Journey of a party drug

NAT
Colonel Ajay Choudhury, 47, was a fixture on Imphal's social scene. He would be at birthday parties, social gatherings, rock shows and cricket matches for celebrities, rubbing shoulders with MLAs, former political leaders and Manipuri film stars.

The colonel, the defence public relations officer stationed in Imphal, was picked up with five others recently by a team of Manipuri commandos for allegedly ferrying psychotropic drugs worth Rs 25 crore on the international market to Moreh on the Myanmar border, with police claiming to have uncovered a network of drug traffickers. It was the first time an Army officer had been arrested in a drug seizure.

Two days later, Saokholet Haokip, 33, son of former tourism and power minister T N Haokip, was picked up from his home. He was allegedly one of the main transporters; the police claimed to have seized psychotropic drugs worth Rs 2 to 3 lakh from the house. One of the three cars allegedly transporting drugs on February 24 to the Myanmar border belonged to him.

Drug trafficking has not been the number one priority for police, DGP Y Joykumar Singh said. "Our main priority has been curtailing militancy. However, over the past few years, the drug menace has grown," Singh said. "Drug money is being used very often to finance militancy, which has been flagging. We cannot altogether rule out a politician-Army-Assam Rifles-underground group nexus."

At the time of the arrests, police said they had acted on a tip-off and had not expected an Army colonel to be involved. Now, senior officials concede, the colonel and his team had been under watch for some time. "It's just that we weren't able to catch him and his team red-handed with drugs," said a senior police officer. The officer cited four earlier instances when the police had received information about transportation of drugs by the colonel.

The road from Imphal to Moreh is dotted with checkposts, including at least two of the Assam Rifles. However, VIP and Army vehicles are waved through, allegedly making it easy for Choudhury's and Haokip's cars to fery drugs. The police have now issued directions to check all vehicles, including VIP ones. They have handed over the investigation to the CBI.

The colonel's associates are under watch. "We are keeping track of some of the high-profile film stars he was close to. We are monitoring in particular a wealthy former MLA with a lot of muscle power. We know they all frequently visit Moreh, the transit point. We are tracking frequent visitors to Moreh," said a police officer.

The police monitor law and order within the districts of Imphal valley Imphal West and East, Thoubal and Bishnupir. The Army and Assam Rifles police the hill areas around the valley and in the rest of the state.

From north and back

Psychotropic drugs are of very poor quality in Myanmar, and scarce. Such drugs are transported from Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, their main manufacturing belts in India, to Imphal city, from where they are sent via Moreh into Myanmar. There they are processed to produce primarily heroin, besides manufacturing party drugs such as Ecstasy and WY tablets.

Police officers said WY tablets are the latest fad in Indian metros. Shan state in Myanmar is the hub of preparing such tablets; while many find their way to India's party hubs, some are also transported to China and Thailand where they are in great demand.

Ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, acetic anhydride, anthranilic acid and n-acetylanthranilic acid, all controlled drugs, are also used in commonly used items, for instance paints. Tablets with these chemicals are bought in bulk, often under names of fake pharmacies. Once sent to Moreh, they are transported to Tamu, where the chemicals are extracted in the pure form. The most common modus operandi is to send large cartons of drugs with fake addresses for sender and receiver. The parcels are picked up by a chain of designated collectors and transporters. "Usually the chains work so that at every stage, one handler doesn't know the next," says the official.

Drugs with pseudoephidrine include Loract-D, Coscold-T, Tripolidine, Mucoson, Activid, Actipin. One of the problems faced by narcotics sleuths is that many of these drugs are sometimes transported to Myanmar for genuine medical use. Because of the poor quality of drugs in Myanmar, doctors there prefer using Indian drugs, manufactured in Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Uttarakhand. "Pharmaceutical companies there should watch the high purchase volumes from Manipur alone," notes a narcotics official.

The Manipur police have also put the onus on airlines. "The arrest of an assistant manager of Indigo shows airlines officials too are involved. We have told airlines that it is their responsibility to ensure that the sender and the receiver addresses on their parcels are authentic," says DGP Singh.

TRENDS

"We have suspected for years that some Army and Assam Rifles personnel, along with locals, have been involved in smuggling. For decades it was teak, which is cheap in Myanmar but expensive in India. We know some of them are in the arms trade too. Now, drug smuggling has increased tremendously," said a narcotics official.

The 1980s and the 1990s had seen brown sugar pervade the Manipur market. By the mid-1990s, a drug called spasmoproxyvon, used by pregnant women for cramps, had flooded the market. This drug had a component called dextropropozyphil, whose structure includes chemicals with effects similar to those of cocaine and heroin, giving a similar high. And opium farming and ganja production had flourished in Manipur until five years ago.

Since then, drugs containing pseudoephedrine have become traffickers' main business. Most recent seizures have involved pseudoephedrine, used for making WY. In 2011 and 2012, the Narcotics Control Bureau of India's Imphal branch seized over 21 million tablets containing pseudoephedrine, with 82 cases filed.

On December 11, 2012, it seized 23.5 kg of medicinal drugs containing pseudoephedrine the largest haul of the drug that year. The stock of over 39,000 tablets was being stored in a makeshift shack in Thoubal Moijing, barely 12 km from the outskirts of Imphal, waiting for final transportation to Moreh and eventually Tamu.

"According to our estimates, we have managed to seize not more than 20 per cent of all the drug smuggling that happens in the state. Last year we busted two WY manufacturing labs near Imphal. This is alarming for the drugs to be manufactured not only this side of the border but this close to the capital indicates that overall production and sales have jumped," said an NCB official.

The seizures in Manipur have reportedly alarmed traffickers enough for them to have started using routes through Mizoram.

MONEY MATTERS

Ticocold D is medication for cold and cough; a strip of 10 tablets costs Rs 10. The composition includes pseudoephedrine, which is extracted.

In Imphal, a WY tablet can cost upto Rs 250. In Delhi or another metro, it can be sold for anything between Rs 500 and 1,500 depending on demand and supply at that point. For moving 1 lakh tablets from just Imphal to Moreh, a transporter can make up to Rs 10-15 lakh in profits.

Rs 250

A WY tablet in Imphal

Rs 500-1500

In Delhi

ROUTE

Psychotropic drugs are transported from UP, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, their main manufacturing belts, to Imphal city. They are then transported via the border town of Moreh into Myanmar, where such drugs are of very poor quality, and scarce. These are processed to manufacture heroin, Ecstasy and WY tablets and sent back to India; some are exported elsewhere

SEIZURES

29,78,042 tablets

Containing various contraband drugs seized from January 2012 to February 2013. All tablets contain pseudoephedrine. 3,074 cough syrup bottles too seized

31.6 kg Opium seized in same period; 11 cases registered. Opium is grown in Manipur's hill districts of Ukhrul, Churachandpur and Senapati.

1,225 kg Ganja seized and nine cases filed. Eight of the nine seizures made from Imphal East district, ninth from Imphal West.

30 g Only one case of cocaine, with a mother-son duo from Tamei village in the hill district of Tamenglong caught

1.5 kg Only one case of brown sugar too. Seizure in Imphal East.

1,013 g Heroin seized, 12 cases

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