Kenya: How Covid-19 Restrictions Have Disrupted Drugs Trade

An official from the Nairobi Health Department disinfects a street (file photo).
11 November 2020

Seated in a corner of a local eatery in Majengo, Mombasa, a known drug dealer at the Coast is deep in thought.

As traders mourn how the Covid-19 pandemic has ruined their businesses, this drug peddler, who is out on several court bonds, is also lamenting about the hard times.

It turns out lockdown measures imposed by governments to curb the spread of coronavirus have hurt the narcotics trade by closing supply routes and generally making it harder to move the drugs.

Last year, major drug busts were made and several suspects, including businessmen, police officers and a politician, arrested over their links to the illicit business that has enriched a few and destroyed the lives of thousands in the region.

Now, with only a month to the end of the year, there has not been a major seizure of drugs.

Intelligence reports seen by Nation.Africa show that the closure of borders, including the Kenya-Tanzania one, has disrupted the flow of drugs to the Coast, which has been the gateway of the trade.

The intelligence reports backed by a report dubbed "Covid-19 and the Drug Supply Chain: from Production and Trafficking to Use" by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) Global Research Network indicate that the trafficking of different drugs has been impacted to varying extents by the restrictions in movement and closure of borders imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Heroin 'moves by land'

Heroin, the report notes, is mostly trafficked by land, often alongside legal cargo, whereas cocaine is mostly trafficked by sea, also using non-commercial craft such as specialised boats and yachts.

"Reports from the main heroin trafficking routes indicate that the Covid-19 measures may have increased the risk of interception when the drug is trafficked by land as such shipments may now be intercepted more frequently than those trafficked by other modes of transport," reads the report in part.

Citing the movement restrictions imposed by governments to counter the spread of the virus, the reports note that a shortage of poppy lancers used to make heroin has been observed in the western and southern provinces of Afghanistan, mainly due to the closure of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

"With the key months for the opium harvest in Afghanistan being March to June, the 2020 opium harvest is taking place during the Covid-19 crisis and it could be affected if the large labour force needed is not able or willing to travel to the areas where opium poppy is grown in the country," reads the report.

It further notes that in Myanmar, where production and shipment is also done, there were indications that the 2020 opium harvest, which was concluded before the onset of the pandemic, faces a shortage of buyers, possibly because of the related restrictions of movement.

It, however, stated that there were no indications of measures to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus having an impact on opium production in Mexico.

Another report, "Crime and Contagion: The impact of a pandemic on organised crime" published in March, arising from a research into street-level prices and consumption of heroin across East and Southern Africa, states "early information suggests that heroin prices are increasing and purity decreasing as it becomes more difficult to smuggle drugs into the region".

"Frontline dealers in all corners of the globe are seeing the effect of people being progressively moved off the streets, which is their major point of sale. Whether this will prompt a shift to online and dark-web markets remains to be seen, but it will certainly change the dynamics of local drug markets," says the report.

With the major countries where drugs are imported from reported to be suffering, intelligence reports in Kenya show that this has also had an impact on the drug consignments getting into the country.

The Anti-Narcotics Unit, which is backed by the Organised Crime Unit from the National Intelligence Service (NIS) has focused attention on the Mozambique-Tanzania border, which sources said has become a notorious route for sneaking drugs into Kenya.

"The drugs have been coming in through Mozambique to Tanzania and then to Kenya, unlike before, when the Mombasa port was being used. Now we have put our eyes on Mozambique, but because Pakistan has been affected, we have seen a reduction during this pandemic," a highly placed security source told Nation.Africa.

A US Department of State report released in March this year noted that Mozambique is increasingly being exploited as a base of operations by transnational organised crime networks as a transshipment point for drug trafficking and international money laundering.

"Transnational criminal networks from across West and East Africa, as well as South Asia, operate in Mozambique to facilitate maritime shipments arriving along the coast," says the report.

Drugs still getting in

But authorities said despite the trafficking of big shipments slowing down, drugs are still getting into the country, which is why intelligence and anti-narcotics teams are now focusing on profiling the drug lords.

"Though the trafficking of big haul has gone down, the consumption is still on, which means that drugs are still coming in. We are currently working on profiling those involved, among them businessmen and other connected and influential individuals," said our source.

Two months ago, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i said the government will soon publish the names of blacklisted drug-related businesses to expose drug trafficking organisations that profit from the suffering of families.

Dr Matiang'i said some of the drug cartels fled the country after he promised Mombasa leaders last year that they would see results. "I have told the leaders that we are commencing an unprecedented effort to deal with the issue of drug peddling in Mombasa," he said in August.

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