No other film series in recent times captured the lives and horrors of the narcotics business better than ‘Narcos’ which looked into the rise and fall of drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico.
The producers of Narcos can continue their successful film series by turning their focus on Myanmar and the Northeast states of India in particular Manipur. Scriptwriters of the Narcos series would find enough matter to create an engaging story around ‘Narcos Manipur’ and the terrorism that is fuelled by drug money. There is the role of the druglords, politicians in nexus with the local and international druglords, law enforcement agencies on the payroll, and media working to ensure that the real magnitude of the drug business remains hidden from the eyes of the common man.
On January 16, 2023, a police commando team of Kakching district arrested five police commandos of the same district and recovered high-quality heroin weighing over 1.14 kg and thousands of “World is Yours” narcotic pills. The five arrested commandos were in police uniform and were handling service guns. They had used a police vehicle to transport the drugs.
Hundreds of poppy fields have been destroyed since the war on drugs campaign was launched by the Manipur state government and the Centre. The hills of Ukhrul, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Churachandpur, and Tengnoupal districts were especially targeted as large-scale illegal cultivation of poppy was being carried out. The government states that of 2,518 people arrested under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act between 2017 and 2023, only 873 were from the Kuki-Chin community, while 1,083 were Muslims, 381 Meiteis, and 181 were from other communities. This is despite the fact that the Kuki-Chin community cultivated poppy in 13,121.8 acres of land and the Naga Community only 2,340 acres. Interestingly, state data indicates that the extent of land used to grow the poppy plant from which opium is derived has increased more than three times from 1,853 acres to 6,742.8 acres.
A large section of the narcotics business is controlled by the insurgents who in turn are controlled by drug cartels in Myanmar who in turn are controlled by China. The Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Arakan Army (AA), and United Wa State Army (UWSA), along with Myanmar’s military, Tatmadaw and People’s Democratic Front (PDF) as well as the insurgent groups and sympathizers in Manipur and other Northeastern states are the main players in this illicit flow of drugs along with the involvement of Chinese networks.
Intelligence officers tracking global narcotics trade and trends in their reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Prime Minister’s Office estimated the drug business in Manipur to be Rs 70,000 crore. Clandestine drug manufacturing units have sprung up in the state. Many of these were busted by law enforcement agencies and on October 30, 2020, a brown sugar manufacturing laboratory was raided by Manipur police in which 435 kgs of drugs were seized.
As the conflict in Myanmar continues, the drug cartels are finding new routes to enter multiple countries, and Manipur along with other Northeastern states is becoming a transit route for global illicit trade. Manipur is an important border state of India with almost 398 km of porous border with Myanmar. Ever since the military junta took over in Myanmar, the production of drugs has risen exponentially on both sides of the international Border. Because of ease in preparation, transportation, no infrastructure required, and low costs attracting more markets, chemical drugs are becoming more and more popular in Myanmar as well as Manipur along with heroin from the existing poppy cultivation.
One of the major markets for both opioid and synthetic drugs is India itself which has porous borders that help in the easy movement of drugs from Myanmar to India. The major routes are the Indo-Myanmar border, Moreh in Manipur, New Somtal to Sugnu, Kheiman to Behiang, and finally Somrah. The maritime route consists of Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar and then to Myanmar and finally India. Reportedly, intelligence officers tracking the drug cartels informed that the movement of drugs from Myanmar to India is easier. It is estimated that 90 percent of the smuggling of drugs in India has its origin in Myanmar and these drugs not only include opium and heroin but also amphetamine-type stimulants.
Moreh a small border town in Manipur is India’s land link to East Asia. But in recent years, it has emerged as one of South Asia’s busiest transit points for narcotics. It was here in December 2021 that Rs 500 crores of drug haul were seized from a house belonging to a Myanmarese drug trafficker. However, much before this seizure, the drug cartels encouraged poppy cultivation inside India on the hills of Manipur and Nagaland, where the farmers sought cash crops for sustenance. Poppy was encouraged as the most lucrative proposition for the farmers. In the valley, synthetic drug production was encouraged, mostly in Lilong and Sora. Drugs reach Moreh through Myanmar’s Tamu village and then flow to Imphal to Nagaland’s capital Kohima and Dimapur. Another Indo-Myanmar border village New Somtal is used as a route for smuggling from Sugnu and Churachandpur in Manipur to Imphal, Kohima, and Dimapur. The two other routes are Kheiman (a village in Myanmar) to Behiyang and then to Imphal and Dimapur (Nagaland), the final known route starting from Somrah.
The narcotics business in Manipur mainly consists of synthetic or chemical drugs estimated now to be 60 percent of the narcotics business, opioid drugs – 30 percent, and cannabis – 10 percent. Slowly over the years, Manipur has dangerously evolved from being a supply destination for drugs to becoming the production hub for drugs. According to the UNODC reports, the Opium Survey Report of Myanmar observed that there was a decrease in opium production to a figure of 25 percent decrease. However this decrease does not mean a decrease in the consumption of drugs in Manipur, but there was an increase in the manufacturing of synthetic drugs that affected the consumption of opium.
The illegally housed Chin population in Manipur and Mizoram are reported to have links with the drug network that makes the smuggling easier. UNODC 2023 report reveals that the increase of 14 percent in opium production in the Chin state is dangerous for India. It is also interesting to note that Chin State was never part of the previous Myanmar Opium Surveys as a hotspot which underlines the significance of the increase in opium cultivation here with the Myanmar-Manipur border emerging as an opium cultivation region and the threat increases as the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), one of the Myanmar rebel groups has influence in the region.
India’s growth in the consumption of drugs has strong roots in Myanmar. Heroin seizures increased from 20.36 Kg in 2020 to 34.52 Kg in 2022. In 2020, media reported about several seizures of methamphetamine in Chennai, including the case of the Rs 100 crore worth 78 kg of methamphetamine found by a fisherman inside a barrel with Mandarin markings, caught in their net. The investigating officials told the press at that time that their investigations revealed that insurgents on the Indo-Myanmar border are involved in the smuggling of these drugs through the Bay of Bengal as Chennai is increasingly becoming a major transit hub for smuggling narcotics to Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and even Australia. In September 2019, 1,156 kg of crystalline meth was seized on Nicobar Island, at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Yet again it was destined for Malaysia and Thailand, concealed in green tea bags with Mandarin markings but it originated from North-East India reportedly Manipur.
The great game of Manipur is about the control of the land on the hills and its borders. It is not about the religious divide between Hindus and Christians. It is about control of the estimated Rs 70000 crore drugs business in the valley and the hills. No one is a saint in Manipur, people from all communities Meitei, Kuki-Chin, and Nagas are entrenched in the profitable narcotics business.