Mauritius at the Centre of Narcotics Trade
[February 18th, 2013. Port Louis, Mauritius]
Mauritius does not produce any narcotics such as heroin, opium or brown sugar.
Incidentally these unhealthy and illegal products enter the Mauritius port and the airport easily from abroad despite heavy police checks and presence. Large quantities of such drugs are seized every year from foreign couriers from Africa, Asia and Europe. This problem has become alarming as more and more people especially the youth are getting involved.
According to the US–based International Narcotics Control Report 2012 (INCSR), 2% of the Mauritian population are active users of banned substances. This has made this Indian Ocean island nation to become Africa’s top abuser of narcotics. This is by far the highest reported prevalence in Africa. About 20 000 people are directly involved, according to the local civil societies.
“How come an island that does not produce any heroin or cocaine is number one in drug consumption in Africa?” A 2012 report by the Bureau of International Narcotics (BIN) poses. BIN confirms that Mauritius is the leading African nation on drug abuse.
The UN World Drug Report 2010 released in March 2011 stated a year earlier that Mauritius is the country in the region with the highest prevalence of opiate use when the figure stood at 1.9%. The island has a high prevalence of injecting drug use and a concentrated HIV epidemic among these users. Official statistics from Statistics Mauritius, a government agency however, denies these figures and says there are only about 4600 drug users in Mauritius. But the reality on the street shows there are thousands of them.
“While Mauritius is not a significant transhipment location on a global scale, the island state is increasingly seen as a regional hub for heroin distribution, often intended for onward movement into Europe and even the United States.” INCSR notes “Cannabis is the only illicit drug that is locally cultivated in large quantities, primarily by small groups or individuals for local consumption and is not exported. Other illicit drugs, primarily heroin and the prescription drug Subutex, a brand name for buprenorphine, an opiate used to treat heroin dependence which is illegal in Mauritius, are brought into Mauritius for consumption with a small amount going for transhipment to other markets.”
Indeed it is now an established fact that Mauritius is a transhipment point of heroine from South East Asia intended for Africa, Europe and the US.
Nearby French island La Reunion is also within the Mauritius drugs axis. The “zamal”, a prohibited herb like cannabis, is shipped from La Reunion to Mauritius illegally. Quite a number of traffickers have been arrested on this route over the past years. The drug web entangles many people – from the taxi-driver, to the priest, prison and police officers, small entrepreneurs, established businessmen and also the unemployed.
Mauritius Premier Navin Ramgoolam told parliament in May 2012 that “the measures taken by the law enforcement agencies coupled with intelligence-led approach are yielding positive results. The number of persons arrested in connection with drug related offences has increased from 1,504 in 2000 to 1,899 in 2010, 1,910 in 2011. For 2012 the figure is 632.” Ramgoolam noted. “Also, large quantities of illicit drugs have been seized. For instance, last year, about 3.6 kgs of heroin, 102.6 kgs of cannabis and 28,093 tablets of subutex were seized for a total value of Rs143 m. In 2012, 9,403 subutex tablets, 8.2 kgs of cannabis and 3.7 kgs of heroin with a total street value of $2.3 million were seized.”
Women are widely used as couriers or “mules” in drug trafficking. This is because traffickers believe they run less risk to be identified and arrested. Female foreign nationals from France, South Africa, India and Madagascar have been arrested at the airport with heroin and also with Subutex. The government keeps on introducing new ways, means and modern equipment to track the drug traffickers but the latter are always ahead of the game coming up with new tactics everytime. They compete with imagination to have their illicit goods carried discreetly. The drugs are no longer carried in bags.
In January 2013, a female courier was arrested with 540 grams of heroin hidden in a hygienic pad placed inside her panties. She pretended that she was menstruating. Others swallow the drugs or hide it in diving and other deep sea snorkelling equipment. All means available are good for the courier to reach their profit targets, even by endangering their own life. This trade generates massive wealth and the fee for the courier is always so enticing hence the risks. But the Mauritius Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) and the Customs Department are on the alert at the only airport of the island. Tens of kilos of heroin and tens of thousands of illicit tablets are seized every year indicating that Port Louis is both a transhipment point and a major player in the Indian Ocean narcotics axis.
