Investigative Reports: From a border crossing to a center… Iraqi Kurdistan is in the heart of the drug storm

From a border crossing to a center… Iraqi Kurdistan is in the heart of the drug storm

Salah Baban – translated by Walaa Rayya:

“Naz Ali” (27 years old) never imagined that the man she fell in love with and married, Farshad Anayat, who had come to Sulaymaniyah from Kermanshah, Iran, was a professional drug dealer.

The Iranian young man presented himself to her as a researcher looking for job opportunities and investments in Sulaymaniyah and convinced her to abandon her studies and travel with him to his hometown despite her parents’ objections, which turned her life upside down.

After several months, Naz discovered that her addicted husband was also involved in a large drug trafficking network between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan.

After the shock set in, she tried unsuccessfully to dissuade him from that path and threatened to leave him, even after the birth of their daughter, but it did not work.

Naz’s husband revealed his true nature and did not hesitate to threaten her and their child’s life. Overwhelmed by her tragic circumstances, Naz fell into drug abuse, ultimately giving in to the idea of suicide by the end of 2020.

High-level security and government sources agree that drug abuse in Iraq – especially in the Kurdistan region – has become the country’s biggest threat. Drug abuse is no longer limited to a few thousand people in specific cities but has spread to all regions of the country, which have turned into major centers for drug trafficking and abuse, after decades of being mere transit points for drugs.

Official reports have disclosed the seizure of tens of tons of drugs and millions of substance packs in the past two years. Furthermore, between 2019 and 2022, over 43,000 individuals have been apprehended on drug-related charges.

In December 2022, the Supreme Judicial Council announced that approximately 6 tons of drugs stored in the Forensic Medicine Department were destroyed, with the presence of Judge Sahib Daham, the head of the Committee for the Inspection, Storage, and Destruction of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

During a two-year investigation, we contacted approximately 40 sources across Iraq, all of whom confirmed a significant increase in drug trafficking and usage. The situation is particularly concerning as drugs have infiltrated homes, universities, prisons, security agency headquarters, and even high schools.

Cross-Border Toxic Substances

For about a decade, Farshad Anayat smuggled his goods which had gradually and significantly increased in Kurdistan and other regions of Iraq through passages, rough roads, and crossing points. However, it was before the rise in the number of smugglers and drugs entering Iraq, amid security agencies and successive governments being preoccupied with combating terrorist organizations, as well as facing economic and political crises.

Like many families who suffer from a member who is a drug user or dealer – where everyone remains silent in this situation because they feel trapped due to social stigma, the fear of getting arrested, and the lack of guidance and rehabilitation centers-  “Naz” chose to remain silent and continued her life until her husband was caught in an ambush in 2019, carried out by Kurdish security forces in Penjwen District on the Iraqi-Iranian border during a massive smuggling operation.

At that point, the unemployed wife found no other way than to return to live with her widowed mother and began using three doses per day. In the end, she was unable to afford the cost of the drugs, according to a close friend and study companion who said while wiping away tears, “Drug dealers began to blackmail her by offering her small amounts of crystal in exchange for her body, and she could not bear the pain anymore.”

Naz’s story, along with official statements, testimonies of prisoners we met, and the details of dozens of victims’ stories, all point to border crossings, roads connecting Iraq and Iran, and population centers on both sides of the border. These locations serve as drug marketing stations.

A flood of drugs and thousands of detainees

According to Colonel Bilal Sabahi, the Media Director of the Anti-Drug Directorate in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, security forces arrested 6,074 individuals involved in drug trafficking and abuse in 2019. The number rose to 7,514 in 2020, and over 300 kilograms of drugs and more than 14 million Captagon pills were seized.

The figures for 2021 show an increase, with a total of 12,822 individuals being arrested, 60% of whom were involved in drug trafficking, and the seizure of 481 kilograms of drugs and almost 2 million Captagon pills.

Colonel Bilal has reported a significant increase in drug-related arrests in 2022. Specifically, 16,851 suspects were arrested for drug trafficking and promotion, with the majority of them between the ages of 18 and 30. Additionally, 500 suspects were under the age of 18, and 250 female suspects were arrested. The authorities also seized a significant amount of drugs, including 490 kilograms of crystal and 15 million Captagon pills.

These numbers indicate the presence of millions of drug users in the country, according to lawyer Hassan Abdullah, who follows drug-related cases and says, “If we assume that half of the arrested individuals are drug dealers, then we are facing a disaster if each one of them supplies dozens of people with drugs.”

