“White death”
In Iraqi Kurdistan (usually referred to as Kurdistan’s Regional Government, KRG) the mention of drugs often brings fear within families. Kurds actually have a nickname for psychedelics: they sometimes refer to them as Mêrgî Spî (مەرگی سپی), which means “the White Death”. The colourful Kurdish language also refers to addictive psychotropics as “burning embers” falling into society, leaving more ashes every day. The layer of ash being very thin, it still covers everything and leaves the environment dirty and impure.

In the last decades, the “White Death” has considerably spread across the KRG’s communities. Slowly, the autonomous region has become a cornerstone of the Golden Crescent, a road of transit for drugs being exported westward from Afghanistan. It has become one of the springboards for delivering the most dangerous sorts of psychedelics to Europe.
Official statistics stemming from the Drug Enforcement Agency in KRG (referred to as the General Direction for the Elimination of Drugs) show that the threat is growing while experts interviewed in the course of this investigation warn of a security collapse and risks of social disintegration. Despite the emergency, the DEA operating within the Kurdish region are not centralized, which significantly hinders their efficiency in fighting drug trafficking. On top of the divisions within the DEAs, the exchange of information between the different agencies remains insufficient.

A troubling reality

The official statistics and data provided to The Red Line by the KRG DEA’s former director in Sulaymaniyah province, Mr. Jalal Amin, shows that no less than 5600 people have been arrested for drug trafficking or consumption in the past four years. These include women and teenagers under the age of 18. In the same period, nearly 3550 kilograms of various kinds of drugs such as marijuana, heroin and crystal meth have been seized. In addition to this, hundreds of thousands of strips of pills used to produce illegal synthetic drugs have fallen into the hands of the security forces.

From the aforementioned statistics, in 2020 alone, 1413 people were arrested. This figure is consistent with numbers from 2017 and 2018, but shows a sharp increase in comparison to 2019: in one year, arrests have doubled, a troubling reality. Moreover, as the general director of drug control in KRG, Mr. Kewan Tawfiq Rahim put it: “the real numbers are actually higher and many criminals involved in the drug business have not yet been apprehended by law enforcement’s forces.”

Mr. Kewan confirmed to The Red Line that the amount of drug substances has increased in the region and that young people are starting to consume them younger every year, “a matter that raises strong concerns”, he added. The general director also said that his department is working hard to prevent drug abuse and trafficking from getting out of hand.

According to Mr. Bakir Bayiz, the mayor of Peshder district (Qalad Dize), the region has fallen into a circle of addiction. This can be felt in many places, where gangs are growing in major cities. Although they aren’t overt, there are places where drugs are sold “just like fruits and vegetables”. Consumers who know where to go can easily enter the drug traffickers’ lairs and buy from them.

“If the situation keeps worsening, Kurdistan will soon become a hub of addiction”, Mr. Bakir Bayiz warned.

Drugs emanate from Iran

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq are all part of the golden crescent of drug trafficking. In the last three decades, Afghanistan was dubbed the largest psychedelics production center in the world. The existence of an 850-km long and mountainous border between Iraq and Iran makes it an excellent corridor to pass drugs through. Furthermore, government officials do not control this territory well enough to prevent the trade.

Mr. Jelal Amin Beg is the former director of drug enforcement in Sulaymaniyah. He explained to The Red Line that drugs are mostly smuggled into Kurdistan Region’s territories through border ports such as Bashmakh, Parvez Khan and Kele in the Sulaymaniyah province, and Haji Omran in the Erbil province.

As he explained, traffickers use a variety of techniques to smuggle drugs into the Region, such as concealing their load in blankets, pillows, car ducts, watermelon cargos, sewing machines, refrigerators, truckloads, and in many other goods coming from Iran.
The Red Line was able to approach a truck driver that got caught up in a drug smuggling affair. He stressed the dangers people in his profession often have to face: “Iranian dealers put their merchandise in our shipments by threatening us, or sometimes, even without letting us know about it. This puts our lives in jeopardy”, this truck driver explained under the condition of anonymity.

