UK faces heroin flood, Blair warned
Published by The Guardian – Monday 21 April, 2003
Copyright: The Guardian
Drugs investigators have told Tony Blair they fear a big increase in heroin smuggling into the UK this year because of intelligence suggesting that stockpiles of opium in Afghanistan and Pakistan are much greater than anyone realised.
Members of the inter-agency drugs action group, made up of the security services, the national crime squad, customs and excise and the police, have told ministers that unless the Afghan production of heroin is curbed, “traditional law enforcement cannot hope to win” the war against the traffickers.
They fear that the post-conflict opportunity to drastically restrict poppy growing in Afghanistan, the source of 75% of the world’s heroin and more than 90% of Britain’s supply, may have been lost. Good ideas, they say, have not been translated into “real work” on the ground, so the country’s farmers have had little incentive to stop cultivating the poppy plants.
Customs and the police had high hopes that the ban on poppy growing in Afghanistan which began in July 2000, and the military action to find Osama bin Laden, would have significantly cut the supply of the drug to Europe.
But ministers are now being told that there does not appear to have been any impact.
While customs officers seized record amounts of heroin in the last three months of 2002, they say the size of the shipments and the methods used show that the smugglers are not short of stock.
In one operation last October, officers at Dover found 300kg of heroin in hessian sacks in a Turkish-registered lorry. No special attempt had been made to hide the drugs.
Investigators believe that any group willing to attempt “a kamikaze run like that” is not overly worried about where the next shipment is coming from.
The fear is that stockpiles of heroin from Afghanistan’s bumper crops of 1998 and 1999 have not been exhausted, meaning the UN and other agencies substantially underestimated the size of the yields.
These stores will soon be replenished by a 2002 poppy harvest that is expected to produce 270 tonnes of refined heroin, enough to supply the world market for a year.
“If we still have not seen the back end of the stockpiling, it makes you wonder what is going to happen when the new crop enters the supply line,” a Whitehall source said.
The agencies have been working with police in Iran – including training frontline officers – to try to stop heroin crossing the Afghan border into the country, one of the traffickers’ favoured supply routes to Europe.
Terry Byrne, director general of the law enforcement division of customs, confirmed yesterday that the signs were “ominous”.
“It is troubling that at the end of 2002, when heroin detection rates are at record levels, prices seem relatively stable,” he said. “We had hoped that the stockpiling from the bumper harvest before the Taliban ban would by now have shown signs of being exhausted. They do not seem to have been.
“If current cultivations in Afghanistan produce bumper stockpiles, that could have a very damaging impact for more than just the next year. The international community has got to support the Afghanistan administration in doing something about this.”
There are signs, however, that drug investigators are having more success against cocaine traffickers, probably because a series of joint operations launched up to three years ago against gangs in the Caribbean and South America has been coming to fruition.
The wholesale price of a kilo of cocaine in the UK soared from£20,000 last April to £29,000 by December. In one area last November, traffickers were seeking £32,000 per kilo, a sure sign that they are having difficulties.
Cooperation between British and Jamaican investigators has had a big impact on the amount of cocaine brought into the UK by drug “mules”.