New Vision (Kampala)

21 January 2013

Uganda: Cocaine - the Addiction That Started As a Joke

Drug barons are wealthy, well connected and kill at the slightest provocation. But while they laugh all the way to the bank, many families are left grappling with challenges brought about by drug peddling as children turn into zombies and criminals. Charles Etukuri spoke to one addict who wasted his life on drugs

My journey down this path started with a puff on a cigarette after my Primary Seven just out of curiosity," says Andrew (not real name). He is a drug addict currently recovering at Serenity Centre, a private residential rehabilitation centre offering treatment programmes for alcoholics and drug addicts. By the time he started secondary school, he was on his way to drug addiction. He slowly drifted to marijuana and alcohol.

In 2000 while in Senior Three, wealthy friends introduced him to heroin and cocaine. Later, he started taking a cocktail. With his friend's constant supply, they were high every weekend. After some time, he got hooked. "You only need to use it three times to get addicted," he says.

In order to get high quickly, he started mixing cocaine and heroin, what the doctor at the centre said is referred to as snowballing or speedballing. He also started mixing cocaine with alcohol, forming what is referred to as cocaethyline, which lasts longer in the body and causes more harm, especially to the cardiovascular system.

In 2001, he sat for his O'level exams outside the school after he was expelled for violent behaviour. The school administration notified his parents, but they thought the school was biased. It was during his O'level vacation that reality dawned on them. "I would do anything to get alcohol and a shot of the drug. I soon started stealing," he says.

During one of his missions, things went wrong and he was arrested and taken to prison. That is when he called his mother and opened up to her. The family was dumbfounded. "My father wanted to disown me, but my mother stood by me," he says.

In 2002, the family accepted him back and started out on a journey to rehabilitate him, but it was not easy because he resumed drug use.

A Police officer shows off some of the impounded drugs at Entebbe

Growing problem

Many youth have been wasted as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. "The entrance of the youth into this illegal practice should concern the authorities since they are turning into the biggest market for rogue elements who want to reap quick profi ts," warns Rogers Kasirye, the executive director of the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL) a non-governmental organisation concerned about the growing drug and substance abuse among young people.

"Young men no longer participate in income generating activities after dropping out of school," he says. The majority of the cases that UYDEL receives are of students who have been smoking marijuana and harder substances. They claim the drugs enable them to study hard.

Drugs Moer than accessible

The fact that these drugs are readily available in schools and residential estates proves that no child is safe from drug dealers. The proprietor of three schools in the central region says the biggest challenge as administrators was delinquent foreign students who introduce schoolmates to the vices.

"Most of these students come from very rich families and were exposed to drugs and alcohol at a much earlier stage," the school proprietor says. Statistics at different rehabilitation centres show a worrying trend.

At the Serenity Centre, over 70 people were rehabilitated last year, while Butabika National Referral Psychiatric Hospital admits hundreds of addicts annually. There are many others who do not seek care and are wasting away as criminals or lunatics.

The Commissioner of Police in charge of Narcotics, Fabian Amadia, says the country is facing a problem. He says Uganda and the other East African countries are fast becoming a major transit point for narcotics. But more worryingly, East Africa has also become a big consumer of narcotics. Drug dealers are bolder and are now operating from pubs and night clubs.

How drugs are smuggled in

The drug business in Uganda has been fuelled by the influx of immigrants from Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China and Eastern Europe. The drugs are smuggled in containers disguised as powder milk, rice, ballpoint pens or dry cells, among others. The containers may have a fake bottom where the drugs are hidden. They are also smuggled in using human mules who swallow sealed pellets and then pass them out when they fl y into the country.

The excreted pellets are washed, repackaged and redistributed to the agents. It is hard to detect some of the drugs being imported due to the lack of necessary equipment and the porous border points. "The scanners you see at the airport are meant for bombs and metallic objects, so we cannot detect any drug dealers travelling through Entebbe," Amadia says.

The Police had resorted to random searches and monitoring suspicious passengers and what they regard as risky flights and planes originating from countries known for dealing in drugs, such as Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Afghanistan. Amadia defends their method of tracking the drug dealers, maintaining that even in Europe, where there are sophisticated machines, tonnes of drugs are shipped in annually.

Tracking the actual drug dealers operating in Uganda is not an easy job for the Police. "We know they exist, but sometimes they operate in a very long chain and the carriers we arrest have sworn an oath of secrecy. However much you interrogate them, they will not reveal who their boss is," says Amadia. Drug dealers lead a lavish lifestyle, drive flashy cars, live in posh homes and wear trendy clothes.

