As the U.S. government cracks down on the Colombian drug traffic, Lebanon's lush Bekaa Valley has emerged as the largest `killing field' on the globe. Already producing 80 percent of the world's cannabis, its farmers have now planted a record acreage of poppies to cope with the growing demand for the even more profitable heroin.
Hundreds of acres of fruit orchards, wheat fields, and vineyards of the Bekaa Valley--known in Roman times as the breadbasket of the world--have been uprooted to make way for the intensive cultivation of crops in eager demand by international drug dealers.
The Syrian government, which invaded the area to `bring law and order,' is an active partner with local merchants and raked in an estimated $1 billion last year. This money was desperately needed, as the Syrians have to pay off their vast debts to the Soviet Union before Moscow will supply any more sophisticated missiles, fighter planes, and other weapons for President Hafez Assad's 800,000-strong army.
Syrian troops not only guard the poppy and cannabis fields to prevent theft and ensure that supplies are not sold to competing bidders, but they also intervene to settle disputes between rival terrorist gangs, who have their own drug estates and transportation networks to Scandinavia, France, Finland, Holland, Belgium, and West Germany. Yasser Arafat's PLO (known locally as the `poppy lovers' organization') uses its links
with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to rake in massive profits from sending drugs via Holland to its network of agents in Britain, West Germany, and Ireland for international distribution. Terror groups today spend far more time as merchants of death selling drugs than carrying out violent attacks for their cause.
European police first stumbled on this trade when Scotland Yard special units, in cooperation with the Dutch Narcotics Squad, unearthed a haul of 300,000,000 pounds' worth of top-grade `Lebanese Gold' transported from Lebanon in two freighters chartered by the PLO. Earlier, and six-man PLO squad led by one of Arafat's chief aides, Ali Mahmoud Buro, was arrested at Heathrow Airport after customs men found a 150-kilogram cache of Bekaa Valley cannabis in their luggage.
Following up on these leads as well as information from Western intelligence services operating in the Middle East, Scotland Yard detectives recently cracked down on a vast IRA-PLO money-laundering operation. The IRA was using British banks and other financial organizations to purchase arms with their drug profits for terrorist operations in Ireland, Britain, Germany, and France.
An intelligence source told me: `Most of the IRA and Arab terror group leaders spend far more time and energy today buying legal businesses under registered company names and stashing money away in their private banking accounts than fighting for `freedom and liberation.'
Experts say the drug trade is worth $6 billion a year to Lebanon. The street value in Western cities is a staggering $150 billion.
As no one in Lebanon even pretends to try to stop the growth of cannabis and poppies, three-quarters of the 4,280-square-kilometer Bekaa Valley is cultivated with these two crops. The Muslim farmers in the eastern and central valleys of the Bekaa, especially in the town of Manara, have concentrated on the easy-to-grow cannabis weed to provide Western marijuana and hashish users with their needs. Poppies, which are the source of opium before it is converted into heroin, require greater skill in care and extraction and until recently have been planted near the homes of local peasants.
Farmers have discovered, however, that heroin is a far more profitable crop. They have been helped by the Syrians, who supplied them with mobile laboratories transported in army trucks. As a result, peasants can plant poppies among cannabis fields even in the mountains of the Bekaa to increase their profits. Heroin from the Bekaa is considered to be superior even to the best quality Turkish-produced drug.
Masterminding the entire operation in the Bekaa today is Gen. Ghazy Kenaan, chief of Syrian military intelligence. He keeps a particularly close eye on the intensely cultivated Hermel district located next to the Syrian area, recognized as the home of the highest quality `Lebanese Gold' cannabis. To oblige the large North American market for a black `pot' product, the crop from here is mixed with oil to create just the right color demanded by both Canadian and U.S. dealers.
The overall godfather of the Lebanese drug trade was, until recently, Assad's ambitious younger brother, Rifaat. The CIA has revealed that the 54-year-old Rifaat was chief of a vast network smuggling opium and heroin to North America and Europe in diplomatic pouches. Israeli army intelligence reports that Syrian army helicopters are used to speed up the international distribution of Rifaat's evil trade by flying processed drugs out of Damascus to Europe and North America.
An international playboy with seven wives, dozens of mistresses, and 17 known children, Rifaat has amassed a vast fortune from the drug business. Western intelligence agencies have details of frequent meetings between Rifaat and terrorist leader Abu Nidal as well as with Arafat's PLO chiefs. Because Rifaat was suspected by his brother of planning to depose him, he was sent into temporary exile--to live in immense luxury in his heavily guarded villa on the French Riviera.
