Bangladesh being simultaneously a transit and destination country of the Yaba drug trafficking network, Indian enforcement agencies need to be on constant vigil.
If the United States is hooked to fentanyl and heroin, Europe to cannabis, Latin America to cocaine, Arab countries to amphetamines, African countries to cannabis, most Asian countries including India to cannabis and opium, neighbouring Bangladesh is hooked to the synthetic pleasure drug called Yaba.
Yaba—a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine, sold as cheap red or pink pills—is the current craze among all sections of people in Bangladesh. It is nicknamed “crazy pill”, “Nazi speed” or “madness medicine”. Yaba addiction is also one of the fastest growing drug epidemics in the world. It is estimated that there are over 30 million users in Southeast Asia alone. Yaba is the Thai word for “crazy medicine”, it is known as “Shabu” in Japan and Indonesia, “Bingdu” in China and “Batu” in the Philippines. It is also referred to as “Chasing the Cherry”. Earlier it used to be called Yama (horse drug) as it was fed to horses lugging huge carts up the steep hills of Myanmar. It was only after 1996 that it came to be known under several slangs including Yaba (madness drug) and Kyethi (button).
Yaba first appeared in Bangladesh in 2002 and its use, and abuse, has steadily risen since then. Manufactured illicitly in industrial quantities in Myanmar, it is smuggled into Bangladesh in the far south-east of the country, where the border partly follows the River Naf. It was across this river that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fled into Bangladesh in 2017, to escape from the Burmese military crackdown. Now nearly a million destitute refugees live in makeshift camps in various refugee camps in Bangladesh, and drug-dealers have succeeded in turning many of them—often women—into mules, who smuggle packages of pills inside their vaginas. Traffickers prefer using Rohingya women or children to act as the couriers since they remain less of a suspect. The drugs are carried inside footwear, undergarments, belt, rectum, and abdomen.
Yaba users typically heat the tablet, by placing it on an aluminium foil, and then inhale the vapours from the melting tablets. Others crush the tablets into powder and snort them. It has a vanilla smell and creates a hyper-alert state of rushing energy. Users claim that it fires up the blood and makes the body strong as a lion, hence consumption of Yaba is strongly associated with sex in Bangladesh. Yaba is a symbol of smartness, fashion, and aristocracy. Models, film stars, singers, dancers, and many celebrities take it as an aphrodisiac. Yaba exerts its stimulant effects by directly stimulating the central nervous system and by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Its action starts 5-6 minutes after ingestion and lasts for hours, even longer with higher dosages. Effects include euphoria, increased alertness, wakefulness, irritability, aggression, decreased appetite, hot flushes, and dry mouth. Users enjoy more pleasurable sex and orgasms as Yaba is a highly addictive psychostimulant associated with enhanced sexual desire, arousal, and sexual pleasure. It increases sexual drive, engagement in group sex, the increased ability to perform serial sex, transactional sex, impulsive and coercive sex. Hence it is also called the “Pleasure Drug”.
The craze for Yaba among the youth is the biggest problem in Bangladesh. It is estimated that there are about 4.6 million regular users of Yaba in Bangladesh, and the number is increasing alarmingly every day.
Chronic use results in tremor, hypertension, hallucination, damage to small blood vessels of the brain and the heart, psychotic episodes, paranoid delusion, violent behaviour, hyperthermia, convulsion, agitation, anxiety, nervousness, and psychosis, similar to schizophrenia. Yaba has the property of development of tolerance leading to progressive increase in the amount of drug requirement.
Demand for the drug has risen at an alarming rate, with authorities struggling to stem the flow of tens of millions of pills pouring in from Myanmar, where they’re manufactured, and inundating Bangladesh’s cities and villages. Teknaf is the town at the heart of the Yaba trade in the south-eastern district of Cox’s Bazar. The Naf River, which divides Bangladesh and Myanmar, is full of illegal vessels carrying drugs and Rohingya refugees. Myanmar is perceived to be the main country of origin for methamphetamine tablets seized throughout the Mekong sub-region and in some other parts of East and South-East Asia, reveals a 2015 report by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Myanmar hosts the largest number of clandestine Yaba laboratories. The synthetic Yaba pill doesn’t depend on unreliable opium harvests; it is easy to manufacture, is small, attractive, and easy to smuggle. Hundreds of amphetamine laboratories located in Burma along the borders of Thailand and China have made Myanmar the world’s main producer of Yaba. The Yaba traffickers in Myanmar are considered some of the largest and most heavily armed trafficking groups in the world.
