Last month, nearly 16 million Captagon pills, an amphetamine-type stimulant that is quickly becoming one of the Middle East’s most ubiquitous narcotics, were seized by Iraqi security forces in three separate raids. It was a massive haul of illicit drugs.
It was also a fraction of the region’s illegal trade, a criminal enterprise that Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), state-sponsored militias, are facilitating by protecting those involved.
The majority of Iraq’s Captagon – a brand name for fenethylline hydrochloride – comes from neighboring Syria, which is the main producer of the pills in the Levant. To combat the surge in Captagon trafficking into the country, Iraqi authorities have scaled up enforcement, a welcome change after years of turning a blind eye. However, these efforts will almost certainly fail if the PMUs’ involvement in the drug industry continues unabated.
For now, the Captagon crisis is getting worse. During April alone, Iraqi security forces reported record levels of drug seizures.
Iraq, like Lebanon and Jordan, has long been used as a transiting corridor for Captagon from Syria to Saudi Arabia. The country’s importance for Syria’s illicit business – valued at more than US$5.7 billion – has grown significantly over the past year because of the increased difficulty in shipping drugs through Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s ban in April 2021 on imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon pushed smuggling networks to increase their reliance on Jordan and Iraq.
The surge in regional smuggling operations is evident in the number of narcotics confiscated by the authorities.
In the first four months of 2022, the Jordanian army intercepted 17 million Captagon pills, compared with 15.5 million pills seized in all of 2021 and 1.4 million in 2020. The surge in illegal activity, along with the killing of a Jordanian soldier, prompted Jordan to increase its anti-drug measures along its border with Syria and to employ a shoot-to-kill policy, which has increased the risks smugglers face.
Iraq, as a result, is attracting more smuggling traffic, a surge it is not prepared to handle. The country lacks trained counter-narcotics forces and modern equipment for its border crossings and airports.
In addition, the PMUs, which have a strong presence on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, are directly involved in facilitating drug smuggling to Iraq. Besides having a strong grip over the al-Qaim official border crossing, the PMUs run dozens of unofficial makeshift corridors between the two countries – including crossings at al-Sikak, Akashat, Hwaijeh, and al-Sanjak.
Moreover, as I have seen during fieldwork for my own research, many groups are involved in enabling drug operations between Syria and Iraq, including Harakat al-Abdal, Liwa al-Tafuf, and Asaib Ahl Alhaq (also known as the Khazali Network). However, Kataib Hezbollah reportedly has the most influence over this trafficking business.
I have also found that most drug trafficking is done in coordination with smugglers, which gives the armed factions plausible deniability if these shipments are intercepted by the authorities. After securing transportation for the narcotics inside Syria, smugglers move the illicit substances to Iraqi trucks in coordination with the respective armed groups. In exchange for safe passage, the Iraqi factions charge fees based on the size of the shipment.
PMUs have even used their political connections to arrange for the release of drug traffickers and dealers who have been arrested. While most of these instances go unnoticed by the media, a case did recently make headlines.
Jawad Louay al-Yasseri, whose father was then governor of the central province of Najaf, was convicted of drug trafficking in 2018 when 5.6 kilograms of cannabis and 7,000 narcotic pills were found in his possession during the arrest. Despite being sentenced to life in prison, Yasseri and two fellow defendants in the case were quietly granted a presidential pardon and released in January.
Given such nepotism and corruption, it’s clear that Iraq’s narcotics problem will not be solved without addressing the PMUs’ role in drug trafficking. Failing to rein in these profiteers will render all other anti-drug measures in Iraq ineffective, enable Syria’s Captagon industry to grow exponentially, and pose an increasing health and security risk to Iraq, the region, and beyond.
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