By Asiri Fernando/The Sunday Morning
Colombo, January 8: Over the last three years, the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), working with multiple law enforcement agencies, has intercepted more than 12 foreign vessels that were involved in trafficking narcotics to Sri Lanka, with the latest detected on Thursday (5).
However, with a number of successful intercepts at sea by the SLN since 2012, the traffickers are also changing their tactics trying to stay ahead of the authorities, The Sunday Morning learns.
Over the last two weeks, The Sunday Morning reported on the challenges faced by Police, Navy, and Air Force in intercepting narcotics from coming ashore to the island. Part of the problem with preventing narcotics coming ashore is poor policies and funding prioritisation by the Ministries of Defence and Public Security since 2010.
According to a senior intelligence official, narcotics traffickers who use the ‘Southern Route’ to move drugs from Afghanistan to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, have begun to change their tactics following a number of intercepts by the Sri Lanka Navy; they are also using geography and technology to their advantage to stay ahead of the authorities.
“After a number of interceptions, the traffickers are changing their tactics. Firstly, during recent shipments, the crews have been instructed to throw the narcotics overboard to prevent the boarding teams (Navy/Police) from taking it as evidence. Without evidence, Sri Lanka as a state cannot hold the crew and the vessel. This is something the South American drug traffickers have been doing for some time. No evidence means no prosecution. This is one reason we need modern air and naval surveillance technology to record them throwing the evidence overboard and to recover some for prosecutorial use,” the intelligence officer said, speaking on terms of anonymity.
According to him, the traffickers have also shifted their drop-off/exchange locations far south of the Maldives than before to avoid SLN patrols.
“Sometimes, they venture near the equator or mingle with a deep-sea fishing fleet in that vicinity, catching fish to maintain their legitimate cover of being there. This has pushed the SLN to stretch its resources further, as very few countries patrol the massive Maldivian archipelago area and the high seas around it,“ he said, adding that several such ‘dhows’ which had been intercepted in the past year had dumped their cargo when they had sighted the warship and had been let go due to the lack of evidence.
Further, The Sunday Morning reliably learns that some trafficking networks have begun to use the many isolated and uninhabited islands in the Maldivian archipelago as ‘drop points’ for narcotics. With a consignment buried ashore, the GPS coordinates of the location are only shared with the Sri Lankan fishing vessel which comes to pick up the narcotics later on.
“This enables the trafficking mothership to leave the area and avoid capture even if the SLN intercepts the local multi-day fishing boat. There have been a few times when they have used waterproof GPS emitters as marker buoys for Sri Lankan boats to home in on and pick up. Clearly the networks are ahead in the technology field and are trying to use them to avoid arrest and reduce loss,” the intelligence officer said, noting that such tactics, if not quickly countered, would lead to the Police and SLN using up limited resources and increasing the cost of keeping drugs out of the country.
According to a retired Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) detective that The Sunday Morning spoke to, there are a number of trafficking networks supplying to Sri Lanka that are operational at present, many of which are run by suspected kingpins who live overseas, with Dubai, India, and Europe being hotspots for the traffickers.
Key amongst them are (most are known by their nom de guerre) Kosgoda Sujee (Dubai), Rathmalane Anju (France), Kudu Lal (the UK), Kirulapone Annasi Morile (Dubai), Harak Kata – Chinthaka Wickramaratne (Dubai), Battaramulle Sanju (Dubai), Pitigala Kalum (Dubai), Rathgama Vidura (East European country), and Panadura Salindu (Dubai).
According to the retired PNB officer, many of the abovementioned organised crime networks work with a handful of Pakistani drug barons who arrange heroin and methamphetamine consignments via the Afghan/Iran/Pakistan supply corridor, that are then trafficked by unflagged fishing vessels from the Makran coast off Pakistan and Iran towards the Maldivian archipelago, Sri Lanka, and even beyond toward Indonesia.
“They communicate mostly via satellite phones, which are easily bought from commercial vendors in the Middle East. Most of the time, such phones and related numbers (SIMs) are only used for one shipment. They also communicate and coordinate over online encrypted communications apps. From a policing point of view, we are behind the curve in technology to intercept or monitor such networking.
“Also, one key area that’s largely ignored is how the networks pay for the narcotics consignments and share profits among stakeholders. We suspect that Sri Lanka’s unregulated money changing hawala systems are used to make payments. They have little or no paper trail; even the electronic trail is very difficult to trace and harder to prove. We need to improve our digital and financial forensic capabilities to be in line with international standards. I think organisations like Interpol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) can help us with such forensic capacity building,” the PNB officer explained, speaking on terms of anonymity.