The security sources that we have contacted agree that heroin, hashish, narcotic pills, and crystal are among the most prevalent types of drugs in Iraqi Kurdistan today.

Drug “Delivery”

According to the testimonies we have acquired, drugs are distributed through various channels after entering the country, including beauty centers, cafes, universities, and their internal departments, as well as certain populous regions.

According to testimonies from prisoners, traffickers, and drug users who spoke with the writer of the investigation, these places have become “open outlets for sale and trafficking”.

Bahar Sami (a pseudonym), a young Iranian migrant in her twenties, says that she found out at the beginning of 2022 that the owner of the beauty center in Erbil where she is employed is using drugs by mixing them with cigarette tobacco.

Although she initially feigned ignorance, her manager’s persistent urging to smoke together eventually made her give in, leading her to start using drugs until she was arrested in June 2022.

During the investigation, she reported that she used to buy 3 grams of drugs for 100 dollars from a main distributor in Erbil named “Taha”.

As per reports from local media, Kurdish security forces initiated a crackdown on drug dealers and users in the region in July of 2022. The campaign led to the detention of various well-known figures in Erbil, such as an acclaimed Iranian model (S.B), an employee of the Kurdish Parliament (H.K), and a journalist (N.S).

Security investigations and our tracking of the stories of addicts and detainees reveal that drug trafficking has witnessed a spread and diversification in methods of promotion and distribution, which worries officials and citizens. Dealers have now started to deliver drugs to their customers in their homes or at specified locations through a network of specialized delivery carriers called “delivery”.

Shokat Haji, a 25-year-old currently serving a sentence in the Sulaymaniyah security directorate, reports that he, like many others, used to place orders for drugs and have them delivered to a designated location.

Shokat started using drugs as a child at the age of 14 and was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. However, he would relapse into drug use as soon as he was released due to the absence of addiction treatment centers. He is currently serving his fourth sentence.

Honor Ali (a pseudonym), a man in his thirties detained in the Sulaymaniyah security prison, suffers from the same problem. He was one of Iraq’s champions in swimming and athletics before getting involved in drug use in 2009. His first imprisonment did not deter him, and he relapsed into drug use, returning him to prison.

Honor Ali’s body movements, emotions, and behavior still show the effects of drugs. After He says after a state of distraction, “No one visits me here except my elderly 60-year-old mother, who comes at irregular times to cry for me. Everyone has abandoned me, my wife and my two children, and the rest of my family have disowned me.”

After being involved in a smuggling operation, the Iranian national Shahou Ahmad (a pseudonym) is currently serving a 15-year sentence in the Sulaymaniyah Adult Correctional Facility.

He moved to Sulaymaniyah in 2015 to work in the trade of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, but he used it as a facade to carry out his smuggling activities.

We met Ahmed (33 years old) at the Sulaymaniyah Adult Correctional Facility and he spoke to us after receiving approval from the administration. He said, “The number of consumers has increased here, and so has the quantity required by the market. Moreover, the region is considered a primary gateway for Iranian drug dealers who wish to transport their goods to Europe.”

According to him, certain smuggled shipments from Iran to Kurdistan can occasionally weigh up to 100 kilograms, and controlling this trade is challenging due to the presence of smugglers, users, and powerful and influential networks that facilitate it all.

The border areas’ mountainous regions and deep valleys create a conducive environment for smugglers. This is applicable both near the town of “Choman,” descending towards “Koysinjaq” in Erbil Governorate and across Halabja Governorate’s areas.

Ahmed stated that hashish and crystal meth are Iran and Iraq’s most frequently traded drugs. He also highlighted the presence of specialized laboratories in Iran that process heroin and hashish from Afghanistan which is considered a significant source of drugs globally.

A high-ranking officer in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirms that the type of heroin and hashish found in the cities of Kurdistan is the same as that found in central and southern Iraq. They enter through the provinces of Maysan and Basra from Iran. On the other hand, Captagon and other psychoactive substances are widespread in western and central Iraq, entering through Anbar province from Syria.

Non-deterrent laws

Government reports indicate that Iraq was almost free from drugs before 2003, and the back-then law prescribed the death penalty for anyone caught trafficking or using drugs. However, this situation changed drastically with the breakdown of security at the borders and the hindrance of law enforcement, which allowed drugs to enter the country and their trafficking to flourish.

A former member of the Security and Defense Committee of the Iraqi Parliament, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated that the government’s efforts to address the new phenomenon were hesitant until the year 2017 when the Iraqi Parliament passed Law No. 50 to combat drugs. This law included the establishment of an anti-drug directorate within the Ministry of Interior.

