INTOXICATION EXPRESS 05
Meth labs are here
Global cartels that used to buy ingredients from India have boldly set up drug factories here.Rishi Majumder reports
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Illustrations: Dinesh, Sudeep Chaudhuri
THERE ARE three problems with the State’s approach to a drug named methamphetamine, usually called meth or ice. It doesn’t understand the buyer. It doesn’t understand the seller. It doesn’t understand itself.
The buyer could be the male friend of the girl at a Bandra after-party in Mumbai, who casually picks out a random card from a pack, containing a word others have to guess. Her eyes light up. “What you love to do,” she says, pointing to him. “Ice” is the answer. It can be injected, smoked, snorted or taken as a pill. Here, pills are being passed around.
The youngsters swallowing this pill come from India’s urban upper middle class. The girl giving clues is the junior designer for a popular clothes retail chain. The boy is a freshly enrolled chartered financial analyst. The party, in a dingy flat, could be one of hundreds in Mumbai alone. Walking into a five-star toilet on a Saturday night turns up a meth pill on the floor. Yet, most drug enforcement officers believe this is a relatively harmless drug, whose use is restricted to the uber-rich cliques.
Each lab churns out enough meth every month to gross a street price of at least Rs 100 crore
Methamphetamine belongs to a drug group termed Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS) which includes Ecstasy. Besides being a party drug, meth is also used by workaholics for the boost in energy and concentration that it gives. The last World Drug Report says more people are addicted to ATS than opium and cocaine put together: one in 200 have abused ATS.
Pills containing meth and caffeine — called yaba abroad — have been christened ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’ by Indian drug dealers. That’s because long-lasting memory disorders usually follow meth abuse. Also common is a condition called amphetamine psychosis, akin to schizophrenia. An overdose can cause convulsions, heart attack or a stroke. Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety and fatigue, severe depression and suicidal tendencies. Dr Sameer Malhotra, who heads the department of psychiatry and psychotherapy at Delhi’s Fortis Hospital, claims to have treated “an increasing number of meth patients over the last few years” for fearful hallucinations and paranoia. Among his patients is a 17-year-old schoolboy whose parents run a restaurant and a 32-year-old entrepreneur with a three-year-old son.
The seller could be one of the four foreign kingpins who have set up meth labs in India in the past three years — a South American drug lord, a Moroccan mastermind, a Vietnam-born Canadian national operating from Cambodia, and a Hong Kong multi-millionaire suspected of Triad connections. Their Indian operatives comprise a retired chemistry teacher, a hashish addict with a stake in B-Grade Hindi films, many businessmen, and an ex-police officer and Arjuna Award winning heavyweight wrestler.
The scale is huge. Four drug labs busted by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in the past three years have been traced to some of the world’s leading cartels. Gauging from the seizures and confessions, each lab churns out enough meth every month to gross a street price of at least Rs 100 crore, enough for 10 lakh hits (a kilo of meth is sold wholesale at Rs 1.5 crore, with an ultimate street value of about Rs 5 crore; a meth tablet has 20 mg of meth).
India has been supplying ephedrine — the raw material for meth — to such cartels for over a decade. “First they came for the raw material,” says ex-Joint Director of Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) Upendra Yadav. “Now they’ve set up manufacturing units.” The logical next step for any ambitious multinational would be to expand the local market. Additional Director General (ADG) NCB Mumbai Yashodhan Wanage — the NCB zonal unit primarily responsible for these meth lab busts — says: “These meth lab busts have proven beyond a doubt that international cartels are operating in India. All the methamphetamine seized has been for export only.” But in the words of ex-ADG NCB Om Prakash: “You can’t dismiss the possibility of a (deadly) spillover.”
Yet the local police officers claim to have been unaware of these labs. One such lab was located just one floor above a chemical factory that central and state excise officials would inspect regularly. These officials have not even been questioned. The accused in another drug lab case confessed that foreign currency of over $1 lakh has been carried through the Mumbai Airport thrice — without being detected by either customs officials or the DRI. The money for these labs could also have come into the country via hawala operators. But the Enforcement Directorate has not followed the money trail.
