Colombo, December 31: With renewed interest regarding narcotics abuse by the student community, many have questioned why Sri Lanka has been unable to stem the flow of illicit drugs to the island nation.
As part two of a three-part series, The Sunday Morning will explore Sri Lanka’s contemporary drug abuse issues.
According to the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB), the apex Government agency on the control of narcotics, abuse of narcotics by school children has been an ongoing concern for decades, with the issue coming under the spotlight again, possibly as a result of the reopening of educational institutions after a prolonged closure due to Covid-19-related public health restrictions.
While the broader problem of narcotics abuse is a complex issue which requires a holistic approach, the containment of narcotics – which are trafficked into the island through 1,340 km of coastline – and the need for persistent monitoring of nearly 510,000 sq. km of the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to prevent such pose significant challenges. Today, widespread abuse of narcotics has become a key national security concern, while many have argued that it also needs to be addressed as a public health issue.
Over the last three months, The Sunday Morning has reported about poor prioritisation of funds and lack of effective policies for Sri Lanka’s national security apparatus, which is poorly equipped and underprepared to meet modern and evolving threats to the nation. This, despite continued colossal State expenditure on defence over the last decade.
Ice a concern, but bigger threats persist
According to NDDCB Chairman Shakya Nanayakkara, while the proliferation of synthetic drugs, also known as methamphetamine (‘ice’ being one of the many street names) is a concern, the continued use of ‘gateway narcotics’ remains a significant threat to the schooling population.
“We have not received any tangible evidence yet to support the claim that the abuse of ice or other methamphetamines is prevalent among the student community. Of course, we are concerned about an increase in abuse of narcotics like ice. However, when it comes to the student community, there are other narcotics and gateway drugs like tobacco, marvo, thamel, arecanut products, and tobacco products – ones which are chewed – and cannabis, which are widely used by the student community. Tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis remain the main narcotics abused by students,” Nanayakkara explained.
According to him, the recommencement of ordinary school schedules following prolonged closures may be a contributing factor to the sudden increase in the reported use of narcotics by students. However, Nanayakkara stated that a survey, which would commence this month, would provide a data-based understanding of narcotic use among students, enabling an evidence-led decision process to identify countermeasures.
He urged educators, parents, and students who come across any samples of narcotics found among students or in school to urgently forward such substances through the Police department to the NDDCB for analysis at its laboratories. Nanayakkara added that such information was vital to develop a more informed approach to the spread of narcotics within the school system and to identify the proliferation of methamphetamines such as ice.
Inflows to SL – push factors
According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) findings, opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 32% over the previous year to 233,000 hectares, making the 2022 crop the third largest area under cultivation since monitoring began.
This, in the aftermath of the Taliban regaining power of the country after the rapid disintegration of the US and the EU-backed Government in Kabul, following the abrupt exit of Western nations from the troubled country after a decade.
The UNODC estimates that the 2022 harvest (6,200 tonnes) can be converted into 350 to 380 tonnes of heroin of export quality, at 50-70% purity, even though it is around 10% less than the 2021 harvest due to drought. Further, the UNODC has been reporting about an increase in synthetic drug production and intercepts coming out of the Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos regions.
There are concerns that internal conflicts in the Southeast Asian region, particularly in Myanmar, may be a contributing factor to an uptick in synthetic drug exports, with suspicion that some State and non-State elements are involved in the industrial-scale manufacture of methamphetamine/ice to fund ongoing conflicts.
Challenges for maritime interdiction
Being an island nation, other than cannabis and small quantities of locally-manufactured tobacco and arecanut-based narcotics, most drugs need to be trafficked into the country.
Historically, much of the narcotics that enter the island do so by illegal sea routes via the Indian Ocean, with only a fraction found to be smuggled to access points such as the port, airports, and through the post.
Over the last decade, maritime drug interdiction has been a key method employed by the State to counter trafficking, with the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG), and the Police working together to net dozens of drug shipments. However, the vast expanse of ocean around Sri Lanka makes the efforts challenging.
Over the last seven years, the Sri Lanka Navy has shown some success in intercepting a number of drug trafficking efforts, with nearly 30 foreign vessels (unflagged, unregistered) carrying narcotics, which are then offloaded on to Sri Lankan deep sea fishing trawlers to make the last leg of the journey to the island. Between 2016 and June 2021, the Sri Lanka Navy had intercepted 14 such trafficking attempts. However, between 2020 and early December 2022, 12 such foreign vessels have been intercepted.
