Hanging on to Tiger’s Tail

LTTE and Narcotics:


by G. H. Peiris

According to a report published in the 10 June 2015 issue of The Island, the Hon. C. V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister (CM) of the Northern Province, has asserted that the presence of Sri Lanka’s Army in Jaffna (peninsula) has contributed to a rapid spread of narcotics in the area, and that narcotics was never a problem during the war when the LTTE was around. The Chairman of the ‘National Dangerous Drugs Control Board’, Dr. Chamara Samarasinghe, has effectively refuted the CM’s accusation, adding the caveat that in the turbulent conditions that prevailed in the North it was not possible to monitor drug addiction in that part of the country throughout the Eelam War. There is, indeed, no doubt that narcotics was never a problem in the north under the Tiger hegemony to those who were at the vanguard of the secessionist campaign and even to its beneficiaries in mainstream politics. That heroin might have been a serious health hazard even during the early stages of the war, however, is suggested by the fact that a team of doctors serving in Jaffna (Subramaniam, Arasaratnam, Somasundaram & Mahesparam, 1989) found it significant enough as a subject of clinical research. The present article is intended to indicate to the honourable CM and others of similar persuasion that the entire Eelam campaign was intimately linked to trade in narcotics, and to prevent The Island readership from being misled by the CM’s claims. There is, in fact, grounds to speculate that the Tiger high command might have employed drug addiction as a modality for recruiting and training its elite ‘Black Tigers’ to condition them for their suicide missions; and even more importantly, that the increased penetration into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters by ‘fishing fleet’ from Tamil Nadu witnessed in the recent years could well be the main reason for increased drug addiction in Jaffna, if there is such a trend.

LTTE Entry into the Global Narcotics Trade

The involvement of the LTTE in narcotic transactions took several forms that were being referred to by drug-control agencies and by those involved in the drug trade as: –

(a) bulk delivery of heroin and cannabis from producing areas in Asia via transit points to destinations in consuming countries; (b) conveying relatively small consignments of heroin (concealed in personal baggage) from suppliers in Asian countries to intermediary contact persons in the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa and western countries; (c) dealing (operation of drug distribution networks in consuming regions or countries); (d) couriering or "muleing" (working as couriers between bulk dealers and distributors); and (e) peddling in the retail market.

Contraband trade between India and Sri Lanka had, for long, been a lucrative commercial enterprise, controlled, for the most part, by gangs operating from both sides of Palk Strait. While Velvettiturai (‘Vvt’ - a township located along the northern coast of Sri Lanka) is considered to have served as the foremost centre of the smugglers from Sri Lanka, on the Indian side, Madras (Chennai), Tuticorin, Pattukotai, Rameshwaram, Tiruchendur, Ramnad, Nagapatnam, Cochin and a host of smaller localities inhabited by fishing communities have figured prominently among the smuggler bases and hideouts.

Up to about the late 1970s, Indo-Sri Lanka contraband consisted mainly of raw opium (abin), fabrics, light consumer goods, coconut oil, spices, and processed foods. Thereafter (over several years) certain transformations in Sri Lanka’s wider economic milieu had the effect of expanding the scope of clandestine trade between India and Sri Lanka, generating windfall profits especially to those already in the well-established smuggling cartels. The ready availability in Sri Lanka of light manufactures from Japan and the ‘Newly Industrialised Countries’ following trade liberalisation in the late 1970s, for instance, increased the range of goods which smugglers could convey to the protected Indian market. Again, the increasing demand for heroin in Sri Lanka in the wake of expanding tourism induced the smugglers to establish contact with suppliers as far a-field as Pakistan and metropolitan Mumbai, and with delivery destinations as far south as Colombo. At that time, moreover, it became possible for the smuggler gangs to add to their paraphernalia speedboats and other naval equipment, and thus increase their turnover, strengthen their resistance to coastal surveillance, and increase their geographical reach. By the end of the decade, there was additional evidence of consignments of arms and explosives trickling into the country. This, though brought to the notice of the government by a senior police officer (a Sri Lankan Tamil), was ignored.

The Vvt township which could, in several ways, be regarded as the cradle of the LTTE, also remained the main centre of smuggling in the North. Among its special attractions was its cohesive community, held together by ties of kinship and caste. There were links between its smugglers, fisher folk, and ordinary tradesmen. It is said that there has usually been a spirit of mutual tolerance between its law enforcement officers and criminals of the locality. Persons familiar with the Vvt ethos also recall that there were parts of the town in which outsiders were decidedly not welcome (see, in particular, Hellmann-Rajanayagam, 1994).

