Pubdate: Mon, 22 Dec 2014
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Telegraph Media Group Limited
Author: Ruth Sherlock, in the Bekaa Valley


In Lebanon, Where All Eyes Are on a Neighbouring Country Tearing 
Itself Apart, a Multi-Million-Dollar Drug Trade Is Flourishing Like 
Never Before

LEBANON'S drug kingpin watched his workers sink spades into the piles 
of marijuana that banked the walls of his factory, throwing the 
chopped plants on to machines that sifted out the top-quality hash 
bound for Britain's streets.

The secret processing plant  outwardly an unremarkable cow barn 
stands on a hillside overlooking the fertile plains of the Bekaa 
Valley, where cannabis is once again a multi-million-dollar drug trade.

For years, Ali Nasri Shamas and other Lebanese farmers saw their 
illegal crops burnt by the government. But in the past two summers, 
with the army focused on the violent fallout of the war in 
neighbouring Syria, their plants have flourished.

Security forces have refrained from destroying the industry of the 
hash growers who, already armed to the teeth, could be useful 
partners in keeping order should the instability become full-blown conflict.

The farmers too have grown in confidence: they have stockpiled 
AK-47s, ammunition, machineguns and rocket propelled grenades and 
rallied around Mr Shamas, who has become the unofficial 
representative defending their trade.

"We are selling hashish, and if anyone from the government tries to 
come close to it, we'll kill them," said Mr Shamas, his heavily armed 
bodyguards standing beside the doors of two black four-wheeldrive 
vehicles, their windows blacked out, the licence plates removed. 
"This year we had a good year."

Subsistence farmers across the region have switched from beet crops 
to growing cannabis, leaving tracts of agricultural land, miles 
wides, covered in the plants. As well as paying his own growers, Mr 
Shamas has bought up the produce of the smaller farmers, creating an 
empire whose economy now has hundreds of dependants.

Inside the processing plant, hashish particles clouded the air, 
dancing in the rays of sunlight that streamed through the open door. 
A small army of Syrian workers, cloths wrapped round their mouths to 
stop them breathing in the fumes, separated the stems and outer 
leaves from the buds.

In a corner of the barn, partitioned by a plastic tarpaulin, two 
women carefully resifted the refined product, creating a fine 
dust-like substance that was crushed by machine to make the hash 
lumps to be exported all over the world.

The valley has become so full of the crop that prices have plummeted 
through oversupply. Two years ago, for one kilo of hashish, farmers 
would pocket $1,200 (UKP767). Now the price is only a quarter of that 
$350, Mr Shamas said.

But still it remains a lucrative trade, and Mr Shamas's business 
alone brings in millions of dollars.

Most of the hashish goes to countries in the region, including Syria 
and Egypt. But some also reaches Europe.

Lebanon's hash helps to stock cafes in Holland, where the drug is 
legal, and some of it has found its way to Britain, according to the farmers.

"All of my main growers made at least half a million dollars this 
year," said Mr Shamas.

Mr Shamas, formerly a small-time dealer of cocaine and other drugs in 
the south of the country, has grown in power in the Bekaa Valley, 
from where his family hails, by promoting himself as a modern-day 
Robin Hood: a man battling a corrupt government to redistribute money 
to a region that has been left underdeveloped for centuries. His 
employees call him "the friend of the poor".

"As you know, our politicians are thieves  none of them does anything 
but for themselves," Mr Shamas said. "Their focus when in power is 
how much they can make their private bank accounts grow. We gave them 
time to reform the region, to introduce alternative industries, but 
they did nothing. Every time we get help from overseas to this end, 
they steal it."

In a country awash with weapons and militia groups from its decades 
of civil war, Lebanon's government has rarely had the military 
authority or the political unity to implement its laws fully. When 
security forces have destroyed illegal crops in the past, the farmers 
and their armed protection squads have retaliated by attacking their bases.

The growth of Mr Shamas's militia is also a symptom of the Syrian 
war: throughout Lebanon's history, with every period of political and 
economic turmoil, the drugs trade has burgeoned.

Lebanon's government has periodically tried to eradicate the drugs 
industry, which has existed in the Bekaa Valley since the days of the 
Ottoman Empire.

But the efforts were abandoned after the outbreak of the civil war in 
1975, when militias and political groups used the trade to fund the 
war and also diversified into opium and heroin production.

In the 1990s, when the Syrian military occupation of the country 
began, the United States pressured Damascus to take action. An 
American agricultural loan paid for the import of 3,000 dairy cows in 
the hope of building alternative industries on which the Bekaa Valley 
residents could depend.

A $300-million-a-year United Nations programme of crop substitution 
was also implemented, but government corruption prevented most of 
that money from reaching the people of Bekaa.

At the beginning of the last decade, the pre-eminent drug lord was 
Jamal Hamieh, who threw lavish parties for Syrian intelligence 
officials and New York gangsters. Now his place has been taken by Mr 
Shamas. So confident is he of his power that he speaks on the record, 
and allowed The Daily Telegraph to film the three tons of hashish in 
his factory.

For now with no end in sight to the Syria conflict and mounting 
pressure on Lebanon not to succumb to its sectarian violence, the 
future for the Bekaa's hash growers appears bright.

"The families and clans of the Bekaa have come together after they 
suffered hunger," said Mr Shamas. "Until the situation improves we 
will not go away."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom