Crystal meth and Covid-19: Iraq fights two deadly epidemics at once

General Amad Hussein raises awareness on the ground about drug consumption in the poorest neighborhoods of Baghdad.

“The situation in the country was difficult. You will try to find work, but there was no work, ”he says. “Once, twice and I was addicted (to crystal meth). I was trapped. I couldn’t get out. ”

The woman he says is the love of his life has left him.

Throughout this report, Iraqi drug users have been identified by pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Khaled is pictured in a prison cell in western Baghdad where he is serving a one-year sentence for using crystal meth.

“We don’t have the capacity,” said Colonel Mohammed Alwan, the commander of the drug unit in this part of the capital. “Sometimes we have to slow down because we don’t have the capacity to keep detainees and prisoners, especially not with the pandemic. “

He estimates that 10% of the population in his area of ​​operations is addicted to drugs, mostly crystal meth.

Several officials told CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated drug trafficking in Iraq.

Years of war have severely fractured the Iraqi state, with various powerful armed forces operating outside government control. Corruption is rampant and the economy, for most Iraqis, is on a seemingly endless cycle of downturn.

Young Iraqis find it difficult to find a job, regardless of their level of education. In 2020, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to an already fragile economy. Millions of Iraqis are expected to fall into poverty due to the double shock of Covid-19 and a global collapse in the price of oil, which is fueling the Iraqi economy, according to a fall 2020 World Bank report.

Legions of disillusioned youth seeking to escape harsh realities began to multiply and drug trafficking flourished.

“Drug traffickers have their means, they usually give drugs for free to the poor and unemployed to attract them until they become addicted,” said General Amad Hussein of the drug police, distributing leaflets with a hotline number in a poor city of Baghdad. district.

“That person then starts stealing money to pay for it or even turns that person into a distributor. ”

General Amad Hussein raises awareness on the ground about drug consumption in the poorest neighborhoods of Baghdad.

During the reign of former president and dictator Saddam Hussein, the maximum penalty for drug use was death. This draconian legislation drove commerce deep underground and kept the streets largely clean.

In addition to triggering chaos in Iraq, the 2003 US invasion that overthrew the country’s brutal former ruler also weakened its borders, boosting drug trafficking.

Officials here say trafficking peaked in 2014 with the arrival of ISIS and the Captagon, an amphetamine popular among the group’s fighters, from Syria to Iraq.

But a US-led coalition campaign against ISIS has led to a heightened security presence along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Trade then moved to the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq and its porous border with Iran.

The vast majority of crystalline methamphetamine, which accounts for about 60% of drug trafficking in Iraq, comes from this border area, senior anti-drug officials told CNN.

“Neighboring countries are using it to destroy Iraqi society, the Iraqi economy,” said Colonel Alwan. “We have established several channels with the Iranian side to deal with this problem, but we have not found an agreement to resolve it. “

Iran’s foreign ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on cross-border smuggling operations.

The under-resourced and underfunded anti-drug unit has yet to capture large traders across the country, despite nationwide raids. Officials say the beneficiaries of the trade range from extremist Sunni groups and Iranian-backed Shia militias to criminal gangs.

Thuraya was arrested alongside her husband at a house where she was doing business. They were in possession of 300 grams of crystal meth, with a market value of approximately $ 18,000. A person Thuraya calls her “friend,” an intermediary who regularly traveled to the Iranian border to collect drugs from a supplier, was also detained during the raid.

Sitting in a women’s prison in Baghdad, she says she has only a vague idea of ​​the obscure supply chain at the border. They received crystal meth “from the big merchants,” she continues, adding that she has no information on their names and backgrounds.

Thuraya would help smuggle it through checkpoints in towns where the trio operated, delivering it to other dealers or selling it themselves.

The prison in which we meet her is especially intended for women who engage in drugs or prostitution. She says her husband introduced her to crystal meth before their marriage, when he saw that she had fallen into a depression. At the time, her previous marriage had just failed and she was forcibly separated from her children.

“As a woman, it’s easy to go through checkpoints. We are not searched. I would hide it all over my body, ”Thuraya said, showing her chest, hips and legs under her long black abaya.

Over the years, various insurgent groups and militias have used women to smuggle explosives and weapons, in order to evade the radar of the security forces. Recently, drug networks have increased their recruitment of women to facilitate trafficking, according to security officials.

“For women, working in the drug business is easier than for men, they can work undercover, they don’t draw much attention to themselves,” Colonel Alwan said, pulling out his phone to find out. show us pictures of two women. his unit captured a few days ago. They stand behind a small table lined with crystal meth, pipes, and the rest of the stash they were found with.

“We don’t have a feminine force, a force that can search women,” he adds, pointing to one of the photographs. “This one told us that she is going with a man in rented accommodation and told him that if you want to sleep with me you have to buy drugs or take drugs. “

Trapped in a network of dependency, users struggle to find a way out. A recent law reform lifted legal penalties for users asking for help, but many don’t know it, security officials say.

Without coming forward, the dealers who were arrested were jailed for up to 15 years. Users – regardless of the drug – are serving a one-year sentence.

Enass Kareem, a petite, dark-haired woman, scrolls through her phone while reading messages on an Iraqi drug awareness Facebook page.

“I beg you; i want to be treated. I’m fifteen from Basra, please treat me like your brother.

Enass Kareem, right, anti-drug awareness activist, walks through a neighborhood with flyers in central Baghdad.Enass Kareem, right, anti-drug awareness activist, walks through a neighborhood with flyers in central Baghdad.

About a year ago, Enass, a biology professor at the college, noticed that some of his students were using.

“They skipped classes and when they attended they weren’t focused,” she explains. “I realized other signs like in their teeth, in their aggressive responses. “

She was reluctant to inform the school administration of the suspected users, fearing they would be kicked out. Instead, she gently contacted their parents and sent them to rehab.

“I created a Facebook page to raise awareness about drugs and options for addicts. ” She explains.

People started to send him messages, asking for help for themselves, for their relatives, for their friends.

“Through my contacts with users, I realized that one of the main reasons was downtime. Most people don’t have a job. Even those with college degrees can’t find work, ”she said.

She likens the drug to a form of terrorism, a form that can easily escape scrutiny as it quietly enters homes, schools and universities.

“It is the destruction of a society by drugs. It destroys people psychologically, crime increases, families are torn apart, ”she said. “In the future, this will have serious consequences.”

She works closely with the anti-drug department, which would also prefer drug addicts to recover rather than end up behind bars.

Beds are full at a rehabilitation center in Baghdad.Beds are full at a rehabilitation center in Baghdad.

The rehabilitation unit at the Ibn Rushd mental health center in Baghdad is full; doctors and nurses need to evacuate patients faster than they would like.

Abdulkarim’s eyes are shining, his teeth and jaw hurt, he said; his brain feels like it might explode. He sits down on one of the rickety beds, rocking back and forth slightly.

“I’ll be fine,” he promises the nurse to watch him. He’s only been here three days; the cravings for crystal meth that run through her body seem overwhelming.

Abdulkarim was a day laborer. He was hanging out in the street with the other unemployed, angry and dejected.

“They got me into this. To forget, to escape, ”he recalls. “Unemployment drove us to this. And the situation in Iraq, the miserable situation. “

The country is at war, anti-drug officials say, a war they fear losing.

“The era of traditional warfare with two armies facing each other is over,” says General Hussein. “The enemies of this country will do whatever they can to stop us from developing and this is a form of war. They want to destroy the core of our society, our youth. ”

Aqeel Najm contributed to this report from Baghdad.


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