The law specified the duties of the anti-drug directorate, including combating drugs, psychotropic substances, drug trafficking, and drug abuse crimes, as well as raising awareness of their dangers through collaboration with security agencies, communication with neighboring countries to reduce drug smuggling operations, and apprehending drug traffickers and their associates.

Anti-Drug Law categorizes the parties involved as “users and dealers”. Typically, those who fall under the “users” category are prosecuted based on Article 32, which mandates imprisonment for a period ranging from one to three years, coupled with a fine of 5 million dinars (equivalent to 3,400 dollars). If the offender fails to pay the stipulated fine, the punishment is extended for an additional six months.

The punishment for drug trafficking is governed by Article 28, which mandates a prison sentence of 5 years to life imprisonment, accompanied by a fine ranging from 10 million dinars (equivalent to 6,800 dollars) to 30 million dinars (equivalent to 10,200 dollars).

Article 27 includes penalties ranging from life imprisonment to execution for those who import or export drugs.

The Kurdistan Region Parliament in Iraq had approved the Anti-Drug and Psychotropic Substances Law No. (1) of 2020.

Within the region, those convicted of drug use or trafficking are incarcerated in two types of prisons. The first type falls under the jurisdiction of the Security Directorate (Asayish), which in turn is accountable to the Ministry of Interior. The second type is supervised by the Correctional Directorate, which operates under the authority of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

The former director of the Security Directorate in Sulaymaniyah province, Retired Major General Hassan Nouri, who served in the position for approximately 14 years, asserts that the existing drug control laws are ineffective “due to their inadequate deterrence”, and urges for the implementation of new and more stringent laws.

He argues that the imprisonment of drug users “has not produced positive results over the years” and proposes admitting them to specialized hospitals “where they can receive treatment from mental health experts and be educated to become productive members of society, rather than being incarcerated.”

The Prisons… outposts of consumption and commerce

Although correctional prisons have implemented strict security measures, such as using sonar devices to screen visitors and employees upon entry, drug use and trafficking continue to be persistent issues. Various methods are used to smuggle drugs into prisons despite these measures.

The Minister of Labor and Social Affairs in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Qwestan Mohammed, acknowledged, in an interview with the writer of the investigation, the spread of drugs inside prisons and their trafficking in previous years. She said, “Some prisons have become a fertile environment for drug trafficking and use, and many non-drug-related inmates leave prison as users, sellers, or promoters of drugs.”

The Minister also stated that the situation had escalated to the point where drones were being employed to transfer drugs to crime groups between different cell blocks. She disclosed that authorities had intercepted a drone carrying drugs in an attempt to smuggle them into the prison.

She emphasized that her ministry had implemented strict measures to put an end to such occurrences. Additionally, she revealed other strange incidents in prisons that demonstrated the influence and power of certain inmates, who had been able to engage in a variety of illegal activities.

During her visit to one of the prisons, she uncovered the existence of “VIP” areas that had been reserved for criminal organizations, as well as other sections with similar specifications where “unethical” actions were taking place, as she described it.

She points out that “the services provided in these areas are entirely different, especially the food, as these mafias’ members have been offered a luxurious breakfast every morning, consisting of hot pastries and bread, as well as other foods such as kibbeh and kebab,” indicating that the services provided to these inmates were comparable to those offered by luxury hotels.

The minister further stated that when she confronted the prison director to put an end to these situations, he responded with a great deal of fear, saying, “I apologize, I cannot execute the instructions. I am afraid that these big criminal organizations will kidnap my children outside the prison.”

She also expresses her frustration with the fact that, amidst all these challenges, the prisons in Kurdistan fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which hinders and burdens their work significantly. She notes that in all countries around the world, including Iraq, prisons fall under the Ministry of Justice, but this is not the case in Kurdistan.

Dr. Salah Anwar, the advisor of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in the regional government, states that the use of advanced screening and monitoring devices in recent measures taken to control prisons and prevent drug trafficking” has greatly reduced the spread of drug use and trade within the prisons, by a significant margin”.

An official in the correctional prisons, who refused to mention his name in the investigation, agrees with him, saying “Efforts to combat drug trafficking into Erbil and Dohuk prisons have been successful by 95%, and by 80% in Sulaymaniyah. However, the recent campaign to replace the administrative staff, including directors and employees, at the end of 2021, has increased the success rate in all prisons to 100%.”

