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Captagon: how Syria became a narco-state

This stimulant, formerly associated with the jihadists of the Islamic State group, has given birth to an illegal industry of more than 10 billion dollars which supports the pariah regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but also many of his enemies.

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Captagon: how Syria became a narco-state

This stimulant, formerly associated with the jihadists of the Islamic State group, has given birth to an illegal industry of more than 10 billion dollars which supports the pariah regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but also many of his enemies.

Captagon has made Syria the newest narco-state in the world and this trade has taken deep roots in neighboring Lebanon whose economy has collapsed.

This drug is now by far Syria's leading export product, exceeding all its legal exports combined, according to estimates based on official data collected by AFP.

Captagon is an amphetamine-derived drug believed to treat narcolepsy or attention deficit disorder.

This illicit drug has spread to the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is the largest market.

AFP interviewed more than 30 sources during its investigation, including former and current members of the security services in Syria and other countries, traffickers, activists, foreign diplomats and experts in narcotics to try to grasp the extent of the phenomenon.

At least 25 of them requested that their identity be protected for security reasons.

- "Party drug" -

In Saudi Arabia, captagon is often considered a party drug, but its use affects circles other than the wealthy elite.

Many modest Saudis and immigrant workers use this drug that is cheap, discreet and less taboo than alcohol in this Muslim country.

"I can work non-stop for two or three days, which has allowed me to double my salary and helps me pay off my debts," Fayçal admits to Riyadh. The frail, working-class newlywed in his 20s says he spends 150 rials a week (about $40) on captagon tablets.

"I finish my first job exhausted at dawn," he says, but the drugs keep him going to start his second job as a VTC driver.

An Egyptian construction worker told AFP he started taking the pills after his boss secretly slipped them into his coffee to make him work faster and longer.

“Over time, my colleagues and I became addicted,” he says.

The top-of-the-range pill that the Saudi jet-set snatches can be worth up to 25 dollars, but the adulterated pills of poor quality are sold for a dollar.

The drug begins its journey in the lawless areas between Syria and Lebanon.

- Barons and tribes -

With his face masked and his gaze hidden by dark glasses, a trafficker from the eastern plain of the Bekaa in Lebanon tells AFP how he organizes the shipment of drugs.

“Four or five big names usually team up and share the cost of a shipment of, say, $10 million to cover raw materials, transport and kickbacks,” he explains in the middle. of a vineyard.

"The cost is low and the profits high" because, explains the trafficker, even if only one shipment out of 10 passes, "you are still a winner".

“There is a group of more than 50 barons (..) They form a large network, Syrians, Lebanese and Saudis,” he continues.

The captagon trade spans multiple countries and many key players have tribal ties, including through the Bani Khaled, a Bedouin confederacy that stretches from Syria and Lebanon to Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. .

A shipment may remain within the Bani Khaled's sphere of influence from manufacturing in Syria to delivery to Saudi Arabia, according to concurring sources, including an intelligence officer, Syrian army deserters and a trafficker.

And the numbers are staggering.

More than 400 million tablets were seized in the Middle East and beyond in 2021, according to official figures, and this year's discoveries are expected to be even bigger.

For every shipment seized, nine more are shipped, customs and drug enforcement officials told AFP.

This means that, even with an average price of five dollars per tablet and with only four out of five shipments reaching their destination, captagon represents an industry worth at least $10 billion.

Syria being the source of 80% of the world's traffic, according to security officials, this trade therefore represents at least three times its national budget.

- Assad's brother -

According to drug experts, the Syrian state is at the heart of trafficking in areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The opaque network of warlords and profiteers on which the Syrian president relied to win the war has largely profited from this traffic, experts believe.

They cite in particular the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah, backed by Iran, which they say plays an important role in protecting smuggling along the Lebanese border in southwestern Syria.

"Syria has a pressing need for foreign currency and this industry is able to supply the public treasury thanks to a parallel economy, from the import of raw materials to the manufacture and finally the export" of the tablets, explains to the AFP a former adviser to the Syrian government interviewed outside Syria.

One name comes up in all the interviews conducted by AFP: that of Maher al-Assad, dreaded brother of the Syrian president, de facto head of the Fourth Division, the elite unit of the Syrian army.

A dozen sources, including two traffickers, a member of the security forces in the region, a former Syrian intelligence officer, militants, a member of a Syrian tribe involved in the trafficking of captagon and an employee of the pharmaceutical sector have implicated this brigade.

Maher al-Assad's involvement has also been cited in reports by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) and the Center for Historical and Conflict Analysis (CHACR).

"Maher al-Assad takes a share of the captagon's earnings, which are even used to partially pay the salaries of an armed group attached to the Fourth Division," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Male (OSDH, UK-based NGO).

Invited to react, the Syrian Embassy in Paris sent AFP a response from the Syrian Ministry of the Interior, saying that the trafficking was the work of "terrorist organizations" which "benefited from their control over the border areas " of the country, in "cooperation with drug traffickers".

"No factory or laboratory manufacturing this substance has been seized on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic", assures the ministry, which denounces "a campaign of media attacks" directed against Syria on this subject.

"The producers of captagon obtain the raw materials directly from the Fourth Division, sometimes in military bags," said an activist who requested anonymity. A Syrian trafficker told AFP that this elite unit supplies drugs to rebel groups opposed to the regime.

The Fourth Division controls much of the porous border with Lebanon essential to traffic, and the Mediterranean port of Latakia is also one of its strongholds.

"The Fourth Division played an active role in the protection, organization and manufacture of captagon, and in the transport of cargoes to the ports of Latakia and Tartous" (in northwestern and western Syria) , says Caroline Rose, an expert from the New Lines Institute.