Most curious is the judgment of Mumbai Sessions Court Special Judge DR Shirsao, who granted bail to five caught for meth trafficking. Sources claim that the accused, who have been free for six months now, are planning another drugs racket. It may well be an unrelated development, but on 3 June, 1,000 kg of the raw material ephedrine was seized while being smuggled through Delhi after police acted on a tip-off. Ram Naresh, 29, and Umesh Mehra, 51, were arrested.
The Latin American Connection
On 20 August 2010, the NCB busted a meth lab at a factory shed on Mira Bhayander Road, Thane. The quantity of meth and precursors seized is worth Rs 11.75 crore.
Lethal factory The meth lab at Asangaon, Thane. The premises were owned by Kishore Hendrik Nandan
Colombian Luis Carlos and Indian Jacob Madathil were arrested two days later. Carlos, 41, was an engineer earlier employed as ground staff with Kingfisher Airlines. After he lost his job, a South American drug kingpin offered him this one. The first name and country location of this kingpin is known to TEHELKA. They coincide with that of a South American drug lord who’s one of the biggest players in the world drug trade. But since he is currently being tracked by the NCB, Interpol and drug enforcement authorities of other countries, TEHELKA chooses not to alert him and will call him X instead.
Accepting X’s offer, Carlos teamed up with Madathil, 58, to set up this lab in Madathil’s factory shed. He had met Madathil, a retired chemistry teacher, in Suriname, a small South American country. Mathadil’s last teaching stint was at Nigeria. In Mumbai he had started an Ayurvedic medicine business which ran into heavy losses.
They ran this lab for seven months before they were busted. X arranged for two Taiwanese cooks to be flown in to make the meth. The raw materials, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, were extracted from prescription drugs. The meth was bound for Honduras.
The factory falls within the jurisdiction of Kashimera Police Station, Thane. This is what Anil Patil, officer in charge (OC) of the station said:
TEHELKA: How come the police had no information about this?
PATIL: It’s like this. If a factory is being run as a medical or pharmaceutical unit, then it’s their department to check on it. We’re not directly involved.
TEHELKA: Which department?
PATIL: The Food and Drugs Department.
TEHELKA: But was there nothing suspicious that anyone in the police station noticed about this factory at all?
PATIL: As far as my information goes, the drug in question was a banned drug. A banned psychotropic substance. It wasn’t like brown sugar, charas, ganja or cocaine. So it wasn’t the kind of drug you’d be able to make out immediately.
TEHELKA: The NCB is distributing a kit to police stations to test for methamphetamine. Did you get any such kit? Before the bust, or even after?
TEHELKA:Was anything done to improve the police station’s awareness towards such drugs since the bust? Has a new way of tackling this menace been thought of ?
PATIL: No. Well, there is the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS). But there has to be a concerted action and training at the local police station level.
A man from Morocco
On 19 August 2010, a meth lab was uncovered in the shed of the Ganga Industrial Estate at Asangaon, Thane. The total value of the seizure is Rs 14.85 crore.
Dutch national of Indian origin Kishore Henrik Nandan and a group of six Iranians were arrested for running this lab. Nandan, 41, had run up a debt of 100,000 euros in Europe. Then a man from Morocco, whose name even the agencies don’t know yet, told Nandan that he would rent his lockedup spice factory for just three months.
The Indian facilitator here was a man known as Raju, a hashish addict who has also invested in the B-grade Hindi film industry. Raju hired a flat in his name in Swathi Apartments at Oshiwara, Mumbai, for Nandan and the Iranians as staying at a hotel would mean having to register passport details. Confessions have shown that foreign currency over $1 lakh was carried through the Mumbai Airport thrice for this lab. Raju is still absconding. Shivnath Shinde was the OC of Shahpur PS — which this lab came under — in August 2010. He says the lab was “way in” and so the police couldn’t patrol the area. He claims to have learnt about the bust from the newspapers. When asked whether his unit has received any special training for synthetic drugs since, he reiterates: “All I know about it is what I read in the newspaper.”