The first major detection of LTTE-linked drug rings in Europe took place in Italy in September 1984, following the arrest of a Tamil courier on his way to Rome. Well co-ordinated police search operations resulted in the arrest of about 200 Tamils most of whom were believed to have constituted a Rome-based narcotic distribution network spread over several Italian cities such as Milan, Naples, Acilia, Cetania and Syracuse, and extending into Sicily. The Italian breakthrough activated drug enforcement agencies elsewhere, leading to the arrest and incarceration of many Sri Lankans associated with the drug trade, and the confiscation of surprisingly large amounts of high-grade heroin. The Swiss police, for example, broke up a drug ring - one that was believed to have links with the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) rather than the LTTE - engaged in cross-border heroin transactions in Switzerland and France. Numerous arrests of Sri Lankan Tamils on drug charges were also reported at this time in Germany, France and the Nordic countries. These law enforcement operations resulted in imprisonment and/or deportation, the personal intervention on behalf of the convicts by the then leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) - assassinated by the LTTE a few years later - with the Italian government notwithstanding.

There is no published evidence since the late 1980s of large-scale organized involvement of Tamil militant groups in the distribution of narcotics in the European market. In fact, the general belief among the officialdom appeared to be that drug rings associated with the LTTE no longer exist in Europe. This could be attributed to several reasons. For instance, some of the major police offensives staged in Italy, Switzerland and France in the mid-1980s against Tamil drug dealers and couriers were based on information supplied by rival drug rings, especially those of the Lebanese, Italians and Nigerians who had been in the European drug scene from earlier times, and for whom the competition from the new Asian intruders had become a source of irritation if not a serious threat. It is also possible that the law enforcement agencies began to exercise greater vigilance over Tamil refugee groups following the initial discovery of links between them and the narcotics trade, and in the context of an increasing global concern on narco-terrorism. Moreover, it is likely that, in the face of an increasingly tarnished political image (a fallout, notably, of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination), the LTTE found it prudent to dissociate itself from the distribution aspects of the drug trade at least in Europe.

Migrants from Sri Lanka occasionally figured among those associated with the drug trade in Canada in more recent times. A statement released in 1991 by the Sri Lanka High Commission in Canada referred to a report of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMC) according to which a part of the 1 billion dollar drug market of Montreal city is controlled by Sri Lankans who send some of the profits to the LTTE. Again, a report prepared in 1995 for the Mackenzie Institute of Toronto estimated that the 134 kg of heroin seized globally by various law enforcement agencies from Sri Lankan Tamil drug runners the previous year represented only about 7-10% of the probable total volume of such traffic, and that "... (they) could be selling around 1,000 kg of heroin a year". The retail market value of such a volume of heroin (at 40% purity) in the West, according to price levels of that time (cited in Rasul Bakhsh Rais, 1999), would have been about US$ 290 million.

The addition of South Africa to the list of ‘western’ countries that provide opportunities for clandestine operations of the LTTE was a development that attracted considerable official attention and concern. The initial LTTE links with South Africa appear to have taken the form of smuggling of methaqualone (‘Mandrax’) from its principal source areas in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Since then, with shrewd propaganda which portrayed the secessionist campaign in Sri Lanka as being similar in its objectives to (and inspired by) the anti-apartheid struggle of the African National Congress, the pro-LTTE activists succeeded in generating a measure of sympathy for their cause among the political leadership of South Africa. A media report in that country claimed: "The 37 million Rands in funds, sophisticated armaments and dual technologies and trained combatants transferred from South Africa to the LTTE will mean an increase in the LTTE’s capabilities".

Asian Connections

Following the disintegration of the Sri Lanka Tamil drug rings in Europe during the late 1980s, well informed western analysts treated the charge of continuing narco-terrorism levelled against the LTTE with scepticism, and demanded from the Sri Lanka government hard evidence as a precondition for such charges to have a serious impact on the policy of their governments towards the LTTE. A general impression of expert perceptions on this issue in western countries during the mid-1990s could be gained from Davis’s thoroughly researched paper on clandestine operations of the LTTE extracts from which are cited below.

"In the hard-fought propaganda war waged between Colombo and the Tigers, Sri Lanka officials have consistently branded the LTTE as a ‘terrorist organization’ that derives a substantial proportion of its income from drug trafficking. However, they have been less successful in adducing any real evidence to support the allegation. Undisputed is the fact that, in the mid-late 1980s, Sri Lanka Tamils - often asylum seekers - did emerge as important movers of Afghan and Pakistani heroin via North Africa and the Middle East to the main Western European distribution centres of Berne, Paris and Rome. From September 1984 onwards, many involved in the so-called ‘Tamil Connection’ were arrested and imprisoned, notably in Italy; some were revealed to have had contacts with a range of militant organizations, including the LTTE. Beyond that, there is little doubt that the LTTE is well placed to profit from the heroin trade should it wish to. The nexus between international arms and narcotics trafficking is well established; the party (sic.) runs a clandestine shipping network, and it may well have contacts with senior elements in the Burmese military themselves known to be close to key players in the Golden Triangle heroin trade. None of that, however, constitutes hard evidence indicating the LTTE as a player in today’s Asian heroin trade".

To be continued tomorrow

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