Inside Uganda’s dark world of drug cartels

The officer in charge of Entebbe Aviation police, Ms Gorret Tindiwegyi (right), displays narcotic drug exhibits in the presence of Ms Juliet Nakitende, the Entebbe chief magistrate (2nd left), in Nsambya, Kampala on March 2, 2022. PHOTO / FRANK BAGUMA 

What you need to know:

  • We shed light on secretive dealings of drug lords who lure desperate Ugandans, mainly women, into perilous drug trafficking business for a tiny fraction of the windfall. The drug lords and queens operating in the country offer tempting and unstinting promises to Ugandan runners or couriers, writes Andrew Bagala

The mission to India and other international drug markets is perilous, but lucrative. The couriers swallow heroin capsules, and take 9 or more hours, excluding layover time, flying to India and other Asian destinations.

Few get lucky. As a matter of fact, many Ugandans are now languishing in prisons, regretting their actions and turning to interlocutors and government functionaries to get a fresh lease of life.

On February 4, 2022, when Carol Birungi entered Entebbe International Airport to start her journey to India, she had processed everything required of her to travel smoothly.

She had a negative Covid-19 certificate, unquestionable visa to visit India and a genuine yellow fever card.

But as she exited a walk-through detector, it blipped. Security officers asked her to pass through the machine again. This time it made more noise. Suspicious, the pulled Birungi on the sides, questioned and frisked her.

The find was mindboggling: 91 pellets stuffed in her private parts. The pellets were suspected to contain narcotic drugs.

Birungi’s journey was promptly terminated at the checkpoint and security officers turned her over to police for criminal investigation. And detectives opened against her a criminal case of trafficking narcotic drugs.

The pellets were submitted to the national analytical laboratory. On February 17, about two weeks after her arrest, experts confirmed that she was carrying heroin, a prohibited narcotic drug.

Her trial didn’t take long. She was convicted on charges of trafficking and possession of heroin weighing 1.5kgs worth Shs680m. She pleaded guilty and the court sentenced her to 30 years in jail if she could not pay Shs30m fine. The Shs30m fine is just a 22th of the street value of the recovered narcotic drugs, which under Uganda’s revised law is what a convict should pay in penalty.

Birungi is among the hundreds of Ugandans arrested in the rising illicit business that hundreds of Ugandans are now involved in.

Last year alone, Uganda Police’s total seizure of narcotic drugs in 1,668 cases in which 1774 suspects were arrested at Entebbe International Airport, was valued at about Shs11b, or one-quarter of that year’s national budget.

A total of 23.8 kgs of narcotic drugs was seized at the country’s only international airport. Due to what police later clarified as a typographical error in the annual crime bulletin, the quantity of seized illicit drug was weighted at 23 tonnes.

The correct figure, it turns out, was 23.8kgs. Detectives gave this breakdown: 21,074 grammes of heroin, 1734 grammes of cocaine, 660 grammes of methamphetamine and 355 grammes of methamphetamine mixed with heroin.

However, the problem of drugs has persisted, and morphed too. In the past, security grappled with Uganda --- in reality Entebbe International Airport --- being a transit for drug traffickers.

Increasingly, Uganda has become a destination, meaning more drugs are flowing into the country than getting out. And there is market for the banned substance, according to investigators, among mainly celebrities, students and children of the rich.

The initiation into drug consumption is happening both wilfully and unknowingly. Sometimes it is peer pressure. Other times, as in one case where drug lords contracted a supplier of an international school in Kampala to add heroin to cookies prepared for students, unsuspecting takers are tricked and hooked.

For instance, police and intelligence are investigating accounts that some bakers lace cakes supplied at invite-only and highly-guarded house and birthday parties as well as weddings with heroin or cocaine to intoxicate guests in ploys that on occasions end in sex orgy. 

Tricks

On university campuses, sources familiar with the drug world said, suppliers disguise as vagabonds scavenging for food at trash bins where they deposit the drugs. Then students in the illicit network pick the deliveries at leisure.

Multiple sources interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to blow their cover. Two of them, one a senior police officer and the other from another security organ, said at separate interviews that most of the drug traffickers are foreign nationals, many from West Africa, who married Ugandans to obtain citizenship.

