On May 10, a Libya-bound ship with 26 million pills of Tramadol, an opioid painkiller presented in doses of 225 mg, way higher than standard prescriptions, and hidden among towels and tablecloths, was apprehended by the Greek authorities in the port of Piraeus. The illegal consignment, worth $13million, was headed for markets across the Middle East.

The ship had started its journey in Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai, more popularly called Nhava Sheva. The Tramadol was made in Amritsar by Royal International, a pharmaceutical company licensed to export and manufacture drugs. Royal International, by all accounts, broke no law in manufacturing the drug in a dose that has little medicinal value. Royal is just one of many manufacturers that regularly export Tramadol to Libya—exports that meet all Indian regulatory requirements, which are silent and lax about some crucial things.

The drug is legal, the export is legal, the importer is legal—on paper at least—and the shipping is legal.

Yet Tramadol is the curse of the Middle East, the drug of the “Arab Spring”, the cash cow of Islamist outfits and militias, and an opiate for everyone in these cruel times. In Egypt, you can tip with it, and settle the cab fare. In Gaza, Tramadol addiction is the only possibility of escape from oppression.

Indian exports and smuggled shipments—of Tramadol in particular—to the Middle East are responsible for mass drug abuse in the region, a Fountain Ink investigation has revealed. At this point, the Middle East has by far the highest number of displaced and traumatised people in the world. Doctors, activists, NGOs and government officers in Libya and Gaza as well as officials at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna told Fountain Ink that prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high, substantially made up of medicines manufactured in India.

Yet Tramadol is the curse of the Middle East, the drug of the “Arab Spring”, the cash cow of Islamist outfits and militias, and an opiate for everyone in these cruel times. In Egypt, you can tip with it, and settle the cab fare. In Gaza, Tramadol addiction is the only possibility of escape from oppression.

The rise of India as a major drug exporter to the Middle East coincides with a period where it has also emerged as a hub for the smuggling of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine (used for making methamphetamine) to Africa.

The Smack Track, a new route for chemicls to the West, starts in South Asia. Precursors from India go to Africa’s east coast, where the drug is manufactured, and then pushed across the developed world. The chain is part of an American Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA) investigation, whose wiretap transcripts and other documents have been accessed by Fountain Ink.

Vicky Goswami, who used to push drugs to the high and mighty in Nineties Mumbai, is the lynchpin of the trade in precursors from India, according to various Indian, Kenyan, and American investigative agencies. He is described as an integral part of the Akhasa Organisation, a crime syndicate run out of Kenya by two brothers. Akhasa is involved in a major play to become the big supplier in America and Europe after the clampdown on Mexican cartels by US agencies.

Goswami handles the procurement and shipment of chemicals, many of which are smuggled out of ports in Gujarat, Indian investigators said.

India is now a major point of origin and transit, both on its northeastern borders and the west coast. Drugs like Tramadol go to the Middle East, ostensibly legally, but mostly they fall in the nowhere zone, that special place created by bureaucracy where everything is okay as long as forms are filed in triplicate.

Almost every government official spoken to said the export of Tramadol 225, an unheard dosage, was not a problem as long as it was not sold in India, and the company could show a purchase order from the importing country. Libya, in this case, is war-torn, has two governments, and many armed groups vying for control.

The smuggling of precursors is a straightforward crime, though the scale is not fully known. The only reasonable indication is a bust earlier this year of 20 tonnes of ephedrine from a pharma factory in Solapur that was declared closed by the owners earlier. This is one intercepted order; police don’t how much more is being cooked.

Officers of Thane’s Anti-Narcotic Bureau, the people behind the Solapur bust, said the trade in precursors could be mind-boggling. They have the unenviable task of imagining an elephant from a glimpse of its tail.

For seven months in 2014, they met in palatial mansions and high-rise apartments across Kenya planning the sale of hundreds of kilograms of “carat diamond” heroin. They discussed trafficking tonnes of precursor chemicals from India into Kenya with the ultimate goal of producing methamphetamine in super labs in east and west Africa for the United States, Europe and South Africa.

The plans involved members of Akhasa, a Kenyan crime syndicate headed by the two sons (Ibrahim and Bakhtash Akhasa) of a slain drug lord; Gulam Hussein, a Pakistani heroin smuggler known as the “Old Man” who operated a shipping business; and Vijay “Vicky” Goswami, an Indian underworld don who had landed up heading Akhasa’s drug business.

