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En la migración de personas desde Siria hacia otros países aparece el tráfico de captagón como forma de sustento en medio de condiciones críticas. |

Captagon, Syria and armed conflict: another failure of the war on drugs

The CND 67 scenario led to conversations around this substance, a kind of amphetamine whose trafficking networks are of concern to several governments. The human rights approach is minimal in the understanding of the problem, and in Colombia, we already know the consequences of this mistake.

Por: Mariana EscobarMarch 29, 2024

In the precincts of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna, where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was held until yesterday, a word appeared frequently that, at least for Latin American civil society, did not sound familiar: captagon, a synthetic drug marketed in pill form that produces euphoria, defuses hunger, fatigue and cold, and increases strength and dexterity in scenarios such as a double working day or a battle.

Its base, fenetrilin, served in 1961 Germany as a drug for children with attention disorders. However, the international substance control regime soon banned it because of its effects on the liver system and its addictive nature. Nor did the irregular market take long to exploit its recreational use.

The first to do so were the Bulgarians. While the Berlin Wall was falling, in that ex-Soviet country the large state-owned companies were being dismantled, many of them in the chemical industry -some of them captagon exporters-. Because of the political and technical cooperation between Bulgaria and Syria, during the Cold War, many Syrians studied chemistry in Bulgaria and established contacts that, while opening up the market between the two countries, also opened the way for illicit trafficking via the Turkish route.

Bejamin Crabtree, an expert from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, prepared an X-ray of the fluctuating trade of this drug in which he says that the captagon business soared in Syria in 2011, coinciding with the beginning of the conflict between the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the rebels and other local and foreign actors who are confronting each other with varied interests.

Syria and the captagon

According to Crabtree, four phenomena made Syria the ideal scenario for the captagon business: the absence of a state in areas occupied by the opposition, the lack of national and international oversight, the urgency of finding forms of financing or subsistence amid an armed conflict (which just completed 13 years this month) and a growing local market among more than 12 million migrants who have fled the conflict, the precarious health system with which the pandemic encountered and the devastation caused by an earthquake of magnitude 7. 7 in 2023.

Despite limitations in gathering information in Syria, the researcher found that captagon production and trafficking has become a perfect source of funding for actors in the Syrian conflict: because of the simplicity and mobile nature of the production facilities, as well as the limited chemical expertise required to ‘cook’ the substance. From Syria, proximity to the main destination markets (Gulf countries, Iraq and Jordan) also helps. Added to this is the growing demand within the country, which offers highly profitable sources of income with a low risk of interception, due to weaknesses in law enforcement amid multiple political, social and humanitarian crises.

Migrants attempting to cross into Europe are an audience for this substance, as the production of a pill is around 15 cents and its price in the Syrian market is no more than $5. In addition, captagon takes away their tiredness, hunger and thirst on their long exodus journeys. Tatyana Sleiman, director of Skoun, one of the few organizations working with risk and harm reduction programs for people who use drugs in Lebanon, says that, due to the authoritarian and very hermetic characteristics of the Syrian regime, very little is known about the use of substances in that country.

From the accounts of people who use this substance of Syrian origin who come to his organization as migrants and refugees, it is known that the humanitarian aid that arrives in that country is precarious, but it is also focused on meeting basic needs. “We do not know of the existence of people or organizations working in risk and damage reduction there. If they exist, surely they do so from the depths of community networks, because the context of the regime is one of absolute criminalization,” Sleiman points out.

As she has seen in her work, the use of drugs such as captagon by these people is a way of coping with the traumas of war, loss and uprooting. She has also been told of the involvement of children in trafficking networks. The reasons: they are less likely to be arrested and parents often send them to this type of work to obtain resources, as there are no conditions to guarantee their livelihood.

Prohibition and conflict

In the Middle East, without making too much noise in the media and international debates, captagon surpassed the number of seizures that opiates used to have. According to Angela Me, Director of Research at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), captagon became the drug of choice for young people in the Middle East and the Gulf. “These countries used to have heroin and other opioid use as a problem, but right now the reports we are receiving point to captagon as the new drug of choice and it is becoming a huge business with multiple and complex routes,” he details.

Indeed, in October 2023, when Hamas launched attacks against Israel, the Israeli government – and the United States – claimed that this substance had been found in the bodies of dead fighters and that it had increased their willingness to “kill and torture civilians.”

Caroline Rose, director of Strategic Blind Affairs at the New Lines Institute (a Washington think tank) and considered one of the great experts on captagon, thinks the idea is far-fetched, since “there is no evidence of it” and “this is not a drug that induces a violent mania,” she told Vice. In any case, the scandalous tone of the news given by the Israeli authorities was very similar to the one heard during the CND. During a side event organized by the Israeli government at this edition of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the word human rights was conspicuous by its absence, while the focus on criminalization and stigmatization prevailed.

The discourse surrounding the captagon brings to mind the stigmas and lack of knowledge about marijuana and cocaine that were propagated – much more intensely than today – before Colombia and other countries began to talk about regulation. But it was not all ‘war on drugs’. Two important things happened at the CND this year:

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights attended the Commission in person for the first time in the history of this arena, and his presence and speech became a symbol of what may be to come for international drug control policy: rights finally entered the debate. Days later, the U.S. Secretary of State focused his speeches on the crisis generated by the use of synthetic drugs in his country, and, for the first time at the CND, he celebrated the implementation of risk and harm reduction strategies.

Angela Me elaborates on this, for whom UNODC (which until a few years ago completely lacked the language of human rights and risk reduction) is committed to “including several response components in the situation of the captagon and Syria: criminal justice, but also prevention, treatment and risk and harm reduction”.

While she says that the work in Syria is difficult for her agency (UNODC), in any kind of intervention it should be very clear that armed conflicts are a magnet for drug trafficking and that the context of violence and repression makes a huge difference when it comes to encouraging problematic consumption. For Tatyana Sleiman, in the face of Syria and any other scenario like the one in that country, aid agencies should include in their interventions the needs of people who use drugs: “and that implies looking at them without stigmatization and allocating sufficient resources to alleviate their suffering”.

Being a country with a conflict seems to deepen the effects of prohibition, and being a prohibitionist country adds ingredients to armed conflict. As has happened with Colombia’s experience with drugs, as long as the captagon business remains illegal (or that of cocaine or many opiates produced in the Middle East), drug trafficking will provide sufficient resources to continue conflicts, corrupt the institutions that combat it and finance armed groups. A paradigm shift in drug policy is therefore necessary in scenarios such as the one suggested by the captagon in Syria.



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