India’s cocaine addiction is worsening—and South American drug cartels are lining up

More and more of it is coming into big Indian cities.
More and more of it is coming into big Indian cities.
Image: Reuters/US DEA/Handout
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Colombia’s drug cartels—among the largest drug trafficking networks in the world—are trying out new, spectacular ways to bring their goods into India.

Last week, after a tip-off from intelligence sources, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in Chennai arrested a Colombian national—Edwin Enrique—for allegedly smuggling 2.35kg of pure cocaine into the country. He had the contraband stuffed inside more than 200 marker pens.

On June 22, Enrique arrived in Chennai on a tourist visa. The Colombian claimed he was a boxing trainer invited by an institute called the All India Boxing Association, which was discovered to be faked.

The anti-narcotics authorities took Enrique under preventive custody while he was waiting for immigration and discovered the markers—each filled with 10 grams of cocaine—in his suitcase. According to the NCB, the confiscated cocaine is estimated to be worth Rs5 crore  ($786,349) in the international market.

“We are pretty confident that the drugs we seized in Chennai were actually meant for other major cities, such as Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai,” Prem Anand Sinha, zonal director for the Narcotics Control Bureau in Chennai, told Quartz.

The number of cocaine users in Chennai is relatively small, but Mumbai has become a key transit point and market for the drug due to its location. And Bengaluru is also following suit. Earlier this month, a Chennai-based CEO was arrested for allegedly receiving a courier of cocaine from the city.

According to NCB reports (pdf), cocaine from Colombia has traditionally been smuggled into the country by West African nationals.

“A large chunk of cocaine that is brought into India is from Colombia,” Sinha noted. “But the suppliers usually use nationals from African countries to smuggle in the drug.”

However, the arrest of Enrique, and the recent seizure of 1.29kg of cocaine from a Peruvian national in New Delhi, suggest that South American drug cartels are now aiming for a larger share of India’s drug trade as demand for cocaine has sky rocketed over the past decade.

With drug barons, such as Carlos Lehder and Pablo Escobar strengthening the cocaine trade in the 1980s, Colombia emerged as the largest producer of coca leaves—the main raw ingredient used to make cocaine—supplying as much as 74% of the world’s coca leaves by 2000. Although the production has come down drastically since then, Colombia’s drug industry is still estimated to be worth $10 billion and exports 309 tons of the purest form of coke annually.

Drug boom

Enrique’s arrest comes as India grapples with the rapid growth of the drug trade, centered around Delhi and Mumbai.

Between 2011 and 2013, according to government data, the quantity of drugs seized across the country jumped 455%.

Amid this drug boom, the number of cocaine cases has been steadily increasing. Between 2009 and 2013, according to the NCB (pdf), cases related to cocaine jumped 73%.

In comparison with the United States,which seized over 7,000kg of cocaine (pdf) from its Southwest border during the year 2012, and other countries in North America, South America and Europe (pdf), India’s cocaine trade is still relatively small. But Colombian drug cartels seem to be working hard to make inroads.