Weak prosecutorial practice?
Reports of the recent escape of notorious organised crime figure and suspected drug kingpin Mohamed Najim Mohamed Imran alias ‘Kanjipani’ Imran to India by boat a day after he was granted bail and issued a travel ban has law enforcement agencies and the security establishment at a loss.
How such a high-profile alleged narcotics trafficker and murderer got bail and why he was not prevented from escaping Sri Lankan jurisdiction are questions which shine a spotlight on the efficiency and professionalism of the Sri Lankan Police, Intelligence, and the Attorney General’s Department.
Several attempts made by The Sunday Morning to contact the Attorney General’s Department and the Ministry of Justice regarding the debacle failed.
However, the retired PNB officer who spoke to The Sunday Morning questioned why Imran, who had an extensive list of charges, had been brought before a magistrate on a lesser charge which offered the possibility of bail.
“What are the people at the AG’s Department doing? Didn’t they know that this was a bailable offence? Why didn’t they bring the other charges before the magistrate too? We have seen too many high-profile crime figures getting off on technicalities which the AG’s Department should have screened before it filed charges to take the suspects before the courts. Are you telling me that the AG’s Department doesn’t know what it is doing? All drug suspects have the best defence lawyers money can retain. The AG’s Department needs to pull up its socks and do a proper job,” he said, calling for an independent review of the AG’s Department.
Further, the former PNB detective pointed out that the Foreign Ministry had been dragging its feet on ratifying an extradition treaty with the UAE, when the Sri Lanka Police issued an Interpol Red Warrant on a suspected crime boss known by his alias ‘Harak Kata’ last year.
“Harak Kata’s legal team, half a dozen lawyers led by a President’s Counsel, rushed to Dubai to ensure he was not extradited. But by the time the Foreign Ministry moved to get the extradition papers sorted, he was released in Dubai. It seems our own Government apparatus is working against us,” he opined.
“We know they were sitting on several case files regarding the extremists who eventually carried out the Easter Sunday attacks. Have they been held responsible for that?” the retired officer questioned.
How to identify drug use and seek help
Early identification of narcotics users aids in them getting the help they need to prevent addiction or overcome a dependency to such substances.
Given the current public outcry regarding a suspected uptick in narcotics use by the student community, especially among the teenage, school-going population, awareness on how to identify at-risk students, children, and friends and how to help them is gaining importance.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning, National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB) Assistant Director of Preventive Education and Training Pradeep Koholanegedara blamed some segments of the broadcast media and commentators on social media for glamorising the use of narcotics and creating a hype around a particular variation of methamphetamines, better known by its street names ‘ice’ or ‘crystal’.
Koholanegedara reiterated the NDDCB’s stance that while the increase in the proliferation of methamphetamines was a concern, there wasn’t adequate evidence at present (5 January) to support the theory that students were using or abusing ‘ice’ on the scales some would have people believe.
According to NDDCB Psychological Counselor Kalhari Rajapaksha, a young person who is at risk of using narcotics will display behavioural changes and at times also show physical changes.
“A parent, sibling, or a teacher can identify students at risk of narcotics abuse or use if they show sudden changes in their behaviour, eating patterns, sleeping patterns, how they dress, and how they communicate. A drug user or a student experimenting with narcotics may change who they associate with in school and outside; they may move away from some friends and find new company. Their education and sports performance may see a decline.
“If children start to show such changes, they may be going through some social/personal crisis or may be experimenting with narcotics. What’s important is to recognise change and find out why. Young children have a lot of pressures to deal with, like peer pressure and desire to fit in,” Rajapaksha said, adding that misinformation about the use of narcotics leading to better memory retention and aiding in the prevention of procrastination of studies was spreading among the student community, prompting some students to experiment with narcotic substances.
Rajapaksha pointed out that many Government schools where there were more than 500 students were required to have a designated counsellor and such a resource person could be a first stop for concerned teachers and parents to talk to the student concerned and open a dialogue on what was troubling them. Further, Rajapaksha stated that the NDDCB had a network of trained counsellors who could help anyone who was in need of assistance.
“Each Divisional Secretariat office also has a trained counsellor attached to it; parents, concerned parties, or the at-risk students themselves can reach out to such officials for assistance. The Social Services Department and the Department of Women and Children also have similar resource personnel. The public health system also has psychologists who are able to help,” Rajapaksha told The Sunday Morning, urging teachers, parents, or friends of students who are at risk of narcotics use and abuse to call the NDDCB hotline to seek assistance.
The NDDCB also operates a number of rehabilitation programmes for youth who have substance abuse issues.