The heroin now being shipped all over the world is produced throughout the entire Bekaa Valley, particularly in Baalbek, Hermel, Hellanyeh, Niha, Abbasyeh, Barqa, Iaat, Zarazeer, and Kuddam. Even tiny villages are producing more than 70 kilograms a year, with the total output having doubled to 2,500 kilograms since 1985. Dealers are hoping to double this quantity yet again with this spring's bumper crop. During the height of the season, the entire marketplace in Baalbek is one vast wholesale drug supermarket, with truckload after truckload piled high with the golden weed and processed opium wending its way westward to the country's ports.
Although the civil war in Lebanon is theoretically one between various Christian and Muslim sects, there is close cooperation between all groups when it comes to the mind-boggling profits being made from the drug business. The local trades are mostly Christian Lebanese who buy entire harvests from one Muslim village after another. In return for `protection' by Syrian soldiers in areas controlled by Damasus, they hand over half their profits to officers working under Kenaan.
I was told by an intelligence source: `The entire Lebanon is really a country of 24 fiefdoms, each one ruled by its own Mafia chief whose wealth and power spring from the drug trade. The Lebanese civil war is really about who controls the best cannabis and poppy fields as well as ports from where to export the drug harvest. It also explains why the Syrian government refuses to withdraw from the Bekaa and has even strengthened its vast armies stationed there.
`Those Lebanese who refused to play ball with the Syrian occupiers soon learnt the error of their ways,' he added. `Some were shot and others had their entire stock of cannabis and heroin `confiscated.' So lucrative has this trade become that there is now rivalry between the various Syrian intelligence agencies and lower rank army officers who also want a share of the loot. Several shooting incidents have taken place and even some highranking officers have been shot or court-martialed.'
To establish order, the crack 25,000-strong Syrian presidential guard, called Defense Brigades of the Revolution--created by Rifaat and considered still loyal to him--was sent from Damascus to take over control of the Bekaa Valley drug business.
U.S. satellite photographs supply proof of this by the number of tanks and heavy artillery platforms in the midst of cannabis and poppy fields. The tents of Syrian army units are pitched in every village and farm of eastern Lebanon.
Foreigners or international drug traffickers trying to penetrate the area in an effort to make local deals with farmers are turned back or arrested by the guards of Kenaan's agents. U.S.-made tractors and other agricultural equipment supplied by the Syrians to villagers have speeded up harvesting during the past two years. One reason for this is the growing value of the Bekaa Valley as the world's major source of this modern scourge in Britain and other Western countries. This is particularly true as the governments of other suppliers, such as Burma and Thailand, under American pressure, have been trying to cut down and destroy poppy fields.
American officials, armed with satellite pictures, sent a special delegation to Damascus 18 months ago to ask Assad to destroy drug crops in Bekaa Valley areas under his control. Hoping to get economic aid from the United States, Syria saw to it that some cannabis fields were ploughed under, with television cameras proudly recording the event. But as one official told me: `Go back there today and you will see the poppy and cannabis flourishing better than ever.'
In January, two members of Syrian military intelligence were sentenced to eightyears' imprisonment in Paris for drug trafficking. Mohammed Fartuzi and Ahmed Ali were caught after trying to smuggle eight tons of cannabis by ship from the Syrian-controlled Lebanese port of Tripoli to France. Evidence was accepted that the former Syrian military attache in Paris and a senior Syrian army commander directed the smuggling of Lebanese drugs to Europe.
There is one handle on this, however. The Syrians are desperately anxious to establish closer ties with the United States, since Damascus faces a deepening economic crisis. Syria's major ally, the Soviet Union, is in upheaval and refuses to supply its Middle East ally with credit to purchase the modern weapons it craves in order to achieve its goal of military parity with Israel.
Two years ago, when pressure was exerted by Washington, the Syrians made cosmetic efforts to burn at least some of the drug fields. And this was at a time when the Syrian-Russian relationship was at its fruitful peak.
With the United States able to supply proof garnered by satellite pictures and on-the-ground intelligence, it will be very difficult for the Syrians to brush off demands to cease their drug export business, particularly as U.S. economic aid is needed to save the country from economic collapse. It is up to the United States to apply this leverage in a constructive way.