The inmates range from petty dealers to gang members pushing drugs in bulk. Three hundred people are crammed into three cells where metal bunks overflow and the floor is strewn with half-naked bodies lined head to toe like sardines. The stench from an adjacent sewage lagoon mixes with sweat and hangs heavy in the air.
In the last three years a drugs epidemic has swept through the southern Iraqi city as Iranian-produced krystal – the local name for methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth – floods across the porous border.
Police say consumption is doubling year on year as the drug is marketed to both Basra’s impoverished districts where religious militia rule; and its university students, who are sold it as a sexual performance enhancer. The officers tasked to tackle the trade are badly resourced, forced to fund small-scale operations from their salaries and fearful of ambush if they are betrayed.
Gaunt and narrow shouldered, he says the prisoners are only half of those his men have arrested. The rest are dispersed in other stations for the lack of space, and in any case, he says, are just a small fraction of the city’s dealers. “There are so many of them that I don’t care about users any more,” he said. “I don’t have space.”
His targets are men like Abdullah, one of Basra’s dealers, who is busy each night peddling krystal. He rarely goes to bed before day break. Along with other members of his clan, Abdullah lives in a newly-built neighbourhood on the salty waste planes north of Basra, not far from where the Tigris and Euphrates meet to form the lush green waters of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which south of the city marks the border between Iraq and Iran.
Before drugs there was oil. In the shadow of Basra’s wells, Abdullah’s clan built a reputation as ferocious bandits and shrewd entrepreneurs, smuggling oil after the British occupation, while others became commanders in the militias vying for power in the city. Later the clan made a fortune selling drilling rights to an international oil firm and moved into the new drugs market.
“No one smuggles oil any more.” Abdullah said. “Krystal is the new oil.”
It was late in the afternoon and Abdullah was still groggy having just woken up. His first client would soon arrive to collect the white powder, consumed in Basra in pipes improvised from a light bulb and a straw.
Most of his clients are residents of the city’s poor districts, stifled by unemployment and religious rule, where there are few prospects for young people other than joining a militia. Restrictions on alcohol mean young people have drifted into cheaper and more easily concealed substances.
“All the kids in my area smoke it,” Abudullah said. “They used to drink. Now they smoke. A gram costs 20,000 Iraqi dinar (£13) and lasts for a whole day. Its cheaper than four cans of beer and it leaves no smell.”
Demand is luring the young to become dealers themselves, he said. “You cross to Iran, bring a kilo of krystal and you can double your money in a week.” For others Basra is a hub on the opium run from Afghanistan through Iran to the richer Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Both the swampy borderlands, where the drugs come in, and Basra’s poor districts are no-go areas for the regular police. Najem relies instead on a team of undercover detectives who run sting operations and a network of informers.
“Some do it out of religious duty, others want to curry favour with or hurt competitive dealers, but mostly do it for money,” he said of the informers. The money came from a fund the detectives pooled from their salaries at the start of the month.
Sting operations are similarly improvised. “We watch foreign movies to learn, but I dream to have the recourses of the American police in these movies,” said one detective.
Donning traditional Arab dresses, buying and sometimes even consuming drugs, they lure traders into series of traps. “We get a name of a dealer from one of our contacts,” said the detective. “First we buy half a kilo, we pay the money and let him go. Then, a week later, we buy another kilo and we also let him go. A month later we ask for 10 kilos and that’s when we arrest him.”
The unit had also conducted an illicit operation in Iran, kept secret from all but those involved for fear of getting “chewed”, a local expression meaning betrayed. A dealer in Khoramshaher who shipped to Iraq was paid for half an order, and the detectives then waited night after night in the marshes outside Basra for the drugs to arrive.
“They crossed the river and we captured them. The Iranian coastguard opened fire and we fired back,” a second detective said. “We captured 17kg, our biggest, but instead of being thanked we were reprimanded for opening fire on the Iranians.”
In the first six months of the year, Najem’s team brought in 57kg of hard drugs. The detectives show photographs of men lined up next to boxes of opium and bags of krystal, but like the men in the police station jail, it is just a small fraction of the total.
“What we catch represents less than 10% of the market in Basra. There are people dealing in tonnes, but we don’t have the money to go after the big guys in large operations,” said Najem.
At night, he and two detectives sat in his office plotting a raid to capture a mid-level dealer. The rest of the force gathered in the station yard, a dozen men in jeans and T-shirts, smoking and chatting while pulling on flak jackets over their bulging bellies.
Two of the force’s three vehicles had broken down so Najem, his men, their guns and ammunition packed into one pickup truck and the two detectives followed behind in their own car. Such is the distrust within the force that only the captain and the two detectives knew the target.
“Ninety-five percent of the security forces in Basra are corrupt, so if they know what we are working on we will be shot here in the middle of the street,” said one of the detectives, who survived an ambush earlier in year. “Those men you see in front of you don’t know because we can’t trust them.”
They drove through the dark empty streets to rendezvous with a Swat force. The air was still warm and sultry, and packs of dogs picked through rubbish scattered in the streets.
The convoy left the city and headed south as the lights of Iranian cities glittered across the Shatt al-Arab. After almost an hour the vehicles drew to a halt. The detectives pointed to a small side street descending towards the wide river.
The vehicles creaked as they moved down the dirt road, towards a house on the edge of a reed swamp. Eerie silence filled the air.
The Swat team jumped first and ran to the house, followed by the police. The two detectives parked their car slowly, lit cigarettes and walked to the building.
Inside, policemen and soldiers flipped mattress and blankets, sifted through wardrobes and examined the contents of tin boxes. “Sir, he must have been here and fled. The lights were on and the tea is still warm,” said a policeman. The raid yielded just one old hunting rifle.
As the police and Swat team returned to their vehicles, the detectives walked among the reeds towards a narrow network of creeks connecting the house to the river. One pointed to the road the men had come in on and the headlights of a distant car: “Look at that car. He can spot any car heading his way from his window,” he said.
“He spotted our lights from two kilometres away,” agreed his colleague. “He is a drug dealer, not someone selling tomatoes that you can just send a police car to capture. The state is laughing at us.”