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

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

The woman who says she was the love of his life left him.

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

Khaled appears in a prison cell west of Baghdad, where he is serving a one-year sentence for using methamphetamine.

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

He estimates that 10% of the population in his area of ​​operations is addicted to drugs, overwhelmingly to methamphetamine.

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

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

Young Iraqis struggle to find work, regardless of their educational level. In 2020, the pandemic dealt a blow to an already fragile economy. According to a fall 2020 World Bank report, millions of Iraqis are expected to fall into poverty due to the two Covid-19 shocks and the global collapse in the price of oil, which fuels Iraq’s economy.

Legions of disenchanted youth seeking to escape harsh realities began to grow and the drug trade flourished.

“Drug dealers get away with it, they usually give free drugs to poor and unemployed people to lure them in until they become addicted,” explains General Amad Hussein of the drug police, as he passes out flyers with a hotline number. direct in an impoverished Baghdad. neighborhood.

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

General Amad Hussein spreads awareness on the ground about drug abuse in the poorest neighborhoods of Baghdad.

Under former president and dictator Saddam Hussein, the ultimate punishment for drug use was death. That draconian legislation took commerce to great depth and kept the streets largely clean.

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

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

But a US-led coalition campaign against ISIS led to an increased security presence along the Iraq-Syria border. The trade then shifted to the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq and its porous border with Iran.

The vast majority of methamphetamine, which accounts for about 60% of Iraq’s drug trade, flows from that border area, senior anti-drug officials told CNN.

“Neighboring countries are using this to destroy Iraqi society, the Iraqi economy,” alleges Colonel Alwan. “We established several channels with the Iranian side to address this issue, but we have not reached an agreement to address it.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry has not responded to CNN’s request for comment on the cross-border smuggling operations.

The anti-drug unit, understaffed and understaffed, has yet to capture any major traders anywhere in the country, despite nationwide raids. Officials say the beneficiaries of the trade range from Sunni extremist groups and Iran-backed Shiite militias to criminal gangs.

Iraqi prisons for drug offenders hold twice as many inmates as the facilities were intended for.  CNN has blurred the prisoners' faces to protect their identities.

Thuraya was arrested with her husband inside a house where she was trading. They were in possession of 300 grams of methamphetamine, with a street value of about $ 18,000. Also detained in the raid was someone Thuraya refers to as his “friend,” an intermediary who regularly traveled to the Iranian border to collect drugs from a supplier.

Sitting in a women’s prison in Baghdad, she says she only has a vague notion of the dark supply chain at the border. They received the methamphetamine “from large merchants,” he continues, adding that he has no information on their names and backgrounds.

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

The prison we know her in is specifically for women involved with drugs or prostitution. She says her husband introduced her to methamphetamine before they were married, when he saw that she had fallen into a depression. At that 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. They don’t search us. I would hide it all over my body,” Thuraya says, pointing to 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 the recruitment of women to facilitate trafficking, according to security officials.

“For women, working in drug trafficking is easier than for men, they can work undercover, they don’t attract much attention,” says Colonel Alwan, pulling out his phone to show us photos of two women. his unit captured a few days earlier. They are standing behind a small table lined with crystal meth, pipes, and the rest of the stash they were found with.

“We don’t have a female force, one that can register women,” he adds, pointing to one of the photographs. “She told us that she goes with a man to a rented place and tells him that if you want to have sex with me, you have to buy drugs or do drugs.”

Trapped in a web of addictions, users struggle to find a way out. A recent legal reform has lifted the legal penalties for users seeking help, but many are unaware of this, according to security officials.

Without making themselves known, traffickers who are caught are imprisoned for up to 15 years. Users, regardless of the drug, serve a one-year sentence.

Enass Kareem, a petite dark-haired woman, flips through her phone reading messages from an Iraq drug awareness Facebook page.

“I implore you; I want to be treated. I am fifteen years old from Basra, please treat me like your brother.”

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

About a year ago, Enass, a high school biology teacher, noticed that some of her students were using.

“They were skipping classes and when they attended, they weren’t focused,” he explains. “I noticed other signs like in his teeth, in his aggressive responses.”

She was reluctant to inform the school administration about the alleged users, fearing they would be expelled. Instead, he quietly reached out to his parents and took them to rehab.

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

People started sending him messages asking for help for themselves, for their loved ones, for their friends.

“Through my contacts with users, I realized that one of the main reasons is downtime. Most users do not have a job. Even those with college degrees cannot get a job,” he says.

She likens drugs to a form of terrorism, one that can easily escape scrutiny when it quietly enters homes, schools, and universities.

“It is the destruction of a society through drugs. It destroys people psychologically, crime increases, families are torn apart,” he says. “In the future, the impact of this will be severe.”

He works closely with the drug bureau, which also would rather see addicts recover than end up behind bars.

Beds are full at a rehabilitation center in Baghdad.

The rehabilitation block at the Ibn Rushd mental health center in Baghdad is full; doctors and nurses have to get patients out faster than they would like.

Abdulkarim’s eyes are bright, his teeth and jaw ache, he says; your brain feels like it might explode. He sits on one of the rickety beds, rocking back and forth slightly.

“I’m going to get over this,” he promises the nurse who’s checking him out. He’s only been here for three days; the cravings for meth running through your body seem overwhelming.

Abdulkarim was a laborer. He went out to the streets with the rest of the unemployed, angry and dejected.

“They got me into this. Forget, escape,” he remembers. “Unemployment led us to this. And the situation in Iraq, the miserable situation.”

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

“The era of traditional warfare with two opposing armies is over,” says General Hussein. “The enemies of this country are going to do everything they can to prevent us from developing and that 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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