In the background, members of the Kenyan government, police force and coast guard turned a blind eye to happenings in the port city of Mombasa. It has emerged as a major point along the Smack Track.

The stakes were high. Millions in shipments, according to a source in the Kenyan Ministry of Interior, of heroin and amphetamines were on the table as the Akhasas decided to carry on the legacy of a man who was murdered in a gangland battle on Blood Street in Amsterdam.

Vicky is an integral figure in the Akhasas’ drug business, with access to airstrips in neighbouring countries and associates across their underworld. If the plan had run smoothly, Akhasa would have made millions of dollars that would line not just their pockets but also enrich politicians in Kenya and politically-connected people in India, sources in Kenya and the DEA told Fountain Ink.

But Akhasa did not know that members of the Colombian organisation they were plotting with were “confidential sources” of DEA, working under their supervision. They were recording—with audio and video—many of the meetings, some accessed by Fountain Ink.

One afternoon in November 2014 in Nyali, a luxurious beach suburb in Mombasa, Kenyan officers from the anti-narcotics unit and six officers from the US made their way to the high-walled Akhasa mansion. At about 4 p.m. they raided the house and arrested the brothers, the Old Man, and Vicky for possession of 98 kg of “one hundred per cent white crystal” heroin.

The arrests made waves across Kenyan society which was slowly edging towards narco-state status, where drug barons had their henchmen in all parts of government. The four have been indicted by the US and are to be tried in a New York courtroom. But four months after the arrest, Baktash Akhasa and Vicky Goswami were out of prison after paying bail set at $325,000.

The arrests created ripples in India, too, because of the involvement of Goswami’s love interest, a faded Bollywood starlet, Mamta Kulkarni, who was present in the mansion at the time of the sting. Kulkarni captured the attention of Goswami (then associated with the Dawood gang) who would lavish her with gifts.

What sort of courtroom lets out men arrested with hundreds of kilograms of heroin.

She eventually forsook Bollywood and fronted his hotel business in Dubai after he was awarded a life sentence in a Dubai jail for manufacturing Mandrax. To general surprise he got a royal pardon 16 years later. After that, the couple moved to Kenya and settled in Nyali, Mombasa.

“What sort of courtroom lets out men arrested with hundreds of kilograms of heroin,” asked a member of the US Department of Justice (DoJ) while taking a sip of red wine on the top floor of a Mumbai hotel.

Another senior source at Thane Crime Branch revealed that soon after the sting in 2014, the US informed Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) officials that “tons” of precursor needed to manufacture methamphetamine, namely ephedrine, would leave India. Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that makes the heart work harder, the mind sharper, and ensures alertness even in small doses.

India is the third largest manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, yet suffers from inefficiencies in regulating the industry.

“To say the NCB was slow to act would be an understatement,” the DoJ official said. The NCB was in disarray during this period. For a long time there was no one responsible, said the DoJ official, and when someone expressed interest he was more of a paper appointment, leading a small narcotics team who could not monitor the massive quantities of chemicals produced across India.

Akhasa put the plan into action, despite arrest and indictment, shipping precursors from India to Africa, until an unexpected development threw a monkey wrench into the works. Inspector Nagarkar arrested a Nigerian on the streets of Kalyan, a satellite town serving Mumbai, with bags of white powder on April 10.

Less than a month later, on May 2, Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigade in Gaza released a video on their website. It shows a man in a black and white jumper and jeans shovelling sand with a spade. His face is blurred. As the music reaches a crescendo, another man in a checked T-shirt walks over with a shovel to assist. The soldiers of al-Quds are digging in Rafah, southern Gaza. They yank out a blue plastic bag that has been buried, after being smuggled through the underground tunnels that run between Egypt and Gaza. The camera zooms in on the blue bag and further into the green and white boxes. The writing on the box reads “Tramadol 225” and in the corner of the box is a red circle, the logo of Amritsar-based Royal International. They keep digging and pile box after box of India-manufactured Tramadol on a purple blanket. Al-Quds Brigade claims they seized 175,000 tablets of Tramadol 225 mg in just one day.

Tramadol is a painkiller administered to women in labour; it is also prescribed as a painkiller for cancer patients. Like opiates, such as codeine and morphine, it targets pain by binding to the same receptors in the brain. Though morphine is the strongest of the three, Tramadol beats other painkillers by twin tactics: it reduces pain by releasing chemicals such as serotonin, and works in a manner similar to most modern anti-depressants. Doctors do not prescribe more than 50 mg; a higher dosage isn’t medically sound, is likely to be addictive and can get you very high.