They have now grown to have powerful influences in law enforcement and courts that whenever their runners or curriers are arrested, the suspects are either quickly released by police or where the cases progress to courts, the convicts are handed down penalties lighter than prescribed under the law.

Mr Fred Enanga, the Police spokesman, said the number of suspects arrested trafficking narcotics into, and out of, the country nearly balance.  

For instance, our investigations show that within eight months from last August to April 8, this year, police, sister security and intelligence outfits intercepted up to 30 contrabands including drugs.

Four of those cases involved cocaine, heroin and drug pellets destined for India. Other recovered illicit items included several bags of both fresh and dried khart, marijuana, cocaine and in one case heroin concealed in bangles, and fake gold as well as genuine gold with fake documentation.   

Many of the planned shipments were pick off planes, at cargo storage and couriers. One was posted in a parcel and another concealed in an international courier’s bag while up to 50 sticks of marijuana were packed in a tin.

The catches underline the increasingly tighter controls and searches for drugs and contrabands at Entebbe International Airport, which has forced some of the Ugandan runners to hitch rides on private and public service vehicles to catch flights in neighbouring countries.

Thus, many of the suspects picked abroad, including in India, whereas Ugandan nationals, did not exit through Entebbe International Airport. Some, of course, boarded from Entebbe airport.

No body scanner

Asked how they were not detected, a source familiar with the process said that the airport only has walk-through detectors yet swallowed drug capsules can only be spotted using body scanners.

“The government should procure body scanners at the airport because we are failing to detect some of the more complicated drug smuggling,” one source said.   

According to the source, there are no immediate physical signs to identify a person who has just taken the capsules. However, because most don’t take anything in-flight, they look haggard and suspicious upon deplaning, explaining why more drug smugglers are arrested at destination rather than origin airports.  

In the case of Entebbe airport, the controls have included transfer or purge of complicit, and one aviation security officer alleged to have been a link for traffickers was arrested and dismissed. 

Despite the arrests, many others have been able to fly out to their new destination, which is India.

The number of Ugandans, especially women, arrested on allegations of possession of narcotic drugs while entering India is increasing.

More than 16 Ugandans have been arrested at three airports in India trafficking narcotic drugs since this year started.

Indian customs department statistics at Indira Gandhi International Airport, Chennai Airport and Coimbatore International Airport show that majority of Ugandans arrested carrying narcotic drugs are women and the method used in trafficking drugs is swallowing them in pellets (capsules).

The latest incident was on May 15, where an unnamed Uganda national was arrested at Indira Gandhi International Airport with a baggage containing 1.9 kilogrammes of cocaine. The suspect had allegedly concealed it in buttons stitched on five kurtas, a type of shirt made in East Asia.

In all tracked trafficking cases in India involving Ugandans registered since January this year that the Daily Monitor newspaper has analysed, show that most suspects travelled from either Entebbe International Airport or neighbouring countries via Doha or Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi before connecting to Indira Gandhi International Airport and other airports in India.

Ugandans contributed the biggest percentage of those detained in relation to drug-related offences arrested at Indira Gandhi International Airport since September last year, according to returns by the New Delhi Customs Department.

Mr Okello Oryem, the State Minister for International Affairs, told this newspaper that cases of Ugandans trafficking drugs to India have increased and there is a need to put up measures within Uganda to curb the crime.

“Unfortunately, the cases of trafficking drugs to India by Ugandans are very many,” Mr Oryem said, adding that many Ugandans have fallen victim because they are looking for quick money.

Mr Oryem said most of the people arrested carrying drugs are victims of groups that give them around US$10,000 (Shs36m) per trip.

“Some of these victims see their friends dressed in good clothes and drive expensive cars, yet they have no particular income. It is these people that lure the Ugandans into drug trafficking,” he said.

There is another trap: rising poverty and unemployment. Whereas the government’s policy of externalisation of labour, which is voluntary exit of Ugandans in search of mainly house help or menial jobs in largely the Middle East, there is limited opportunities in the country for employment, more so jobs paying as much.