Open market

A Sunday Vision undercover investigation found that cocaine and heroin, which are more expensive, can easily be bought in the posh suburbs and pubs, mostly in Kololo, Bugolobi, Kabalagala, Muyenga and Entebbe. They are even available in Kisenyi, which supplies central Kampala. It is a closed society and the peddlers are under instruction not to deal with strangers.

The drugs might go by street names: Cocaine is Charlie, coke, snow or lady C. In Kisenyi heroin is called brown sugar. The most used narcotic, marijuana, is common in Bwaise and Kalerwe. It is sold openly and costs sh200 per stick. It gets into the city from the outskirts where it is grown, harvested then dried. It is then transported to Kampala by wholesalers who redistribute it to agents in different city suburbs who then sell it to the users.

Protected dealers

Some dealers are known by security personnel. When asked why no action is taken against them, Amadia says sometimes the Police faces challenges. An intelligence source showed Sunday Vision a list of suspected drug dealers and it included two Members of Parliament, three powerful businessmen and four prominent musicians. "When you arrest a politician, they will say you are persecuting them," Amadia says.

However, a source told Sunday Vision that the drug lords enjoy protection from some security elements. They provide intelligence to peddlers, tipping them off whenever a raid is planned and giving them safe passage. These officers have become rich overnight. They do not pay taxes and have a network of informers, right from the streets to intelligence units.

"The 2008 arrest of Toro's information minister Rose Birungi at Heathrow Airport is evidence that high profile people are involved. By the time of her arrest, she had a diplomatic passport, a privilege accorded to a few well-connected Ugandans. She is currently serving a 12-year sentence in a UK jail. "To cover up their tracks, the drug lords spend millions of shillings in bribes," a source says.

They are also lethal and one source says some mysterious murders and unexplained violence is because some people are eliminated because of poking their nose around or double-crossing. Some of these murders are not fully investigated because they are passed off as normal crime or framed to look like suicides.

The former head of the Police anti-narcotics team, Johnson Ayela, died under mysterious circumstances in what sources say was poisoning after he busted a local drug racket. Those in the drug trade also engage in other activities like sale of military hardware and funding rebellions.

Weak laws

The Police is frustrated by the courts for imposing lighter sentences that fail to deter the peddlers and would-be drug users. "Upon arrest and conviction, one is either liable to pay a fine of sh2m or sentenced to one to three years," Amadia says, adding that most chose to pay.

The new Narcotics Drug and Psychotic Substance Control Bill 2007 meant to replace the old National Drug Police and Authority Act 2006 provides a harsher sentence for those arrested.

However, the Police is adopting an approach involving agencies like Immigration, Internal Security Organisation, External Security Organisation and Uganda Investment Authority to bust the rackets. "We need to check on these foreigners who come in as investors and what kind of businesses they are doing," Amadia says.

Dangers

There is a real danger posed to the users when they become addicts and it can lead to death. "Most drug barons adulterate cocaine and heroin to buffer it up," says Amadia. International TV producer Jeff Rice died in Kampala after he allegedly took adulterated cocaine.

Some effects of long term drug use include changes to the brain, negatively impacting the individual's self-control and judgment. Drug abuse often leads to addiction - compulsive drugseeking behaviour regardless of the consequences. Lung disease, arthritis, brain damage, heart problems and overdoses are often fatal.

Foreigners, drugs, prostitution rule Kansanga

It is 4:00pm, Sunday January 12, in Kabalagala. Football fanatics are cheerful as the big English teams are playing. Cars are parked outside different joints and bars spread out along the main road. Different loud speakers bellow out the sounds of English Premier League commentators and the crowds cheer with each goal scored.

I settle in one of the bars to watch a Manchester United versus West Ham game. This is my second mission to Kabalagala, having failed on the first, to find out how the drug dealers operate. I scout for a guide. The last time I was here I failed to get any information because the dealers were very secretive.

I summon the courage to speak to the waitress who served me. She tells me she can introduce me to a broker, but at a fee. She disappears and after 20 minutes returns with a light-skinned man. His name is Francis. I tell him I am new in the area and wanted a guide. I watch him sip his beer and as it starts taking its toll on him he opens up to me. I tell him I am interested in drugs. Francis, who happens to be Kenyan and a graduate at one of the universities in Kampala, is willing to guide me in this mysterious world of drugs.