In 2014, when heads of the national drug law enforcement agencies met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss the scale of the problem, Tramadol seizures were mostly in dosages of 100, 120, 125, 200, 225 or 250 mg.

A large number of shipments originated in India. According to data provided by a number of Indian ports and airports, there were 157 shipments of unauthorised Tramadol to West Africa in 2012. Royal International refused to respond to Fountain Ink despite multiple efforts.

Several factors make the region prone to illicit trade: corruption, weaknesses in the social and criminal justice system and the perennial revolutions of Africa.

The “Arab Spring” provided ample opportunity for organised crime syndicates to exploit the chaos in the region. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi was the signal for the self-destruction of the fragile Libyan state into mutually warring tribal and regional factions.

That enabled an unholy cabal of politicians and thugs to plunder the country and exploit the lawlessness and thus fuel a Tramadol addiction that eventually crossed the borders to Egypt and into an even more dysfunctional Palestine.

“Meow, Meow?” Inspector Nagarkar asked Okaya Sipren Chinnasa, a Nigerian. It was a busy evening as people shuttled in and out of Kalyan railway station. Nagarkar dragged the Nigerian who was twice his size to the corner. The streets of Kalyan had been terrorised by mephedrone (a synthetic stimulant) and Nagarkar knew the drug, but this looked different. It was
whiter. The man played dumb until the inspector threatened to rough him up.

“It’s a little of everything,” the man said.

On a hunch, Nagarkar sent the white powder to the lab for a test.

“Amphetamine and ephedrine,” the lab technician replied. Nagarkar had not heard of these chemicals before.

“Are they drugs?” he asked.

“Ephedrine is a precursor. It is used to make methamphetamine, a synthetic drug that can get you very high,” the technician said.

Chinnasa confessed, hoping to get off lightly. Some dealers had set up small labs in their kitchens and were cooking methamphetamine. They always bulked up the quantity of cocaine, meow meow and MDMA by lacing mixes with baking soda, rat poison, laxatives, but tossing in methamphetamine and ephedrine created a new, more potent, cocktail of designer drugs. Nigerians were running this racket across Thane and Mumbai. Armed with this information and with Chinnasa in tow, Nagarkar made his way to Thane Crime Branch and recounted the incident to Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Bharat Krishna Shelke.

“If the Nigerians are selling something, there is a big demand for it, they always know the market first,” he said and called upon the 15-member Narcotics Cell, housed in two small rooms in a building abutting the Crime Branch.

Kaun la raha hai, aur bech kaun raha hai? (Who’s bringing it, and who’s selling it?) I want to know everything,” said Shelke and appointed Inspector Amol Sadashiv Walzade, the most efficient member of the team, to the case. Walzade had a large network of informants made up of former addicts and dealers. His towering physique was an added bonus: “One look can make grown men cry and confess,” a constable said.

Walzade asked his informants: “Anything new on the streets?”

A gangly ex-peddler was first to respond on a WhatsApp call because they are harder to monitor.

“It’s being sold by the kilo,” he said.

“2 kg, safed maal lao (Get the white stuff),” Walzade told him.

There is a steady stream of Tramadol into Libya. On May 10, 11, and 17, Royal International shipped 7,000 boxes of Tramadol 225 to Libya. Each box was valued at Rs 429.65. The value per box declared was Rs 45,500 freight on board port. The consignment left Nava Sheva for Misurata via Malaysia through Hahn Logistics SDN BHD, a Malaysian shipping company.

On March 5, 7, 8 and 10, PRG Pharma Pvt Ltd exported Tamol X 225 manufactured by Royal International to Daam Libya Company in Misurata. Millions of pills reach Libya each month, when its population is just 6.2 million.

Jalal Othman, director of communications and media administration for the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, said Libya allows the import of 50 mg Tramadol but pills containing 225 mg were not listed as permissible. Yet there are frequent reports of illegal trafficking into Libya. A popular route is transport through Dubai. He added that 225 mg pills could not be procured yet pharmacists were getting them illegally.

Indian regulations require the exporter to obtain a “No Objection Certificate” from the relevant authorities in the country of import. When I mentioned this letter to Othman, he asked for a copy and added “Maybe it’s a fake”.

