Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:08 PM CST – China

Society

Drug Trafficking

Endless Battle

Drug traffickers have plagued every corner of the county of Linquan, Anhui Province, for more than 30 years. Despite waves of crackdowns, the local government and police have found ferreting out the criminals is only getting harder

Photo by Chu Yuewu

Linquan’s narcotics squad poses with several suspected drug traffickers at the border between Henan and Anhui provinces, January 3, 2015 Photo by Chu Yuewu

Members of the local public security bureau investigate an opium poppy farm in Linquan, April 24, 2015 Photo by Chu Yuewu

It was dawn on October 22, 2015. Xue Ming (pseudonym), an alleged drug trafficker, was being escorted from the railway station in Linquan, Anhui Province. He was in such a daze that he had wet his pants. Police had caught him selling drugs in a bar in neighboring Jiangsu Province the day before. He was found with a kilogram of methamphetamine on him, an amount that carries a capital charge under Chinese law.

Standing behind Xue was Wu Hai (pseudonym), the director of Linquan’s narcotics squad. Deep purple blotches sagged under his eyes. He had stayed up for two nights in order to nab the trafficker. Xue was the 142nd suspected drug offender that Wu had escorted back to his or her hometown – in this case, Linquan, labeled by domestic media as China’s largest inland drug hotspot. Altogether, 447 Linquan natives were hauled back home for drug trafficking offenses in 2014, 2.5 times more than in 2013.

Linquan has waged a war on drugs since heroin manufacturing was introduced to the region in the 1980s, but repeated attempts to curb the crime rate have always fallen short of government expectations. In May 2014, China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) held an urgent meeting with leaders and officials in charge of narcotics control in both Linquan and Anhui Province, pressing them to clamp down harder on local drug traffickers. Ever since, the regional battle between the government and traffickers has only intensified.

Top-down Talk

The MPS named Linquan a key drug control zone for a second time in 2011, after it had spent seven years off the hit list. Yet, in spite of the resultant crackdown, the number of Linquan residents involved in trafficking and selling drugs rose by 20 percent in 2013. MPS data show that suspected Linquan drug dealers had been located in 26 provinces and regions around the country in 2015 alone. Given that drug crime generally necessitates an airtight, single-route chain that links manufacturing, transportation and distribution, it is believed that Linquan drug traffickers may have already established distribution networks in at least these 26 areas.

“You have no idea about what’s going on [in your jurisdictions]. You are completely ignorant of the real situation – all of your answers are just empty words,” then NNCC director Liu Yuejin reportedly said to relevant Linquan and Anhui leaders at the May 2014 meeting.

Following Liu’s reprimand, the Anhui government ordered all provincial and city-level public security groups to dispatch personnel to Linquan for a comprehensive inspection.

The Linquan government also set up drug control offices at each administrative level below the county (comprising towns, townships and villages) and dispatched personnel from 42 government departments to supervise 42 individual villages that were targeted for their high poverty rates. The action could not have been more desperately needed. Linquan is home to 2.3 million people, but has only 636 police officers. The resulting ratio of 2.8 officers for every 10,000 residents is only a sixth of the national average. Two towns within Linquan, each with a population exceeding 100,000, had five police officers apiece.

Last September, newly elected Linquan Magistrate Deng Zhenxiao put “drug control” on the top of the county’s list of priorities, followed by “poverty relief.” Overnight, banners bearing the county’s new slogan, “Breaking away from drugs and poverty,” were taped up all over the county, often including other words like “death” and “execution” to scare off the cartels’ potential new recruits.

Origins

A State-defined poverty-stricken county, Linquan encompasses 823 administrative villages that comprise 4,552 natural villages. All of the villages are reportedly involved in drug trafficking, with the geographically advantageous Miaocha, the county’s westernmost town, serving as the operation’s distribution center.

According to Linquan’s county records, the local drug scene traces back to the post-imperial era, when China was ravaged by warlords. The warlord who ruled Fuyang, the city in which Linquan resides, pushed locals to cultivate opium poppies. After the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) broke out, a gang of bandits controlled the region and continued to support themselves by manufacturing and selling opium.

Although opium was outlawed along with other narcotics after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, heroin returned to Linquan about 30 years later, when the county was hit by flooding for five consecutive years. At that time, many refugees migrated to the southern province of Yunnan, a major center for drug manufacturing that borders the infamous “Golden Triangle” of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. Former Linquan residents went south to turn their hands to watermelon cultivation, but when the watermelon crop failed, their employers often paid them in heroin, which made its way back to the refugees’ hometown.

