CHASING THE DRAGON II
May 19th, 2018. Later in the day, the world is set to hone in on the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Instead of wearing a full morning coat, waistcoat, tie, and striped trousers, as demanded by British tradition, and not invited, I am 164 miles away in Leeds, a post-industrial city in northern England. My attire is somewhat less aesthetic, thicker, all covering, and topped off by heavy boots and thick latex gloves. The latter are in case of used needles. Of which there are many.
I have eschewed the recommended safety goggles, considering that the residents of the Abaddon I am about to witness may not relate to someone who looks so alien from their environment.
We descended cautiously into a pitch black netherworld beneath a road bridge in Holbeck, dubbed Britain’s only “legal” red light district.234 From needles for weapons to prostitutes high on heroin, the “legal” red light area is plagued with troubles as authorities turn a blind eye.
What the scheme – a ‘managed area’ designed to hold many social ills at bay from the rest of the city – has done is to create a laissez-faire Mecca for all that troubles society. We see the result as we picked our way through garbage and sprawled limbs under the bridge, passing huddled men whose gaunt, wary faces were briefly illuminated by the flare of matches and drug pipes.
Drug addiction in Britain was once mostly limited to men, but has exploded into a nationwide scourge that affects millions,235 including a growing number of women and youngsters who should be at school. Here in Holbeck, the protective company of fellow lost souls creates the impression that this is normal.
Tragically, perhaps it is.
In the past five years deaths in Britain involving heroin have rocketed, one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe.236 It is getting worse. In Belfast, local councillor Paul McCusker told the BBC that buying heroin was “as easy as getting a packet of cigarettes”.237
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction annual study of drug data across the continent, ‘The European Drug Report 2017’,238 reveals that drug-related deaths in Europe have risen for the third year in a row, with almost one in three drug overdoses occurring in Britain (31% of all recorded in Europe over 2017), with Germany a distant second (15%). The report also shows that Britain has the highest amount of heroin addicts in Europe.
This blizzard of opiates has moved through many routes, but one of the most consistent has been Armenia. There have been a few spectacular successes by the authorities. In January 2014 just short of a tonne of heroin, 927 kilogrammes, was discovered on a truck at the Meghri customs point between Armenia and Iran.239 In 2017, the Armenian customs service confiscated more than 100 kilogrammes of heroin from a single Turkish-owned truck that passed into Armenia from Iran.240
Most heroin traversing the Armenian border is hidden in vehicles crossing through ports of entry.241
Smaller amounts are carried in on foot by men dubbed “mules”242 – in 2018 for example three Iranians and an Italian were arrested on the Armenia-Iran border with 19 kilos – with packages taped to their legs, thighs, buttocks and other parts of their bodies.243 The still lightly monitored border allows plenty of opportunity for delivery via mules.
Some heroin is ferried in by small planes, while the United States Department of State’s 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report notes a series of cocaine seizures at Zvartnots International Airport.244 The same document adds that Armenia’s Main Department of Combating Organised Crime reports drug- related crimes were significantly up, with volumes of cannabis and cocaine more than doubling from 2014.245
The Department of State made note that drugs are smuggled in trucks driven across the Iranian border crossing at Meghri.
The effect of this pattern of events is clear. According to the World Drug Report, in 2014 the number of people suffering from drug use disorders increased disproportionally for the first time in six years,246 while the number of people who used at least one drug stayed at 5% of the adult population.247
The report found nearly 250 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 used at least one drug. The number of people classified as suffering from drug use disorders exceeded 29 million people. Additionally, around 12 million people inject drugs, with 14% of these living with HIV.248 The overall impact of drug use in terms of health consequences continues to be devastating.
From the sun-warmed slopes of a mountain outside of the town of Stepanakert in the Caucasus, this is a story that winds across the world towards Leeds and an opiates crisis that is beginning to take a grip on Europe.