Bangladesh, with its busy seaports and vast porous borders, was the obvious choice for drug-traffickers. Later it transformed into a booming and lucrative market. Bangladesh shares a 4,000-kilometer (2,485 mile) border with India and a 250-kilometer (155 mile) border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the scene of the current Rohingya refugee crisis. For a poor country like Bangladesh, it is a phenomenal task to handle both—Yaba smuggling and the Rohingya influx.
The Rohingya camps are ideal for storing Yaba drug consignments. The Yaba pills are transported from Maungdaw city of Rakhine to the Tombru border, where it merges effortlessly into the Rohingya camps situated just beside the zero line along Bangladesh. The densely populated Rohingya camps in Ukhiya are exploited for storing the Yaba consignments, until further transportation to Cox’s Bazar. In the Teknaf region, the Yaba drug-traffickers have endeared themselves to the desperate Rohingyas by regularly donating free food and money to support many families. This acts as a bulwark against police action in the area, and Rohingya refugee families are highly secretive about the Yaba smuggling. It is estimated that there are more than one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They live in bleak conditions with no means of any livelihood. Smuggling Yaba helps them to eke out a living and pay for bare necessities. In 2018, a major raid on drug trade took place in Bangladesh where a record 53 million methamphetamine pills were seized. Nearly 300 suspected drug dealers were killed, out of which 40 were from Teknaf area near Rohingya camps. Some 25,000 were arrested, out of which many were Rohingyas. In May 2020, Myanmar police made massive synthetic drug haul seizures in Shan state and recovered precursor ingredients from China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, indicating the involvement of transnational crime syndicates. It is also reported that the drug is being manufactured in Malda in Bengal and Agartala in Tripura in India.
The unabated Yaba smuggling compelled the Bangladesh government to pass the Narcotics Control Bill in October 2018 with a provision of death sentence or life-term imprisonment as punishment for drug-related crimes. An anti-narcotics crackdown followed, which left nearly 519 people killed in gunfights, with over one lakh arrested for their alleged involvement with the narcotics trade, as of June 2020. The local Bangladeshi media uses the term “crossfire” in inverted commas, to refer to a widespread suspicion that most of the times, the shoot-outs are staged, just like the Indian press uses the term “encounter” to refer to suspicious police killings.
If Yaba is proving to be such a big scourge in Bangladesh, how can neighbouring India be not affected? On 27 October 2021, the Indian Customs seized Rs 2 crore worth of Yaba from Madhyamgram in North 24 Parganas district near Kolkata. Two people were arrested and 28,000 Yaba tablets seized. Later, 8,000 more tablets were seized from another place and one more person was arrested.
In September 2021, 2.30 lakh Yaba tablets worth Rupees 8 cr were seized along Assam-Mizoram border by Assam Police.
A joint operation of Border Security Force (BSF) and DRI officials in January 2020, resulted in a massive seizure of 168,500 Yaba tablets worth over Rs 8.92 crore from Matinagar, a bordering village of Sipahijala district, 60 km from Agartala. This drug haul is the largest-ever contraband seizure in Tripura. India’s Northeast shares a long border of 1,880 kilometres with Bangladesh, comprising a panoramic and bewildering range of hills, plains, and rivers, making the task of policing the entire stretch extremely challenging on both the sides.
In February 2020, the Special Task Force of Kolkata Police seized 118,000 Yaba tablets worth over Rs 3 crore in Kolkata.
In India Yaba also goes by the name of “Bhul Bhulaiya”.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has warned that growing demand for synthetic opioids in East and Southeast Asia is an indicator that the region will continue to grow as a source of synthetic drugs. Bangladesh being simultaneously a transit and destination country of the Yaba drug trafficking network, Indian enforcement agencies need to be on constant vigil. The current favourite drug of abuse on many Indian educational campuses is “Ecstasy”, which shares with Yaba the status of a sex stimulant. The choice of preference can shift to Yaba if it is marketed cheaply. India also has a sizeable segment of Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees scattered across the country. Economic compulsions may spur them into becoming Yaba traffickers. But what should be of great concern is that along with the inflow of drugs, there is a free transfer of manufacturing knowhow. Today’s trafficker is tomorrow’s manufacturer.
Dr G. Shreekumar Menon, IRS (Rtd) PhD (Narcotics), is former Director General, National Academy of Customs Indirect Taxes and Narcotics.