Indonesia’s growing drug problem

Fighting drug trafficking with a “judicial killing machine”


Two years ago, Indonesian authorities tied a 32-year-old Thai woman named Namsong Sirilak and a 62-year-old Indian named Saelow Prasert to palm trees at dawn in northern Sumatra and shot them for trafficking in heroin -- only weeks after the execution of their Indian accomplice, Ayodhya Prasad Chaubey.

That might have been a spectacular answer to Indonesia’s growing problem with illegal drugs, but so far it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. Despite Jakarta’s declaration of war on drugs, traffickers continue to tap into the increasingly lucrative Indonesian market, already awash with cheap speed, ecstasy and heroin as the archipelago nation begins to catch up with the drug use problems that Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines especially have been fighting for decades.

The government, however, is beginning to learn that massive drug seizures and the threat of capital punishment for trafficking are no more effective in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world.  A study in 10 major cities found four million Indonesians had used illegal drugs, and the country's drug trade was valued at nearly US$4 billion a year, with drugs readily available in schools, karaoke lounges, bars, cafes, discotheques, nightclubs and even in remote villages. More than 15,000 deaths every year are attributed to drug abuse.
 
The country’s drugs plight is attracting increasing worldwide attention because of the fact that six young Australians are on death row in Bali after being found guilty of heroin trafficking. The Attorney General's Office said last month it is preparing to execute 16 of the 43 others sentenced to death for drug trafficking since 2000. They include seven Nigerians, six Indonesians and three foreign nationals from Nepal, Malawi and Thailand.
Another 27 people are still appealing death row sentences for drug-related offenses.
 
Nonetheless, last week police discovered almost a tonne of crystal methamphetamine imported from Hong Kong inside a van pulled over during a routine check in Tangerang, a metropolitan area that butts on to Jakarta. In the same area last November a raid led by National Police chief General Sutanto unearthed an ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine factory with a capacity of one million pills a week. Prosecutors at the trial currently underway have termed it Southeast Asia's largest illicit drugs-manufacturing factory.
 
Former justice minister Muladi has called the Indonesian court system a "judicial killing machine" ready to bring down the hammer on hard-drug mules like the Australian youths, whose chances of escaping the death penalty appears to be slim. Amnesty International says it is concerned by Indonesia's "increasing willingness" to execute criminals, particularly drug traffickers as authorities step up their crackdown on producers, smugglers, traffickers and users.

The government has answered with harsh drug laws stipulating that manufacturer and distributors of so-called “class 1”drugs including heroin, marijuana, opium and cocaine could be subject to the death penalty. A second law stipulates sentences up to 20 years for importing, manufacturing and distributing amphetamines such as shabu-shabu, ecstasy, speed and ice. Both laws include a clause saying that drugs "severely damage and cause significant danger to human life, the community, youth, the nation, culture and national security."
 
In the capital itself there have been well-publicized raids on several top nightclubs, but the big dealers usually bribe their way out of trouble. The judicial system is one of Indonesia’s most corrupt state institutions and the highest bidder can buy police and the courts. Well-connected, big-time dealers have never been brought to trial and there is widespread acknowledgement among Indonesia’s citizens that the courts have failed to mete out similar harsh justice to members of the security forces allegedly involved in narcotics trafficking. There are also complaints that children of powerful military officers and politicians are rarely punished, let alone put to death, for drug offenses.

No way out

Drug counsellors cite peer pressure, poor enforcement and lack of treatment facilities as among the key factors contributing to the rise of the drug menace. Using drugs is often considered as a ritual and rite of passage by the younger generation.  With little prospect of a job and the cost of living escalating others reach out to drugs out of desperation.
 
"Spending (on narcotics) will definitely go up this year. The increasing number of people living with high levels of stress will contribute to this rise in drug spending," warns National Narcotics Agency (BNN) chief General Made Mangku Pastika.  The national narcotics agency, set up by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri in 2002, is loosely modelled on the US Drug Enforcement Agency with specific responsibility for intelligence networking and the investigation of international drug syndicates that impact on Indonesia's counter-narcotics efforts.
 