Until his death, assassinated by a sniper,249 Russian mobster and thief in law Aslan Ûsoyan, lived the existence as that of a modern day monarch. Kamchybek Kolbayev enjoys his life in Bishkek, a mafia princeling,250 entertaining himself with a decidedly young plaything in a plush suite at the Hyatt. Currently building a smart home in Stepanakert, well beyond the long arm of the law, is Ruben Tatulyan. He is known in Sochi as a ‘well-connected’ businessman and philanthropist, as well as his status in Russia’s underworld.251 In one unfortunate brush with the law, Tatulyan was detained in Czech Republic despite holding an Armenian diplomatic passport.
Also known as ‘Robson’, Tatulyan’s close ties into Yerevan are well established, including the marriage of his daughter Galina to an Armenian noble and the expansive nuptials. The event included hundreds of guests flown in from Russia at Tatulyan’s expense and attended by a Who’s Who of Armenian politics and society.
On Holbeck Lane, seven addicts huddle in a small room, in an abandoned furniture warehouse. Vandals have long since broken the windows and a cruel northern wind whistles through the building. Not that the septet even notice.
Gaunt, thin and bedraggled, they look every inch the sort of heroin addicts as portrayed in Hollywood movies. For many users, heroin is more about avoiding or numbing pain than about feeling good.
Compared to other drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and meth, heroin is taken less for recreational and social reasons and more for self- medication. After a hit of heroin, dopamine floods the brain, instantly giving users a feeling of intense pleasure.
After the rush of euphoria, before the inevitable downer, there is time to snatch a warm, contented sleep, as if in a cocoon from the world. The seven, a group bonded by their addiction, their stories of having lost everything, and their sharing of needles, are immersed in a high. At this particular dopamine-induced moment, they may even thank Kolbayev for his services.
Ending up in jail three times did not stop Paul House from taking drugs.
He never intended on quitting the habit until he was told that he was infected with HIV. By then, of course, it was too late to salvage his life.
It was not supposed to be like that. The tall, blonde 47-year-old had left school at 16, not because he was lacking in brains, but because he had plenty. He quit education before high school in order to work, gained a trade, and was earning good money and bought his own home before his peers had even completed their studies.
A spell working on North Sea oil rigs would set House up financially – and provide a tragic link to his ultimate demise.
Before his death in 2017, House talked about his journey with drugs, which led to AIDS.
“It was around 2006. I was back in England, married with one kid. I was secure, happy, and back on the North Sea rigs. Then came the financial crash, and the work dried up. I was bored. One day a friend of mine offered me some (heroin) and, to be honest, I just loved it.”
The delights of a “warm” and “euphoric” high, followed by a sudden knockout effect, enchanted him. The beginnings of his demise were assured. Flush with cash and seeking a thrill, House not only gained a taste for the drug – he is not sure when it went from a social experience to an addiction, but thinks within weeks – but became a small-time dealer.
Not a good one as it turned out. He was arrested a handful of times, winning himself several judicial slaps on the wrist. Finally, when he was caught with 90 grams of heroin, he served the first of three short spells in jail. While there, he continued to trade. “I managed to smuggle drugs in jail, I couldn’t stop the habit, and didn’t want to. I was even dealing in there, as it was full of addicts like me.”
Perhaps House did not realise, however, but his slide into purgatory was well underway. Through his £150-a-day habit he had lost his wife and child, his home in the northern English city of Leeds, his smart Audi car and emptied his accounts at Barclays Bank, and moved in with his parents.
“When I went back home and ran out of heroin, I used to steal my mother’s diabetic pills, melt them, and use them as a substitute. That’s how desperate I was,” he explains. “My mother used to see the syringes, but I would find excuses to lie to her.”
Yet House would have greater worries than his mother.
“You know. You do. But you do not care,” he admits of the dangers of injecting drugs, of shared needles, and of the ever-present threat of disease and infections. Sometime, he thinks, in the spring of 2011, he was spending most of his time in the Holbeck area of Leeds, known for its red light district and an almost laissez-faire approach to drug taking.
