Afghan heroin via Pak to Gujarat, then Punjab, hidden in spices

Another major drug haul in Amritsar and unearthing of a drug factory for the first time — months after the massive seizure by the Customs at Wagah — blow the lid off a new trafficking route and point to the enormity of the challenge

Afghan heroin via Pak to Gujarat, then Punjab, hidden in spices

Jupinderjit Singh in Chandigarh

It was in 2017 that Arshad Sota, an exporter from Mandvi in Gujarat who was reeling under debt, came into contact near Chabahar port in Iran with point-persons of one of the most wanted drug smugglers of the subcontinent, Hazi Jaan Mohammad of Pakistan.

Arshad, who had to leave his village owing to a love affair gone awry, had faced losses when some traders tricked him into buying a boat that was not seaworthy.

In desperate need of money, he agreed to undertake what was described as a simple task — transport material supplied by Hazi Jaan on a boat to Gujarat and then to Unjha (spice market hub), where one Simranjit Singh Sandhu from Punjab would give him instructions.


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Sandhu is no ordinary smuggler. In Punjab Police records, he is listed as one of the big fish in the drug trade. Hailing from Ranjit Avenue in Amritsar, he had to flee Australia in 2015 over illegal activities. Sandhu, investigating agencies claim, later set up a gang of Punjabi and Kashmiri peddlers with whom he ran a cover-up trade of transporting cumin seeds from Gujarat to North India, and apples, tomato and onions from Kashmir and Wagah international trade centre to Gujarat and Delhi. Hidden in the bags would be small bags of heroin.

The Hazi-Sandhu-Arshad network — with footprints in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Gujarat, Punjab and Kashmir — within no time converted their partnership into a mind-boggling trade of smuggling narcotics, mainly heroin, from India to Europe and even Australia.

After many suspected successful runs, which the investigators are yet to unearth, they became so bold that they set up an illicit drug manufacturing factory on the outskirts of Amritsar where crude heroin (bought at low rates) was processed into a high-cut value for European and high-profile Indian markets.

The group even hired experts from Afghanistan to work on a contract of US $50,000 for refining about 200 kg of heroin in the illicit unit within a month. They managed to do this even as Arshad Sota had landed in jail in Gujarat.

STF uncovers nexus

But for the alertness shown by the anti-drug Special Task Force (STF) of Punjab Police, headed by ADGP Harpreet Singh Sidhu, the nefarious activities would have continued. After tracking the suspects, the STF raided the unit and nabbed six persons, including Afghan national Arman Basharmal. A father of 14, Arman revealed during his interrogation that two other heroin experts from his country earlier ran the illicit unit in Sultanwind.

Among others arrested were Ankush Kapoor, a cloth merchant-turned drug smuggler from Amritsar, and a gym-trainer couple, who told the police they were hired to arrange food and security. They wanted to immigrate to Australia and wanted money for the purpose.

Simranjit Sandhu, the alleged kingpin, is currently detained in Italy. Besides facing arrest in Punjab, he was booked by Gujarat Police in the same FIR involving Arshad Sota. The fact that they were involved in running the illicit unit and bringing an Afghan expert for refining crude heroin shows how widespread their network was.

Punjab seems to have provided them willing peddlers, facilitators and market for their produce, besides a network to export it to European or other countries.

In his study titled “Political Economy of Drugs and Insurgency in Punjab in 2017”, Rajan Pal of Naval Post Graduate School, California, writes that a drug addict’s average daily expenditure is Rs1,400 on heroin, an opium addict spends Rs350, while the expenditure for capsules/tablets comes to Rs265.

IG Kaustubh Sharma of the Punjab STF said they had got information that drug smugglers were trying to flood the region with drugs. “There are reports that nearly 3 lakh tonne of heroin, accumulated over the last few years in Afghanistan due to heightened security on the Indian border, was waiting to be smuggled into India and abroad. It is here that gangs like those of Sandhu become more dangerous and active. Coupled with these is the use of drones to drop heroin packets inside Punjab. Every day and every smuggler poses a new challenge for us.”

The STF was yet to find out the exact routes and storage and supply chain of the Sandhu gang, admitted IG Sharma. The network may have continued its run but for alleged siphoning off of 5-kg heroin by two of its members — Abdul Aziz Bhagad and Rafiq. Once the gang members learnt about the cheating, the backlash facilitated the trail that helped unearth the drug factory.

The Gujarat ATS blew the lid off this network when they arrested two members and declared Simranjit Sandhu as the kingpin.

Global trail

Hazi Jaan operates from Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is developed by China. It stares at Chabahar seaport in Iran which India has helped build. Arshad Sota had been operating from Chabahar and it is not unusual to meet traders from Pakistan. The Pakistani port is next to an abandoned desert-like area called Pashni in Balochistan from where drugs from Afghanistan are routed to the seaport. The Sandhu gang, say officials, had eclipsed all the gangs busted by the security agencies earlier. And those gangs were not small in any way.

