Dubai customs agents foiled what was likely one of the largest drug smuggling operations in the Middle East, seizing nearly 14 tons of a highly addictive stimulant known as captagon and arresting six suspects.
(Bloomberg) — Dubai customs agents foiled what was likely one of the largest drug smuggling operations in the Middle East, seizing nearly 14 tons of a highly addictive stimulant known as captagon and arresting six suspects.
The pills, with street value of nearly 4 billion dirhams ($1.1 billion), were hidden inside 651 doors and 432 decorative panels and shipped on five containers, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of the interior, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said on X, formally known as Twitter.
Sometimes called the “poor man’s cocaine,” captagon is an amphetamine-type substance like speed that can trigger a boost in energy and alertness as well as a sense of euphoria or invincibility. Already popular in parts of the Middle East with everyone from teenagers to low-income construction workers, the narcotic is easy to make. It’s also been associated with militants in Iraq and Syria.
A video released on Thursday showed the suspects under surveillance moving the haul from Dubai into a neighboring emirate. Authorities said they were arrested “red-handed,” though the UAE’s announcement didn’t mention where the containers originated or name the suspects behind them.
The Dubai captagon haul represents the third-largest seizure in recent years. In 2021, Malaysian authorities — tipped off by their counterparts in Saudi Arabia — impounded about 95 million tablets, weighing around 16 tons and having an estimated market value of about $1.2 billion, concealed inside rubber trolley wheels.
The previous year, Italy seized some 84 million pills, weighing about 14 tons and valued at $1.1 billion. Hidden in containers of paper rolls and metal gears, they arrived at the port of Salerno from the Syrian port city of Latakia.
Selling for around $3 to $25 per tablet, captagon is primarily produced and trafficked by individuals and groups tied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, according to the US State Department and Treasury, the UK’s Foreign Office as well as independent researchers.
Captagon has become a vital revenue generator for Assad and his inner circle who are heavily sanctioned by the West for their bloody crackdown on protesters starting in 2011.
The trafficking of captagon has generated business to the tune of $7 billion to $10 billion over the past three years, with most of the profits benefiting Assad and his allies in neighboring Lebanon, according to the Washington-based think tank the New Lines Institute.
“Captagon is vital for the Syrian regime, Assad’s family, militias and institutions in the army,” Samih al-Maaytah, Jordan’s former minister of information, told Al Jazeera last week. “They’re all profiting from it.”
Jordan has mobilized its army at the border with Syria and has conducted strikes inside its neighbor against suspected production sites and individuals involved in trafficking as it struggles to stem the flow of the drug across the porous frontier.
In an unusually frank remarks, Maaytah said Assad could be using the proliferation of captagon to punish Jordan and other Arab countries in the region that previously supported opposition politicians and rebel groups who sought to topple the Syrian leader at the onset of the nation’s 2011 uprising.
European officials have told Bloomberg the drug’s spread was now becoming a threat to Europe, with Assad using his leverage to get sanctions relief from the West and reconstruction funds from wealthy Arab states.
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