BEIRUT // The black SUV with tinted windows pulls up at the agreed rendezvous point along a quiet road in the northern Beqaa Valley. Inside are four burly young men with tattooed arms, long hair and machineguns. Without a word, they open a door for a journalist and then speed off down a side road away from the village centre. Arriving at a modest home surrounded by fertile fields, the car is met by Lebanon's most notorious drug baron, Nawah Zoitar, 40, who has been on the run from authorities for more than four months after a series of deadly clashes and arrests started a cycle of revenge and retribution between security forces and the huge, well-armed families that control Beqaa's drug trade.
Mr Zoitar has long been of interest to Lebanese law enforcement. The family hash growing operation he controls with his older brother is considered the largest in Lebanon and authorities have repeatedly charged him for a range of crimes, although he insists the government and Lebanese media exaggerate the claims against him. "[The TV station] Al Arabiya came to interview me and then claimed I had 4,000 arrest warrants against me," he said. "It's only 40 warrants but the media wants to portray me as a mafia criminal. This is why they repeat these charges of carjacking, murder and mafia crimes against me."
The hashish trade in Beqaa has been tolerated on a moderate scale since the end of the Lebanese civil war, with both the Lebanese authorities and Hizbollah, which dominates the local community of rural conservative Shiite, allowing farmers to grow the crop to survive. But after younger members of the Zoitar clan and their rivals in the Jafaar family expanded the drug trade into carjacking, Hizbollah withdrew its political cover and the army began operations to arrest the most notorious offenders.
"Hizbollah would ignore the drugs because they understood there was nothing the farmers could afford to grow legally," said Abu Ali, a former trafficker who has reformed and now works with Hizbollah. "But once the families started robbing and shooting people for cars, Hizbollah had to withdraw their protection. Hizbollah could roll up these problems with the tribes even without the army's help, but that would cause a political problem within their own Shiite community. As for the police and army, both families pay to be left alone. But once the violence started, the bribes didn't work anymore."
Both families have seen members killed, including Mr Zoitar's younger cousin Ali, who was killed outside Beirut by the army, and Ali Abbas Jafaar, that family's leading drug dealer. After the Jafaar family assaulted an army patrol in revenge this year, killing five soldiers, all the top fugitives in Beqaa fled the ensuing crackdown, leaving the country for refuge in Syria, Turkey and Bulgaria. Scores of young men throughout Beqaa were arrested with many apparently beaten. But the fugitives had already left the country.
But after a month out of Lebanon, Mr Zoitar has returned to argue, maybe not his innocence, but the hypocrisy of the Lebanese government, which has long ignored development in Beqaa, while collecting huge bribes from the drug growers. "After the civil war, the government forgave all the political people for their crimes," he said, watching satellite television in a modest sitting room. With a pistol in his belt and a US military-issue M-4 carbine with grenade launcher on the sofa next to him, Mr Zoitar looks like any other drug grower in Lebanon.
"But the people wanted for growing hash and opium during the war were never forgiven, so they are still wanted by the government. It becomes very easy to say 'Forget it, I'm wanted and will never have an honest job. I'll grow hash, steal cars and shoot people'." After blaming Hizbollah for withdrawing its political protection in a previous interview, Mr Zoitar has toned back his rhetoric towards the group. Hizbollah's conservative and law-abiding morals have always put it at odds with the Beqaa hash families, but both sides know they need each other politically. And Mr Zoitar said Hizbollah is trying to help achieve a just settlement.
"[Hizbollah leader] Hasan Nasrallah mentioned forgiveness for wanted people," he said. "So everyone here ended up voting for them in the elections. They will push the government to provide amnesty for us, in exchange for our votes." Mr Zoitar said while the tribes have long grown drugs - his business stretches back to three generations of hashish farmers to the Ottoman Empire - they will not tolerate other forms of illegal behaviour.
"The army says this pressure is about the carjackers, but instead of going after them, they attacked everyone in Beqaa." Being on the run means that Mr Zoitar is mostly housebound, but he has brought his extended family with him, including maids and nearly a dozen small children who give his hideout the feel of a bizarre nursery full of automatic weapons. "The poor drug growers, normal people, those who never stole a car or harmed anyone have been all targeted," he said. "As a tribe, we can't accept living like this. The tribes will allow the army to come and arrest any thieves or killers but not like this.
"Yes, we wanted to grow our own land, to work and fill the land with our sweat and dignity, the government should not steal the hard work of poor farmers," he said in support of drug growers. "But I stopped growing even before these problems. I am against anything illegal. I've had enough with this life. I just want amnesty for me and my people." His mobile phone rings and it is bad news: one of his men has been wounded and arrested in a shoot-out with the army in a nearby village.
He picks up the M-4 assault rifle. "If you look carefully," he said with an angry look in his eye. "You will see that life makes me carry this gun. I feel like these things have destroyed my future. Now my son will be holding a machine gun, instead of going to school in the United States or Europe." email@example.com