At 9:00pm, we hit the streets for popular bars. Neon lights and booming music welcome revellers. The suburb has now lost its daytime innocence. As we step inside a pub, Francis tells me it is too early to start sampling Kabalagala's nightlife. We decide to cool our throats for a while.

At around midnight, the music reaches its peak and the club is packed with white men in the company of skimpily dressed women. Across the counter, we see many other unaccompanied women smiling at us seductively. Inside the bars, there are more girls. Where do they come from? But then Francis seems more interested in the free-flowing beer I am offering than leading me to what I want. I tell him it is time we started getting the contacts. He briefly leaves my table and returns shortly with Moses, who apparently knows most of the drug hideouts in Kabalagala. We move out together.

It is now 1:00am and Kabalagala outside is getting livelier. There are more girls on the streets soliciting money for sex. Cars slow down as their occupants survey the area. Girls lean into the drivers' windows before getting in or walking away in disappointment.

Every pub has its fair share of customers despite the high number of bars and restaurants in the area. We stroll into another popular spot. Here, the clientele is mostly white and affluent revellers, all accompanied by glamorous women. I notice a group of four whites going upstairs.

Twenty minutes later, three come down stumbling, looking all excited and speaking incoherently. Shortly after another three people go upstairs. The door to the upstairs bar is heavily guarded by two mean-looking men. Francis tells me it is the VIP section, where drugs were being sold openly. "You pay at the entrance," he tells me. Moses says he has a membership and I ask him to bargain with the bouncers to let us in.

After a short while, he returns and we are allowed in. In one corner, we see a group of teens smoking shisha. Moses says it is laced with marijuana to boost its effect. At another corner a well-built Indian man snorts at a white powder. In the middle of the pub, a stripper dances on a pole entertaining the now-drunk revellers. Here I am told everybody is high on something. "If it is not alcohol, it is drugs," Moses tells me.

Here, cocaine costs between sh8,000 and sh10,000 a dose, while heroin goes for sh5,000 a dose. Moses explains that a dose is just enough to make you slightly high. I am almost choking on marijuana smoke, but I have to sit in the bar and observe. When I feel I have had enough, I ask Francis to accompany me to another spot. We leave Moses behind as he joins the shisha smoking party,which has a number of his acquaintances.

At the next joint, we come across six drug peddlers plying their trade. They mingle freely with the revellers and for a first-timer, it is hard to notice they deal in drugs. Francis keeps on showing them to me. I try to approach one and he pretends not to hear me. When I insist, he calls a bouncer who shoves me away. Francis quickly comes to my aid and leads me to a corner."They must first know you before they deal with you. They are heavily-protected. It is you the user who goes to them, not them coming to you," he explains.

The Mobile phone peddler

There is a category of dealers who do not come to the clubs, but prefer to deal with their clients over the telephone. We move to another venue in Kansanga near Kampala International University.

This time, Francis is in the company of a friend who is a user. He tells me that because of Police raids they resorted to mobile phones to hook up with their clients. Our new friend has no airtime on his phone so I give him mine to call his dealer.

The phone rings four times but there is no response. "Maybe he is asleep," I say. It is 2:00am "No this one does not sleep. This is his working time," Franci's friend assures us. I then send him airtime to his phone and when he calls using his phone, the dealer answers immediately. He tells me the dealers and clients know each other by name and phone number to avoid falling into Police traps; that is why he would not answer my unfamiliar number.

Within 20 minutes after the call, the dealer arrives and becomes suspicious of me. Francis assures him I am a new recruit in the business. He then leads us into the loos and opens his wallet to pull out a sachet containing white powder. It is cocaine. Our addict friend quickly hands over a bill of money and the dealer speeds off. We try out another dealer and this time our user friend sends an SMS.

Within three minutes he receives a call and walks out of the bar. I try to stretch my eyes to make sure I catch every glimpse of the transaction. I can see a Whiteman in his late 40's slipping a sachet into my contact's jacket as they pass by one another and the user slipping the money in the dealer's jeans.

Our friend tells us that the drugs they consume are supplied to them by drug barons, most of them foreigners living in Kabalagala, Bunga and Muyenga. This is their daily routine.

Dawn is fast approaching and Kabalagala is still alive. I decide to leave. Taxi and boda boda operators are still doing a roaring business. We exchange contacts with Francis, wish each other a good Monday morning and I leave.

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