Kurdistan Region: the transit hub

Despite the fact the local drug market is in an expansion phase in Iraqi Kurdistan, most of the psychedelics brought to the region are only transiting before being shipped to other parts. To this day, Europe remains the main destination for these products.

Mr. Jelal Amin Beg explained that his former unit managed to confiscate 30kg of opioid drugs in three different operations involving iranian traffickers who were attempting to smuggle their load to the city of Bonn in Germany by using the postal service in KRG.

According to Mr. Kewan Tawfiq the vast majority of drugs that transit in KRG are produced and manufactured in other countries in specialized factories. His department identifies Turkey, Syria, and European countries as the main destination for the illegal substances, but surprisingly, the numbers he gave contradict the official statistics of the region. Local experts interviewed during this investigation also confirmed that the real figures are actually higher than the official numbers and in no case lower.

Meeting the drug dealers

The Red Line was able to visit the KRG Security (Asayish) prison where several drug traffickers are held. One of the inmates interviewed by The Red Line shared the details of his drugs business and the circumstances of his arrest: “A few months ago, an Iranian drug dealer contacted me and asked me to find a transport company in order to smuggle drugs located in the Kurdistan region to Syria or Jordan. Then, when a transport was arranged, I went to Duhok where I received the drugs before taking the load to Shekhan, near Akre in the Erbil province. I intended to transfer it abroad through Mosul, but instead I was searched and arrested in possession of 26kg of psychedelics”.

This former drug smuggler and inmate wished to remain anonymous. Nonetheless, he declared having been a Peshmerga soldier (KRG military force) in the past, before getting involved in importing coal from Iran. His former activity had given him the opportunity to make good contacts between both countries and start engaging in illegal trafficking after a while. 

In the Kurdish region, there are retail drug dealers who sell their products to consumers for personal use. As of today, no party, government or security officials have been found guilty of involvement in such matters. This was stated by Kewan Tawfiq during his interview with The Red Line. Nonetheless, the general director did not hide the fact that there were government employees, Peshmerga fighters, and security guards among those drug dealers who act individually and sometimes get caught.

The high value of drugs in KRG sometimes leads traffickers and consumers to use it as a direct payment method. A taxi driver living in the Kurdistan region and who got arrested on charges of drug possession, described to The Red Line how a passenger once rode with him, and instead of giving him money to pay for his trip, offered him some drugs. This taxi driver accepted the offer and smoked some of the product while sparing the rest. After a few days, he and two of his friends went out before getting apprehended at a police checkpoint in possession of the drugs.

Marijuana farms in the KRG

Based on information gathered by The Red Line, a number of marijuana plantations have developed in the KRG in the past few years. Both the Director-General of Drugs Control in the Kurdistan region and former director of Drugs Enforcement Agency in Sulaymaniyah province confirm this information. They also told the Red Line that in 2018, the different narcotics agencies of Kurdistan located and seized two marijuana plantations within Erbil and Duhok provinces. A few small drug factories in Sulaymaniyah were also dismantled in the same period.

The Sulaymaniyah officials gave more details, describing the nature of the synthetic drug traffic in the region: “Sometimes, narcotics are smuggled in the form of pills such as Tramal and Tramadol. We caught several loads near the Iranian border and in synthetic drug factories. Usually, the pills are brought to Iran where they are mixed with sulfur and other chemicals in order to produce “Shisha”, which is considered one of the most harmful types of drugs. The Shisha is then returned back to the Kurdistan Region for consumption or to be smuggled in other countries.

The division of KRG

Although the KRG laws require the existence of a unified drug control Directorate, the region has two separate DEA offices. Erbil and Duhok are operating under the authority of their directorate while Sulaymaniyah has its own. This is why Mr. Kewan Tawfiq Rahim’s DEA office, which should have jurisdiction in all three provinces or KRG, has no influence in Sulaymaniyah.

This long standing division has political roots from the time the two main parties in the region, Kudistan’s Democratic Party led by the Barzani clan, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, dominated by the Talabani family, used to compete for power. The Kurdish civil war that erupted in the 90” led to a division of power that explains how all institutions in the region are politicized and thus, hindered.