Due to famine caused by the flooding, nobody in Linquan could afford drugs at the time, except for the leather dealers who frequently did business in Miaocha, which was then home to China’s third-largest leather market. After the work day ended, the leather vendors did drugs under the cover of darkness and simultaneously became involved in drug trafficking to support their new habit. Lured by immense profit margins, a growing number of locals got wrapped up in the illegal business and expanded their distribution networks throughout the country. Yunnan served as the product’s entry point, Miaocha as the distribution center and leather vendors as the traffickers.

Because of local economic problems, the Linquan government turned a blind eye toward this emerging “industry” for the sake of fiscal growth. In 1981, Myanmar and Cambodia both cracked down on drug rings in their corners of the Golden Triangle, pushing Miaocha to become a drug production site as well as a distribution hub.

It wasn’t until China’s State Council issued two written warnings about Linquan’s drug problem in 1981 that the local government began to take action. According to county records, Linquan uprooted altogether 97.5 mu (6.5 hectares) of poppies in 1982, only to find that the number of poppy fields grew to 400 mu (26.7 hectares) the following year – compared to wheat, poppies are much more adaptable to poor conditions and yield a much bigger profit. Half of one mu of poppies (333 square meters) could earn over 10,000 yuan (US$1,587) in the 1980s, 400 times the earnings from one half-mu of wheat.

“Jiangzhai [a small town in Linquan county] was strewn with poppies in 1987, so many that all of the local students and workers were ordered to suspend class and production to help root them out,” former Jiangzhai official Li Xiaohua (pseudonym) told NewsChina. “Every April, we would be sent to the fields, and every time we shifted corn or wheat aside, there would be poppies underneath.”

Without sufficient time and resources to dispose of all the poppies properly, the government later used iron rods to smash the poppies on sight. Many locals snuck back into the fields at night to collect juice from the fruits and turn it into “bathtub” opium at home.

After years of trying to choke out the local crop of hardy flowers, Linquan’s poppy fields gradually dwindled. Yet, as many locals were accustomed to curing some ailments with poppy extracts due to a lack of other medicines, it was impractical for the government to fully forbid it. Worse, many local police officers were found to have colluded with drug traffickers, making it harder to tackle crime. According to Li Xiaohua, many police officers in his town wore Japanese watches in the 1980s, a luxury that no average police officer’s wage could afford. In 2009, a network of corruption was uncovered in Linquan’s police system, with the then public security director reportedly taking bribes worth 2.67 million yuan (US$424,000) from drug traffickers. The narcotics squad director at the time took bribes of about 192,000 yuan (US$30,476), nearly eight times his annual salary.

By the end of the 1990s, the Linquan leather market had gone downhill, but the underground drug network that it established was still thriving. Media reports said that there are now four major drug trafficking routes going between Linquan and other drug hotspots: Laos (mainly for bulk cargo), North Myanmar (specifically for 99.9 percent pure heroin), Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (a transport point for goods moving through the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent, the world’s second-biggest production base of drugs along the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran), and Guangdong and Fujian provinces (meth production bases). The drug world’s reach extended all over the country. Police from Shanxi Province told the media that around 80 percent of the drugs seized in their province originated in Linquan.

In March 1999, the drug problem in Linquan once again attracted the attention of the central government, which defined it as one of the country’s “six key zones for drug control” for the first time. Before the year’s end, more than 100 Miaocha natives were executed or sentenced to life imprisonment for drug trafficking in Yunnan Province.

Crackdown

Linquan established its narcotics squad that same year, a team that quickly zeroed in on Linquan residents living in Yunnan. According to Zhou Qiang (pseudonym), an undercover narcotics detective, the drug-trafficking organizations adhered to strict rules. They only trusted Linquan locals related to certain families, for example, something that restricted Zhou’s access. In his year of underground work as a bottom-rung trafficker, Zhou received four tasks from the organization, all of which involved about 10 kilograms of product, but he never gained the ringleaders’ full trust.

As China did not establish an identification database until late 1999, the drug crackdown mainly depended on undercover officers and informants to single out suspects. In 1999, county officers seized 15.8 kilograms of meth in total. In 2003, police caught local trafficker Qiu Heshui, who was reportedly transporting 22.3 kilograms by himself, leading the media to dub him one of China’s top five drug lords.

With more drugs off the streets, Linquan was removed from the list of key drug control zones in 2004, but once the local government eased back surveillance and enforcement to a normal level, drug rings resurged. In 2007, the police detained female trafficker Feng Liurong, who had single-handedly moved 31 kilograms of product. The record of drugs involved in a single case leaped to 58 kilograms in 2011. In 2014, three years after Linquan was re-listed as a key zone, local police caught Gu Shanjin, a large-volume trafficker who had allegedly moved 130 kilograms of high-purity heroin, valued at about 300 million yuan (US$47.6m) at market price.

