Stopping Yaba from entering Bangladesh now seems almost impossible as shootouts, mass surrenders of narcotics smugglers to police, or strengthened surveillance on Cox's Bazar Marine Drive could not stop the smuggling of the crazy pill from Myanmar.
Despite the country's provision of death penalty as the highest punishment for drug offences, contraband Yaba consignments sneak through the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and they are being seized every day.
Bangladesh is struggling to cope with a surging drug epidemic, at the heart of which is a wildly popular methamphetamine drug known as Yaba.
A synthetic stimulant Yaba typically comes in the form of colourful, candy-like tablets.
The main ingredient in producing Yaba is chemical amphetamine, which is smuggled from China and Thailand to Myanmar, which hosts the largest number of clandestine Yaba laboratories.
After the murder of retired Army Major Sinha Md Rashed Khan on Cox's Bazar-Teknaf marine drive in July last year, the smuggling of Yaba into the country has diminished a bit, but within a couple of months, smuggling of Yaba has expanded once more. Slowly, gunfights began to take place once again. In any case, the Yaba smuggling was even increasing afterwards.
A massive surge in the Yaba trade pushed the Bangladesh government to pass the Narcotics Control Bill in October 2018 with a provision of a death sentence or life-term imprisonment as punishment for drug crimes. An anti-narcotics crackdown followed which left nearly 519 people killed in gunfights, with over one lakh arrested for their alleged involvement with the narcotics trade, as of June 2020.
Yet, the inflow of Yaba in Bangladesh continues.
The Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) seized 5 lakh pieces of Yaba pills at different border observation posts (BOP) in Cox's Bazar only within a week – between 29 April and 6 May this year.
On 6 May, 50,000 pieces of Yaba tablets were seized at Rezupara BOP and another 10,000 pieces at Unciprang BOP.
Two days earlier, on 4 May, another 150,000 pieces of Yaba tablets were seized at Balukhali BOP.
The day before, on 3 May, 2,50,000 more pieces were seized at Hnila BOP.
On 29 April, 40,000 pieces of Yaba tablets were seized at Unciprnag BOP.
These are some instances of how the contraband Yaba is coming into the country through the bordering areas in Cox's Bazar.
According to the narcotics seizure, several law enforcement agencies in Cox's Bazar have not had a single day in which they did not apprehend any drug peddler or seize Yaba.
The beach city is now more famous by Yaba tablets than the recognition of the world's longest sea beach.
According to the government data, the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC), Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Border Guard (BGB), Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Bangladesh Coast guard seized around 77 lakh pieces of Yaba tablets just in the first two months of this year.
All the law enforcement agencies also seized around 36 lakh pieces of Yaba in 2020 and over 30 lakh pieces in 2019.
And, over 23 crore Yaba tablets were seized across the country between 2009 and February 2021.
Bangladesh Coast Guard and BGB are mainly responsible for the Yaba influx into the country through land and waterway of the 270-stretch bordering area.
Mohammad Hasanuzzaman, superintendent of police of Cox's Bazar, told The Business Standard, "Our team regularly apprehends drug peddlers and tries to catch the mastermind behind them since I joined Cox's Bazar police. When we get any information that Yaba is coming into the district through the border, we operate drives and try to reach the mastermind behind a racket."
But long borders and less surveillance at bordering areas have caused the Yaba epidemic, he added.
After the Sinha murder, several law enforcement agencies increased surveillance on Teknaf-Cox's Bazar marine drive.
At least six check-posts still remain on the marine drive, every vehicle at the check-posts is scanned to check whether it is carrying any illegal drugs or not.
An official from the armed police battalion (APBn) said most drug peddlers are now being apprehended at the Rezur Bridge area of the marine drive – on the way to Cox's Bazar from Teknaf. CNG-run auto-rickshaws, motorcycles and other vehicles carry Yaba pills in disguises through the route.
Lieutenant Colonel Faizur Rahman, director (operation) of BGB told TBS that a lack of enough manpower has hampered vigilance on borders.
"BGB is trying their best," he added.
The BGB director also mentioned that local representatives and local people can take part in the war against drugs.
Bangladesh Coast Guard Headquarters Media Officer Lt Commander BN Amirul Haque told TBS that they can only apprehend the carriers or secondary drug peddlers in different bordering waterways.
"Only detaining the carriers will not solve the grave problem, the drug lords and masterminds should be brought to book. We need to focus on roots to wipe out the drugs," he added.
"The Rohingyas are being used in drug peddling too, which is a new concern," he added.
'Gunfights' dropped after Sinha murder
According to the rights group, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), after the announcement of the "War against Drug", 464 persons had been killed in gunfights – 388 in 2019, 222 in 2020 and 14 in the first four months of the year.
Nur Khan Liton, a human rights activist, told TBS that they have observed that the number of so-called gunfights or crossfires dropped.
