x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lebanon's drug barons vs the law: a battle for survival

The past year Lebanon has been unusually stable, but there have been a series of killings of drug traffickers linked to the large tribes of upper Beqaa.

The military intelligence officer was sitting in his office in northern Lebanon when the call came from his colleagues in Beqaa Valley. They were asking for his help in negotiating a truce between the Lebanese army and a loose alliance of families in Beqaa who dominate Lebanon's multibillion dollar hashish trade after a crackdown on drug trafficking and carjacking had turned violent, with casualties on both sides. But the officer had no intention of getting involved. "I know these families, now that they have had martyrs, there is no talking to them," he growled down the phone. "There is only the army. Send the army to crush them, it's the only language they understand." After exchanging a few more tart words and hanging up the phone, the officer sighed. "I'm not stupid enough to get involved with these people. They act like this is Iraq, not Lebanon."

The past year has been unusually stable for Lebanon. Although last month's elections resulted in bitter political rivalry, the expected sectarian and political violence did not materialise. However, there have been a series of arrests and killings of drug traffickers and criminals linked to the large tribes of upper Beqaa. The low-intensity confrontation has claimed almost 20 lives, seen scores arrested and beaten by authorities and sparked an international incident after Syria captured several fugitives who fled after ambushing an army patrol.

The conflict pits the large and well-armed Zoitar and Jafaar clans against the Lebanese police and army. It has disrupted life in Lebanon's agricultural heartland for months as soldiers raid and occupy farms and houses throughout the northern Beqaa Valley and families retaliate for what they describe as a cruel occupation by a government that has never shown any interest in supporting development for Lebanon's poorest rural residents.

Authorities insist that these huge extended families, whose members total more than 100,000, are common criminals and drug gangs with international mafia links throughout Turkey and the Balkans and that a campaign against them has been long overdue. "These families have never accepted the rule of anyone," said one military intelligence officer with extensive dealings with the clans. "They are part international mafia and part traditional Arab tribal culture," he said. "The Jafaar and Zoitar families never send anyone to join the police, the army or even Hizbollah, despite having always lived alongside the main bases of Hizbollah and the rural Shiite. They've never even accepted the rule of their own Shiite religious figures, let alone the authority of Beirut. But why should they? They make millions a year from hashish farming and no one from the government has ever helped them do anything else. They reject all outside authority and always have but we've never offered them any reason not to."

During Lebanon's bloody civil war, the Beqaa Valley was equally infamous for drug cultivation and processing, as well as providing a safe haven from the nationwide fighting that allowed Hizbollah to organise in the 1980s. With the legitimate economy in tatters and virtually no functioning central government in Beirut, Beqaa's traditional drug-growing families were able to expand production into a multibillion dollar enterprise of hashish and heroin exports. And instead of drawing the attention of law enforcement, they quickly became aligned with virtually every militia operating in Lebanon as each side in the civil war eventually turned to drug exporting to support their ongoing fight.

Under pressure from the United States, the Syrian military used its occupation of much of Lebanon after the 1991 peace accords to force an end to the widespread heroin production and reduce the amounts of hashish cultivated, but for the rural poor of Beqaa, drugs continued to remain the only way for some families to survive, even with reduced output compared to their civil war heyday. "We are poor farmers and they call us mafia," said Ahmed Jafaar, a family elder and an uncle of Ali Abbas Jafaar, a leading drug dealer who the family claims was executed by the army in late March.

Sitting in his shop that specialises in bathroom fixtures in a small town outside the major Beqaa city of Baalbek, Mr Jafaar openly admits to having been a part of the family business of drug growing and trafficking but argues the government campaign against them is hypocritical in light of what he said are close business ties between his family and nearly all major political parties in Lebanon. "I have been chased for so long that the trees used to complain that I should stop sleeping under them," he joked.

"These top drug dealers, the real mafia, I can tell you are all first-class government officials. We don't have an airport, we don't have control of a harbour to ship drugs to Europe." Mr Jafaar repeats a refrain commonly heard during more than a dozen meetings The National held with current and former drug traffickers in the Beqaa Valley and Beirut. "I assure you that government officials bring in the cocaine and take out the hashish. The growers are the poorest people involved."

With a series of successful legitimate businesses, Mr Jafaar said he no longer needs to grow and sell drugs. However, the obstacles to making an honest living for farmers in north Beqaa, he said, are insurmountable for most and so drugs remained the only viable option. "I am a potato grower, but I only grow them because I can afford to grow them. It takes almost a million dollars to prepare 1,000 dunums [one dunum is equal to about 1,000 square metres] of land for potatoes.

It costs less than US$1,000 (Dh3,670) to prepare the same amount for hashish and the dealers will lend the farmer the money. What does the government do but steal the aid money meant for farmers and allow Syrian farmers to enter our market with cheaper products. It's impossible," Mr Jafaar said. Abu Ali was a top lieutenant to Beqaa's largest heroin producer during the civil war. Now, he said, he still uses his understanding of the drug trade to help his poor neighbours.

