The new Viagra of terror

Churned out by legal and illegal factories from Punjab to Gujarat, painkiller Tramadol has taken the conflict zones of the world by storm

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It’s a chill pill gone kill pill that rules conflict zones across Africa and West Asia—and it’s made in India. Churned out by many legal and illegal factories from Punjab to Gujarat, Tramadol, a synthetic painkiller, has been taking the battlegrounds of the world by storm.

Also known as ‘Tramal Lite’, ‘Trammies’, ‘Ultras’ and even ‘Tomatoes’ as in Cameroon, the generic painkiller is an opioid-based medication used to treat mild-to-very severe pain. In larger doses, tramadol hydrochloride makes users euphoric, bold and unmindful of consequences, and numb to pain and emotion. Such is the power of this drug that an aura of legend has grown around it. Users say it boosts libido, energy and that it is a standalone treatment for premature ejaculation. Some go so far to say a mouse on Tramadol can stand on a red hot surface.

These legends are what make Tramadol so alluring to insurgent and terror groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State (IS). Boko Haram, notorious for its mindless violence, represents the IS in West Africa and operates mainly in northeastern Nigeria, from where it has spread to Chad, Niger and parts of Cameroon.

“It really helps me fight Boko Haram when I go into the bush. Even the way I run and the way I walk is different. It gives me strength to fight the insurgents,” says Mustafa, a volunteer fighting the Boko Haram, in a BBC interview. His opponents from the Boko Haram agree. “They tell us, ‘If you use it, you will be less afraid’,” says Umar, a former Boko Haram member, in the same interview.

It is quite likely that Tramadol is filling up the space left vacant by the original conflict zone drug Captagon. Originally produced in Bulgaria, Captagon makes users immune to pain, feelings and fatigue. It was produced in huge quantities in Syria before production dispersed to other countries. Incidentally, India and China were the world’s biggest suppliers of the precursor chemicals for Captagon.

Tramadol is mostly sourced from India, where it was sold freely over the counter until as late as April last year. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “most of the Tramadol seized worldwide in the five years to 2016 originated in India and, to a lesser extent, in China”.  Till very recently, the production and export of the painkiller was regulated by the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, making for lax government regulations. Now, it has been brought under the ambit of the much stricter Narcotic Drugs and

 The new  Viagra of  terror

Representational image. Reuters

chotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. But the damage has already been done.

A report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) for 2018 paints a deadly scenario. It says: “In addition to widespread abuse of Tramadol in countries in West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, the abuse of Tramadol is also of considerable concern in countries in South Asia. Significant quantities of Tramadol were seized in 2016, 2017 and 2018 throughout the region. In India, more than 66 million packaged tablets, 2.2 tonnes of loose tablets and a further 670 kg of Tramadol powder were seized, along with tableting equipment, in one operation in May 2018.”

The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, brought out by the United States’ Department of State, says: “Indian-sourced Tramadol is an ongoing threat in the Middle East and North Africa with reported connections to terrorist groups… Tramadol was increasingly being abused in Nigeria, which was the largest importer of the painkiller from India.”

Besides Nigeria, one of the main destinations for Indian Tramadol is Benin. From Benin, the cargo is transshipped to the Sahel region. “Seizures of millions of Tramadol pills originating in India have been made in Asia, Africa, and Europe… Based on leads passed from the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency), Indian drug authorities in Gujarat, Mumbai, and other cities in India, have made multiple seizures of millions of tablets of diverted controlled drugs...” The report says that both restricted websites—the ‘dark web’—and India-based call centre operations continue to feed illicit global drug markets.

Indian authorities have their own problems. Says Rajiv Mehta, former director-general of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), “While the drug may be sourced from India, where it goes after it leaves Indian shores becomes the importer’s responsibility. There are frequent reports that ships carrying Tramadol have been diverted elsewhere. At the same time, while the Middle East countries have been complaining, they have not been taking strong action.”

The NCB is India’s main drug control agency with a mandate to prevent and combat the abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. Another NCB chief BB Mishra speaks of his experience during the United Nations conference on drugs in Vienna in March 2014. “The Egyptian delegation complained about Indian Tramadol flooding their country. There was not much we could have done then. I told them it was a business deal between the Egyptian importers and Indian exporters,” he says.The modus operandi was to smuggle in opioids like Tramadol in the name of a legitimate drug. “We could not have examined each and every packet that goes out.”

In May 2017, more than 3.7 crore Indian-origin Tramadol tablets worth $75 million were seized by the Italian Police in three containers at Genoa port. The containers, marked as blankets and shampoo, were bound for an IS affiliate in Libya. In August 2017, Cameroonian customs seized more than 6 lakh Tramadol tablets that, according to official investigations, were meant for Boko Haram and originated in India. In September 2017, more than 30 lakh tablets were seized in Niger. Packed in boxes stamped with the UN logo, a pick-up truck was carrying them from Nigeria to Northern Mali. On February 16 last year, agents from the Nigeria’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency in Adamawa seized more than 1,316 tonnes of 225 mg Tramadol tablets.

According to a report by UNODC, Tramadol seizures have increased from 300 kg in 2013 to more than 3 tonnes in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2017. The usual route, through the piracy hotspot of the Gulf of Guinea, is used by global crime syndicates to the Sahel region, which  is partially controlled by organised crime groups and terrorist organisations. “Tramadol is regularly found with suspects arrested for terrorism in Sahel or with those who have committed suicidal attacks,” says the UNODC report.

Even more worrying is that Tramadol is creating waves closer home, and among schoolchildren too. In Herat, western Afghanistan, the Kabul-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting has reported that the painkiller being misused by schoolgirls as “the tablets had become a popular way of relieving tension and worry” and were available in “pharmacies, shops and even on the street”.

Says Herat-based journalist Pedram Qazizadeh, “Tramadol is mainly used by young people in Afghanistan. Its usage is more in the northern and central regions of the country. Forbidden to be sold in the open market, it is smuggled into Afghanistan and then illegally sold.” While there is no clear global strategy to tackle the Tramadol menace, international control has been lax. Moreover as no organic constituents are required for its preparation, no records are kept of production figures. In other words, it is the story of a drug scripted for creating havoc. And it’s far from being over.

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