While Sandhu and his gang was ruling the roost in Golden Crescent, one Amarinder Singh Chhina of Ajnala in Amritsar, now hiding in Canada, was busy oiling his network of smugglers spreading from Mexico to USA, Canada, Australia and eventually to Delhi, Baddi in Himachal Pradesh and finally Punjab.

He smuggled high-quality cocaine for rich clients in Delhi and Goa as well as Punjab. The Narcotics Control Board had busted the gang. Sub-inspector Rajneesh Kumar, who is investigating the matter, said Punjab Police were on the job to initiate the extradition proceedings of Chhina, who, he added, has never been arrested.

The closest the police came was when they nabbed his key associate Akshinder Singh Sodhi in September last year from Patti in Punjab. He had received a consignment of American cocaine hidden in a printer imported from Canada, SI Rajneesh said.

The recovery of American cocaine added a new chapter to the drug trade in Punjab. The drugs were meant for moneyed clients and was smuggled in printer machines and delivered in Jalandhar. “It was an international network of drug trafficking which was operating in Delhi, Punjab and Mumbai with linkages in Australia and Canada,” NCB Deputy Director SK Jha said.

Notorious Havellian brothers

If an illicit drugs manufacturing unit was set up by the Sandhu gang in Amritsar, a gang of five brothers from Havellian village in Tarn Taran, all booked in drug smuggling cases, formed the nucleus of a gang that spread from Pakistan to Kashmir to Punjab. The brothers, led by Kuldeep Singh Babu, used to live in Havellian, notorious as a haven for smugglers.

They earned so much money in the illicit trade that they had to buy land near Pathankot where they dug up five pits to bury cash. The STF recovered Rs1.29 crore from one pit while the other four were emptied after the 532-kg heroin haul by the Customs at Wagah border.


An operative of Sandhu gang who was
arrested following STF raid in Sultanwind.

Newly emerging GANGS AND THEIR crafty methods of smuggling in narcotics

Simranjit Sandhu gang

On January 31, seizure of 232 kg of narcotics and 200 kg of chemical in Amritsar was linked to this gang. Has footprint in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Gujarat, besides Punjab

NETWORK

Drugs transported from Afghanistan to Gwadar seaport in Pakistan via the deserted Pashni area. From here, boats believed to be enjoying Pakistan protection bring the drugs to boats run by Indian smugglers like Arshad Sota. They offload it at Unjha port in north Gujarat, from where it is transported by land to Punjab in trucks transporting cumin seeds

Key members

Haji Jaan (based in Pakistan), Simranjit Singh Sandhu (kingpin and resident of Amritsar detained in Italy); Arshad Sota (in custody of Gujarat Police); Sota aides Aziz Bhagad and Rafiq Sandhu aides Manzoor Ahmed Mir and Nusrat Nazir from Kulwama, Kashmir

Amarinder Chhina gang

In September last year, seizure of 115 gm of cocaine, 13 gm of ephedrine, 80 gm of hashish oil and 292 intoxicant capsules was linked to gang. Also recovered were mixing agents of 900 grams. Total worth: Rs 2 crore. Canadian-Punjabi gang is spread in Mexico, USA, Canada, Delhi, Goa and Punjab.

NETWORK

Cocaine from Mexico sent to India via USA and Canada in printers. At New Delhi, courier companies transported the consignment to Jalandhar

Key members

  • Amarinder Chhina (from Ajnala in Amritsar and now settled in Canada). Punjab Police have sought his extradition. Status: Under process
  • Akshinder Sodhi: Jalandhar trader who received drug consignment
  • Yogesh Kumar Dhuma: Local peddler

532-kg narco-terror nexus

Spread in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Punjab, Kashmir and New Delhi

NETWORK

Heroin found in June 2019 began its journey from Afghanistan. It reached Wagah trade centre via Pakistan. It was hidden in trucks laden with rock salt bags for supply in Kashmir and Punjab

Key members

  • Sahil Khan alias Musa — based in Pakistan, he runs the network along with key aides Farooq Lone and Amir Noor
  • Tariq Ahmed Lone from Handwara in Kashmir is a rock salt trader and drug smuggler
  • Guprinder Singh Babbar was an Amritsar trader who supplied Tariq the rock salt imported from Pakistan. He died under mysterious circumstances in Amritsar jail after his arrest
  • Ranjit Singh alias Cheeta (absconding). Belonging to Havellian village in Tarn Taran, his brother Balwinder Singh, alias Billa, was arrested by STF. Three other brothers also involved in drug smuggling.

Status: Case being probed by NIA

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