On the ground, more and more women and the youth are being trapped with drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. Many of them say that even if these substances are prohibited in the island they get them easily at affordable prices. Even kids as young as eight and 10 years are not spared. The street children are the first ones to fall into the trap of hard drugs as a result of blackmail by adults. The ripple effect of these unchecked drug uses has led to a significant rise in crime in Port Louis.
Drug traffickers have developed their network with new methods of operation. Some even carry their illegal trade publicly on the streets. Drug addicts terrorize people in areas where they live in good numbers – like in the vicinity of the capital Port-Louis, Plaine-Verte and Roche Bois areas. The public believes that the authorities have failed by condoning and even protecting well known drug cartels.
Aggression, sequestration, rape, torture, murder: this is the result of the rampant drug trafficking and consumption business. Violence mostly linked to rival gangs is rife between big and small dealers. It is a form of intimidation so that people do not disturb them. In most cases, it’s the small dealers, also called “jockeys”, suffer the most. Looking for easy money, these small dealers often steal the goods of the big ones. When this happens, they are attacked violently in public. Violent incidents involving drug addicts and dealers are reported every week.
Meanwhile the majority of drug addicts here are also said to be HIV-Positive because of needle sharing. Around 10,000 people aged between 15 and 49 are believed to be HIV positive and NGOs estimates that more than half of them are infected. Every month at least 50 new cases are discovered even though 90% of Mauritians have never been tested. About 5,000 of the drug addicts are treated with methadone at government hospitals. A Needle Exchange Programme put in place in 2006 has attracted some 6000 drug addicts.
The authorities are struggling with this scourge. New methods and technologies and increased security measures to prevent access to drugs are always being introduced at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport and the Port Louis Harbour. Logistics, personnel, sophisticated scanners and dogs go through the parcels and luggage. Already the Mauritius Police is involved in “Plateforme Securite”, a joint Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) security platform bringing together all the Indian Ocean rim countries. At sea, the National Coast Guard and the Mauritius Police Air Wing keep watch on the maritime zone using a Coastal Surveillance Radar System (CSRS) which is an integrated network of eight radars covering the entire Mauritian coastal zone.
The government believes that the drug issue is a global challenge and there is no quick fix solution to it. Its strategy focuses on enforcement, prevention, treatment, and on rehabilitation. In fact, the legislation in Mauritius has been tightened to increase the penalties and the terms of imprisonment. The legislative framework is continuously being reviewed to deal effectively with drug offences. The government believes also that the best tool in this war is the seizure of assets of drug traffickers. It has come up with new legislation the Asset Recovery Act which advocates for the seizure of all assets accumulated by a trafficker who has been sentenced to prison. The Enforcement Authority a statutory body established under this law has powers to probe into illegal assets, including proceeds of drugs that had accrued to the guilty party as a benefit not only at the time of the offence was committed but also accumulated prior to the detection of the illegal activity. The Act creates a comprehensive asset recovery framework that applies not only to drug offences but also to all offences against the laws of Mauritius that are punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of not less than 12 months.
Repression against drug dealers and user is ongoing. About 3000 people are prosecuted every year for offences connected with illicit drugs but the vast majority of them are not drug traffickers. A few have been arrested and sentenced to imprisonment over the past years.
A campaign by the civil society currently being undertaken across the island blames politicians and the police for colluding with drug traffickers. Indeed drug trafficking is progressing in this island because of political connections and the protection kick-backs that the traffickers pay to politicians for leverage. But, the politicians involved have not been identified even though it is an open secret that many of them are involved in drugs. Four Members of the Mauritian Parliament were arrested at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with a bag containing 20 kg of heroin. This caused a political uproar in the island and the four government ministers resigned. A Commission of inquiry followed but little came out of it. A few drug traffickers of that time were arrested and charged.
Today, politicians simply talk about drug trafficking during election campaigns, every five years. Once elected, they never raise the issue. This is because the drug trafficking web brings together the drug dealers, politicians, security agencies and even the justice system on the same profit table.