Given that Linquan remains a poverty-stricken county that cannot afford to repair its roads, when police were dispatched to the 42 targeted villages in 2015, they focused their attention on residents who had amassed large amounts of wealth from unidentified sources. Officers closely inspected each villager, especially those who lived in Western-style apartments and owned luxury cars, as well as their relatives, since drug rings in Linquan were almost always family operations.

The county’s estimated 19,000 drug users were another major target for inspection. Since July 2014, police papered all of Linquan’s towns and villages with 300,000 leaflets pledging to offer sizable cash rewards to anyone who reported drug users. For the sake of safety and convenience, the government developed an app to facilitate reporting, enabling anyone to upload photos of suspicious people or cars at any time. Thanks to the reporting system, Miaocha police detained 164 drug users by November 2015. Linquan police caught 1,033 drug users from July 2014 to July 2015, a 251 percent increase year-on-year.

Internal Use

More than 80 percent of Miaocha drug users are adults over the age of 35, displaying a demographic trend completely contrary to those in other parts of the country. Local police attribute this to the fact that Linquan residents are keenly aware that drug addicts who start using in childhood have a much higher chance of dying at a young age. That children should be kept away from drugs is the one idea upon which officials and traffickers agree.

“Linquan actually has a lower rate of drug users than some other regions of China,” Fuyang director of public security Wang Minghua told NewsChina. “Its ‘chronic disease’ is drug trafficking, which is positively correlated with the local economy.”

Still struggling with poverty, the Linquan government is at a loss when it comes to helping its residents find other ways to make a living. The destitute county is devoid of enterprises, with the exception of a small plastic-processing plant and a slab stone factory. The government once sent some rehabilitated traffickers to work at these plants, but they quickly quit because of the low wages.

Wangfazhuang, a small village within Miaocha, is home to many residents who sold blood to support their drug habits in the 1990s and became infected with HIV. It has since become a drug distribution center. The government deprived drug users of the basic allowance typically granted to the unemployed poor, so users turned to drug dealing as their source of income. During the 2015 crackdown, police raided Wangfazhuang five times. They seized a total of 1.5 kilograms of various narcotics, 1.6 kilograms of opium and 0.4 kilograms of drug-manufacturing materials.

Under the Spell

Selling drugs typically garners a 1,000 percent profit, according to narcotics squad leader Wu Hai, and is usually a dealer’s sole source of income. Many newly released traffickers will try every means possible to return to the industry in order to compensate for time and money lost behind bars. It’s as if they are “under a spell,” he said.

Feng Liurong’s entire family had been enchanted. After the trafficker was caught in 2007, she escaped the death sentence because she was pregnant at the time. Although the court confiscated her property, people suspect that she possessed a large amount of hidden assets, significant enough to stage a comeback after her release. Feng’s husband, Liu Yuanshan (pseudonym), was put in prison on the same charge 10 years ago, but he picked up where he left off after he was freed in 2011. Feng’s brother, Feng Guozhi, was apprehended twice for trafficking. His second arrest occurred just one year after his first incarceration.

Data from Linquan police showed that officers caught an average of 1.03 suspects for each drug case in 2013. That number rose to 2.3 by July 2015 and then began to drop dramatically. “It is getting harder and harder to catch traffickers,” Wu Hai told NewsChina.

According to Wu, the government crackdown has forced Linquan’s drug distribution center to expand into neighboring regions, and many of the dealers have started to complete transactions by riding motorcycles to predetermined places on the highway, so catching them on the spot is even more difficult.

His theories were corroborated by an online report about Linquan released by Phoenix New Media, which revealed that drug traffickers had reformed their organizations in recent years, weaving much more complicated and secretive webs and tightening cooperation with traffickers in other parts of the country, and those abroad as well.

Compared to these criminal organizations, the police and local governments seem to lack cohesion. In October 2015, after an informant gave two neighboring public security bureaus the same information in order to reap more reward money, they barely cooperated with each other, each bureau wanting to keep the glory for itself. Misapplied incentive programs didn’t help matters. Lower-level government officials were often castigated if the number of traffickers caught exceeded a certain number, in a misguided bid to push them toward prioritizing preventative measures. But the real result was that the affected officials actually helped traffickers escape arrest when police neared their arrest quota. Linquan has since repealed this regulation, effective as of 2016.

Yet keeping in mind Linquan’s threadbare police force, narcotics officers have dealt severe blows to the drug underworld while remaining undetected by traffickers. For instance, when Liu Yuanshan, Feng Liurong’s husband, was finally caught by local police last November in possession of 15 kilograms of high-purity heroin, he had no idea they had been tracking him for two years, jotting down the details of his daily life.

Although this most recent anti-drug campaign was scheduled to end several months ago, it persists, with the dispatched provincial and city-level officials still camped out in Linquan. Nobody knows when they will be able to leave.

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