"Gunfights have taken place at different places just a few months after the Sinha murder, but the number is less than before," he added.
Nur Khan Liton also said crossfire or gunfight is never a solution to curbing the Yaba epidemic.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that the growing demand for synthetic opioids in East and Southeast Asia is an indicator that the region will continue to grow as a source of synthetic drugs. Bangladesh is simultaneously a transit and destination country of the drug trafficking network.
Yaba has customarily entered Bangladesh from Myanmar via Teknaf. But for the past year or so, the trends have altered somewhat; in so far as the use of new routes, Rohingya refugees instead of locals as carriers, and replacing the usual brightly coloured Yaba pills with nondescript white pills to ensure a continuous inflow of the "crazy drug" or as they are locally called pepey (papaya).
Yaba flows despite Bangladesh's war on drugs
In Bangladesh, each Yaba pill is sold for as little as Tk80-100 in wholesale, and in retail for Tk300-350.
In Rohingya camps, they are available for as less as Tk50 for a pill, "but you have to buy at least one box, containing around 10,000 pills, from the camps to get this rate," according to the APBn.
Now, increased vigilance by Bangladeshi law enforcement authorities along the Teknaf has led syndicates to adopt alternate routes. The bulk of the Yaba tablets are now entering Bangladesh through the Naikhyangchhari upazila of Bandarban, while the rest come via the Indian border.
The Yaba pills are transported from Maungdaw city of Rakhine to the Tombru border, where it melts into the Rohingya camps situated just beside the zero line along Bangladesh.
The closely placed Rohingya camps in Ukhiya are used for storing the Yaba consignments, until further transportation to Cox's Bazar. The Rohingya camps are ideal for storing the Yaba drug consignments.
According to Md Hemayetul Islam, former commanding officer of APBn-16, "There are thousands of small houses inside the Rohingya camps and all of them look the same. For this reason, it becomes quite difficult to recover or trace the pills unless anyone has specific information."
A Rohingya household may get paid between Tk20,000 to Tk50,000, depending on the quantity of Yaba consignments kept for one night.
In the Teknaf region, the Yaba drug warlords enjoy a reputation akin to Robin Hood's, because they donate free food and financially support many families. This acts as a bulwark against police action in the area, where needy Rohingya refugee families reveal little about the Yaba smuggling, consignments to the law enforcement agencies.
Increasing use of the Indian route
Yaba is now coming in larger quantities from India, through Kurigram. From the sea route, smugglers use the southern districts mostly Patuakhali to push the drugs in.
Alongside southwestern Bangladesh, the Fatehpur border point is another route the use of which has gained pace lately.
The "cowboys of Fatehpur", who reside near the zero point and smuggle Yaba along with cattle, also claim that the drug is being manufactured in Malda and Agartala in India.
But the DNC is sceptical about rumours that Indian smugglers are producing Yaba pills. According to them, the peddlers call it "Indian Yaba" when it has come from India and with an Indian national.
Clandestine labs increased in bordering areas
The DNC handed over a list of 49 clandestine labs in Myanmar to that country's Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), hoping that they would take stern actions to stop Yaba smuggling into Bangladesh.
"We have handed over the list to Myanmar's anti-narcotics authorities based on our intelligence information," Muhammed Ahsanul Jabbar, director-general of the DNC, said last year during a meeting.
The DNC handed over the list during the fourth bilateral talks between the DNC and CCDAC, held online on 15 December 2020.
The last bilateral meeting was held in 2017. The DNC had handed over such lists of clandestine labs to Myanmar several times before, but no visible action was taken at the time.
DNC officials claimed that every year clandestine labs are being increased in bordering areas and the Myanmar authorities never take stern actions against those.
Sinha murder case: Recording of statements yet to start
On 22 December last year, a Cox's Bazar court accepted the charge sheet in Maj (retd) Sinha Rashed Khan murder case.
RAB Senior ASP Mohammad Khairul Islam, also the investigation officer of the murder case, submitted the charge sheet to the court on 13 December, accusing 15 people.
Among the accused are suspended Teknaf OC Pradeep Kumar Das and suspended inspector Liaqat Ali of Baharchhara Investigation Centre.
Faridul Alam, the public prosecutor of the Cox's Bazar court, told TBS that the court is yet to frame charges against the accused and the court also could not start the trial proceeding of the case amid the pandemic situation.
Sinha was killed at an APBn checkpoint on Cox's Bazar-Teknaf Marine Drive on the night of 31 July.
Local police said suspended inspector Liaqat's team had taken over the check-post from three APBn officers before the killing incident.
Sharmin Shahriar Ferdous, elder sister of Sinha, had filed the murder case with a local court on 5 August. Later, RAB was tasked with its investigation.
Talking to TBS, she expressed satisfaction over the investigation and trial process of the case. She also demanded the speedy trial of his brother's murder case.