Drug dealing in Lebanon:At home with a drug baron [Archives:2008/1148/Reportage]

April 21 2008

Alfred Hackensberger
For years, Hizbollah has been trading Lebanese-produced heroin and cocaine for Israeli military secrets. Alfred Hackensberger reports from Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, a hub of the drugs trade

“It's quiet out there as usual,” says Mohammed on his return from his patrol. He puts down his AK47 on the couch beside his two-year-old son, who immediately starts playing with it. Unperturbed, his wife smiles and serves tea.

In this part of the country, weapons are as much a part of the household inventory as a fridge or a television. Visitors or relations leave their weapons at the door as if they were wet umbrellas.

Mohammed is one of some 20 drug lords in the Beqaa Valley, which is approximately 150 km long and reaches right to the Syrian border. He lives with his family in a five-storey house in an isolated village. Only the top storey of the house has been completed; the rest is just a shell.

Up on the roof terrace there is a machine-gun post; huge searchlights are positioned at each corner. Sentries are on duty around the clock. They carry assault rifles with grenade launchers and are in permanent radio contact with each other. In between slurps of hot tea, Mohammed says that even though the police or military rarely venture into the area, it pays to be on your guard.

He goes on to say that they generally only come to the valley to clear a few marijuana or opium fields for the press, just to show that the Lebanese government is addressing the drugs problem. He grins broadly.

Drugs dominate everyday life

The Beqaa Valley, a plateau that lies 1,000 metres above sea level, is an extraterritorial zone. The authorities have virtually no control here. Once off the main road, there are only tracks and no signposts to guide the traveller. Soldiers sit motionless in their posts and don't even bother to turn their heads to look at passing cars.

Those who don't know their way around could easily drive for hours without encountering a house or a human. It's a remote region, the back of beyond. The only settlements are small hamlets with two or three houses where the man of the house generally greets visitors by asking them how much heroin, cocaine, or crack they want loaded into the boots of their cars.

Everyday life here is dominated by the industrial production of and trade in drugs. It is not only the young who take drugs around here; housewives, mothers, and grandfathers are free to snort cocaine and smoke heroin or crack if they so choose.

Passing on Israeli secrets

The 33 kg of heroin that were confiscated on the Lebanese-Israeli border on 25 March originated in the Beqaa Valley. It was the largest haul of its kind in the area. In February, the Israeli authorities bust another drug-smuggling ring involving an Israeli sergeant, Louai Balut.

Balut stands accused of telling Hizbollah by telephone where Israeli troops were stationed along the Lebanese border. This is certainly not the first time a story like this has come to light. Since 2000, a total of 24 military officers, police officers, and civilians have been imprisoned for their role in the drugs trade between Lebanon and Israel.

Drug lord Mohammed hasn't got much to say on this topic. “The drugs produced here are sent all over the world, to Israel too, of course,” he says coolly. “But that has nothing to do with us.” He grins slyly as if to add “say no more”.

A side-effect of the 1982 invasion

During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), Lebanon was one of the world's largest producers of heroin and hash.

At the end of the armed conflict, the new government cracked down on the cultivation of the plants needed for these drugs. To get around the problem, the Lebanese drugs mafia began importing the necessary raw materials from other countries. Morphine base was imported from Afghanistan or the Golden Triangle in South-East Asia and coca base from South America. These products were then processed into heroin, cocaine, and crack in the laboratories of the Beqaa Valley.

Israeli soldiers who came to Lebanon following the 1982 invasion and stayed there as an occupying force for the next 18 years soon discovered the lucrative potential of hard drugs. Thanks to their contacts in the South Lebanese Army (SAL), the militia with whom the Israelis worked closely, drugs were quick, cheap, and easy to come by.

Occupational hazard

The business contacts forged during this period remain intact to this day. Lebanese families whose members used to work for Israeli authorities are still running the trade in drugs to Israel. The Biros and the Naharas are two such clans. Ramzi Nahara was a police informer in the 1980s before changing sides and working for Hizbollah. He was mysteriously killed in a car bomb attack in Lebanon in 2002.

Mohammed Biro received the Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Arens, into his home in the 1980s. Following his fall from grace, Biro died in an Israeli prison in 2003. The threat of an untimely death is an occupational hazard in this business.

Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman who was kidnapped by Hizbollah and used as a barter chip in a prisoner exchange in 2004, also tried to make his fortune in heroin. Kais Obeid, an Arab with an Israeli passport, asked Tannenbaum to meet him in Abu Dhabi. Once there, Tannenbaum was kidnapped by Hizbollah and brought to Lebanon.

Obeid, who disappeared from Israel in 2000, is said to be running a huge network that specialises in the smuggling of drugs into Israel from an unknown location in Lebanon.

The indirect war

Kais Obeid works closely with Hizbollah, which controls much of the Beqaa Valley. Officially the Party of God is opposed to all kinds of drugs. That being said, Hizbollah does not want to risk a confrontation with any of the valley's powerful clans as the only way to subdue them would be to use armed force.

And anyway, Hizbollah takes the line that the drugs are being used for a good cause, namely to buy Israeli military secrets. The organisation considers the drugs trade to be part of an “indirect war” against Israel, one that certainly came in handy during the 34-day war in the summer of 2006.

Alfred Hackensberger

copyright Qantara.de 2008