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Massive narcotics haul on vessel near Gujarat coast

By, New Delhi
Feb 29, 2024 06:26 AM IST

Most of the southeast Asian drug trade flows through the so-called golden triangle, making the Indian waters a lucrative corridor to smuggle contraband to other regions in the neighbourhood

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Indian Navy and Gujarat anti-terrorism squad (ATS) in a joint operation seized drugs weighing nearly 3,300kg, and ostensibly worth 1,200 crore, off the Gujarat coast, officials said on Wednesday, outlining an elaborate exercise that ended in one of the country’s largest crackdowns on contraband, with five men suspected to be from Pakistan and Iran arrested.

The mothership in this case was a small, unmarked fishing boat, no longer than 15 feet, said officials. (HT PHOTO)
The mothership in this case was a small, unmarked fishing boat, no longer than 15 feet, said officials. (HT PHOTO)

The drugs together weighed 3,293kg — 3,110kg hashish, 158.3kg methamphetamine and 24.6kg heroin — and were concealed in packets that bore the names of a Pakistani food brand and a coffee company, said officials, detailing an intricate smuggling operation that originated in the Chabahar Port in Iran.

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The consignment was then hidden in a cavity hollowed into the floor of the “mothership” — a vessel that carries large quantities of narcotic contraband and then distributes it to smaller vessels along the route — that was eventually caught 60 nautical miles off the coast of Porbandar in Gujarat.

The mothership in this case was a small, unmarked fishing boat, no longer than 15 feet, said officials.

Union home minister Amit Shah in a post on X called it “the biggest offshore seizure of drugs in the country”.

“The historic success is a testament to our government’s unwavering commitment to making our nation drug-free. On this occasion, I congratulate the NCB, the Navy, and the Gujarat Police,” Shah said.

To be sure, officials are still piecing together the nuts and bolts of the racket, with the exact route, stopovers and points of handover still unclear.

However, preliminary investigations revealed that the mothership likely travelled 400 nautical miles from Chabahar Port to the point where it was captured.

NCB officials suspect the contraband was loaded on to the mothership sometime between February 23 and 24 at Chabahar Port, and sailed towards Indian waters, where it was to be handed to Indian nationals on board a fishing trawler that had sailed, or was set to sail from Tamil Nadu. The people in the boat from Tamil Nadu are yet to be traced.

The boat, officials suspect, stopped at a Pakistan port along the way, but this is yet to be verified.

The five men, aged between 30 and 45, posed as fishers and carried nets and two weeks’ worth of rations. Three of the men are from Iran and two from Pakistan, according to what they revealed during interrogations, said officials.

The five were not carrying any identification documents.

Indian waters are particularly vulnerable to international drug smugglers. Most of the southeast Asian drug trade flows through the so-called golden triangle — essentially the region surrounding the point where the borders of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand meet — making the Indian waters a lucrative corridor to smuggle contraband to other regions in the neighbourhood.

Still, Indian authorities have in recent times cracked down on a raft of smuggling operations and seized thousands of kilos of drugs.

Over the last two years, NCB, in joint operations with the Indian Navy, has conducted three major operations in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Kerala and Gujarat.

In February 2022, they recovered 221kg methamphetamine from a ship near the Gujarat coast, and another 200kg high-grade heroin, also from a ship, was seized near the Kerala coast in October 2022.

Last year, on May 11, the agency seized at least 2,500kg methamphetamine worth 12,000 crore from a mothership headed to Indian waters from Pakistan. The ship was intercepted in the Indian Ocean before it could hand over the drugs to cartels for use in India, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

At a joint press conference by the three agencies in Delhi on Wednesday, NCB’s director general (DG) SN Pradhan said they received information about an unregistered foreign fishing vessel, which was carrying drugs and did not have an automatic identification system installed, entering Indian waters.

“It was to deliver the drugs to a fishing boat that was coming from Tamil Nadu on the morning of February 27,” Pradhan said, adding that to trace the mothership, the federal agency launched an operation Codenamed Sagar Manthan 1.

He said that on the morning of February 27, the joint team of NCB, Gujarat ATS and Indian navy intercepted the mothership, arrested the five men inside and got the boat towed by an Indian warship to Porbandar.

“The packaging material bears the print ‘Ras Awad Foods, Produce of Pakistan’. We are investigating the cartel behind the drugs. We are taking the help of foreign drug law enforcement agencies to track the entire international syndicate,” he added.

Explaining the details of the operation, NCB deputy director general (operations) Gyaneshwar Singh said that in the days before February 26, the agency shared intelligence with the Indian Navy and Gujarat ATS.

By the evening of February 26, marine commandos joined the exercise and were ready with a chopper to locate the mothership in the Indian waters.

“A joint team of 14 Gujarat ATS and NCB officials also moved from Porbandar coast on the night of February 26. Around 7am on February 27, the teams located the mothership in Indian waters about 60 nautical miles from Porbandar. They were arrested and the ship was towed to Porbandar. The five men were not carrying identification papers. An initial probe has revealed that they are from Iran and Pakistan,” said Singh, adding that NCB is now on the lookout for the people who were supposed to receive the delivery.

Pradhan said the agency is working to crack down on bigger cartels that send large consignments in bulk using the marine route.

“The modus operandi of these cartels shows that they are using Arabian Sea to transfer the drugs. They are in constant touch with people on the mainland and coordinate for days before deciding on a specific point in the sea to transfer the drugs. The Indian coastline is vulnerable, so the agencies are on alert.”

Pradhan also said the stockpile of heroin has increased in Afghanistan.

“On the other hand, Myanmar has become a record supplier of heroin. So, we are sandwiched between the two sides,” Pradhan said.

NCB’s probe in past cases has suggested that Pakistan-based smuggler Haji Salim is using the marine channel to smuggle drugs into India. “Haji Salim is a major player who is operating from outside. it is too premature to say if he is behind this. In this case, we are yet to verify if he is the one behind this consignment,” Singh said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prawesh Lama covers crime, policing, and issues of security in Delhi. Raised in Darjeeling, educated in Mumbai, he also looks at special features on social welfare in the National Capital.

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