BAALBEK, Lebanon: A few weeks ago, a taxi driver was heading to Beirut on the Hadath-Baalbek highway in eastern Lebanon when a Jeep Cherokee appeared in his rearview mirror, approaching at high speed.
As the Jeep pulled up next to the taxi, the young men inside aggressively motioned for the driver to pull over. When he refused, the Jeep overtook the taxi and blocked the road, forcing the car to screech to a halt.
Armed with Kalashnikovs, the young men walked toward the taxi and demanded the driver and his passenger get out of the vehicle. Claiming they were military intelligence officers, they took the men’s wallets and forced them into the Jeep. One of the armed men climbed into the driver seat of the taxi and the two cars were then driven to a secluded location where the driver and his passenger were dumped. Both cars then drove away.
The incident, as told by the taxi driver, is just another unresolved case in east Lebanon’s crime-ridden Bekaa Valley, where drug dealers and kidnapping gangs act with relative impunity.
“The region of Baalbek is labeled as dangerous,” said Fadi Moqdad, mayor of the Bekaa village Maqna. “Our region is the only place where the authorities support people who steal and kidnap.”
A security plan aimed at squashing such criminal activity was put into effect in April and while local authorities have praised the initiative, some feel the government could have done more.
“The security plan was very successful from a media perspective but not in the way needed to crack down on gangs, car thieves and organized crime,” said Hassan Mazloum, a political and social activist and former political adviser based in the Bekaa Valley. “The government doesn’t seem to be serious about these issues.”
Car theft in particular has increased at an alarming rate from 2011-13, according to statistics provided by the Internal Security Forces. In 2013 alone, the ISF reported 2,247 cars stolen in Lebanon, up from 1,984 in 2012. And while in 2012 some 810 stolen cars were recovered, in 2013 that figure dropped to just 226.
A spate of car bombings in 2013 and early 2014 involved cars stolen in Lebanon that were then taken into Syria to be loaded with explosives and brought back again, which may partially explain why fewer were recovered. The security plan was implemented to put a stop to the phenomenon, but although the car bombs and suicide attacks have ceased, locals say little has changed in terms of the frequency of car theft.
“Some of those thieves were working with terrorists to prepare car bombs in Syria. Others stole cars with orders from Hezbollah,” Mazloum said. “A carjacking still happens every day here.”
While the ISF only provided statistics through April, the month the security plan began, car theft appears to have fallen slightly in 2014. There were 389 thefts in the first four months of 2014 and in April, the figure was at its lowest this year, with just 85 cars stolen, 70 of which were recovered by security forces.
Undercutting these figures, however, are contradictory claims put forward by respected local figures and an increased emphasis by the ISF that victims solve the crimes off the books.
“When somebody steals your car here, the police will tell you to go directly to the thief,” Mazloum said, adding that the thieves’ names were often known by locals as well as security forces.
“[The police] say you can file a complaint but it would be better to go directly to the person [who stole your car] and pay them to get your car back.”
Authorities from the region all pointed to the lack of opportunities and work in the Bekaa Valley as the driving force behind such crimes.
“Before holding the thief or kidnapper responsible for their action, you should look at the environment they live in,” Mazloum said. “It is a poor and needy environment that authorities have ignored since [Lebanon’s] independence.”
“The state has nothing here,” he added. “People are waiting for social and economic development to go hand in hand with the security plan and the crackdown on crime.”
A 2007 UNDP study found 40 percent of people in the Bekaa Valley lived on less than $4 a day, a figure that is widely accepted to have become worse over the last couple of years due to the influx of Syrian refugees. At least 400,000 extra people now live in the region, putting an unprecedented strain on jobs, infrastructure and social cohesion.
“Unemployment is a crucial problem,” said Abu Asaad Jaafar, a local clan figure who was included in negotiations to release abductees in the past. “If they [the government] bring institutions and factories, then young people would find work and stay away from the wrong path.”
For some locals, the remedy to the Bekaa Valley’s woes is already growing plentifully in the region.
Echoing recent comments on the subject by politicians including Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, Mazloum said the Lebanese government should legalize hashish due to its status as an “important agricultural resource.”
The ISF, which has destroyed thousands of acres of the hashish crop almost every year since the mid-90s, has been turning a blind eye to cannabis plantations recently, allowing it to flourish somewhat. The industry is neither legal nor regulated, however, and remains in the hands of a few, making it hard for the local population to take advantage of it as a viable alternative to car theft or other extralegal sources of income.
Echoing the feelings of many impoverished Bekaa Valley residents, Jaafar expressed a certain level of sympathy for locals driven to crime by poverty and unemployment.
“If one’s son is sick and he can’t borrow money, then he would try to raise the money by kidnapping, weapons [dealing] and robbery,” Jaafar said with a shrug.