Ganja (marijuana) is the drug of choice among university students and intellectuals. A small packet of marijuana, enough to roll five joints, can be had for around Rp50,000.  For an increasing number of young people, however, the preferred intoxicant is putauw (low grade heroin), frequently sold at 'warungs' or roadside food stalls, at shopping malls and by street vendors for as little as Rp30,000 a hit.  Although cheap and plentiful, it is potentially deadly.  The National Anti-Narcotics Movement (known by its Indonesian acronym GRANAT) was founded by lawyer Henry Yosodiningrat, whose son was a putauw addict. The designer drug ecstasy, favored by upper-class thrill-seekers, is generally thought to be the "gateway" to the harder drugs.
 
The difficulty of catching traffickers is illustrated by the fact that there are 142 ports and airports and countless thousands of unguarded entry points making the country is a porous trans-shipment point. The narcotics agency says there are 39 Indonesian ports that are susceptible to being used for drug trafficking.
 
Frequent drug busts are made at Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, but with more advanced security systems and multiple x-ray checks now in place at main airports, drug traffickers are less likely to use planes for distribution.
 
International drug dealers have come up with new methods for smuggling in or producing narcotics in the country. Patrolling the country's 5.8 million sq km of territorial waters is a Herculean task made more complicated by the fact that one recently discovered mode involves dropping drugs in the middle of the ocean, to be picked up by small boats.  The drugs are then distributed throughout the country via small seaports. Police believe the crystal meth found in Tangerang was smuggled into Indonesian waters on a large boat before being transferred to a smaller vessel
 
Police and military personnel have long been accused of involvement in illegal drugs. After the police were separated from the military in 2000, the two underfunded forces became embroiled in a struggle for control over turf. They are thought to still be in fierce competition with each other and powerful elements in both forces protect the big drug traders.
 
In one incident in November 2002 eight people were killed in North Sumatra when soldiers from an army airborne unit tied up their officers and attacked police stations using rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons, killing eight police and civilians. The battle was triggered by the arrest of a drug dealer by police. Much of Indonesia's marijuana is grown in neighboring Aceh province.
 
Much of the heroin coming into Indonesia originates in Afghanistan. It is controlled and directed by West African and Nepalese traffickers, commonly using couriers who stage through Thailand and Singapore.
 
Cocaine seizures occasionally occur at some Indonesian airports, but the Indonesian market for cocaine is very small. More commonly, cocaine is transhipped to more lucrative markets, mainly Australia.
 
Aussies hard hit
 
Police say Bali has become a hub for international narcotics distribution.  Signs scattered throughout Denpasar International Airport declare in English and Indonesian, "Death penalty for drug trafficking."  Yet the Australian media have had several field days with saturation coverage of young Australians being handcuffed and dragged to court screaming their innocence. 
 
The "Bali Nine” were caught in April last year with heroin taped to their bodies, trying to smuggle it out of Indonesia back to Australia, in true "Midnight Express" style. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) supplied the information used to make the arrests. They came under criticism for alerting Indonesian police to the presence of the group before their crime was committed. The heroin originated in Myanmar, and AFP provided passport numbers and photographs, as well as details of the group's modus operandi.
 
Australian rights groups later complained the AFP were exposing the youths to the death penalty and should have instead arrested them on their return to Australia. Initially two of them were sentenced to death and the others handed down life sentences. But only this week it was announced that the Supreme Court had ruled last month that four of the nine, who had appealed their life sentence, had now been sentenced to death.
 
But the party is far from over for Indonesian users.  Although President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s incredible pledge to end the drug trade and drug use in Indonesia is more of a dream than a plan, the chilling drug trade among the young threatens a whole generation.
 
Yudhoyono says he will never grant clemency to convicted drug offenders, yet
so long as there is demand, there will be supply. After all, as the lawyer, Henry Yosodiningrat points out, "the syndicates have a lot of money to buy officials and this is a most corrupt country."
 

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