The Lebanese border, which has never been clearly demarcated, has always been a favorite ground for smugglers and captagon trafficking is now booming in the north.

"Wadi Khaled is the new hub, the place is full of traffickers," a judicial source told AFP, referring to this border region in northern Lebanon where a large part of the population on the Lebanese side considers themselves Syrian. .

At the height of the war, weapons were smuggled into Syria through the Wadi Khaled region.

- Rebels involved -

In southern Syria, the provinces of Soueida and Deraa, on the border with Jordan, are two other main routes for smuggling into Saudi Arabia.

Deraa is home to several laboratories where the drug is manufactured. Soueida is crawling with gangs transporting captagon, with Bedouin tribes bringing in shipments from major production plants around Damascus and central Homs province.

"The smuggling is organized by the tribes who live in the desert, in coordination with more than a hundred small armed gangs," said Abou Timour, a spokesman for a local armed group, Al-Karama.

In Syria, the lucrative traffic has reconciled yesterday's enemies and drugs have forged unlikely alliances even in the north, which is home to the last pockets of rebel and jihadist resistance to the regime.

"The captagon has reconciled all the parties to the conflict (...) the government, the opposition, the Kurds and the Islamic State", underlines the former adviser to the Syrian government.

"I work with people in Homs and Damascus who receive the tablets from the Fourth Division depots," a smuggler from the Turkish-dominated rebel area told AFP.

"I distribute the tablets here or I coordinate with the rebel groups to send them to Turkey," he explains, describing his work as "very dangerous and very easy at the same time".

The trafficker said he also sold captagon to leaders of the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls part of the Idlib enclave in northwestern Syria.

According to him, a myriad of Turkish-affiliated rebel groups have recently got into the captagon business. "The region is teeming with rebel groups. It's a jungle, everyone is hungry," he testified.

He adds that the new traffic king in the area is Abu Walid Ezza, a commander of the Sultan Murad faction of the Syrian National Army, a pro-Turkish group.

"He has very good relations with the Fourth Division, since he was previously based in Homs", specifies the trafficker according to whom "he brings tablets of excellent quality".

Questioned by AFP, the rebel group denied any link with captagon trafficking.

Turkish parties are also involved in the smuggling, according to a forensic investigator in the region.

"Diethyl ether, a kind of chloroform, is one of the main components needed to make captagon and most of this material comes from Turkey," he said.

- "Candy machine" -

Other than chemicals, the biggest investment for a captagon lab is a pill press or candy making machine.

A Chinese site even offers a "captagon tablet press" for $2,500, capable of manufacturing tens of thousands of tablets per hour.

Once the chemical precursors have been obtained, it only takes 48 hours to set up a captagon manufacturing laboratory with relatively rudimentary equipment.

Which means that even if drug enforcement units are raided, captagon makers can quickly get back to work. They even set up mobile labs in the back of vans after a recent raid in eastern Lebanon.

The Syrian government is also taking action, but most of the seizures "are pure comedy (...) the law enforcement officials are themselves the thieves", assures an employee of a Syrian pharmaceutical company, questioned outside of Syria, according to which certain pharmaceutical factories are involved in the traffic.

Videos from Saudi customs and police show how they employ advanced technology and canine units to thwart smuggling.

But the traffickers are still one step ahead, say senior security and justice officials in the region.

"At the port of Tripoli (northern Lebanon), for example, the scanner always has to be repaired on the wrong day or is inadvertently turned off," a senior Lebanese official told AFP.

“And when arrests are made, it is always the driver, the only man who knows nothing, that the security services present to the court,” he adds.

- "The king of captagon" -

“King of captagon” Hassan Dekko ruled his empire from Tfail, a Lebanese village on the border with Syria, before his arrest last April following major seizures of captagon.

The man, who has dual Lebanese and Syrian nationality and has high-level political connections in both countries, denied any connection to drug trafficking, according to court documents obtained by AFP.

But Lebanon's drug enforcement officials say some of the businesses he owns, including a pesticide factory in Jordan, a car dealership in Syria and a fleet of tankers, are common cover for drug lords. .

A senior security official, however, said Dekko's influence had diminished.

Several security sources and deserters from the Syrian army have mentioned the name of Syrian MP Amer Khiti, under American sanctions, who they believe is a major figure in the traffic.

"The role of Khiti is to ensure the protection of shipments" of drugs, says the head of the OSDH.

The MP, whom AFP tried to reach without success, is also quoted in CHACR reports.

One of its employees told AFP he saw captagon being delivered to a warehouse near Damascus.

"He's a good man. It doesn't matter what he does, as long as he helps people," says the employee.

"The Khiti family has been involved in this business since before the war. They used to put the pills in plastic bags and sew them inside sheep" to smuggle them, adds- he.

- World Epicenter -

As the economic and political crises are not about to be resolved in Syria and Lebanon, it is to be feared that the traffic in captagon will increase even further.

"Syria has become the global epicenter of captagon production by deliberate choice," said Ian Larson, chief Syria analyst at COAR.

With its economy crippled by war and sanctions, "Damascus had few good options," he adds.

The captagon windfall is watering wide in Syria and Lebanon, from regime officials to millionaire businessmen at the top of the pyramid to villagers and refugees who manufacture and conceal the drug.

"There is still no compelling evidence linking Bashar al-Assad directly to the captagon industry and we should not necessarily expect to find any," adds Mr. Larson, who has written extensively on the drug.

Both traffickers and those who fight against this drug believe that the era of captagon is just beginning.

"The job will never stop," insists the Lebanese trafficker. An opinion shared by a high-ranking judicial source: "They are never convicted and the money at stake is enormous."

(This survey was conducted with contributions from Haitham el-Tabei in Saudi Arabia and Patrick Lee in Kuala Lumpur)

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