The official admits that the efforts to combat drug trafficking are extremely complicated, because “drug cartels within the prisons devise unimaginable methods and techniques to smuggle drugs with the aid of their relatives”.

He clarified that drugs are often hidden in the genitalia of women to smuggle them into prisons during visits. In some cases, visitors put small amounts of drugs in plastic bags, tie them to thin threads, and swallow them, later they pull them out during visits.

From a crossing point to a center

The Kurdish community in Iraq was not familiar with drugs before the 1990s, and the number of users was small according to official sources. However, things changed after the 1991 uprising and the collapse of security control on the borders.

Statistics indicate that drug use cases have gradually increased. In 2006, 30 people were arrested on charges of drug use or trafficking in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. In 2011, the number rose to 88 people. Cases doubled and witnessed significant jumps in 2016 when 508 people were arrested. The number reached 1943 in 2021, and in the first six months of 2022, 1251 people were arrested.

A high-ranking officer in the security directorate of Sulaymaniyah has disclosed that 408 individuals were arrested in the province in 2022 for drug use and trafficking, including 80 dealers and 328 users, 51 of whom were foreigners. Another officer, who specializes in combating drugs in Erbil, estimates that around 2,500 suspects were arrested for drug use and trafficking in 2022 in the provinces of Erbil and Dohuk.

According to statistics we obtained from a senior official in one of the ministries of the regional government – he refused to disclose his identity due to the sensitivity of his position – the number of drug users is estimated to be more than 75,000 people, the majority of whom are aged between 18 and 64 years old, including about 23% women.

On the other hand, the coordinator of international recommendations in the Kurdistan government, Dindar Zebari, revealed similar numbers and confirmed the conviction of more than 1,100 dealers and users during the first seven months of 2022. 985 of them were placed in reform prisons, including 231 drug and psychotropic substance dealers and 704 users.

According to Zebari, the geographical location of The Region has made it a gateway for drugs across neighboring countries, leading to an increase in the number of addicts. He pointed out that 3,000 people were arrested in drug-related cases between 2019 and 2020.

According to a reliable source at the Iraqi Ministry of Justice, the number of convicts and detainees in various crimes – excluding the Kurdistan Region- reached around 60,000 by the end of 2022, including approximately 1,500 women, distributed across 30 prisons in the country. About 40% of them are convicted or detained on charges related to drug use and trafficking.

Shirwan Ahmed, a legal expert in drug-related cases, has pointed out that current estimations suggest that over 25% of detainees are involved in drug dealing. He warns that this indicates a sobering reality, the cities within the region are swarming with hundreds of drug dealers, which poses a tremendous threat to society.

The situation in provinces under the control of the Iraqi government appears to be similar, if not more complicated, which was confirmed by former Iraqi Interior Minister, Osman Al Ghanmi, in a televised interview in October 2020. Al Ghanmi stated that 50% of Iraqi youth use drugs.

Activists and officials involved in drug-related issues express their concerns about the possibility of winning the war against drugs in Iraq, where local and regional networks intersect. The situation is further complicated by evidence indicating the presence of individuals who operate above the law within smuggling and trafficking networks. In addition, there are accusations against influential people in political parties and militias, who are accused of either facilitating the smuggling operations or obstructing the arrest of major drug dealers.

In early 2022, former Iraqi President Barham Salih granted a presidential pardon to Jawad Luay Jawad Al-Yasiri, who had been convicted of drug trafficking and is the son of a high-ranking government official. The pardon also applied to several other convicts who had been sentenced by the Karkh Court. The decision was made based on a recommendation from the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers.

Their release from prison, made possible by the special pardon, elicited a strong reaction across the country, as it highlighted the issue of criminals being able to evade punishment, especially in serious crimes like drug trafficking, as long as they had the protection of the ruling authorities.

And stories of impunity continue to repeat themselves. In 2020, during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Iraqi intelligence agencies arrested, after a complex operation, one of the major drug dealers in Nineveh province (D.M.) along with 6 of his accomplices, including a person holding Turkish citizenship.

According to a high-ranking source in the Nineveh police, the arrested dealer is Kurdish from Duhok province and holds a high rank in one of the Kurdish security agencies. He used to smuggle drugs into Nineveh in coordination with Arab dealers who promote them.

After approximately two years of imprisonment, security sources reported that the detained Kurdish merchant had been released due to a significant deal, the details of which were not disclosed.

A video obtained by the journalist who conducted the investigation, which was not verified for its recording date and location, shows the officer-merchant being warmly welcomed by a group of individuals.

