Illicit drugs are a ``growth industry'' in Lebanon's shattered economy - and one of the few areas where cooperation crosses divisions hardened by more than a decade of civil war. Warring militias reportedly each get a cut in the expanding heroin and cocaine trade, as well as the traditional hashish industry. The income is significant. Up to 20 percent of Lebanon's gross national product may now come from narcotics trade, United States specialists on the Middle East say.
Much of the drug profit goes to perpetuate the 12-year-old civil war, and to line the pockets of local Lebanese and Syrian commanders, according to US and Middle Eastern specialists. There is also evidence that some of the profits support overseas terrorist activities.
(Sources spoke on strict ground of anonymity, with several saying they feared for their lives in a country where kidnapping and assassination are commonplace.)
Lebanon has traditionally been the world's major supplier of hashish (a marijuana derivative), and supplies most of that drug used in the US, according to specialists. Annual hashish production has remained fairly stable at 700 metric tons (1.54 million pounds) in recent years, despite the deteriorating political situation, according to US estimates.
The real ``boom'' has been in opium cultivation and heroin production, with cocaine processing recently added as well.
The anarchy reigning in Lebanon, especially since the Israeli invasion of 1982, has pushed militias and terrorist groups to find new sources of income and made drugs an attractive moneymaker, US officials say. Lebanon's government is just too weak to play a role, experts say. But Iran and Syria are held responsible by US and Middle Eastern specialists for encouraging and not eradicating the problem.
``Iran taught these guys how to cultivate opium poppies,'' says one senior US official. ``Before they came spreading the Khomeini revolution, hash was the mainstay of smugglers in the Bekaa Valley. Now opium poppies stretch as far as the eye can see in some areas.''
Official US estimates show a dramatic rise in Lebanese opium production in the last decade - from negligible amounts to about 27 metric tons (59,508 pounds) in 1987, or an estimated 1,800 hectares (4,500 acres) of poppy cultivation. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that opium cultivation could be as high as 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres).
Lebanese producers have even reportedly imported labor to cultivate the fields so they can be free to fight in the ongoing civil strife, Western intelligence sources say. Latin American cocaine and opium from Southwest Asia are also processed in Lebanon for shipment to Europe and elsewhere. There are even reports that coca bushes are being cultivated in the Bekaa Valley.
The pro-Iranian Hizbullah is believed to be deeply involved in heroin production and its transportation to Europe. According to Western intelligence sources, the Shiite Muslim religious hierarchy issued a fatwa (religious decree) that legitimizes opium and heroin production as long as it is sold to ``infidels.'' The drug sales help the Shiite jihad (holy war) by further undermining decadent Western society, the clerics reportedly reasoned.
Hizbullah operatives are said to transport the locally produced heroin to Germany, stored in condoms and body cavities. The profit margin is quite large, sources say, helping to finance the war effort in Lebanon and the maintenance of terrorist operatives in Europe.
Pro-Iranian Shiites are far from the only ones involved in the drug trade, however. Sunni Muslims and Christians also produce drugs in the Bekaa or help in its transport. US specialists also think Palestinian groups, such as Abu Nidal's terrorist organization, may well be involved in production and trafficking to finance their operations.
Some traditional drug families are also reported to be involved in anti-Western terrorism, mainly for the money. At least one Western hostage was reportedly held by such a family until he was freed under Syrian pressure.
Given the size of production, it is hard to imagine that the Syrians, who nominally control much of the Bekaa, are not involved, US officials say. Syria says its forces regularly eradicate narcotic-bearing plants. But, the officials say, only 10 percent or less of the 1,400 hectares allegedly eradicated last year were really destroyed.
Drug cultivation is not official Syrian policy, Middle Eastern sources say, but local commanders see this as a source of wealth to be accumulated before they are transferred back to Syria. Individual Syrian officers similarly confiscate new cars and other prestige items from Lebanese, they say.
Even if this is just individual corruption, Damascus, as the de facto governing power in the area, has a responsibility to stop the drug flow, says Ann Wrobleski, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics matters. In addition, a significant amount of illicit trade apparently flows through Syria itself, Secretary Wrobleski told Congress last week, and the US sees little effort to curb that. This, she explains, is why the US did not certify Syrian cooperation in the antidrug effort again this year.
US officials suspect Syria is ``winking its eye'' while quietly welcoming the cash inflow into its own hard-pressed economy and focusing on what it sees as higher priorities.
Indeed, cracking down on the drug trade would alienate some Syrian friends in Lebanon and further strain its military presence there, US specialists concede. Syria, however, will remain ineligible for US aid and other economic benefits until it moves against narcotics traffickers, as well as cracking down on the terrorists it still tolerates in Lebanon and Syria, they say.
Most of the heroin trade in Lebanon reportedly goes through Beirut International Airport, while most of the hashish is transported by land to various seaports. Control of transit routes is key, and here cooperation between different factions prevails, despite ongoing fighting, intelligence and diplomatic sources say.
One key route, for example, is from Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley through the mountains to the Christian port of Juniye. Drugs pass through areas controlled by the Hizbullah, Syria, pro-Syrian Shiites, and Christians. The groups each receive their cut, well-informed sources say, and then go back to fighting each other.
Lebanon's government - divided between Christian, Muslim, and Druze factions - is politically weak and unable to exert any control over the growing narcotics problem. US and Mideastern specialists agree that until the political stalemate in Lebanon is broken and some type of reconciliation begun, the civil strife, terrorism, economic crisis, and narcotics boom will continue to plague the country and spill over into the rest of the world.