"There's no way to make money for food or a life in Beqaa without the drug business," he said. "Look around my village and the only hashish you will see being grown is by the poorest people. One widow had no money to send her children to school so I helped her set up a small plot of hashish. She makes about $700 a year, enough to buy books and clothes. Is this a mafia?" Nawah Zoitar, 40, considered perhaps the top hashish grower in Lebanon, agreed, describing his operation as an endeavour meant to help poor farmers.

Mr Zoitar fled his palatial home in the tiny, dirt-poor town of Kneisse as the army began its major crackdown this spring. But he has since returned - although still in hiding - to argue that the government needs to provide an amnesty and development to the working poor of Beqaa who are being persecuted, he said, for trying to make a living. "There's almost 40,000 people with arrest warrants on them living in this area," he said. "Beqaa has been neglected by the government for so long that there are no companies to get jobs, no support for the farmers, and people can't survive. Everyone from Beqaa leaves Lebanon or goes to Beirut to find work; the only ones who are left are the ones who have warrants. So the only people still here are forced into illegal activity, like growing drugs and stealing.

"If the government made hashish legal but also helped farmers grow other crops, then everyone would refuse to do these crimes. People just want a normal life." While acknowledging the failure of the government to provide alternatives for development, the military intelligence official dismissed the argument that the hash trade is run by simple farmers trying to make a living out of the fertile soil of northern Beqaa.

"Sure, there's no development and no rule of law, so the families run things out there," he said. "But ask the poor farmers how many passports they own - these men all have documents from France, Turkey, Bulgaria and travel the world. They have contacts with mafias all over Turkey, the Balkans and even South America. And their violence is legendary. Ask Nawah about his house in Turkey. The Jafaar have even closer ties to the gangs in Bulgaria. These are sophisticated international criminals."

To illustrate the far-reaching influence of the families, the officer recounted a story that started 10 years ago when a member of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) working in Baalbak killed a member of the Jafaar family during a demonstration. Fearing the Jafaar's vengeance, the ISF immediately ordered the officer transferred to the Lebanese Embassy in Paris. A year later, Lebanese intelligence received a warning from their French counterparts that the Jafaar family had found the officer and the French were tracking a team of assassins who had arrived in Paris to kill him.

After recalling the man to Lebanon, changing his name and posting him to the police headquarters in the mostly Sunni city of Tripoli, where the Shiite Jafaar would have the least capability for revenge, people forgot about the case for a few years. "The family later found out the man was working in the Serail in Tripoli and called in perhaps the only Jafaar family member with a job in the ISF," the intelligence officer recalled. "The boy was ordered to demand a transfer to Tripoli or to find a way to visit the building. Once inside, he went to the office, calmly shot the officer to death and walked downstairs to be put in jail. I interrogated the boy, he didn't want to do it. But his family and tribal pressure to avenge this death from years before was too much. He had no choice as a member of the Jafaar clan."

It is this thirst for revenge that has sparked the latest conflict. After Ali Abbas Jafaar was killed at an army checkpoint on March 26, the family cried murder. Ahmed Jafaar was at a meeting this year in which military intelligence officials assured him they would not target Ali Abbas - despite the dozens of arrest warrants issued against him - if he agreed to stay out of the public eye and avoid army checkpoints.

The family said he agreed to the conditions and kept his end of the bargain to the extent that on the night of March 27, he was unarmed as he drove along a back road near his home in Baalbek. He had offered a ride to a relative and her children in his SUV, when along a deserted stretch of road, said the family, he was ambushed by an army unit, killing him and wounding the other occupants. "When Ali's brothers saw his body, they went crazy," Ahmed Jafaar said of the night. One of the brothers, Hussein, "grabbed a gun and attacked a position of soldiers, wounding four, until his family members dragged him away because he would not stop until he died or killed the killers".

"We have a principle of revenge in our family," Mr Jafaar said. "So now we must take our revenge on two groups: those who gave the orders to kill him and those who executed those orders. "The Jafaar, we have our history. It's with our blood that we fought the Ottomans here in Beqaa after we were forced to leave the mountains. And our ancestors never let the French control Beqaa. If you want proof, there's a cemetery here in Beqaa where 64 French soldiers were killed trying to control the Jafaar tribe. They failed."

The family believes they found the group of soldiers who killed Ali Abbas. An ambush by Jafaar tribesmen killed five soldiers, including a major they claim was at the scene of Ali Abbas's killing. A month later, Syria arrested three members of the Jafaar family attempting to slip into Turkey with false documents. Lebanon has requested they be extradited but so far the men remain in Syrian custody.

The solution, according to one top police official in charge of operations in the Beqaa, can only be found through development and compromise. "We need to offer these fugitives some sort of amnesty where they serve some years in prison in exchange for closing their files," said a police official, who is not authorised to talk to the media. "If we tell these guys that they face life or even more than 10 years in prison, they're just going to keep shooting grenades at us if we try to arrest them. But tell them they have to serve a few years in a jail in Baalbak, and in exchange they can have their lives back and maybe we can close the file on these crimes.

"But even then, the government has to help develop the economy out here or there will be nothing for anyone to do but grow drugs." mprothero@thenational.ae