congress. A wider role for them in a country like India spells a more foreboding future than most given the high levels of corruption and violence within our governing bodies itself. Not to mention the potential of turf wars with gangsters such as Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel, who dominate much of India’s underworld and drug trafficking on their own. As far as India is concerned however, South American cartels certainly seem to be taking Scarface’s advice seriously--at least they’re not getting high off their own supply.
Words: Devang Pathak