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Analysis: Washington’s War on Opium

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US airstrikes have returned to Afghanistan with renewed vigour in the past few months, but their targets have switched, from insurgent bases to opiate storage and processing facilities. At least 11 airstrikes have been conducted between the 3rd and 4th of April alone in the Western Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz. The total number of airstrikes within the first two months of 2018 has tripled when compared to 2017.

This is not, however, a simple return to a hard-line counter-narcotics approach. These airstrikes are destroying these facilities and those caught within, effectively killing local Afghans for alleged drug offences. Attempts by the Bush administration to authorize such strikes in 2008 had faced considerable opposition from NATO allies. The current US administration has clearly shifted its priorities.

Such escalation ignores the historical and recent background of the opium trade. The rise of Afghanistan as the world’s primary producer of opium, sometimes accounting for 90% of the global total, has roots on other failed drug wars. Specifically, on those of the 1970s and 1980s that led to increases in drug production along with a spread of production centres.

The official NATO line justifies such strikes as a “counter-revenue campaign”, aimed at separating Afghanistan’s main insurgency group, the Taliban, from its alleged main source of revenue. Current estimates by US forces in Afghanistan for opium based revenue for the Taliban are of roughly $200 million annually. New guidelines that allow military strikes to consider any person alleged to be involved in the provision of revenue to terrorists also results in US claims that none of these incidents have resulted in civilian casualties.

Such framing of the local context is problematic. Many of these facilities may simply be opium storage facilities rather than heroin processing labs. Even those labs, however, are likely to have considerable levels of locals participating in the process. While there is a reasonable argument to be made towards connections between such facilities and criminal networks, the link between such facilities and the larger insurgency movement is tenuous.

Even if every single one of these facilities are indeed heroin processing labs, Afghan opium expert David Mansfield insightfully summarizes the issues with relying on airstrikes. These labs can only have a negligible role on Taliban revenues, with US revenue estimates often grouping disparate criminal and insurgent networks. Opium market profits and revenues at the local level are also much lower than after value is added by other criminal smuggling networks which are unlikely to be affected by these airstrikes at all.

If one does accept the argument that such facilities have a non-negligible role in funding Taliban activities, one must wonder about the overall impact of the resulting death toll. Late 2017 saw 44 “drug smugglers” being killed as part of a concerted effort to target such facilities in Helmand province alone. Inflicting casualties on locals, particularly income-earning members of rural families, is likely to severely undercut any counterinsurgency efforts in that area. Such an approach becomes even harder to justify when alternative hard-line but less indiscriminate options are available. A raid in the Marja district in Helmand on the 14th of April 2018 exemplifies such options, where over 9 tons of opium poppy and 1.25 tons of heroin were seized. While such alternatives are considerably riskier for counterinsurgents to conduct, they keep local casualties to a minimum.

The fact is that there are no easy solutions to the currently vast opium market in Afghanistan. Typical suggested solutions are an amalgamation of economic development and agricultural revitalization. Unfortunately, programs meant to improve local agricultural production, such as improved irrigation networks and market access roads, often feed into increased opium production levels. Such solutions ignore the problematic approach at the core of counterinsurgency failures in Afghanistan, an insistence on treating problems in isolation of one another. The agricultural market, the opium trade, the insurgency are deeply interconnected dimensions of the country. In order to undertake successful state-building, policies meant to address any individual issue need to take these other ones into account. Otherwise, addressing them in isolation or simply failing to strike a balance in responding to them can be worse than useless, it can be actively counterproductive.

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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs in major cities across US

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DEA launches crackdown on Mexican ‘super methamphetamine’ distribution hubs

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced a new operation that will see investigators look to eliminate methamphetamine “transportation hubs” across America and block the distribution of the deadly drug.

Operation Crystal Shield will see the DEA target hubs to which large shipments of methamphetamine are trafficked before being broken up and sold onto dealers across the United States.

The agency said it has identified the locations of eight of these hubs, noting that it will concentrate its efforts on major smuggling operations based in Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix and the St Louis Division.

These locations are said to have accounted for 75% of all methamphetamine seizures made in the US last year.

The DEA noted that almost all methamphetamine currently sold in the US comes through major ports of entry along its southern border having been made in industrial-scale labs in Mexico.

Much of the methamphetamine produced in these labs is almost 100% pure and is a far cry from old-fashioned so-called “shake-and-bake” version of the drug that used to be widely made in domestic US labs.

The huge volumes of Mexican “super meth” flooding into the US has resulted in the price of the drug falling dramatically over recent years.

Once smuggled into the US, increasingly in liquid form to avoid the attention of law enforcement agents, large shipments of the drug are transported across the country by tractor trailers and personal vehicles to the transfer hubs the DEA is targeting.

In a statement announcing the new crackdown, DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said: “Methamphetamine is by far the most prevalent illegal drug being sold on the streets of our community, and therefore warrants a focused plan of attack.

