On Syria’s ruins, a drug empire flourishes

Published date07 December 2021
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
Its flagship product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad.

An investigation by the New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian army, an elite unit commanded by Maher Assad, the president's younger brother and one of Syria's most powerful men.

Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hizbullah and other members of the president's extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities, according to the New York Times investigation, which is based on information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.

The drug trade emerged in the ruins of a decade of war, which shattered Syria's economy, reduced most of its people to poverty and left members of Syria's military, political and business elite looking for new ways to earn hard currency and circumvent US economic sanctions.

Illicit speed is now the country's most valuable export, far surpassing its legal products, according to a database compiled by the New York Times of global captagon busts. In recent years, authorities in Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have seized hundreds of millions of pills, most of them originating from one government-controlled port in Syria, some in hauls whose street value could exceed $1 billion, according to law enforcement officials.

Officials in Italy found 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears last year. Malaysian officials discovered more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March.

These seizures probably represent only a fraction of the drugs shipped, drug experts say. But they provide a window into the scope of the trade, suggesting that the industry has exploded in recent years.

More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized across the globe so far this year, more than 18 times the amount captured just four years ago. Even more concerning to governments in the region, the Syrian network built to smuggle captagon has begun to move more dangerous drugs, such as crystal meth, regional security officials say. The biggest obstacle in combating the trade, officials said, is that it has the backing of a state that has little reason to help shut it down.

"The idea of going to the Syrian...

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