 In its Monthly Commercial Report for October 2015, the Indian embassy in Tripoli was stern in its warning: “Libya is passing through a very fragile security situation with armed conflicts and a political stalemate with two governments—one legitimate elected House of Representatives (moved away to east of Libya around 1200 km from the capital).

“Militias have taken control of Tripoli with all the central ministries and departments with de-facto control since July 2014. Prominent businessmen, expatriate community including diplomatic corps have shifted to neighbouring countries. Tripoli airport has been completely destroyed. The civil unrest, which is a significant deterrent to international trade and investments, also impacted on our own exports.”

The report also said the balance of trade with Libya had turned unfavourable. Due to the fighting, crude exports to India had fallen. Drugs and pharmaceuticals, silk yarn, fabrics, machinery, granite, and Hyundai cars are among India’s main exports to Libya.

On the day of the sting, Inspector Walzade paced nervously. Though the details were meticulously planned, there was no guarantee the dealers would arrive with two kilos of ephedrine. Cold feet at the last minute, whispers in the underworld, or even a traffic jam could do it. Walzade, Nagarkar, four others from the narcotics team and the informant waited outside Hiranandani Meadows in Vartak Nagar, Thane.

About half an hour passed before a white Swift Dzire pulled up at Kashinath Ghanikar Hall. Amol knew the peddlers had arrived because the Swift Dzire, with its big boot, was the car of choice for drug dealers. When the two men stepped out, he was taken aback.

“They didn’t look like drug dealers,” Amol recalls thinking.

Sagar Khode and Suresh Sukhdara looked like “office-going” people in trousers and formal shirts. They were technicians, who had faked their degrees and worked at Cipla. They moonlighted as prescription drug dealers peddling Viagra and ephedrine on the streets and to pharmacies. They were the living proof of what UNODC has been saying for years: there is a move from natural highs to synthetic highs, a fall in cocaine and heroin consumption has been accompanied by a surge in ATS (Amphetamine-Type Stimulants) consumption. The new drug dealer is the chemist, the pharmacist.

When they saw a group of people huddled together, they knew it was a set-up. They handed over the bag with 2 kg of ephedrine. The narcotics wing travels with a testing kit. Amol dropped the mixture on to the kit and it changed colour. Though there is no kit for ephedrine or methamphetamine, the colour purple indicates a controlled substance and so the officers had a reason to arrest the mules.

ACP Shelke arrived at the Wartagar police station next to Cadbury junction where the two men were being held. A soft-faced man with a round belly, he is the sort of policeman that can morph from good cop to bad cop in a flash.

“Cover kar liya unko,” he recalled. He had extracted a confession.

In the early days of the “Arab Spring” when it was viewed with romanticism and memes poked fun at the uprising, one was particularly popular in Libya. It was the #LibyaMilitiaStarterPack and its contents were a wife-beater shirt, Tramadol, AC Milan flip-flops and army pants. So common was Tramadol that it was shared on the streets by fighters who claimed it lessened the pain of being a militant. As early as February 22, 2011, Gaddafi warned in his hysterical rambling speech:

“They are a group that are sick, taking hallucinatory drugs. They were given drugs, like in Tunisia, are just imitating. We won’t lose victory from these greasy rats and cats. They should be given a lesson and stop taking drugs. They’re not good for you, for your heart. Don’t destroy the country. Shame on you, you gangsters. Surrender, give up all weapons, or they’ll have massacres, drugged kids with machine guns... tonight and tomorrow, youth, all of you, not those who are rats on drugs—form committees for security.”

And while he desperately clung on as fighting raged, he spoke about drugs once again. “Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night. They put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their Nescafe. You people… stop your children, take their weapons, bring them away from bin Laden, the pills will kill them.”

Everyone knew he was talking about Tramadol.

India’s lack of a regulatory framework allows large-scale diversion of Tramadol from legitimate manufacturers to the illicit market. In Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and West Africa, Tramadol consumption is a primary drug threat and its widespread use is due to Tramadol being inexpensive, potent, and widely available.

It had hit the market in a big way, and soon after the no-fly zone was established even more pills entered the market. The most popular was the 225 mg variant. This one came from India as did a shipment in March 2011. When the Libyan narcotics wing intercepted that consignment with 37 million units of Tramadol, they traced it to a Libyan dealer with “links to al-Qaeda”. India and Tramadol kept coming up again and again.