“Meth trafficking makes up more than 60% of the federal drug cases we prosecute in the Western District of Missouri.

“Operation Crystal Shield provides a strategy to stanch the flow of methamphetamine being smuggled into our state by the Mexican cartels.

“If we can reduce the supply of methamphetamine, we can reduce the violence and other criminal activity associated with drug trafficking.”

Earlier this month, authorities San Francisco announced the opening of a new “drug sobering centre” primarily aimed at methamphetamine users suffering from the side effects of taking the substance.

In January, a study published by JAMA Network Open revealed that use of methamphetamine is rocketing across the US, with the number urine samples testing positive for the drug rising from about 1.4% in 2013 to around 8.4% last year.

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Illinois court jails female dark web fentanyl dealer known as ‘Drug Llama’ for 13 years

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‘Drug Llama’ dark web fentanyl dealer

A female dark web trader known as “the Drug Llama” has been jailed for 13 years by an Illinois court after pleading guilty to selling fentanyl on the now-defunct Dream Market illicit marketplace and money laundering.

Melissa Scanlan, 32, was charged with a series of offences, including distributing fentanyl, misbranding drugs, international money laundering, and causing death by selling fentanyl.

Scanlan’s co-accused Brandon Arias, 34, was jailed for nine years in October for his role in the conspiracy.

Prosecutors said the pair sold as many 1,000 fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl pills every week on the dark web over the two years their conspiracy lasted, and raked in over $100,000 that they split equally.

After setting up a profile on the Dream Market platform using the name “the Drug Llama”, the pair distributed the synthetic opioid tablets to customers across the US between October 2016 to August 2018.

As well as drug distribution, Scanlan’s was said by prosecutors of taken part in an international money laundering conspiracy with Mexican cartel members, and to have sold fentanyl tablets to a woman who later died.

Speaking after Scanlan was sentenced, US Attorney Steven Weinhoeft commented: “Criminals like Melissa Scanlan who recklessly flood our communities with opioids may think they can evade detection in the shadowy corners and back alleys of the internet.

“But they will find no quarter there. Where they go, we will follow. With the collaboration of outstanding investigators at our partner agencies, we will use every tool and method available to find these people and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Weinhoeft went on to say that the case underlined the need for Congress to permanently criminalise fentanyl analogues.

At the end of January, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to extend for 15 months a temporary ban of fentanyl derivatives.

Without the bill, the outlawing of fentanyl analogues implemented by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) back in 2018 would have expired this month, which would have resulted in a range of deadly synthetic opioids suddenly becoming legal and completely unregulated.

The US Justice Department had hoped to win a permanent ban on these types of substances from Congress, and was looking to secure a change in the law that would permanently list all fentanyl analogues in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.

At the beginning of last month, a study published in the JAMA Network Open journal revealed that use of fentanyl and methamphetamine were soaring across the US.

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Catalonian police smash gang that hid 1.5 tonnes of cocaine in A4 paper boxes

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Catalonian police smash gang that trafficked drugs into Spain

Police in Spain’s Catalonia have taken part in an operation that resulted in the arrest of 14 members of a suspected drug trafficking gang after the discovery of nearly 1.5 tonnes of cocaine that had been hidden in boxes of A4 paper.

A Europol-backed investigation into the gang, which resulted in 10 of its members being jailed, was launched back in December 2018 when 1 413kgs of cocaine was found at a business premises outside Barcelona.

The drugs, which had been hidden in the boxes before being shipped into Spain from Brazil, were first discovered when one of the firm’s employees accidentally dropped one of the packages.

After arresting two people in connection with the find, police were able to identify 10 members of a criminal organisation that was involved in the trafficking of large quantities of cocaine from Brazil to Spain.

The network behind the conspiracy was also found to have been running a sophisticated money laundering operation, which they used to conceal the profits made from the drugs importation business.

Members of the gang are said to have set up several different front companies, making investments in real estate businesses and fashion stores in Barcelona.

They also employed mules to make multiple intermittent small deposits at local bank branches.

The operation that led to the disruption of the gang culminated at the beginning of this month with an operation in which Catalan investigators and officers from Policía Nacional carried out 13 raids on residential and business properties.

In one raid on a property on the Balearic Island of Mahon, law enforcement agents found quantities of cash in several currencies, mobile phones, four simulated weapons, three cars, and two marijuana plantations.

“Two Europol experts were deployed for on-the-spot support to extract data from the mobile phones of two of the detainees. A member of Spain’s Europol National Unit also assisted during the action day,” Europol said in a statement.

Last week, researchers at the UK’s University of Surrey revealed that they had developed an experimental fingerprint test that could be used to see if an individual had either taken or handled cocaine.

Dr Melanie Bailey from the University of Surrey said: “We think this research is really significant as our laboratory test using high resolution mass spectrometry can tell the difference between a person who has touched a drug and someone who has actually consumed it – just by taking their fingerprints.”

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