Iranian woman caught smuggling drugs in a false bottom suitcase

Shwe Kalaung

It is not uncommon for Muslim women to be involved with drug trafficking in Sri Lanka, especially in the heroin trade, as several Muslim women were connected to the historic heroin seizure on December 31, 2018, stemming from a previous heroin bust a few weeks earlier involving a Muslim woman. Now a 24-year-old Iranian woman has been arrested by the Police Narcotics Board (PNB) at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) airport in Colombo, with 400g (0.9 lbs) of Kush cannabis tightly wrapped inside plastic bags concealed in the false bottom of her suitcase. On her trip from Iran through Doha, Qatar, while she was trying to smuggle the drugs into Sri Lanka, she was detained by officials early on the morning of January 31, 2019, who searched her suitcase.

Kush cannabis is known to be a more expensive drug in Sri Lanka, as it is purer, with a high concentration of THC, while the cheaper Kerala Ganja is typically imported from Kerala, India. Kush cannabis gets its name from the Kush valley in Northern India, although both types of drug are grown inside Sri Lanka. Kerala Ganja has come under scrutiny from officials, because it is often laced with harmful chemicals including insecticides, formaldehyde and even shoe polish or heroin, in order to make the drug seem more potent. Mass quantities of Kerala Ganja have been seized in the northern part of Sri Lanka, coming from India, which has become a major problem nation for drug trafficking. According to one study, “Analysis: Sri Lanka’s Cannabis Problem: Roots in India,” by B. Routray on July 5, 2018:

In 2016, a total of 36817 kilograms [81, 168 lbs] of cannabis, which is mostly for internal consumption, were recovered in Sri Lanka.

And:

If unchecked, a nexus between transnational drug smugglers and terrorists is not difficult to foresee.

Another drug seizure, this time of Kerala Ganja, happened on the night of January, 30, 2019, in Jaffna, the northern part of Sri Lanka. From an article “Iranian Women Arrested with ‘Kush’” in the dailymirror.lk, by D.Darsheena:

Meanwhile, two suspects aged 44 and 45 from Jaffna, were arrested with 41.5 kg of Kerala Cannabis worth more than Rs. 5 million [$28,000USD] during a raid near the Mohideen Jumma Mosque in Jaffna yesterday evening.

SP Gunasekera said the PNB officers arrested the suspects while transporting the Kerala Cannabis in a motorcycle, following a tip-off.

Although few details have been given about these suspects, they are reported to live on Manipay Road and Muslim School Road. They were both arrested in the Muslim quarters of Jaffna; this area has the highest concentration of mosques in Jaffna (over 10) within a short walking distance.

The Iranian connection in the recent drug bust is noteworthy.

Diplomatic relations between Iran and Sri Lanka have existed since 1961. Geographically, Iran is a regional influence, with great involvement in the shipping trade through the Arabian Sea southward to Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka abides by all U.S. trade sanctions on Iran. Iran was a key player in providing high-tech military equipment to Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE terror group. Also, negotiations began with Iran to build a new gas refinery in Sri Lanka in 2018, but with trade sanctions and a trade deficit, the Sri Lankan government proposed to trade with tea exports, which was rejected by the Iranians.

Ahead of new US trade sanctions, Sri Lanka ceased Iranian oil imports in September 2018, which was a large shift in policy, since before that nearly all of the imported crude to Sri Lanka was from Iran. The best way to describe the relations between Iran and Sri Lanka is cordial and diplomatic. There are an estimated 1.5 million foreign workers in the Middle East in 2018. About 92% go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan being other destinations. By comparison, the effect of foreign workers from Sri Lanka in Iran is small. However, from escalating tensions with Iran, the flow of migrant workers there has been significantly stalled with travel warnings. Foreign workers are said to constitute 80% of Sri Lanka’s workforce, according to some estimates. There are no visa requirements for Sri Lankans visiting Iran for a month, so Iran is a popular route for trade and travel to Turkey.

Each year, many tourists come to Sri Lanka from Iran. Statistics show that in 2011, there were 2223 Iranian tourists visiting Sri Lanka. But there is a prior history of major drug trafficking problems coming from Iran. One of the largest heroin seizures by the Sri Lankan authorities was that of an Iranian fishing trawler, described in an article from The Island by Shamindra Ferdinando on April 10, 2016:

Among the Iranians arrested in a recent joint Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB)-Navy operation off Dondra point are six men from one family, including 12-year-old boy, according to court documents.

They are among ten Iranian crew of an Iranian owned trawler seized by the SLN after the PNB using decoys successfully negotiated to purchase 110 kilos of heroin with a street value of over USD 7.5 mn. PNB personnel boarded the Iranian vessel to ‘conclude’ the deal.

In addition to the Iranians, authorities arrested a Singaporean, two Pakistanis and an Indian; some of them were arrested on land. The arrest of 14 persons is the biggest single apprehension of foreigners by Sri Lankan authorities.

