The great Nigerian dope trick
Free air tickets to India are luring scores of Nigerians into drug peddling, report Rukhmini Punoose and J Dey.Updated: Jun 11, 2006 02:42 IST
Yo man! I have some good stuff, do you want any?" In the dark streets behind the Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba, a large African man steps up to the couple he's singled out, and casually asks the question again. The customers nod and a deal is struck. Cash and cocaine exchange hands.
This dealer is one of 2,000 Nigerians living in Mumbai, many of whom are here on student visas, but get sucked into peddling narcotics. With Rahul Mahajan now sharing jail space with a Nigerian peddler who supplied his friends with heroin, the Nigerian drug peddling connection has come into sharp focus.
Why Nigerians? For one, the prices are right: Heroin can be bought in India for Rs 6-10 lakh per kilo and sold in Nigeria for about Rs 35-40 lakh. And secondly, Nigeria has a high level of unemployment. Impoverished and unemployed Nigerian youngsters are often only too willing to come to India, posing as students.
This is not to say that all the Nigerians here are drug dealers. Says superintendent AP Patil of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), "About 70 per cent of the Nigerians in Mumbai are in some way connected to the narcotics business. The rest are genuine students or here on business." But the 'clean' 30 per cent often bear the brunt of police suspicion and local fear.
The Nigerian peddlers rarely live in college hostels, preferring instead to rent apartments around Mira Road, Colaba and Dongri. They spend their nights supplying cocaine, heroin and hash right to their clients’ doorstep. Drug carriers, on the other hand, shuttle between Nigeria and India, ensuring the smooth passage of narcotics. Free air tickets and $500 per trip keep the unemployed Nigerian going.
Coke in the pot
India produces heroin and brown sugar in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This is carried to Nigeria to be sold in the local markets. Cocaine is brought to India from Colombo and Africa. Consignments of cocaine weighing between 500 to 750 grams are wrapped in rubber balloons or condoms and swallowed by the carrier before taking off from Accra or Lagos to Mumbai.
For the drugs to arrive intact, it is imperative that the carrier times his meals perfectly and fasts during the journey. The NCB has witnessed many a tragedy of a poorly timed meal that causes the balloon to rupture in the stomach, resulting in instant death.
Sometimes, drugs are concealed in body cavities, tins of canned food, detergent powder packets, padded photo albums and artificial limbs.
Upon landing in Mumbai, the carrier is escorted to Khadak Dongri. Here, a net is placed over a commode to catch the excreta of the trafficker. Next, the drug is adulterated with milk powder, talcum powder or Dulcolax (a powder that sets off diarrhea), thereby creating twice the quantity (and earnings) of the drug. Then it is supplied to a network of peddlers across Mumbai, Delhi, Goa and Bangalore. Deliveries are fixed through mobile phones. Traffickers share client information with other members of the group. Most speak English and Hindi. This ensures that the drug supply continues unhindered even if one of the peddlers is caught.
Dongri is the heart of the Nigerian community. Adjacent to a road cluttered with mosques, Dontad Street, a by-lane in Dongri’s predominantly Muslim area, is called Little Nigeria and it’s not hard to see why. Rows of 200 cc mobikes line one side of the street and groups of shabbily dressed Nigerians huddle together, smoking cigarettes, laughing and ogling at the women who walk by.
On a regular evening, you will pass at least 50 of them on the 100-meter stretch. The streets around them are strewn with garbage and most shops are stacked high with blue and white tarpaulin sheets. Many of the buildings are illegal and house shanty-like motels and dilapidated guesthouses.
“Dongri is hard to penetrate. Even the police stays clear of it,” explains the owner of a steel ladder shop off Dontad Street. “Nigerians take advantage of the fact that the rent is really low as the buildings are illegal and falling apart. Four or five of them hire a room and live together, share client contacts and form strongholds.”
Another reason why Nigerians prefer to live in Muslim-dominated areas is because Islam forbids discrimination on the basis of skin colour. While they may not discriminate, most shop owners and residents in Dongri seem nervous around the Nigerians. Reputed to have ferocious tempers, the muscular Nigerians wouldn’t win any popularity contests here.
A harassed STD shop owner says that many of them come and use his phones to make international calls, running up bills of Rs 2,000-3,000 which they refuse to pay. He adds that once when he had asked for the money, he had been beaten up.
As the wholesale garment market is round the corner, drug peddlers often use trade as a front for their activities. When caught, they show large quantities of garments, leather goods and imitation jewelry as proof that they are here to trade. But, says superintendent Patil, it is very unlikely that they make a profit from buying a few hundred dollars’ worth of consumer goods and reselling them in Africa.
“We make quite good money from clothes,” insists Abdul, a Nigerian on Nishan Pada Road claiming to be in the garment business. “I buy leather sandals and clothes from wholesalers in India and sell them in Nigeria for two-three times the amount.”
Illegal passage to India
Even when caught, the enforcement agencies find it difficult to prosecute the Nigerian drug peddlers. Language is a huge barrier for one, and for another, most peddlers and carriers are here on fake passports and visas. Some tear up their passports on their arrival. This prevents the police from being able to deport them. Senior police inspector, Noor Mohammad Sheikh at Pydhonie police station says, “I caught Nigerians without documents in Nagpada but their consulate refused to deport them without passports, saying there was no proof they were Nigerian citizens.”
Sheikh is frustrated with the Indian government’s weakness on the issue. “India is a friendly government to Nigeria and unfortunately, the peddlers understand the tenets of The Foreigner’s Act,” he says. “They do a lot of dadagiri in the lockup, demand medical facilities at hospitals when in jail and create havoc if they are not put in a separate lockup from the locals.”
Around 450 Africans, a majority of them Nigerians, are currently facing trials in Mumbai. According to the NCB, a hundred Nigerians have been convicted.
The majority that work the drug routes however, continue to sit around Mira Road and Dontad, racing mobikes, checking out the women and making a killing out of cocaine.