Another senior officer in the Nineveh police, who refused to reveal his identity, confirmed their monitoring of numerous drug dealers who are working to bring drugs into the cities of the province. He pointed out that they have observed a significant spread of drugs in some areas, specifically in the Al-Intisar Al-Sha’abi neighborhood.

The officer confirmed the existence of multiple smuggling routes – especially from the city of Erbil to Mosul – facilitated by a trader named “Zainab” with the help of her husband “Aras”, and he indicated that their primary source is Iran.

On the other hand, another senior officer who oversaw many drug trafficking cases in Baghdad explains that smugglers have resorted to non-traditional methods of smuggling, such as drones that can carry between 20 and 30 kilograms, and some use gliders for smuggling. He noted that one of them was shot down in Basra in June 2022, carrying one million Captagon pills.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, an administrative official at a border point with Iran told us that smuggling is active in mountainous areas where porters cross the border on foot for hours over rugged mountain peaks and valleys, some carrying their goods inside electrical appliances or household items.

The official explains that smugglers come up with different methods to smuggle drugs, such as placing them inside children’s toys, juice boxes, or furnishings, “but the most dangerous method is to recycle expired medical materials and drugs by turning them into narcotic pills and sending them to The Region.”

The Iraqi authorities had foiled in March 2023 an attempt to smuggle more than 3 million narcotic pills through the Al-Qa’im border crossing with Syria, which were hidden inside boxes of apple shipment.

An Iranian citizen was also arrested for attempting to smuggle 275 grams of drugs into Iraqi Kurdistan through the Hajj Imran border crossing on June 28, 2022, by hiding them inside his “rectum”.

Smuggling operations are not limited to the eastern borders. The Security Council of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq announced in July 2022 the seizure of 500 kilograms of drugs in Erbil, which were coming from Kirkuk province and were in the form of pills hidden inside juice-making devices.

The Worsening Crisis: Finding a Solution Becoming Increasingly Difficult

“Hawkar Ahmed” (a pseudonym), a drug dealer who is currently in prison, believes that Iran is the main source of drugs that are widespread in The Region.

Hawkar (45 years old), who is serving a 5-year prison sentence in the Sulaymaniyah Adult Correctional Facility, says during an interview with the writer of the investigation inside the prison that drugs have become widespread among universities, student dorms, and even security forces.

On his part, “Delawar Nuri” (33 years old) is serving a three-year prison sentence. He had left the Rania district to work in construction in Sulaymaniyah, where he became addicted to drugs. He was arrested and imprisoned, then released only to return to drug use and be arrested again.

Delawar says that he used to consume between one gram and one and a half grams of drugs in each dose. He justifies his drug use relapse with the despair surrounding his life, and his family’s disavowal of him. He emphasizes that drug users have doubled due to “unemployment and despair about the future.”

The estimated number of drug users in his hometown Rania (Sulaymaniyah) is more than 1800 people, and the numbers are higher in ” Qaladze” (north of Sulaymaniyah), ” Khanaqin” (Diyala province near the Iranian border), ” Kalar” (Sulaymaniyah province), and “Kifri” (Diyala province).

Delawar adds, “As soon as you start using, the problem only grows, and when you realize it, you don’t find anyone to help you, no rehab centers or government attention. You find yourself in a vicious circle with no way out. The most dangerous situation is when you don’t have the money to buy what you need, so you’re forced to enter the circle of promotion and selling or criminal networks.”

The prices of drugs vary based on their types. A kilogram of hashish can cost up to 500 dollars, whereas other types start at 2000 dollars or more, according to “N.Z.” (43 years old), a dealer who holds permanent British residency. He was arrested by Kurdish security forces in January 2016 for possessing 890 grams of drugs and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Siroan Kah Rdi, the supervisor of the “Organizations Coordination Network” in Kurdistan, reveals the existence of gangs inside universities and schools that promote drugs among young people by selling them at low prices. As they become addicted, they sell them at higher prices. “It is their preferred way to increase the number of drug users.”

Kah Rdi criticizes the lack of any treatment centers for addicts despite the presence of tens of thousands of people hoping to receive help and warns that their absence exacerbates the crisis even more. He also notes that the region is still far from having any comprehensive plan to combat the spread of drugs, as the number of users increases month after month, drowning more and more young people and their families in failure, despair, and addiction.

The investigation was produced with the support and supervision of the Network of the Iraqi Investigative Journalism NIRIJ

Investigative Reports

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