Africa is heroin’s new highway to the West
The trade is poisoning politics and fuelling addiction on the continent.
Alizea smit sits on a plastic crate in front of her fruit and vegetable stand in Wynberg, Cape Town. It is a convenient spot. There is brisk custom for her oranges and avocados. And her heroin dealer is on the corner, just a few metres away. Ms Smit (not her real name) has used the drug for six years, buying three or four pellets a day at 30 rand ($2.21) each. If she does not sell enough fresh produce to feed her habit, she works as a prostitute in the evening. “Heroin is the worst,” she says. “It’s the first drug I’ve taken that you can’t escape.”
Until recently heroin addicts were rare in Africa. In the 1980s and 1990s users could be found largely in tourist spots, such as Zanzibar, or in enclaves of white hipsterdom in cities like Johannesburg. Since 2006, however, heroin consumption has increased faster in Africa than in any other continent, according to the un Office on Drugs and Crime (unodc). The trade in the drug is having ruinous effects, not just on public health, but on politics, too.
The rise of heroin in Africa partly reflects a surge in global supply. As the Taliban has consolidated its hold on parts of Afghanistan, where 85% of the world’s heroin is made, more of the country has been given over to poppies. In 2017 opium production increased by 65% to 10,500 tonnes, the highest recorded by the unodc since it began collecting data in 2000.
Not only is there more heroin being produced, but a rising share of the crop is being trafficked via Africa. The so-called Balkan route, encompassing Iran, Turkey and south-east Europe, has been the main way of getting heroin to the West. But over the past decade moving drugs along it has become harder, a side-effect of Turkey tightening its borders in response to the war in Syria and European countries’ attempts to keep out refugees. As a result, more of the harvests are being dispatched along the “southern route” (see map).
On this route, sometimes called the “smack track”, heroin is taken from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Makran coast, where shipments are put on dhows, traditional Arabian boats with triangular sails. (Some heroin is also smuggled via containers in larger ships.) Throughout the year, save for the monsoon season, dhows sail south-west through the Indian Ocean before anchoring off Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Smaller boats collect the contraband, taking it to beaches and coves, or to commercial harbours. From there heroin is taken by land to South Africa and shipped or flown to Europe or America, according to a report by Simone Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. Although it is longer than the Balkan route, the high margins on drug-smuggling more than compensate.
Authorities have largely failed to curb the traffic. Since 2010 there have been seizures in the Arabian Sea by an American-led multinational naval force. But it is mainly a counter-terrorist outfit, not a drug-busting one. It seizes heroin on the basis that drug sales help finance the Taliban but it does not have a mandate to arrest smugglers. As for seizures on the African mainland, these have been “extremely low”, notes Shanaka Jayasekara of the unodc. Police may not even try as the authorities and their political patrons are often in league with traffickers.
The corrosive effect that the heroin trade is having on politics is most evident in Mozambique. Though data are hard to verify, heroin may be Mozambique’s largest or second-largest export (after coal), reckons Joseph Hanlon of the London School of Economics.
In Mozambique trafficking is controlled by powerful families and covertly regulated by Frelimo, the ex-Marxist ruling party. In a hotel in Nampula, in the north of the country, an employee of a drug kingpin explains the deal between smugglers and the state. In exchange for political donations and personal kickbacks, Frelimo grants traffickers protection from arrest. The party also issues permits allowing smugglers to import and export goods without detection at the port of Nacala. In one alleged case, a trafficker imported hundreds of motorbikes using the Frelimo imprimatur, all of which had heroin packed into their petrol tanks.
No arrests of major figures for drug-trafficking have taken place in Mozambique. Seizures by police are all but unheard of; South African criminal-intelligence officials complain that their Mozambican counterparts block their investigations. For their part, donors to Mozambique have been reluctant to bring it up; development honchos pay little attention to crime. This is short-sighted. A report published in November by Ms Haysom suggests that conflict related to heroin and other illicit trades is helping fuel the insurgency in the far north of the country, near huge deposits of natural gas.
The drug trade is harming South Africa, too, which is used as a base for onward shipment because of its good infrastructure and weak currency (which makes services like those of lawyers cheap). Competition for control of the heroin market among gang bosses has contributed to a spike in murders in Cape Town.
South Africa is also where the public-health effects of the heroin trade are starkest. Since intermediaries are typically paid in drugs, as the wholesale trade grows, more heroin leaks out into the domestic retail market. A ready army of dealers then push heroin on consumers.
Ms Smit’s pusher, a 35-year-old Tanzanian migrant by the name of Juma, describes how his patch works. New users are offered “starter packs” and repeat users are rewarded for loyalty: a free pellet worth R30 for every five they buy. He pays R500 for a “booster pack”, from which he nets a R250 profit, after paying gangs a “tax” for protection. Though dealing is risky, Juma says it is better than his life in Zanzibar, where he was paid the equivalent of $2 a day for repairing telephone poles. That was not enough to support his wife and two children, so he emigrated to South Africa. “Shit, it’s a tough life, boss,” he sighs.
Data on South African heroin users are patchy. There are more than 1,000 people receiving treatment, up from almost none two decades ago, but this is a fraction of users. One estimate of injecting users puts the number at 75,000, or 0.2% of adults. Yet solo injecting is just one way heroin is consumed. Many smoke it in a toxic cocktail of washing powder, sleeping tablets and methamphetamines. A few indulge in “bluetoothing”, where they share the hit by withdrawing, then injecting, the blood of a fellow user into their own veins. In a country where hiv remains common, this is mind-bogglingly risky.
For Craven Engel, a pastor who runs Camp Joy, a rehabilitation centre near Cape Town for gang members who take drugs, there is no doubt that heroin is now “the fashionable drug”. Over the past five years it has overtaken methamphetamine as the drug of choice, he says. Recovering addicts agree. For many of them, taking heroin was a way of expunging violent memories of fighting for drug turf. “I needed the drug to alleviate my conscience,” explains a member of a gang. So long as the southern route thrives, the demand for opium to salve the soul is unlikely to ease.
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