Many citizens take the drug trafficking risk, one investigator in relaying accounts by a suspect, in order to make “big money quickly and at once and use it as start-up capital for personal business”.

Not many can beat the surveillance net to pocket the windfall, and end up in jail, not luxury. Those caught in especially China --- and there are dozens of Uganda there, which might explain India’s attraction as a new destination --- stare death in the eyes daily.

Lucrative business

Minister Oryem suspects that Ugandan criminals are trafficking drugs to India and other Asian countries because the illicit business is lucrative, yet the punishments when caught, unlike in neighbouring China, are less severe.

According to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, of India, a person convicted of importing narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances is liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for a term not less than 10 years “but which may extend to 20 years, and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees ($1,284) but which may extend to two lakh rupees ($2,568).”

In contrast in China, a convicted drug trafficker suffers death.

The penalties for drug trafficking in Uganda, revised in 2015 but made operational in 2019, are more severe than India’s. For instance, the penalty for a drug smuggler convicted in Uganda is payment of the equivalent market-value of the recovered drugs, and or life imprisonment, if not both.

A judicial officer, in comments during a 2019 destruction of seized narcotics at Nsambya police barracks in Kampala, said they rarely handed down the maximum sentence because the convicts, many of them women, that they were themselves victims manipulated by mostly foreign nationals to transport the drugs.

Since the execution of two Ugandans, Omer Ddamulira and Ham Andrew Mukasa, in China in 2014 and another 53 given life or death sentences, the number of Ugandans trafficking drugs there dropped to nearly zero per year.

A Ugandan police officer, who has interrogated several drug traffickers, said with the modernisation of security at Chinese airports, concealing drugs in luggage and items, which was the most popular method among Ugandans, became difficult to apply because the detection rates were too high.

The senior police officer said Ugandan traffickers travelling to China also found it difficult to employ the second most popular trafficking method of swallowing narcotics drugs concealed in pellets.

“Some suspects told us that it takes them more than a day to have 90 pellets in the stomach. They said you swallow one at a time and wait for it to settle in an empty stomach. They said they have to stand or keep vertical posture until all the pellets are swallowed. It takes more than eight hours. Therefore, a person will spend 16 hours without eating anything,” the officer said.

Each pellet often contains 10 grammes of a drug. Some suspects have been found to have swallowed over 107 pellets containing or more than a kilogramme of the drugs.

The officer said the journey to a major city in China can take a traveller more than 20 hours and failing to eat so that is not prompted to answer nature’s call, and exit the drugs, was always a suicidal attempt. There is the added risk that the pellets can burst in the stomach, presenting a life-threatening situation.

“The plane crew serving food used to easily notice the behaviour of the traffickers who have swallowed pellets and report [them] to the authorities. People who didn’t have a meal after a long journey were targeted on arrival. Ugandan drug couriers quickly abandoned that method and the Chinese trade altogether,” the officer said.

The number of cases of trafficking to India, especially among Ugandans, started increasing from 2019, five years after the many convictions and sentencing to death of Ugandans in China.

In the last 12 months, Indian customs officials have recovered from Ugandan traffickers drugs valued at more than Shs90b.

Catch

The biggest seizure of narcotic drugs involving a Ugandan was on November 13, last year, when Indian authorities recovered 12.9kgs of heroin being trafficked by a female Ugandan.

Indian authorities have since got interested in Ugandans entering India and they are now involving their intelligence organs to examine the purpose of their travel.

A fortnight ago, 33-year-old Sandra Nanteza was forced to undergo enema - a medical procedure where liquid or gas in introduced through the rectum to empty contents of the belly - and she expelled 40 pellets filled with suspected narcotic drugs.

Indian authorities arrested her on offences of trafficking and possession of contrabands in the same week, according to the Times of India.

She was the second Ugandan to be arrested for trafficking of drugs into India within just three days.

A 27-year-old Ugandan woman, who arrived in India 72 hours later, was subjected to a medical scan at Coimbatore International Airport in India where they detected pellets in her stomach.

The exact number of Ugandans in detention in India and other countries over trafficking of drugs is currently unknown.