Most of the foreign vessels involved in trafficking are suspected Iranian fishing ‘dhows’ (a traditional form of Arabian fishing vessels – mechanised). The UNODC terms the narcotics smuggling route from the Iranian/Pakistani Makran coast to Sri Lanka and beyond (Indonesian archipelago) as the ‘Southern Route’.
The Sunday Morning asked the Sri Lanka Navy and the Air Force about the key challenges they faced when intercepting narcotics shipments to Sri Lanka.
According to SLAF Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana, the main challenge faced by the SLAF in carrying out maritime air operations for drug interception in the area of responsibility covering the EEZ (which is seven times greater than the land of Sri Lanka/furthest point is 200 nm (nautical miles) from Hambantota Port) and the Sri Lanka Flight Information Region (FIR) (which is 27 times greater than the land of Sri Lanka/furthest point is 815 nm from Mattala Airport) is the vast expanse of Sri Lanka’s maritime domain.
“The lack of aerial platforms with long-range endurance to cover this expanse is a main difficulty in respect of maritime air operations. In addition, SLAF is also facing difficulties in maintaining the serviceability of the existing aircraft fleet. Further, the economic crisis has affected the acquisition of new/advanced technologies which are connected with maritime operations. The limited number of serviceable aircraft with the SLAF has adversely affected the frequency of maritime operations, with the lack of spares also aggravating the situation,” Pathirana told The Sunday Morning.
When asked about how the SLAF works with the Sri Lanka Navy to monitor the sea approaches to Sri Lanka in an effective manner, Pathirana stated: “Use of air assets over maritime domain is cost-effective (reach and large area of observation). In the present context, SLAF has initiated joint operations with SLN and SLCG. The information obtained during the maritime air operations are shared with SLN/SLCG. However, several more platforms and UAVs may be required to enhance the effective operations to cover the entire EEZ, for which the cost factor appears as the main constraint of enhancing operations. SLAF also continuously engages in dialogues with regional and other stakeholders with regard to sharing of information and resources to cover the EEZ/FIR.”
Pathirana also said that the SLAF would initiate plans to acquire long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), real-time data links for existing platforms, and long-range maritime patrol aircraft specially for maritime air operations in consultation with the Government and other stakeholders.
The Sri Lanka Navy also echoed the sentiments of the Air Force regarding the vastness of the large sea areas across which they needed to mount surveillance. It includes the territorial sea, contiguous zone, and EZZ, which is 21 times the country’s landmass.
“When considered drug trafficking, surveillance tasks extend to high seas – even more than 1,000 nm from land, as transfer locations/areas (exchange points) that are used by smugglers are far away from the coast,” Navy Commander Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera told The Sunday Morning.
According to Vice Admiral Perera, most maritime crimes around Sri Lanka are carried out with the assistance of local fishermen and those in the fishing community.
“A colossal number of fishing craft engage in both littoral seas and high seas. Therefore, it is a big challenge for the Navy to check each and every vessel at sea. This challenge is aggravated as these vessels don’t have any tracking devices. However, through external assistance, the Department of Fisheries is in the process of installing a tracking system for multi-day fishing vessels. The Navy, Coast Guard, and Fisheries Department take every attempt to check these vessels prior to leaving and entering the harbour to identify vessels engaged in maritime crime and they have been successful to some extent,” Perera explained.
When asked about the resources the SLN can muster for the counter narcotics operations at sea, Perera said: “Availability of units to patrol the island’s waters has also become a challenge. However, with the acquisition of new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) such as the SLNS Vijayabahu, the Sri Lanka Navy has been able to respond to operational requirements by maximum utilisation of available resources in an efficient and effective manner to achieve the national aspiration of eradicating the drug menace from the country. The fuel shortage has also become a challenge to operational efficiency. Despite this, Sri Lanka is being assisted by other states as well in preserving maritime security, especially considering the extensive commitment of the Sri Lanka Navy in engaging in the prevention of maritime crime in the Indian Ocean region.”
Perera added that narcotics bought mainly via sea into Sri Lanka were organised by powerful worldwide networks and drug barons, both local and foreign. “Many local smugglers are based overseas and not in Sri Lanka. Narcotics trafficking at sea and land is increasingly carried out with new technologies and communication, with coordination via cyberspace, thus the challenges in obtaining information regarding them are growing.”
Restoring human intelligence
According to a former Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) detective who spoke to The Sunday Morning on conditions of anonymity, two of the core challenges local law enforcement agencies face in countering drug trafficking is the eroded public faith in the Police, the State, Judiciary, and systemic corruption within the agencies. Both issues affect how information regarding narcotics trafficking is received by law enforcement agencies that depend on intelligence derived from such to carry out targeted operations.
