Captagon trafficking in the Middle East reached 5 billion dollars (4.5 billion euros) in 2021, according to a report by the New Lines Institute, which is to be published on Tuesday and which AFP was able to consult. The report paints an alarming picture of the impact of the boom in production of captagon, an amphetamine derived from an old mind-altering drug.
“The captagon trade constitutes a rapidly growing illicit economy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean,” says the report, written by analysts Caroline Rose and Alexander Soderholm. “On the basis of large-scale seizures alone, the potential market value in 2021 is estimated at over $5.7 billion” (around €5.1 billion).
It represents a significant increase compared to an estimate of 3.5 billion dollars (around 3.1 billion euros) in 2020. And only reflects the value of the seizures, quantified at more than 420 million tablets by the think tank, with many countries not disclosing annual statistics on this.
The actual amount of pills seized is likely higher and represents only a fraction of the total amount of captagon produced.
Syria, described as a “narco-state”
Syria is the main producer of captagon and Saudi Arabia is the main consumer. Sold in the form of a small white tablet stamped with a characteristic logo representing two half-moons, captagon is originally a drug which was marketed from the beginning of the 1960s in Germany and whose active ingredient is fenetylline, a synthetic drug from the amphetamine family.
Banned since, captagon is now the brand name of a drug almost exclusively produced and consumed in the Middle East. It often contains little or no fenetylline and is close to “speed”.
The market value of captagon produced in Syria now far exceeds the country’s legal exports and has earned it the label of a “narco-state”. The New Lines report documents how family members of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are involved in manufacturing and smuggling Captagon.
The role of Hezbollah in this trade
Suffocated by international sanctions imposed on the regime since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, the government “is using trafficking as a means of political and economic survival,” according to the report.
Some captagon production units, although smaller, are located in Lebanon, already the world’s third largest hashish exporter behind Morocco and Afghanistan. “Lebanon has served as an extension of the Syrian captagon trade, it is a key transit point for captagon flows,” the report said.
And figures of the Syrian regime benefit from the support of various militias to organize the trade, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, he underlines. The Shiite group’s areas of influence include a long stretch of the Syrian-Lebanese border, giving it a key role in smuggling.
“With its experience in controlling the production and smuggling of Lebanese cannabis from the southern Beqaa Valley, Hezbollah appears to have played an important supporting role in the captagon trade,” New Lines claims.
Concerns about entering the European market
If captagon is so far only consumed on a small scale in Europe, the situation could change. “The diversity of effects and patterns of use give it a very broad appeal,” Caroline Rose told AFP.
Captagon is prized as a recreational drug by the golden youth of Arabia -more than 20 dollars (18 euros) a pill-, but also by users in Syria -where it can be sold for less than a dollar- who must combine the jobs to make ends meet.
“He could eventually enter the European market and carve out a market share,” says Caroline Rose.