And:

VA Wijegunaratne paid a glowing tribute to the PNB for having specific intelligence required to carry out the highly successful operation. The operation conducted in the Southern seas had been based on excellent work done by the PNB, the Navy Chief said, adding that his officers and men really enjoyed working with the special outfit.

Responding to a query, the Navy Commander asserted that the Iranian boat could have had an opportunity to hand over a part of its consignment along the way before being trapped by the PNB. The naval veteran estimated that the vessel could have carried as much as 400 kgs of heroin.

The Navy deployed SLNS Nandimitra and SLNS Mihikathato meet any eventuality. The vessels had been positioned in such a way not to alert the foreign crew of the Iranian boat.

VA Wijegunaratne said that the recent detection underscored the urgent need to take tangible measures to counter maritime drug trafficking. Referring to terrorism, VA Wijegunaratne said that Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for neglecting maritime affairs and now maritime drug trafficking was going to cause a major problem.

And further,

Based on information provided by anti-narcotics agencies, VA Wijegunaratne said that the estimated value of Sri Lanka’s daily heroin consumption was about Rs 450 mn. Accordingly, approximately 45,000 heroin addicts consume about 763 kgs of heroin annually. But, about 3.5 tons were believed to be brought into Sri Lanka, the Vice Adm said, adding that substantial stocks were being transferred to various countries through Sri Lanka.

VA Wijegunaratne insisted that drug trafficking could be stopped. The navy chief asserted that all experts believed the LTTE could never be defeated though the armed forces achieved victory within three years. Similarly, drug trafficking could be eradicated by implementing a coordinated strategy, he said.

More details of this drug seizure come from an article on NDTV.com entitled “Sri Lanka Detains 14 Foreigners In $7.5 Million Drug Bust” on April 3, 2016:

Ten Iranians, two Pakistanis, one Indian and one Singaporean were remanded in custody after appearing in a magistrate’s court in Colombo on Saturday, national police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

“They have had Sri Lankans involved in this smuggling,” Gunasekera said. “We are hopeful of arresting them (Sri Lankans) very soon.

Acting on a tip-off, police and the navy boarded the trawler off the south coast on Wednesday. They arrested the crew — the 10 Iranians and one of the Pakistanis — after discovering the 110 kilograms (242 pounds) of heroin that authorities estimate was worth 1.1 billion rupees ($7.5 million).

“A Singapore national and an Indian were (also) arrested following a car chase on Saturday,” he said adding that the other Pakistani was detained at a house in Sri Lanka that was allegedly used as a base for drug-smuggling.

The seizure is the biggest since August 2013 when police found 260 kilograms of heroin hidden in a shipping container that had come from Pakistan.

Sri Lankan authorities have said that such large quantities of heroin suggest that Colombo is being used as a transit centre. Narcotics could be reshipped to the Far East, according to authorities.”

In 2013 there was a rogue Iranian ship in Sri Lankan waters that escaped detention, according to a Reuters article called “Iranian ship held in Sri Lanka flees countries’ waters” by Shihar Aneez & Jonathan Saul on 17, January, 2013:

An Iranian-flagged cargo ship has fled from waters around Sri Lanka after weeks of detention by the island nation’s navy acting on a court order obtained by Germany’s DVB Bank SE, officials and a lawyer acting for the bank said on Thursday.

The Sri Lankan navy last week fired warning shots to prevent the MV Amina from leaving, but said that late on Wednesday the vessel made its way in rough sea out of the country’s waters.

“If the ship is beyond 12 nautical miles from our shores, then we can’t do anything according to U.N. laws unless the ship has committed any crimes in our country,” Sri Lankan Navy spokesman Kosala Warnakulasuriya said.

“We tried to communicate and asked her to stop, but without responding to anything, she had gone.”

The vessel is managed by Tehran-based Rahbaran Omid Darya Ship Management, public shipping registers and ship tracking data showed. The European Union and United States have said the firm is a front for the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which has faced Western sanctions for some years.

The West has accused IRISL, Iran’s biggest cargo carrier, of transporting weapons, a charge it denies.

Another problem in the news involving an Iranian national was a large-scale currency smuggling operation. According to Hirunews.lk, in an article entitled “Iranian Foreign Currency Smuggler Arrested” on June 6, 2018, the 50-year-old Iranian man attempted to smuggle over $100,000 USD in Sri Lankan, Malaysian and US currencies. The Iranian claimed he had won the money at a casino. He was headed to Dubai to deposit the money there. There have been more arrests for currency smuggling in Sri Lanka. Many of the smugglers are known to be travelling to Dubai to deposit their spoils from illegal activities.

As regional tensions increase with Iran and economic sanctions begin to have an adverse affect on its economy, there may be an increase in illegal trafficking activities from Iran, as a measure of its desperation. Within the last two years, there has been some major illegal activity coming from Iran. The government of Sri Lanka is fighting the war on drugs by all necessary means in order to combat the threat of terror, so more drug-related arrests linked to Iran are expected.

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