Heroin money could fund Kashmir's militants

Kashmir's growing narcotics trade is flourishing in areas where militants are most active.

Manzoor Ahmed is a very happy police chief. Just a month ago, his investigators confiscated four kilos of heroin, tucked into the back of an ordinary truck carrying apples.

But behind his proud exterior, Mr. Ahmed is worried about the dangers that narcotics are starting to pose in his little corner of this Himalayan valley.

For one thing, he knows that he can catch only a fraction of the smugglers. And he suspects that the most active narcotics smugglers are well-armed Kashmiri militants, who use narcotics as a business to pay for their violent activities, and who have a tradition of fighting to the death.

"This is pure white heroin," says Ahmed, police chief of Bandipora. "The militants get it in Pakistan, where it is cheap, about 3,000 rupees ($62) a kilo. And they smuggle it across here, give it to their sympathizers and sell down in Delhi or Bombay."

He picks up a few bags of the captured heroin and hands them to a visitor. These drugs could fetch around $210,000 on international markets, Ahmed says.

Threat to security

In a region where Kalashnikovs can be bought illegally for $100, Kashmir's growing narcotics trade presents a new threat to security.

Proving the link between narcotics and militant groups is difficult at best, and Indian officials admit they have yet to capture a militant in the act of smuggling.

But Indian Army officials and state police say there is no question that the cultivation of narcotics in Kashmir and transport of narcotics through the state has increased over the past decade, and that the areas where narcotics are most often found are the same areas where militants are most active.

Narco-terrorism

Most worrisome, Indian officials say, is that Kashmiri militant groups may soon have enough funds from narcotics to operate independently of their former patrons, Pakistan, which has officially banned and cut all ties to the 14-year insurgency that has killed 40,000 so far.

"This is easy money for the militants, and they use it to fund their activities," says Lt. Col. Mukhtiar Singh, spokesman for the Indian Army in Srinagar. "In addition to that, foreign mercenaries use it," he says.

Indian officials admit they have no way to measure how much opium is coming into the state, since Indian police catch only those consignments they have prior information about. But since many of these heroin packs are confiscated in districts along the Pakistani cease-fire line, where opium cultivation is not common, police officials say the evidence points to the heroin being smuggled in from Pakistan.

Afghanistan a 'brand name'

There is another sign as well. Many of the packages captured bear the phrase "Made in Afghanistan" written in Farsi.

"It's a brand name, because the name Afghanistan sells," says a senior police official at Baramulla district headquarters. "We don't know if it actually comes from Afghanistan, but it does come from outside the state, because we catch it in areas where opium is not grown."

There is reason to believe that some Afghan heroin is coming to Kashmir, if only because instability and good rains have allowed Afghanistan to retake its position of the world's No. 1 source of opium.

Kashmir's close location to Afghanistan and its wide swaths of lawless territory make it an ideal transport route.

But even without an outside source, Kashmir would be awash in narcotics.

In July, Indian customs agents in the Anantnag district of south Kashmir discovered an astounding 555 acres of opium poppies, with a potential yield of 10,000 kilograms of opium. This amount of raw opium would be worth about $2 million inside Kashmir; in international markets, once this is processed into heroin, it would be worth much more.

New thinking, old problems

The raids were all the more surprising, Indian customs agents say, because they had been carried out in Bijbehara, the hometown of Kashmir's newly elected chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.

Mr. Sayeed, who could not be reached for this article, has repeatedly spoken of his commitment to rid the state of narcotics.

But Sayeed was elected on a "healing touch" campaign platform that promised to force state police agencies to adopt a friendlier line toward citizens, and to dismantle many of the counter-insurgency agencies accused of human rights abuses.

Local cultivation

In Srinagar, Indian Customs chief M.S. Kamra says the greatest narcotics challenge is not what comes from outside, but what is grown inside Kashmir itself.

He leafs through photos full of white and pink poppies, and tall stalks of cannabis, all being hacked down by a borrowed contingent of Indian Army soldiers. "These things can be seen from the highway, there is nothing concealed about it," says Mr. Kamra.

"There is a punishment of 10 years imprisonment for growing it, but it's openly done," he adds.

He stops at a photo showing a field full of green opium pods.

"See this field is all ripe, ready for drawing out the opium," he says, shaking his head. "It's lawlessness. Complete anarchy. If you cannot control this, or you are not willing to control this, I don't think you can control harder problems like militancy."

Looking for a link

With each case, Kamra says he feels he is getting closer to the nexus of narco-dealers and terrorists.

"In some of the cases, we found that people who indulge in carrying hashish have gotten in touch with people who need weapons," Kamra says. "They become a link between militants and narcotics."

In his police station in Bandipora in north Kashmir, police chief Ahmed watches dozens of trucks pass through his town each day, carrying hundreds of crates of apples down into India for sale. His past experience tells him that any one of these trucks may be carrying hashish, opium, or heroin, but without adequate intelligence tip-offs, he does not have the adequate manpower or resources to check each one.

In the meantime, all he can do is watch.

"The militants get involved in narcotics for two main reasons," he says. "One is to give to their fighters during suicide attacks, to give them courage and to take away the pain. The second reason is fundraising. Narcotics are very profitable."

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