“The lack of public faith in the Police and the justice system is a key issue. People are not willing to come forward to provide information due to the fear of reprisal, they don’t trust the Police to keep their information. Many confidential sources we have developed within the trafficking community are no longer coming forward with information because they fear that corrupt cops will leak information to the drug network, where they intimidate or kill the informants. We have seen eyewitnesses – persons who have been involved in trafficking and turned State witnesses – being killed or disappeared. Therefore, human intelligence aspects which are invaluable to interdict drug trafficking are rapidly dwindling,” the former PNB official said.
The retired senior Policeman also told The Sunday Morning that the custodial deaths of several high-profile drug traffickers had also sown suspicion among the narcotics trafficking community that they would not get fair treatment or due process by the law if arrested, thereby pushing many into maintaining silence about the trafficking networks.
“The Government, Police, and the public must understand that if we turn a blind eye to abuse of Police powers and the arbitrary killing of suspects, justice will not prevail. Yes, we all want drug dealers behind bars, but killing them is not the answer; there are hundreds more who will readily replace them. This is a lucrative business,” he said.
The rot from within
Recently, Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told Parliament that he suspected some Police officers were involved in narcotics trafficking. The statement from the Minister of Justice would have been startling, but many in Sri Lanka had long suspected that members of law enforcement agencies were compromised to elements of organised crime and politicisation. He told Parliament that laws would be enacted to punish such officers.
The arrests of 13 PNB officers over alleged links to a narcotic smuggling network in 2020 were a clear indication that even the apex drug enforcement agency was compromised and in the pockets of some drug kingpins, many of whom control local operations from overseas.
A senior intelligence officer who spoke to The Sunday Morning stated that a number of senior Police officers were suspected to be involved with several narcotic trafficking networks.
“There are some officers, some in senior positions, who are in league with certain drug networks. They use the Police officers to pressure and eradicate their opponents and other networks to gain new territory. These drug kingpins provide some of these corrupt Police officers tip-offs to raid and apprehend rival networks’ drug stashes. This in turn wins some officers accolades and promotions. This is how organised crime works; they penetrate the law enforcement agencies and use them for their benefit,” the intelligence officer said, adding that at times, the Sri Lanka Navy and other stakeholders were reluctant to share critical intelligence with some segments of the Police due to fear of compromising their ongoing operations.
“Imagine if we develop an agent to penetrate a network and the Police leak the information to the network about an impending raid or search operation; our asset is then under significant threat. Their life will be in danger. Our agents take a lot of risks. We have to protect them,” the intelligence officer said, stressing that given the state of law enforcement and political involvement with organised crime in Sri Lanka, specialised vetted units for counter narcotics operations were a necessity. The intelligence officer also stated that an independent unit to check compliance and investigate Police corruption and malpractice was a need of the hour.
Reducing the demand
According to the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB), while robust measures are necessary to stem the inflow of narcotics, a greater emphasis is required to reduce demand.
Responding to a question, the NDDCB Chairman told The Sunday Morning that Sri Lanka needed to do more to improve awareness about narcotics abuse and work to reduce the stigma around those who become addicted to substance abuse.
“The NDDCB’s mandate is to reduce demand. We are empowered to carry out awareness and treatment programmes to help addicts to recover. One key aspect is outreach to communities, such as the student community, to improve awareness of the risks, to cut through the marketing strategies of drug peddlers and peer pressure, and explain the dangers, the risk, and the life-changing impact of narcotic addiction. Prevention is better than cure,” Nanayakkara opined.
He said that recent moves by the Government to change legal options for drug abusers to seek rehabilitation in place of incarceration was a welcome move. However, much more needs to be done to build awareness and reduce the stigma of being labelled a ‘drug addict’ (‘kudda’), which prevents many families from seeking early intervention for their loved ones who have become victims of narcotics.
When asked if the NDDCB is adequately resourced for its role in demand reduction, Nanayakkara acknowledged that the agency, particularly its awareness, outreach, and rehabilitation programmes, were under-resourced. “We do need more resources. In this economic climate, it is difficult to ask for funds. What we ask for, not all is given. What is given is mostly for recurrent expenditure. However, we are working with international organisations like the WHO, the UN, JICA, UNDP, and UNODC which support us.”
Nanayakkara said that Sri Lanka could learn from other countries, particularly from the European Union, about demand reduction and rehabilitation, but would need to tailor such best practices to meet local realities.
He added that Sri Lanka needed to expand drug rehabilitation programmes and make them more accessible to those who needed treatment.
According to Nanayakkara, Sri Lanka needs to develop competent resource personnel and counsellors to help drug abusers and their families seek intervention and treatment.