Editorial

Drug Trafficking
Time to tighten up loose ends

Some weeks earlier, a driver was arrested by the police with heroin valued at Rs 180 million. His arrest has led to roping in of other members involved in this illegal activity. This is how, after one of the key bosses was taken in, it was the turn of others to be arrested, including a religious man who regularly called at the prisons for preaching sessions with prisoners. Names of accomplices in the trade are still rolling out. From the list of those who have been taken in for questioning by the police, members of nearly the entire rainbow nation appeared to be collaborating to get the trade going. Thus, half a dozen arrests later, the police are now on the lookout of a woman, another key contact residing in Port Louis. No gender discrimination, therefore.

From what has transpired so far, the “goods” used to be hauled down off the coast of Mauritius by accomplices from the ‘ Mauritius Trochetia’, a passenger and cargo ship plying between the east and south eastern African coasts, Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, Mayotte, Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues. Those “parcels” were recuperated at the right time by well-informed boatmen taking off from an unsupervised coastal point of Mauritius. From there on, it was the job of ground transporters to carry them to safety at the local centre(s) of the trade. As simple as that.

The police investigation has revealed intriguing connections. If what is being said is true, a master player in this clandestine trade has been pulling the strings from behind the bars of Beau Bassin prison in which he is being held for a long term for having been found guilty in the past of engaging in the drug trade.  This is also the place where the above-mentioned preacher accomplished his mission regularly. A solid network was in place to ensure the flow on the local market of the drugs that were loaded on board the ship at some port or other of its calling on its way to Mauritius.

It would also appear that mobile phones (with batteries, chargers, et al) were sneaked into the prison at will. They have been one of the main communicating factors facilitating the carrying on of this trade from prison cells. Those gaining access to the prison, whether due to loose connections in the security system of the prison or persons assumed to be above suspicion, must have taken advantage of their position to sneak in illicit “materials” for the needy prisoners. Even prison walls could not block the imagination of all these persons engaged in the “business”.

Just like the “importers” were beating down all controls at the entry point in Mauritius, they would have managed equally well to get the “materials” on board the ship in the source countries without the customs, police and such other relevant authorities in those places knowing anything about it. Obviously, the “goods” did not figure out on the “manifest” of the ship’s captain. As of now, we understand that those items (kilogrammes of heroin) being carried on board the ship were jettisoned into the sea near the Mauritius coast by some junior officer on board the ship who knew on whose account this trade was being carried on.

Now, no trade is sustainable unless you pay up for it. Suppliers in foreign countries may not want to be paid in Mauritian rupees unless they call regularly in Mauritius to ply their own trade over here and are in need of rupees for buying up local products. They would normally like to be paid for in foreign exchange. One would guess that retailing the “merchandize” on the local market would be paid for in rupees by numerous petty consumers, not in foreign currency. At best, therefore, most of the sales collections would be in rupees except if some drug-consuming tourist or other foreigner paid for whatever small purchase he made in dollars, euros or sterling.

This means that all those rupees collected from retail sales and the part of the proceeds therefrom requiring to be converted into foreign currencies for “import payment” would be obtained by the drug traders from local financial institutions. The latter are required by law to satisfy themselves of the sound provenance of the rupees being converted at their counters and to ascertain the exact purpose for which the foreign exchange is being sought. Has this been strictly complied with?

From information that has transpired from the on-going inquiry into this case, one of the arrested persons was also travelling frequently to other countries of the region. That would be the occasion for this person to stand up as a courier and settle the “import bills” in foreign currency as purchased most probably from the local financial institutions. The regular settlement of bills would act to support the illicit trade and perpetuate it. For the trade to last, the local network will need to maintain regular contact with the foreign suppliers and get their acquiescence to carry on, which means they need to be paid without fail in foreign currency.

This kind of trade can’t go on unless all these ends are tied up neatly. Various levels of complicity are required. If all this is so, many questions arise. The first of these is: how long has this arrangement been going on? We are not aware of a single other case of boatmen carrying the “merchandize” having been caught in the act either by coastguards or police or any other. If this has been going on for long, the present case would only be the tip of a long-standing iceberg supplying the local market.

The second question is about the impact of this illicit trade on the economy. We all know that when income is generated at one point in the economy, it creates a chain of other incomes by what is known as the ‘multiplier effect’. If the chain of incomes created by the illicit economic activities is large relative to the ‘white’ or official economy, this situation will normally show up in high levels of local conspicuous consumption by all those involved in the illicit trade or it will materialize in local physical investment in proxy names or simply exit the economy by way of financial or physical investment in other countries. The operation of a “black economy” along the official economy can produce serious destabilizing effects, notably at the level of the country’s policy implementation. It needs to be arrested before it assumes an upsetting proportion.

The third question is as follows: if illicit drugs can float into the country so easily, what about other goods, such as harmful arms and ammunitions? If those things would have found their way to our shores by the same methods as in the case of the drugs, an important question of security arises. What would happen if unsocial elements engaging in illicit activities were in possession of an unaccounted-for arsenal? This is an area at least that should have called for extra vigilance on the part of the authorities. Important action need be taken therefore to keep under serious vigilance our shorelines, possibly by recourse to technology where it is not practicable to be physically present at all times.

The drug episode unfolding currently after the accidental arrest of a driver raises more questions than it answers. We should seize this opportunity to tighten up loose ends which, unless attended to, could paint an altogether weak picture of the country in terms of governance, let alone the scale of damage being done to those who have got addicted. The best we could have hoped for was that this one was the only case that was affecting our country but one runs the risk of becoming too naïve along this route.

M.K.

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