On February 28, 2016, the Tobruk Security Department seized 45 million Tramadol pills inside three containers from India aboard a trade ship. A source in the ministry of interior in Tobruk (the East Government) claims the drugs, hidden inside perfume containers, were worth 90 million Libyan dinars and that about 130 million Tramadol pills were seized in 2015, with the largest number from India.

“Libya has emerged as a significant hub for Tramadol trafficking in North Africa,” Derek Odney, the DEA country attaché in New Delhi, told me. “Since December 2015, law enforcement officials in Dubai, Egypt, Malta, Singapore, and Spain have seized nearly 500 million Tramadol tablets intended for delivery to Tobruk. The vast majority of these shipments originated from India via commercial shipping containers.

“India’s lack of a regulatory framework allows large-scale diversion of Tramadol from legitimate manufacturers to the illicit market. In Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and West Africa, Tramadol consumption is a primary drug threat and its widespread use is due to Tramadol being inexpensive, potent, and widely available.”

The two technicians from Cipla began to sing: this isn’t just for Thane, it goes beyond Mumbai, out of Maharashtra, to Gujarat. It’s in other metros too, especially in Bengaluru, but most importantly, it goes out of India. Hours into the interrogation, they were talking nervously, repeatedly about a pharmaceutical company called Avon Life Sciences in Solapur and a chemist called Dhaneshwar Swamy who had given them the chemicals.

The white jeep hurtled down NH48 towards Solapur where Avon Life Sciences had their plant. They reached in time to nab Swamy from the bus stop near the factory, identifying him by a large red backpack.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Swamy demanded as plainclothes policemen frisked him.

They found 5.5 kg of ephedrine in his bag. Swamy assumed the role of a reluctant tour guide and walked them over to Avon Life Sciences. The 32-acre factory was a ghost—there were a few lights at the entrance but the vast complex was unlit, scattered boxes lay everywhere, and a foul stench came from the canteen.

Trouble for Avon started when pharmaceutical giant Ranbaxy, who ran a dual operation at the plant, shut shop overnight after a pill they manufactured was banned by the US FDA. They left behind a huge centrifugal machine, a gigantic boiler, a fermentation unit and massive financial woes for Manoj Jain, owner of Arch Companies.

Swamy, like the others, hadn’t been paid his Rs 40,000 salary for a few months. Instead, he had been told of “great success very soon”. Swamy stayed back and his bosses remained true to their word. The top management dictated a new direction from Mumbai and Avon Life Sciences became a smaller operation, a mom and pop shop of eight people called New Lab that operated from a corner of the factory.

The space was kitted out with home-style ovens bought in the local market for baking ephedrine. Swamy would work on 25 kilos at a time. The first step was washing the chemicals, then bleaching them till they were whiter. He would then place the ephedrine in baking dishes and into the oven.

Swamy was working his way through 380 bags of ephedrine; each batch took about 45 days to process. The valuable product, L-ephedrine, would be kept aside while the waste, known as D-ephedrine, collected in a small mound in the corner. When a batch was processed, a car would ferry it to an undisclosed location but word was that it was being taken to Gujarat from where it would be shipped out of India.

Swamy didn’t ask too many questions; his wages were being paid and a sense of optimism prevailed. He was addicted to “Breaking Bad”, the award-winning American television drama depicting the life of a chemistry teacher with a terminal disease and his drug-peddling student who turned their lives around by making methamphetamine.

Nobody came knocking on the doors of Avon. So lax was the monitoring of the plant that months went by and none of the three departments, the NCB, FDA or Customs and Excise, paid a visit. As bulk quantities were routed elsewhere, Swamy started taking his own share. A mixture of ambition, greed and desperation, led him to leak the drug into the local market for a bit of money on the side.

The illicit trade in drugs has lined the pockets of jihadis. Just as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) smuggled cocaine from Latin America to fund its operations, ISIS has used synthetic drugs to finance terror and to fuel itself.

“Both Captagon (an amphetamine) and Tramadol are used by Daesh and other militias to boost the performance of individual fighters and increase their propensity for violence,” according to a 2016 European Union Institute for Security Studies report.

Unlike al-Qaeda which smuggled drugs to European markets, ISIS deals in Arab markets, transporting Tramadol from the lawlessness of Libya across the 1,115-km desert frontier it shares with Egypt. On one day in 2012, Egyptian border guards confiscated four million Tramadol tablets.