Hanging out with fellow addicts, it was here that desperation, or even “not caring less”, saw him now sharing needles. Almost inevitably the worst happened.
In the autumn sunshine, as we sat on a rise above Stepanakert Airport and watched activities on the runway, in between gulps of adrenaline, my mind switched between House – my friend – and perhaps the best summary I have encountered of the precarious state of affairs that the international community faces in its failing drug war, circa-2018.
In January, Alfred W McCoy penned a piece for The Guardian which drew together the facts and the figures, the deaths and the losses, a few hundred words that give a shocking perspective on Afghanistan.252
Here we were, overlooking Stepanakert Airport, days after we had spent an early morning at Khodaafarin Bridge, observing just two of the points that were providing the undoing of the United States’ monumental effort.
After fighting the longest war in its history, the United States stands at the brink of defeat in Afghanistan. How could this be possible? How could the world’s sole superpower have battled continuously for more than 16 years – deploying more than 100,000 troops at the conflict’s peak, sacrificing the lives of nearly 2,300 soldiers, spending more than $1 trillion (£740 billion) on its military operations, lavishing a record $100 billion more on “nation-building”, helping fund and train an army of 350,000 Afghan allies – and still not be able to pacify one of the world’s most impoverished nations?
McCoy’s figures boggle the mind, as does his analysis:
In the American failure lies a paradox: Washington’s massive military juggernaut has been stopped in its steel tracks by a small pink flower – the opium poppy. Throughout its three decades in Afghanistan, Washington’s military operations have succeeded only when they fit reasonably comfortably into central Asia’s illicit traffic in opium – and suffered when they failed to complement it.253
Chasing the dragon is a slang phrase of Cantonese origin referring to inhaling the vapour from a heated drug solution, often heroin. Its overtly romantic overtones make light of the squalid nature of opiate use. Instead of Sherlock Holmes puffing opium as he measured the evidence of an investigation, in reality it is closer to House.
Sharing a disease-tipped needle, a group of mottled addicts huddle together, amidst the ruins of a cold, abandoned factory in a post-industrial northern English city. It is almost a shared experience as they slide into oblivion.
One of the British links between House and the Taliban’s opium fields was provided by Fikri Yarasir,254 a linchpin for the shipment and retail of heroin in Britain.
The Taliban have long profited from the opium trade by taxing and providing security for producers and smugglers.255 But increasingly, the insurgents are directly getting into every stage of the drug business themselves, rivalling some of the major cartels in the region – and in some places becoming indistinguishable from them. The opium economy in Afghanistan grew to about $3 billion in 2016,256 a white blizzard that needs to find its way onto lucrative Western European markets. Like in Leeds.
Dubbed ‘Super Mario’ for his likeness to Nintendo’s iconic plumber,257 the Turkish businessman would be the local importer for Afghan heroin shipments that made their way through Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh-Armenia and then usually smuggled by road through Europe’s open borders, and then by sea to Britain.
From a repackaging facility in Rhyl, in Wales, where the heroin would be hidden in hollowed out furniture.258 Yarasir would become one of northern England’s biggest suppliers, operating of an industrial unit in Salford, on the outskirts of Manchester. From here he would supply England’s post-industrial heartlands, including House’s stomping ground in Leeds.
‘Super Mario’ would eventually be convicted and jailed for 25 years.259 On his arrest his drug factory held 210 kilos of heroin with a street value of £63 million, the largest haul in quantity and value of the drug seized in Greater Manchester Police history.
Given the Turk’s omnipresence in the supply of heroin in the region, it would likely be his powder that was behind House’s steady descent into purgatory. House sunk to become the very stereotype of an emaciated, exhausted addict, a petty thief who had resorted to crime in order to obtain drugs. And, in the final analysis, he was also a coward. He committed suicide rather than face the disease he had himself injected into his body.
House has been dead for more than one year, buried, without mourners, in a simple suburban grave. Yet the saga that claimed him continues.
