Heroin Traffickers Target Schools
Source: All Africa 03/26/2007
Kampala, Mar 26, 2007 (New Vision/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) --
HASSAN Mbogo, a Tanzanian carrying a Ugandan passport, was arrested on December 1 at Entebbe Airport. He came aboard Emirates Airlines, from Tehran and through Dubai to Uganda.
Mbogo matched the profile of a drug trafficker, so when he arrived, he was taken into an observation hall and given some food. Sure enough, he passed out 64 pellets (640g) of heroin. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and got away with a sh1m fine.
Two weeks later, Ally Abdul Mohamed, also Tanzanian, also arrived on an Emirates aircraft from Tehran, was arrested and subjected to the same treatment. He passed out 107 pellets of heroin, weighing 1.7 kg. He confessed and was fined sh1m.
These are only two of an increasing number of drug traffickers arrested at Entebbe Airport in possession of heroin. In the last week of December alone, five people were found with the drugs in their bodies. Most traffickers were freed after paying a fine of sh1m or less. Only a few were imprisoned, with the longest jail term being 14 months. Abbab Munir Ahmed, a Pakistani national, was jailed for one year in February for smuggling 3kg of heroin in his stomach.
Drug traffickers usually come from Tehran via Dubai, aboard Emirates or Ethiopian Airlines. Several have Ugandan passports. Light penalties and easy access to Ugandan passports make the country an attractive place for drug traffickers.
The traffickers, largely foreign nationals, use the country mainly as a transit route between Asian suppliers and Western consumers. However, they are also increasingly targeting the children of the rich in Kampala.
"Because of the weak laws we have in Uganda, traffickers find it convenient to transit through Uganda," said Okoth Ochola, the Deputy Director of the Department of Criminal Investigations.
"The current law - the National Drug Policy and Authority Act - is too lenient. If you are convicted under that Act, you are either sent to prison for one year or you pay a fine of not more than sh1m. Drug traffickers, who make millions of dollars, would rather risk being convicted in Uganda than in countries like Iran or Malaysia, where it is a capital offence, carrying the death penalty."
Attempts to revise the law seem to have hit a dead end.
"A draft Bill has been pending for over five years but it has never been tabled before Parliament," Ochola added.
According to Police statistics, a total of 17.7kg of heroin with a total street value of sh479m in addition to 182.8kg of cannabis, worth sh250m, was recovered in 2006.
But a source involved in the drug investigations told Sunday Vision that the figures may not be representative of the situation on the ground.
"The seizures may not represent the reality of the trafficking activities in Uganda. Our Police do not have adequate capacity to detect drugs," the source said.
Efforts to curb drug trafficking in Uganda have been limited to profiling possible traffickers and observing passengers at the airport, which has an international success rate of only about 20%.
Despite the presence of two sniffer dogs at the airport, neither the passengers nor the cargo are checked.
"We don't check cargo in the planes. Only when we have information that there could be something concealed do we use the sniffer dogs," said Robert Ojaba, the acting officer in charge of narcotics.
Part of the profiling is done in the country from which the passenger comes.
"When passengers come from countries like Pakistan and Iran, we put them under surveillance and then look at their travel documents to see how long they have stayed in those countries," Ojaba said.
He said the most common method of concealment was by swallowing pellets made of hard polythene bags, which cannot dissolve in the stomach. Each pellet contains about 10g of heroin.
"The traffickers are usually not comfortable and walk with a lot of difficulty. They are also under strict instructions not to eat on the plane as the moment they eat, the drugs will come out. They, therefore, look dizzy and exhausted."
Swallowing heroin pellets is not without risk. John Mwanjabala was arrested at Entebbe Airport on December 4.
He passed out 95 pellets of heroin. However, while relieving himself, something went wrong. One pellet burst. He was rushed to Entebbe Hospital where he died three days later.
Though most of the drugs entering Uganda are destined for Western markets, some are meant for the Ugandan market. "The consumption of these expensive drugs has extended to children from powerful families in some of the upper-class schools and universities," a source in the Police said.
Some of the victims are being counselled in drug rehabilitation centres in the city.
"Nowadays you see many youth using drugs," said David Amanya, the director of the National Care Centre in Bweyogerere, Kampala. "Our centre, which is supposed to take only 15 people, is overwhelmed. The number of those coming here to seek treatment as a result of drug abuse is on the rise."
Though the Police claim they have no knowledge of heroin being sold on the streets of Kampala, Amanya said there are shops selling drugs all over the city. "The drugs are being sold openly. One gramme of heroin goes for as little as sh30,000," he said. Witnesses say heroin is in circulation at a popular shopping mall in central Kampala as well as busy hang-outs in the city's suburbs.
"Shops in expensive malls selling goods that have low demand are usually fronts for drug dealers," the source said. Parents and head teachers are not willing to talk about the problem, for fear of stigma or negative publicity. However, teachers privately admit that heroin and cocaine are a problem in their schools.
"Last year we discovered that six foreign pupils in Standard Six were involved in taking heroin," said a teacher in one of the international schools. "When we talked to one of them, he told us he had learned the habit at home. We are trying to control it by engaging counsellors."
The drug traffickers reportedly have agents in the schools, usually drug addicts who receive a commission each time they get a new client. Affected parents, who want to remain anonymous, complain that their children steal at home in order to buy the drugs.
A former drug addict told Sunday Vision that heroin was being sold in Kampala in different forms.
"There is one which comes in solid form, is melted on a coin and one can snort it through the nose using a straw. A second type comes in the form of an injection. The third type is mixed with food," he said.
Fighting the drug mafia has proven an extremely difficult task all over the world, not just in Uganda.
"Dismantling the syndicates and arresting the kingpins is complicated given the level of secrecy, strengthened by a sworn code of silence. There is little or no contact between the kingpins and the couriers," said a Police source.
Investigations reveal that many of those arrested are lured into the trade after promises of a better life. "We have arrested some students who had been promised tuition fees, money, lucrative businesses and cars in return for carrying the drugs," Ojaba said.
Investigations have also shown that elements within the Police were in the past involved in the drug business. The commission of inquiry chaired by Justice Julia Sebutinde that probed the Police revealed that some senior police officers were protecting drug dealers.
Another source told Sunday Vision that the Inspector General of Police has ordered an inventory of the drug section, following allegations that seized drugs could have found their way back onto the market.
Lack of a harmonised legislature in the region makes it difficult to curb the illegal trade. Neighbouring Kenya took a drastic step in the war on drugs in 1993, when penalties for drug trafficking were increased to life imprisonment, as well as fines of Kenyan sh1m, equivalent to Ugandan sh25m.
A recent report by the United Nations warns of serious consequences if the present trend is not checked. "As a spill-over effect of the ongoing transit trafficking in heroin in the sub-region, the abuse of heroin has become a problem in East Africa. It is feared that if left unchecked, the problem of drug trafficking in Africa might further exacerbate existing social, economic and political problems."