While the general director of Drug Control maintains that there is a collaboration between them, the director in charge in Sulaymaniyah agency claims the opposite and adds that they are sometimes not informed of their counterparts’ updates for periods of up to six months or even a year. Mr. Jalal Amin regretted the reality of this situation and expressed his belief that fighting drug trafficking requires a higher level of cooperation and exchanging of knowledge, not only on the domestic level but also among neighboring countries as well as with Interpol, which isn’t happening currently. 

The dual governance system apart, Mr. Bayiz also believes that the problem lies in the existence of a powerful network of interest between drug traffickers and the local power structures. The mayor of Peshder district claims that  there are cases of collusion between these networks and members of the security, the military, the political, as well as the tribal forces within Iraqi Kurdistan. “On several occasions, people with governmental connections involved in this business were apprehended but were not punished. This shows that traffickers are powerful and protected. Therefore, the forces that are facing traffickers are limited in their capacity to dismantle these trafficks. This encourages criminal activities and increases the risks of social collapse”, Mr. Bayiz explained.

Outdated laws still is in place

Although a new anti-drug law was issued in 2020, the older law, called the “law 68”, is still being enforced. This law defines both the dealer and the user as criminals and determins the death penalty or life imprisonment for the dealer.

The new law referring to penalties for drug dealers and users that was drafted in the KRG’s parliament in 2020 has not yet been implemented. This law differentiate between a user and a dealer while recommending treating the user as a patient, not a criminal. This allows to minimize the charges against him in comparison to a trafficker.

According to the new law, the punishment of drug traffickers will either be a death sentence or life imprisonment associated with expropriation of their moveable and immovable assets, in addition to paying a fine ranging between 30 million and 90 million IQD (between 20 and 62,000 USD). It also stresses the necessity of rehabilitating the user and treating his or her addiction in a special facility or a hospital. Yet, in spite of the Kurdish government’s promises, such facilities have not been created in the region.

Likewise, Mr. Bakir Bayiz, is critical of the older law and thinks it is obsolete and flawed. “The drug user should be treated, not imprisoned” he claimed.

Outdated laws also prevent the police forces of acting in cases involving legal drugs used for the manufacturing of illegal drugs. Mr. Bayiz expressed criticism toward the appellate court of KRG for its incapacity to charge holders of legal psychotropic drugs used to produce illegal synthetic substances. According to him, many drug dealers who were arrested have been released by relying on a Kurdistan region pharmacists’ syndicate law that allows them to buy and transport high quantities of legal drugs . “It is true that substances like tramal or tramadol are protected by these laws, but they have a dual-use and are scarcely used for medicinal purposes. An amendment to the law would thus prevent traffickers from travelling with large amounts of medicinal drugs used to produce narcotics. 

Mr. Bayiz also stressed that many detained drug users are still exposed to narcotics in prison, which proves that unlike the rest of the civilized world, the KRG doesn’t have decent correction centers. 

The borders are not getting controlled thoroughly

Corruption issues aside, Mr. Bayiz stressed that neither Iran nor the KRG were able to fully control their joint borders due to the abundance of smuggling routes in this high mountain area. The presence of villages on both sides of the border that enjoy strong cultural and tribal ties have further facilitated the development of trafficking routes throughout the mountains. 

Mr. Bayiz also admitted that the lack of training of Iraqi kurdish forces hampered the efficiency of the fight against drug traffickers. Furthermore, KRG’s anti-drug police do not possess the advanced and sophisticated equipment usually employed in other drug enforcement forces around the world.

Mr. Bakir Bayiz was also critical of the lack of coherence in the policies to counter drugs problems: “I think that the leaders of our security who are engaging the fight against drugs are not mindful and didn’t set up a plan that fully takes into account the dangers of narcotics; It is urgent to protect this country’s future. Our force has a very low state of awareness and training”, he claimed. This judgement seems to reflect the lack of understanding of drug issues by the policy makers in Iraqi Kurdistan. “They call drugs the white death, but authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan do not take this threat seriously.”, he continued.

“They are greedy people.”, Mr. Bayiz added, before comparing the lack of political will to a criminal activity as severe as drug trafficking: “Those who are looting our people’s fortune do not care about where this country is headed.”, he concluded.

VIAKamaran Osman and Ranj Osman