Renewed Lebanese drug trade hikes Mideast tensions
BAALBEK, Lebanon — Lebanon's drug-producing heartland is back in business with a resurgence of marijuana and poppy fields, challenging the country's underpowered security forces and adding another dimension to Israel's war with Hezbollah militants.
Associated Press interviews with farmers and Lebanese officials, and documents from international organizations that monitor drugs, show that the drug trade in the Bekaa Valley has ramped up again since its drop following the 1975-1990 civil war.
Israel's Anti-Drug Authority claims Hezbollah is behind the flow of cross-border drugs as part of its war on the Jewish state. Hezbollah denies abetting drugs, saying it's un-Islamic.
Production in the Bekaa peaked during the civil war, then died down to the point where the U.S. removed Lebanon from its list of big producers in 1997.
But on a recent visit by the AP, acres of cannabis were seen growing behind concealing stands of tall corn stalks, and farmers spoke openly of the fortunes they are making off the plants.
The Lebanese government, long preoccupied with violent political clashes in the country, has begun striking back by plowing up fields.
It's hard to pin down independently what role Hezbollah plays in the trade, but the flat, green Bekaa Valley, with its sunny Mediterranean climate and terrorism-filled history, is a Hezbollah stronghold.
"The accusation is that Hezbollah, given its strong presence in the Bekaa and its unmatched influence there, is heavily involved in the trade, though indirectly, for ideological reasons," said Bilal Saab, a Lebanon expert at the University of Maryland. "However, there is no independent evidence of this involvement."
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah strongly denies Israel's charge of "narcoterrorism." In a speech last month, he claimed the Israelis were trying to put a political spin on what in his view is simply a drug operation run by Lebanese drug dealers in collusion with Israeli border guards.
Israeli police say that based on evidence gathered from interrogating busted traffickers, nothing happens on the Lebanon-Israel border without Hezbollah's consent.
Aram Nerguizian, an expert at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says Hezbollah has enough financial support without depending on drug money, but uses the drug trade to gather intelligence on the Israeli military.
Shamai Golan, a spokesman for Israel's Anti-Drug Authority, agrees the main goal is to gather intelligence information, but also to weaken Israeli society.
Last year his agency ran an advertising campaign featuring an image of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah wafting out of a smoky pipe with the slogan: "At the end of every joint sits Nasrallah ... Drug users are lending a hand to the next terror attack."
In 2006, an Israeli army lieutenant colonel, Omar el-Heib, was sent to jail for 15 years for relaying maps and information about tank positions, troop deployments and the whereabouts of top Israeli commanders to Hezbollah in exchange for heroin, hashish, and thousands of dollars.
Besides Bekaa drugs, Golan said, is heroin from Afghanistan, four tons of which enter Israel annually through Lebanon, controlled by two Lebanese families who "answer directly to Hezbollah."
He said "there are dozens of documented cases" implicating Hezbollah and also Syria, which has influence in the Bekaa. On the other hand, Jordan is "doing great work" in stopping smugglers with drugs bound for Israel, he added.
Experts say the Lebanon trade is controlled by drug barons under the protection of powerful clans in the Bekaa Valley, largely beyond the reach of Lebanese authorities. About 10 families are involved, said Col. Adel Mashmoushi, the head of Lebanon's drug enforcement bureau.
"This is a clan affair most of the time," said Timor Goksel, a longtime U.N. official in Lebanon who is now a professor at the American University of Beirut. He noted that drug-growing was rife in the Bekaa Valley long before Hezbollah was created with Iranian backing in 1982.
This year's U.S. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report doesn't say whether Hezbollah is involved in drugs. It says last year's data show Morocco and Afghanistan have replaced Lebanon and Jordan as Israel's main source of drugs.
During the civil war, Bekaa drugs generated almost $500 million a year in revenues — 15 percent of the country's economy.
That money bought weapons and fighters for various sectarian militias. The Bekaa was notorious worldwide as a cauldron of terror and crime. Masked gunmen patrolled the streets brandishing automatic rifles and grenade launchers. Thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and troops from neighboring Syria held sway, along with tribal warlords, and Syria was thought to benefit from parts of the drug trade.
Westerners were snatched off the streets of Beirut and held for years in the valley by militants allegedly linked to Hezbollah.
After the war ended, the U.S. pressured Lebanon and Syria to plow up most of the drug fields, and eventually the U.S. State Department dropped Lebanon from the offenders list.
But a 2009 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says "farmers appear to be resuming cannabis cultivation." Lebanon's government refuses to release the current estimate of volume but officials say they are less than during the civil war.
A spate of factional clashes around the country kept the military so busy that from 2006 until this year, the government made no effort to wipe out cannabis.
But in the spring the military started hunting drug smugglers, and things turned bloody when Bekaa gunmen killed four soldiers in an ambush. Undaunted, the government arrested 69 people, and in August and September it sent hundreds of policemen and workers into the Bekaa's northern districts of Baalbek and Hermel.
They bulldozed more than 3,000 acres of harvest-ready fields as soldiers in armored cars stood by to protect them from villagers whose weaponry includes automatic rifles and even mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
The army is wary of going too far, said analyst Nerguizian. Instead, it "applies limited pressure ... without getting dragged into a broader confrontation with drug cartels," he said.
In many drug-producing countries, notably Afghanistan, farmers are offered money to switch to legal crops, but the farmers say the offers made in Lebanon never produced any money.
Abu Mohammed, a 65-year-old Bekaa farmer who has been in the drug business for 40 years, said he can net $1,200 off 1,000 square meters (10,000 sq feet) of land planted with cannabis, much more than other crops would bring in.
And "If I don't sell the hashish, I can keep it until next year and it does not need refrigerators," he said, asking to be identified by his nickname because he feared reprisals.
He lives in a handsome two-story stone villa. Drug profits paid for it, he said.
By BASSEM MROUE (AP)
Associated Press Writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report from Jerusalem.