In 2017 drug-related deaths hit a record high in England and Wales, with 3,744 recorded,260 one of them House, mainly from heroin and other opioids. Today, Britain has Europe’s highest proportion of heroin addicts.261
The scale of the crisis is small compared with the United States – where more than 100 Americans die each day262 from a widening opioid epidemic – but continues to grow.
Despite the efforts of European law enforcement, also growing is the supply. A tide of drugs is washing over the continent. Kolbayev will not know, nor care, about people like House. Yet everything in the luxury life of Tatulyan and Kolbayev is paid for through the agony of people like him. From his place in, what one would assume, is purgatory, Ûsoyan may be learning that fact.
The price of their home, flash cars, smart watches, expensive mistresses and Armani suits is actually paid for by House. With his life. And the nations that they have flooded with opiates.
The bare figures are offered up by Home Office Research documents, National Treatment Outcome Research Studies and other academic papers. A British addict’s average daily consumption of heroin is 3.28 ‘wraps’ at £10 each. The majority of heroin addicts are heavy drinkers and smokers.
Greater than 80% are unemployed. Some 45% have a spouse or partner who is also addicted and 47% are responsible for children under 18. Each drug-related death costs £1,144,000 in social, economic, health and criminal justice costs.263
Heroin use is a ‘predictive’ of involvement in acquisitive crime; addicts are ten times more likely to be involved in crime than other sectors of society. Take one kilogramme of heroin supplied by a dealer each day. This would enable the dealer to make 10,000 ‘wraps’ of £10 bags. Average usage of heroin by a user is 3.28 bags per day, meaning that this one dealer could provide the requirements of 3,048 addicts daily.264
Around 80% of heroin addicts are unemployed from that group, equating to 2,400 jobless heroin addicts. Their average daily consumption and associated drinking and smoking leads to a shortfall in income of £1,800 per month per unemployed addict. This would mean 2,400 users with a monthly shortfall in income of £1,800 each. That equates to £4.3 million, just among this limited snapshot of people.265
If we assume a 50% realisation on stolen assets to fund their addiction, that is £8.6 million per month. In summary, every problematic drug user costs Britain £44,231 in crime, social, health and economic costs each month.266
Multiply this target group across Britain, factor in addicts across Europe and throw in those afflicted by the explosion of opiate abuse in North America... and the plush lives of Tatulyan, Kolbayev and Ûsoyan become very expensive indeed.
The situation is perhaps even more worrisome in Germany. In March 2018, one of Germany’s leading national newspapers suggested the country was on the brink of an opioid crisis. “Germany risks suffering an opioid epidemic similar to that seen in the United States.”267
Christoph Stein, director of the anaesthesiology department at Charité hospital in Berlin told Die Welt of the scope of the crisis, while Peter Raiser, deputy CEO of the German Centre for Addiction, informed the media that between 200,000 and 300,000 Germans are estimated to be dependent on opioids.268
Germany’s case is somewhat different to that of Britain. Britain is merely supplied via Armenian gangs, using routes that stretch across Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, the end product delivered and distributed by third party criminal gangs. Instead, Germany is a well-established theatre of operations for Armenia’s criminal enterprises.
In an article titled “Germany: Armenian mafia controls the streets of Erfurt”, Vestnik Kavkaza reports that: According to the public television channel of the Free State of Thuringia, ‘MDR THÜRINGEN’, the Armenian mafia and the criminal rocker gang ‘Hells Angels’, well-known in Germany, have a joint business in the ‘red light district’ in the German state of Thuringia. According to the channel, the two groups are involved in criminal activities in the fields of drug trafficking and prostitution. And the contacts between the two groups already have a long history.269
In November 2018, Der Spiegel reported on a three-year Federal Criminal Police Office, six state, criminal investigation into the Armenian mafia.270 This targeted 42 mafia members involved in financial schemes and money laundering, resulting in 14 court cases.