But the trip is no longer the same as states have imposed bans. Egypt put Tramadol under national control in 2013 as did Libya, pushing its price up from the Arab Spring days. In 2011, it cost LE1 ($0.14) per 225 mg pill but now it retails at LE15 ($2.14) per pill.

The smuggling continues in spite of attempts to put a stop to it. On March 10, 2015, Interpol issued a purple notice after the Investigation, Surveillance and Arrest Unit, Tripoli Investigations Office, Anti-Narcotics General Administration (ANGA), received intelligence that large burlap sacks of “hallucinogenic tablets (Tramadol)” were being transported in a taxi from Sabha city in southern Libya. The intention was to distribute them in Tripoli. On March 12 the authorities laid an ambush and confiscated 6,000 tablets.

Every single one was of Indian origin, according to a source in the Ministry of Health in Tripoli.

“Don’t go there, there are snakes there,” pleaded the production manager at Avon. Walzade walked towards the shed at the edge of the compound. It was unlit and damp. He switched on the torch on his mobile and hit the jackpot: 20 tonnes of ephedrine sacks were piled on top of each other. This was the biggest drug bust in Indian history. The street value of the haul was Rs 2,000 crore. Along with the ephedrine the team also recovered 3 tonnes of acetic anhydride, the precursor to heroin.

Swamy was firm; he was just the chemical man. All the big money decisions were being made by Rajendra Dimri, the production manager who dictated targets after consulting with the owner in Mumbai.

Dimri ko position mein liya (We got hold of Dimri),” recalls Shilke.

They asked him for Avon’s files but he claimed there were none, nor were any books maintained. When the FDA, NCB and Customs and Excise were roped in, they found no record of operations for almost two years, nor any mention of customers for the ephedrine or details of shipping. But they did find 7.5 kg of ephedrine under Dimri’s desk and a name: Puneet Shringi. It was he who made all the operational decisions and organised cars to ferry bulk quantities of ephedrine.

“Shringi speaks to Jain, the owner. He’s your man,” said Dimri.

As they were leaving, a watchman with a grudge walked on over: a big dispatch had left for Gujarat just a few days ago. Soon the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime), Parag Manere was on the phone to the ATS chief in Ahmedabad. “At senior levels, there is a lot of communication and information-sharing,” Manare said. A few days later another 1,300 kilos of ephedrine was seized from a factory in Kanbha, Gujarat. This batch was to be shipped to a “party in Africa.”

Our tastes are changing, claims the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). While cannabis retains its top position, cocaine and heroin are down globally on the list of most abused and trafficked drugs. At number two are prescription drugs, as demand for painkillers, sedatives, stimulants and tranquilisers rises rapidly. Users across the world lean towards self-medicating on opioids, depressants and stimulants according to the UNODC.

Coinciding with this development is the emergence of India as one of the largest manufacturers of pharmaceutical products in the world. Annual production exceeds Rs 2 lakh crore, of which 55 per cent is exported to 200 countries. It is not surprising therefore that India is emerging as a point of origin for drugs abused in the Middle East and Africa.

But there are stringent laws in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940, which provides the framework for ensuring quality, and safety of medical products. The sector thrives by capitalising on export opportunities in regulated and semi-regulated markets. Exports are set to cross $55 billion by 2020 versus current exports of $18 billion. The need to spur trade has led to a reduction in red tape with the health ministry scrapping the “No Objection Certificate” previously required for export to developed regions such as the US and EU. The aim is growth: by 2020, the industry is expected to become the sixth largest globally. India ranks third in production volume with 10 per cent share, and 14th by value with 1.4 per cent market share worldwide.

The onus of monitoring this trade falls upon the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) that regulates the import and export of drugs through 11 port offices. The body is responsible for the manufacture, sale, import, export and clinical research of drugs in India.

The Drugs and Cosmetics Act states: “Each consignment of export shall be accompanied with requisite import licence from the importing country;

“The applicant shall obtain a no-objection certificate from the Drugs Controller, India, for manufacture of such formulations to be exported with code number against each export order along with certificate from the regulatory authority of the importing country controlling Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances that they do not have any objection for the import of the drug with code number;

“The State Licensing Authority shall issue the manufacturing licence for these formulations on each export order on the basis of a No Objection Certificate from Drugs Controller, India;

“A no-objection certificate shall be obtained from the drugs Controller, India for export of each consignment; and

“A no-objection certificate shall be obtained from the Narcotic Commissioner of India, Gwalior for export of each consignment of the drug.”

