Cocaine smugglers turn to South Asia for new routes due to 'soft security' at region's ports

Growing numbers of seizures in India suggest dealers plying new routes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 11:48pm

Police who seized Asia's largest known shipment of liquid cocaine at a Bangladeshi port late last month say it was headed for India, the latest sign that drug cartels are increasingly plying their trade in South Asia.

It isn't clear whether India was the final destination for the cocaine, worth as much as US$14 million, or whether it was a transit point for other markets in Asia and Europe.

"They wanted to redirect it to India when it got stuck at Chittagong," Bangladeshi police official Mohammad Kamruzzaman said. Kamruzzaman said they found correspondence that said the shipment was headed for "any port in India".

Over the past three months, Indian and foreign police sources said larger than usual amounts of high-purity cocaine carried mainly by South American and African drug mules have been seized in India. Multi-kilo hauls have also turned up in Kathmandu.

The seizures point to South Asia's role as a possible transhipment hub, as highly organised gangs, possibly from Latin America, look to hide their tracks to US and European markets by taking advantage of soft security at the region's ports.

Like other global businesses, groups such as Mexico's Sinaloa or Pacific Cartel also see Asia as a growth market, and have turned up in Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines in recent years.

The United Nations believes more cocaine is moving through South Asia undetected.

"This is a huge wake-up call," said Cristina Albertin, the South Asia representative for the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), referring to the Bangladesh bust.

Up until now, much of counter-narcotics agencies' work in the region was focused on the smuggling of heroin and synthetic drugs and especially on Afghanistan, which produces some 90 per cent of the world's illicit opiates.

But cocaine use, while still low compared to Europe and North America, is on the rise among newly wealthy party-goers in the top cities of Asia's fast-growing economies.

"Latin American drug trafficking organisations, those who are well structured, are now looking for new markets, particularly for their cocaine and methamphetamine production," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative in Mexico. "Asia is that market nowadays," he said.

In India, drug seizures almost tripled between 2009 and 2013, data from India's Narcotic Bureau shows. They dipped last year, but have been increasing in recent months.

Acting on a tip-off from British intelligence, Bangladeshi customs agents seized 107 blue plastic barrels of sunflower oil from a container in the country's busiest port. Officials estimate that between 60 and 100 kilos of cocaine were mixed into the oil.

The cocaine likely hails from Bolivia. It was shipped from Uruguay to Singapore in a container that Bangladeshi police say was owned by a company called South Freight Logistics. The container was then transferred to a smaller ship that sailed to Chittagong.

South Freight Logistics did not respond to requests for comment for this article.