One of the largest ever campaigns against organised crime in that country, which also encompassed investigators and resources from Bundesnachrichtendienst – Federal Intelligence Service – and Europol, a final Federal Criminal Police Office document concluded that an Armenian mafia possesses “considerable financial resources” and represents “a threat to the rule of law”.271 Reports detailed a web of cross-border cooperation that ties Germany’s Armenian mafia to the likes of Italy’s Ndrangheta.272
An interesting aspect of Der Spiegel’s coverage is that it reports the Federal Criminal Police Office and Bundesnachrichtendienst decided against cooperating in their work with Armenian Ambassador to Germany, Aschot Smbatjan, due to his ties to many of those being investigated.273
From our viewpoint over Stepanakert airport we have begun to hear a familiar buzz in the distance. The whirring engine of a small aircraft approaching. A Cessna 172 appears from along the valley.
The Cessna is the aircraft of choice for criminals the world over. As Business Insider noted in a May 2016 article titled “El Chapo’ Guzmán had more airplanes than the biggest airline in Mexico”: Before he was recaptured in January, Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán ran the largest airborne operation in Mexico. Between 2006 and 2015, Mexican authorities seized 599 aircraft – 586 planes and 13 helicopters – that the cartel used to ship drugs throughout Mexico and Latin America, according to information from the Mexican defense ministry (Sedena) that was obtained by Mexican newspaper El Universal. The largest legitimate airline in the country, Aeroméxico, has 127 planes.274
The Cessna hops knowingly over the steel cables that are threaded across mountains overlooking the airport. These are an anti-aircraft measure to prevent Azerbaijani fighters from making bombing runs, which seems not to have happened for a quarter century. For the significantly slower Cessna that arrives at Stepanakert airport, these anti-aircraft measures hold no fears.
The Cessna has made its way from the Turkmen coast, somewhere in the region of Chikishlyar and Esenguly. Skimming Iran’s Caspian coast it crossed into Iranian territory prior to the border of Azerbaijan, near Astara, and rounded into Nagorno-Karabakh, navigating its way between valleys and mountain ranges.
The whole journey stretches across some 450 miles and takes around an hour and a half. With Iranian acquiescence bought and paid for, the logistics are simple as long as the pilots fly “right on the deck” in order to avoid Azerbaijani air control.
The172’smaximumtake-offweightis1,111kilos.275 Allowingforfuel,pilot, co-pilot and other equipment, this easily allows for 350-400 kilos of heroin. This has a street value of upwards of $30 to $40 million.
Landing at Stepanakert, we see the plane taxi to a position adjacent to the terminal building. A single white Ford Transit parks alongside and, within a minute or two, under the watchful eye of two armed men, the Cessna’s precious cargo is transferred. The vehicle quickly exits the airport, heading away from Stepanakert and into Nagorno-Karabakh’s almost endless mountains.
We see this repeated twice during our brief stay in the town.
Most law and order attention continues to be focused on traditional smuggling efforts and routes, by road and sea. Armenia’s place in the heroin trail linking Afghanistan and Leeds, and indeed the rest of Western Europe, had begun to elicit much unwanted international attention.
So the criminals did what they always do. Innovate. A new air war is underway.
Into this new front in the drug war, national governments and transnational law and order organisations have thrown together a tiny air force of men and planes. Increased surveillance and improved communications between authorities in Turkmenistan and the nations of the Caucasus can only do so much when the target is a single plane, flying mostly below radar, in the isolated vastness of its operating environment. Officials openly acknowledge that, outside of an occasional hit, the smugglers are so far winning. The Nagorno-Karabakh connection is a step ahead in a business where innovation and invention mean success and vast profit.
Despite the cargo that passes through Stepanakert – which, if legal, would easily make it one of Europe’s top 100 airports by value of goods handled – the airport continues to carry a deadbeat, weather-beaten look. This strategic gateway for heroin supply to Europe looks as it is supposed to.
A dusty relic of a ‘frozen conflict’.
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