Both these labs busted in Thane on consecutive days were located in rural areas. Yet, apparently, the police saw nothing fishy about six Iranians or a Colombian trudging along to a factory that was ‘way in’ in such an area.
Nangre Patil, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Thane Rural, is in charge of NDPS cases in the area.
TEHELKA:We wanted to talk to you regarding two meth lab busts in Thane — at Asangaon and Mira Road.
PATIL: Right. The cases were made by the NCB. Narcotics Control Bureau.
TEHELKA: But the labs did come up within your jurisdiction?
PATIL: Yes. But both the initial and forensic investigations were carried out by the NCB; after that the factory premises were closed.
TEHELKA: You’re saying Thane Rural had no information about these factories?
PATIL: Basically, this was a precursor manufacturing unit.
TEHELKA: No, the ephedrine was being extracted – but methamphetamine (the actual drug) was also being made.
PATIL: I can’t tell you properly because I’m at Nasik right now.
TEHELKA has since tried to contact Nangre Patil but has been unable to get through.
In July 2009, the NCB busted a meth lab in a factory shed in a Patiala industrial estate. The owner of the premises had 3.5 kg of meth stored in a fridge at his flat. Before that, the NCB had seized 25 kilos of meth made in this lab in Mumbai on 8 June 2009. So the total value of meth seized from this lab would amount to roughly Rs 53.5 crore.
The Indian facilitator who led the NCB to the lab is ex-cop Jagdish Singh, who won a silver medal for India in the 1994 Asian Games, as well as the 1997 Arjuna Award, for heavyweight wrestling. Singh was dismissed from Punjab Police for trafficking 60 sacks of poppy husk. Sources say that after his dismissal, Singh expanded his drug business further. He trades in Af-Pak heroin, pegged at Rs 1 crore per kg. He also contributes to the campaign funds of certain Punjab politicians. Singh is known to keep up with bureaucrats, judges and politicians who move up from Punjab to Delhi — to entrench his influence in the capital.
The NCB arrested Singh along with two accomplices as they drove up to the Oberoi Mall at Goregaon, Mumbai, in a Toyota Innova on 8 June 2009. They had driven down from Chandigarh with 25 kg of meth. Apparently, a Canadian national of Vietnamese origin — called Le Van Lanh — was masterminding this racket from Cambodia. Intelligence inputs from drug enforcement agencies in the South-East indicate Lanh was recently arrested in Cambodia in another trafficking case.
Narendra Kumar Goyal, alias Lala, owned the premises of the lab. He was later arrested with another 25 kilos of meth. But NCB sources say Singh was almost entirely responsible for the trafficking of the drug from Patiala to Hanoi in Cambodia.
Yet, in a once-in-a-blue-moon judgment for NDPS cases, Jagdish Singh and his accomplices Harvinder Ram, Harjinder Singh, Anil Kumar Menon and G Samuel were granted bail on 3 March 2010 by Mumbai sessions court special judge DR Shirsao.
When Jagdish Singh was in Arthur Road Jail, he tried to recruit prison mates for a future job
Why? The Bombay High Court Prosecutor for this case, Francise Saldanha, explains the rationale of the judgment: “The crux of the argument was that this drug, methamphetamine, was not included in Schedule 1 of the NDPS rules, even though it was listed as a psychotropic substance in the Act itself. And that the drugs and cosmetics act were applicable to methamphetamine — so the provisions of the NDPS Act wouldn’t be applicable.”
On 13 April , Justice R Mohite of the High Court stayed this bail order. On 23 September, Justices Aftab Alam and RM Lodha of the Supreme Court vacated this stay. The defence lawyer in the Supreme Court was ex-Solicitor General Amarinder Sharan. NCB officials claim the government was represented by Additional Solicitor General Mohan Jain who hails from Chandigarh, in Punjab. When contacted by TEHELKA and asked to speak about the Jagdish Singh case, he says:
TEHELKA: Why did the Supreme Court vacate the HC’s stay on Jagdish Singh’s bail?
JAIN: Let me make it very clear to you. When a matter is running in the Supreme Court it would be very improper for me as a law officer to speak on it.
TEHELKA: But you had appeared on behalf of the government.