Ms Margaret Kyogire, the deputy head of Mission at Uganda High Commission in India, declined to disclose to this newspaper the number of Ugandans incarcerated in India over narcotics-related offences. She referred our inquiries to her parent Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Kampala.

Our attempts to obtain the statistics in Kampala failed.

The consequences of the illicit drugs business has left many families in Uganda in untold suffering.

Relatives of Moureen Katusiime, 25, who was arrested allegedly trafficking narcotic drugs into India on April 11, told the Daily Monitor that they have walked to different offices without getting help.

Katusiime was first arrested in 2020 on cybercrimes when she and three Nigerians allegedly hacked into an account of a Catholic sister in Iganga District. The suspects allegedly diverted over Shs100m to Katusiime’s account.

According to court documents, Katusiime allegedly withdrew the money and handed it over to Nigerian accomplices, who gave her just a tiny fraction of the loot.

Police later arrested Katusiime and three Nigerians before prosecuting them at Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court in 2020.

Katusiime was released on bail, but court declined to release the three Nigerians.

A family member said Katusiime afterwards began taking regular trips to India for undisclosed businesses.

“We last saw her on April 8. She said she was going to Kenya. But later she called us that she had been arrested at New Delhi airport and needed help,” the relative said in apparent corroboration of our independent findings that a number of Uganda couriers threatened by tightened checks at Entebbe International Airport are increasingly moving to neighbouring countries to catch flights to Asia.

Katusiime had skipped court appearance for a cybercrime case hearing, prompting the magistrate to order her three sureties, including her mother and two sisters, to each pay Shs40m court bond cash.

Court remanded one of Katusiime’s sisters to Kitalya Prisons after she failed to pay Shs40m. Two Katusiime’s other sureties are now in hiding to avoid arrest after she jumped bail.

“For sure, we don’t have money to rescue her in India and neither do we have money to pay Shs120m to court for the bond cash,” said one of the sureties, adding, “We don’t know what to do.”

In the interview with this newspaper, State International Affairs minister Okello-Oryem said Uganda should move to strengthen capabilities at all land borders to prevent exit and entry of narcotics dealers. 

“I will raise the issue so that we (government) do something about it. We also need to have X-rays machines and sniffer dogs at [all demarcated] exit routes to detect those carrying drugs,” he said.

Some of the Ugandans arrested in India in 2022

May 15: A Ugandan is arrested with 1,877 grammes of Cocaine valued. The drugs had been concealed in 210 buttons of five kurtas stitched randomly at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

May 13: Brandon Migadde, 40, is found with pellets he had swallowed containing 690 grammes of cocaine at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai.

May 8: A 27-year-old woman is arrested with suspected drugs in 80 pellets at the airport in Chennai, India.

April 11: A Ugandan is detained on suspicions of having ingested narcotic substances. He was subjected to enema and he ejected 69 pellets and detectives recovered 762 grammes of Cocaine.

March 31: Another Ugandan is arrested at Indira Gandhi International Airport with heroin weighing 921 grammes. The Ugandan has travelling from Entebbe via Sharjah in the Middle East.

March 31: Two Ugandans was found to have swallowed 87 and 70 pellets containing 894 grammes and 815 grammes of heroin at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

February 19: A Ugandan arrived from Nairobi, Kenya, to Indira Gandhi International Airport and she had swallowed 68 pellets containing 946 grammes heroin.

February 9: A Ugandan arrived from Entebbe International Airport via Doha in the Middle East, to Indira Gandhi International Airport. She was found to have swallowed 51 pellets containing 501 grammes of heroin.

February 4: A Ugandan from Entebbe International Airport via Sharjah to Indira Gandhi International Airport had swallowed 30 pellets containing 382 grammes of heroin.

January 15: A Ugandan from Entebbe International Airport via Dubai to Indira Gandhi International Airport had swallowed 53 pellets and hid another 38 in the luggage. The pellets contained 998 grammes of heroin.

January 18: A Ugandan from Entebbe International Airport connected via Dubai had hid heroin weighing 1293 grammes in her undergarment. Detectives at Indira Gandhi International Airport arrested her.

January 11: A Ugandan had concealed 1060 grammes of heroin in 107 pellets at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

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