Huge quantities of Tramadol exported are expected to meet these regulations.

By now the story of the Solapur bust was everywhere. Newspapers gave it display on the front pages, TV anchors talked about it wildly, Solapur became a hub for reporters, and Avon Life Sciences and ephedrine trended on Twitter.

The onslaught of information caught the attention of Derek Odney, the DEA agent stationed in Delhi. The photo of officers gathered behind packets of ephedrine stacked on a table nudged him to board a flight to Mumbai. Odney had a series of highly publicised meetings, something which was uncommon in the US, where the DEA agent is a mysterious figure. After the fanfare, he congratulated the team for “good old school detective work” and extended his cooperation in nailing Goswami.

“The DEA is working with the Thane Police and the NCB on investigating the links between the Goswami network and the 20-tonne ephedrine seizure in India earlier this year,” he told me.

“With the information they brought to the table, we knew we could go after the others,” said Shelke.

Also watching the big coverage were Shringi and Jain, who had gone underground. Their mobiles were switched off even as officers across Mumbai and Thane were on a manhunt. Through a network of informants on Mira Road, where Shringi had a flat, it was learnt he was hiding out in Andheri.

Years of police work had taught Shelke to never leave any personal detail of the accused untouched, and to never turn his back on a stakeout. Two officers waited for over eight hours outside Shringi’s house until there was a lead: he was planning an escape and needed papers for his new car, a Swift Dzire. The dealer had arrived with papers at his apartment but Shringi wasn’t there. Soon the dealer received a message of a change in location. Later that evening, the police caught Shringi outside McDonald’s in Andheri with 10 kg of ephedrine in the boot.

When he saw the police walking to him, he kept repeating one name, “Manoj Jain, Manoj Jain,” like a prayer.

At the Narcotics Cell, Shringi narrated the saga: Manoj Jain was a shrewd businessman admired by many in Andheri. A man of humble beginnings, he owned 11 companies (including Avon) but had fallen upon bad times. It was then that he met an acquaintance, Jay Mukhi, at Ladies Bar in the suburbs where he drank his woes away. Mukhi, a broker and supplier of chemicals, was a man with a dubious reputation, not the least because he was always in bars but because of the company he kept. Jain had seen him jumping in and out of SUVs with Kishore Rathod, the son of a former MLA, Bhavsingh Rathod. Kishore had served time for a fake currency racket. He too was of an entrepreneurial spirit, and when he heard of a company with a licence to manufacture ephedrine, he promised Jain a business deal that would build an empire.

Soon Rathod was on the phone to a childhood friend from a village called Paldi in Gujarat. That friend was Vicky Goswami.

What Shringi didn’t confess, his WhatsApp chat history revealed. There were hundreds of undeleted messages. A gold mine had been uncovered. On January 7-8, 2016, Jain, Shringi and Goswami spoke about the delivery of 50 kg of ephedrine that had been dispatched from Mumbai and the method of payment. They talked about transferring Rs 90 lakh from Nairobi in Kenya to Gujarat and another Rs 1.5 crore from Mombasa to Malad and Bhuleshwar through the “hawala” networks.

With new information that directly indicted Jain, the police began tailing him. Jain lived his life online so they went through his mails, his chat history, scanned his call logs, got proof that he had been issued a visa for Kenya, and a stamp on his passport showed that he travelled to the country. They tapped his phone. They recovered a WhatsApp message detailing a deal for 100 kg of ephedrine that would be dropped off in a black car next to a dargah on the busy Mohammad Ali Road. They nabbed Jain early one morning near Mahim.

Mukhi’s confession brought the picture together; the Mohammad Ali Road deal was the beginning of the smuggling racket, he said. Three bags of ephedrine, weighing 70 kg, were flown from Mumbai to Nairobi for Goswami’s approval. When the don was satisfied with the purity, he asked for the note number in the hawala system so that he could pay for the powder. This deal put into practice Goswami’s most ambitious caper: importing precursors from India’s pharmaceutical industry to manufacture meth in Africa’s lawless countries.

Doctor Sabeh has been yelling down the phone. “225 mg,” he keeps shouting. “Tell me which doctor in your country prescribes this?” Sabeh works at the Government Hospital in Gaza and has treated over 3,000 cases of Tramadol addiction. The number of people addicted to the drug is on the rise as the Ministry of Interior in conjunction with WHO conducts a detailed study on Tramadol addiction. “How does your country legally produce this, how does your country legally send this to us?” he asks.

