SYRIA - Lebanon's drug kingpin watched his workers sink their spades deep into the piles of marijuana that banked the walls of the factory, throwing the chopped plants onto clunking machines that sifted out the top quality hash that would soon be sold on London streets.The secret processing plant - an unremarkable cow barn in its exterior - stands on a hillside overlooking the remote fertile plains of the Bekaa valley whose produce, cannabis, is now at the heart of a multi-million dollar drug trade.
For years Ali Nasri Shamas and other Lebanese farmers saw their illegal crops burned by the government. But in the past two summers, as the army focused on the violent fallout of the war in neighbouring Syria, their plants have flourished unmolested. Security forces have refrained from destroying the industry of the hash growers who, already armed to the teeth, could be useful partners in keeping control of this tribal part of the country should the its instability become full-blown conflict. The farmers too have grown in confidence: they have stockpiled AK47s, ammunition, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades and rallied around Mr Shamas, who has become the unofficial representative defending their trade.
"We are selling hashish, and if anyone from the government tries to come close to it, we'll kill them," said Mr Shamas, his heavily armed bodyguards standing beside the doors of two black SUV, their windows blacked out, the licence plates removed. "This year we had a good year."
Subsistence farmers across the region have switched from beet crops to growing cannabis, leaving giant tracts of agricultural land, miles wides, covered in the green plant. As well as paying his own growers, Mr Shamas, the drug lord, has little by little bought the produce of the smaller farmers creating an empire whose economy now has hundreds of dependents. Inside the processing plant, hashish particles clouded the air, dancing in the rays of sunlight that streamed through the open door. A small army of Syrian workers, cloths wrapped round their mouths to limit breathing, busily separated the stems and outer leaves from the buds. In a corner of the barn, partitioned by a plastic tarpaulin, two women carefully re-sifted the refined product, creating a fine dust-like substance soon to be crushed by a machine to make the hash lumps that are exported all over the world.
The valley has become so awash with the crop that prices have plummeted through oversupply.
Two years ago, for one kilo of hashish, farmers would pocket $1200 (£767). Now the price is only a quarter of that - $350, Mr Shamas said. But still it remains the most lucrative trade, and, mostly through trafficking it abroad Mr Shamas' business alone brings in of millions of dollars. Most of the drugs are going to countries in the region, including to Syria and Egypt. But some is also reaching Europe. Lebanon's hash helps stock cafes in Holland, where the drug is legal, and some of it has found its way to Britain, farmers said.
"All of my main growers made at least half a million dollars this year," said Mr Shamas.
Mr Shamas, formerly a small time dealer of cocaine and other drugs in the south of the country, has grown in power in the Bekaa valley, from where his family hails, by promoting himself as a modern day Robin Hood: a man battling a corrupt government to redistribute money to a region that has been left underdeveloped for centuries. His employees call him "the friend of the poor" to journalists.
"As you know our politicians are thieves - none of them does anything but for themselves. Their focus when in power is how much they can make their private bank accounts grow," said Mr Shamas. "We gave them time to reform the region, to introduce alternative industries but they did nothing. Every time we get help from overseas to this end they steal it."
In a country awash with weapons and militia groups from its decades of civil war, Lebanon's government has rarely had the military authority nor the political unity fully to implement its laws. When security forces have destroyed illegal crops in the past, the farmers and their armed protection squads have retaliated by attacking their bases. Previously, The Telegraph watched as, just meters from the historical Baalbek Roman ruins, hashish growers besieged and fired upon a police station. The act was revenge, they said, because that morning the station's unhappy policemen had dared to burn their plants. The growth of Mr Shamas' militias is also a symptom of the Syrian war: throughout the country's history, with every period of political and economic turmoil, the drugs trade has burgeoned.
After Lebanese independence the government tried to eradicate the the drug industry that had existed in the Bekaa since the Ottoman empire. But the efforts were abandoned after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Militias and political groups alike used the industry to fund the war: increases in global demand pushed prices sky high and made it simply too lucrative to abolish. As well as growing opium and trafficking heroin, the Bekaa region produced 1,000 tons of cannabis year in this period, according to the agricultural co-operative in the area.
In the 1990s, when the Syrian military occupation of the country began, the United States pressured Damascus to crack down on the trade. An American agricultural loan imported 3,000 dairy cows in the hope of building alternative industries on which the Bekaa valley residents could depend. A United Nations Development Program of crop substitution was also implemented. The program cost the agency $300 million every year to run, and, whilst marijuana growing was reduced, government corruption meant that most of the aid money never reached Bekaa residents.
Unable to make a living by growing cannabis, and with the replacement industries undeveloped, impoverished farmers began to protest against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Amid rising anti-Syrian sentiment in the years before its troops withdrew, Damascus quietly stopped destroying marijuana crops in an attempt at appeasement. Since then Beirut has, to come extent, done the same, farmers said. And with each cycle of leniency a new kingpin emerged.
At the start of the new century Jamal Hamieh was the drug lord of the region. Protected by a private army, Time magazine reported the lavish parties he threw for Syrian intelligence officials and New York gangsters alike. Now that role is ascribed to Mr Shamas. So confident is he of his power that he speaks on the record, and allowed The Telegraph to film the three tons of hashish in his factory - just part of the crop he has gathered this year. Two years ago, speaking live on Lebanese television, he fingered Col. Adel Mashmouchi, the then head of the country's counter narcotics, for corruption, accusing him of extracting large bribes from the farmers and taking cuts from cocaine imports. Mr Mashmouchi and his team were also investigated by the country's prosecution for a related incident.
This time however, with no end in sight for the Syria conflict, and mounting pressure on Lebanon not to succumb to its sectarian violence, the future for the Bekaa's hash growers appears bright.
Perhaps in acknowledgement of the difficulties on cracking down on the drug industry, Walid Jumblatt, former warlord and still an influential politician, has announced his unequivocal support for legalising marijuana.
Mr Shamas said: "The families and clans of the Bekaa have come together after they suffered hunger. They couldn't afford diesel for heating or education for their children.
“It is for this that we started this confrontation with the government. Until the situation improves we will not go away."
By Ruth Sherlock - The Telegraph/Dec. 24, 2014
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