TEHELKA: Are you sure?
JAIN: No. At least I don’t remember it. I don’t think I have appeared.
Curious. On 12 October 2010, Jagdish Singh and his accomplices were released from Arthur Road Jail. NCB officials claim he had spoken to fellow inmates about “getting out of jail before Diwali” and told them he had “set things up” for himself.
They also claim he was trying to recruit some prison mates for a future job.
On 17 February this year, Justice Bhatia of the High Court cancelled bail for Jagdish Singh and his associates, clarifying the legal position on meth in his judgment. Saldanha explains: “Merely because a drug is included under the Cosmetics Act — and not in schedule 1 of the NDPS rules — does not bar the provisions of the NDPSAct being applicable, because methamphetamine has been included in the schedules of the NDPS Act as a psychotropic substance.”
But yet again on 9 March, Justice Lodha of the Supreme Court placed an ad-interim stay on the High Court order. “The Supreme Court has many such matters before it,” explains a law officer. “The judges have decided to hear them all at one time.”
TEHELKA spoke to Jagdish Singh’s lawyer in the Bombay High Court, Anil Lalla, but he refused to comment on phone. His response to a list of questions was: “Will send you a reply by tomorrow.” More than a month has passed since then. Asked whether TEHELKA could speak to the accused, he replied via SMS: “They would not (speak) and not recommended as the matter is subjudice.”
In November 2008, a chemical factory at Mokshi near Salvi, a rural area bordering Vadodara, was raided by the NCB. On the ground floor was a legal chemical factory, Sakha Organics, regularly inspected by Gujarat state and Central Excise officials. On the first floor was the meth lab. TEHELKA tried to trace the excise officers who failed to detect this lab in 2008. The state has kept no record nor questioned them. Thirty litres of liquid meth in the process of being crystallised was seized, valued at more than Rs 40 crore.
It all began with a Taiwanese national who was carrying 2 kg of meth out of India for a fee of Rs 50,000. On being arrested at the Delhi airport, he led the NCB to his handler — a 52-year-old Chinese origin Canadian national called Xie Jing Feng, alias Richard. Caught with 2.5 kg meth on the Mumbai-Vadodara highway. He led them to the lab and laid the network bare.
Feng had rented the premises from Sakha Organics owners Jagdish Vaidya and Kirit Shah for a down payment of 3 crore for just a few months. Two Malay cooks, Ravindran Karapaya, 42, and Gunasekaran Pakiam Pillaz, 48, had been hired.
Feng set up the lab at Vadodara since he had been under close surveillance in China for 10 years
All of this was traced to Chinese national Tsoi Chit Sang, or Tsoi Johnson, (many Chinese adopt a western name to facilitate business) in his late thirties. Chinese authorities have been watching him since he was in his teens, as he is suspected of having joined the Triads — the dreaded Hong Kong underworld. That is why he set up units abroad, like the lab at Vadodara. Feng’s testimony gave the Chinese a reason to raid Sang’s house and business premises, where they found meth. Sang’s legitimate assets, now frozen, are worth 44 million Hong Kong dollars.
Gujarat’s Anti-Narcotics Division is a part of the state CID. A senior police official here talks to us off the record. He says: “All these drugs are manufactured in factories that the police don’t really consider to be within their jurisdiction. This is because the police won’t even recognise these chemicals or drugs if they come across them. Only agencies like the NCB are specialised enough to deal with them…”
TEHELKA tracked down ACP NB Koralwala, who was handling the Anti-Narcotics Division at the time of the bust:
TEHELKA: After this incident, has the state’s narcotics division taken any specific action to prevent such labs from coming up in the future?
KORALWALA: There’s been no such lab after that. That was the only one.
TEHELKA:Has the Anti-Narcotics Division taken any action? How do you know for sure there are no more labs? KORALWALA: Ask the NCB that, not me.
TEHELKA: I’m asking about the state Narcotics Division. This incident shows how easy it is to set up a lab in Gujarat.
KORALWALA:We have received no such information since.
TEHELKA: But… Koralwala hangs up.
Rishi Majumder is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.