Drug traffickers are looking at the sea as an alternative route. A 2011 UNODC report said: “Traffickers’ use of maritime transportation and seaports has been identified as a key emerging threat. In 2009, more than 420 million containers were shipped worldwide, yet only 2 per cent of these were inspected.”

Not too long ago, the waters of the Indian Ocean were a playground for pirates. With lawlessness in Somalia, an inefficient state in Sudan and weak rule of law in Kenya, the coast of Africa was terrorised by Somali pirates. The international community responded with the Combined Task Force 150, a multinational coalition naval taskforce tasked with anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa. India is a member of this taskforce that has had remarkable success as piracy in the Indian Ocean has dropped.

With piracy on the decline, another challenge arose.

In an incident that attracted a lot of attention, a vessel belonging to Hoeigh Autoliners set sail from Mumbai to Mombasa in September 2015. It traversed 2,850 miles and docked at the port. Late in the night, on a tip-off from the DEA, several elite Kenyan police units raided the vessel. The found a massive consignment of guns in a UN jeep and bags of “white powder”. The presence of weapons had not been mentioned in the ship’s manifest filed in India. The Kenyan authorities ordered the port shut and Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta publicly debated whether he ought to blow the ship up at sea. The UN intervened, claiming that the weapons were for peacekeepers in Congo and chalked down the incident to a “clerical error in Bombay”.

But nobody took responsibility for the drugs aboard the ship. A DEA agent told The Star newspaper in Kenya: “FBI intelligence reports indicate the drugs were stuffed into the ship in Mumbai and were destined for Mombasa.” Shamus Mangan from the UNODC, who was investigating the presence of drugs, was found dead, in a hotel room.

“Mombasa port is like a tunnel. All illicit business happens here and is controlled by traders supported by customs personnel and powerful people in government. Whoever controls the port controls the illicit trade in Kenya,” says journalist Njuguna Mutonya.

Incidents involving India are on the rise: in April 2014, the Australian Coalition Maritime Forces picked up a Gujarat-registered boat off the coast of Kenya with heroin worth Rs 2 crore. In June 2015, Bangladeshi police seized Asia’s largest known shipment of liquid cocaine in Chittagong, and the destination, according to a Bangladeshi police official, was “any port in India”.

An Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) report notes: “The marsh lands and creeks of Gujarat are increasingly used to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan-Pakistan region.”

From selfies in Nairobi hotels to group photos under palm trees in Mombasa, Shringi and Jain documented their Kenya trip on Facebook for all to see. Avon Life Sciences would ship 10 tonnes of ephedrine to Mombasa every month from Mumbai while Narendra Kacha, a chemist and an associate of Rathod, would purify ephedrine in Gujarat. The bulk of the material would leave from Gujarat’s Kandla Port. In order to not arouse any suspicion, the ephedrine would be stuffed in sacks of rice or sugar with the help of two port employees.

From Mombasa the ephedrine would be routed to Dr Abdallah, a scientist and member of the east African drug mafia, who would set up a lab in Tanzania where Goswami had access to airstrips. The bulk of the ephedrine would be delivered to Abdallah, with which he would make meth that would be sent to South Africa via a white courier because he would be less likely to be stopped. From there the meth would journey to the streets of the United States and Europe after keeping some for the South African market.

The cost per kg would be Rs 50,000. From the first batch of 210 kg, the syndicate aimed to earn Rs 60 crore.

In a handwritten note, the partnership plan was drawn up:

Vicky and Abdallah: 33 per cent

Jay Mukhi and Rathod: 33 per cent

Manoj Jain: 25 per cent

Shringi: 8 per cent

Mamta Kulkarni was present at many meetings. Vicky had decided that she would front Avon Life Sciences. She would legally buy more than 50 per cent of the shares, then valued at Rs45 in the market, at a substantially reduced rate, and start trading with a company called Saburi Pharma owned by Abdallah, who would open an office in Mombasa.

As they put this plan into action, shipping container after container, they could not know that minuscule amounts were landing in the hands of the Nigerians in Mumbai, and that this small slip would shine a light on India’s participation in the Smack Track. 

(The cover story of the November 2016 edition of Fountain Ink.)