Friday, 22 July 2011

Trailing iraq's cigarette smugglers: bandits, border guards and big profits

Saleh Elias
wed 20 jul 11

NIQASH’s correspondent follows the illegal nicotine trail, as he joins local smugglers taking cigarettes into Syria. Dodging border guards and bandits, he meets the locals risking their lives to deliver millions of profitable packs to smokers every day.

Several days ago, two soldiers and a member of the public were wounded and around 50 others arrested, following a clash between the Iraqi armed forces and militants. But these casualties and arrests were not the result of any “war against terror”. Instead it was to do with a war against one particular drug: nicotine. The violence had been between cigarette smugglers and military operating along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Gunmen apparently fired on the vehicle that the commander of the border guards’ regiment near Bi'r Qasim in western Ninawa province was travelling in. A member of the same patrol, Khaled Ahmad, reported that the group was on a mission to intercept smugglers ferrying goods into Syria.

“We have fought many battles with smugglers who outnumbered us and were better armed,” Ahmad said. “They carry machine guns and binoculars and their trucks are escorted by 4WD vehicles until they get to the border of Syria and Iraq.”

“Smuggling cigarettes is a profitable business,” Mosul stock market trader Hamed al-Jibouri told NIQASH; deals between cigarette traders are often done in Mosul’s local stock market with brokers playing a major role in the transactions and negotiations. “Cigarettes are imported legally from Turkey and Jordan, then brought in through Erbil and Anbar by influential Mosul merchants.”

Turkey and Jordan, from where many of the cigarettes originally come, also border on Syria, but these are far harder to cross illicitly. Dozens of warehouses receive millions of cigarettes every day. A master case costs between US$200 and US$300 – each master case contains 50 cartons of cigarettes, which in turn contains 10 packs of cigarettes each. Each master case contains 10,000 cigarettes.

But in fact, most of this activity is legal. The dubious activity really only begins at the Syrian border. In Syria cigarette prices are higher and smugglers make a profit by bringing the cigarette cartons from Mosul to Syrian border areas, around 160km away.

Most of the journey is made openly though and recently NIQASH correspondent, Elias Saleh, undertook the same journey as the cigarettes do every day.

The first leg of the journey involved riding with Hassan Yousef, a young villager in his 20s. Yousef was carrying the cases of cigarettes in a lightweight, late-model Kia truck to Sinjar, a small town near the Syrian border. The young man had not completed his education but worked for what he described as one of the “companies” smuggling cigarettes across the border.

“Actually it’s not a company officially,” Yousef explained himself. “But the structure is like that of a real company.”

His “company” charges US$8 per pack of cigarettes if the buyer wants insurance; the price goes down to US$4 if they don’t want insurance. “Then guys like me transport the goods. There are around 50 Kia trucks and each can carry up to 120 master cases. There are also some other larger vehicles that can take bigger loads,” he said. Yousef loaded around a hundred master cases onto his truck and the journey began.

Another smuggler, who wanted to remain anonymous, believed that around 3,000 master cases were being smuggled into Syria daily. This was despite the tense political situation in Syria. When Syria was more peaceful, he was sure that this amount would have been double.

“And if the money we pay the border guards isn’t enough to guarantee the safe delivery of our goods, then we will use our guns to make sure our Syrian customers get their deliveries,” he added.

Indeed, at a security checkpoint overseen by the Iraqi army Yousef’s truck was stopped. The soldier on duty asked him what his destination was. Without any hesitation whatsoever Yousef told the soldier that his goods were bound for Syria. With a complicit smile, the soldier waved him onwards.

At this stage, the mid-sized Kia was joined by four other vehicles and the group made for a ragged convoy along a rough dirt road. During the two hour journey, the only sights one saw were a few dusty villages, one of which was Yousef’s home town.

At one point, the convoy appeared to be trying to avoid being another military checkpoint. At the previous checkpoint nobody seemed to have been worried about what they were doing with so many cigarettes but the drivers had been forewarned that the soldiers at this next checkpoint would not be so friendly.

During the voyage, Yousef also continually telephoned the convoy’s forward scout. The scout’s role was to check the road ahead and to tell the drivers which route to take and whether it was safe to proceed. The smugglers take many risks. Some of the biggest dangers are the border guards, army troops and customs officers. Even worse though, are local bandits.

When we met this trip’s scout later on, he explained the importance of his role. "There is no room for mistakes,” he told NIQASH. “The total value of the car and its cargo is estimated at US$45,000.”

Near the Sanouni neighbourhood in Sinjar, Yousef and the other drivers stopped their trucks and allowed some other men, who were waiting for them there, to unload their precious cargo into more vehicles.

Sinjar is located in one of the areas subject to territorial disputes between the Iraqi government and the government of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. And the looser security situation there, with a variety of different military forces in charge, together with complicity between locals, smugglers and border guards, make this area an optimal one for the smuggling goods across the two nations’ borders.

At this last stop for Yousef in Sinjar, he explains that the Kurdish border guards here have ties with the smugglers but that they will not allow foreigners to bring vehicles into the area. This is why the local men must transfer the contraband to other vehicles and then take them into the town proper. At this point Yousef’s job was done. “The goods will find their way into Syria with others,” he declared.

NIQASH’s correspondent however continued, following the path that the smugglers would take and eventually encountering a police patrol. The patrol, headed by Lieutenant Said Khader, was stationed only a few meters away from the Iraq-Syria border.

And the lieutenant was quick to deny what insiders had already said: that border police charged US$1 for every master case of cigarettes they see carried by smugglers.

“The smuggling is illegal,” Khader said. “But it does not harm the local economy. On the contrary, it’s bringing in foreign currency, stimulating commerce here and providing unemployed villagers with employment opportunities,” he explained.

Khader said he knew how badly local villagers needed work and explained that he would actually prefer to be far more lenient on the smugglers. However he was concerned that if he was, this might also aid would-be terrorists and militant extremists.

“We fear that the profits from smuggling would be used to finance terrorist acts or as a cover for the smuggling of more dangerous items such as guns and drugs,” Khader concluded.

The last stop on the cigarette smuggling route is a village just 500 meters away from Syria. After the sun sets, hundreds of porters start their work day, loading the cigarettes onto their backs, preparing to complete the last leg of the contraband’s journey by foot.

One of the porters, Sabah Shammo, 21, told NIQASH that since he had started working for the smugglers he had not had a peaceful night’s sleep. “Every night I carry four cases of cigarettes on my back. They weigh around 60 kilograms and I get IQD75,000 [around US$63] for that. Sometimes I carry two loads and earn double,” he boasted.

As the policeman Khader had said, there was little alternative for many of the young people like Shammo, living in the remote area and coping with high unemployment. “Hundreds of families live on the income from smuggling,” Khader explained. “If the smugglers were not here, then I think people would join the gangs of thieves here and become bandits.”

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