BEIRUT: “Beirut is probably the greatest single transit port in the international traffic of narcotics ... and certain of the largest traffickers are so influential politically and certain highly placed officials so deeply involved in the narcotic traffic that one might well state that the Lebanese government is in the narcotic business.”
This was according to the commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, back in 1954. No longer at its heyday of drug production and traffic, which fell between 1950 until the end of the Civil War in 1990, Lebanon today still has “clearly a significant trade,” says Jonathan Marshall, author of “The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and The International Drug Trade.”
Published last year, the book is not available for sale here – although it is available as a downloadable e-book – but a spokesperson from General Security denied claims that it has been banned in Lebanon.
Looking at the influence of neighboring Syria, Israel and Palestine, Marshall examines how the drug trade helped to finance and prolong the 15-year Civil War, which led to the deaths of around 150,000 people.
As a drug producer, Lebanon was exporting hashish during this time, and due to French Mandate links, also played a crucial role in refining and moving opium, originally grown in Turkey and then sent on to Marseilles, which was the central port for the global heroin trade at that time.
Marshall explains how a dangerous mix of the country’s geographical location, the aptitude of the population for commercial activities, and the weakness of state institutions all combined to fuel a trade that some estimates say accounted for 40 percent of the country’s total GDP during some period of the Civil War, from around $500 million to $2 billion a year.
“I think my book really implicates almost every faction to one extent or another,” he says in a Skype interview with The Daily Star.
“I do think that every one of these armed groups, and even unarmed groups, is fully capable of engaging in drugs, both for profit and because of strong ideological justifications, that, ‘We’re doing this in the name of some greater cause.’”
“Very, very few,” parties were not involved in the drugs trade, Marshall says, but he adds that many of the allegations against Hezbollah, mainly from Israeli sources, he “found very unconvincing and politically motivated.”
Using a vast range of sources, from interviews with former U.S. narcotics agents and journalistic research, Marshall especially drew from previously classified U.S. government records, both from the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, now known as the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Due to “the unique position that the U.S. plays as this world power that sees fit to send its policemen all around the world,” it was “able to amass this collected intelligence for years, much more easily than if I’d gone over and tried to recreate that myself.”
Marshall in fact chose not to research the topic in Lebanon at all, partly due to the lack of data available here, and also because “knocking on people’s doors and asking about the drugs trade is a good way to get yourself killed.”
Several names of prominent politicians, including former presidents, and many still in power today are listed repeatedly throughout the book as being heavily implicated in the narcotics trade throughout the Civil War.
While he stresses that his book cannot convict them, and none of them has been tried for these crimes, “Some of those names get repeated so often that it’s difficult to really doubt the kind of fundamental substance,” the author says.
Much of the drug production took place in the Bekaa Valley, and was dominated by Shiites, Marshall says, but the “trade, that is the movement and smuggling of drugs, has historically been dominated by Christians. ... So Phalangists and other Christian Maronites tended to control the international movement of these drugs and that’s where the biggest money was made.”
So while various factions may have been fighting each other on the ground, to complete the circle of drug production and trade, they still had to work together.
“You saw a very odd fact of collaboration between various sectarian groups in Lebanon, because they all had a common interest in making money at a time when otherwise they were actually at each other’s throats,” Marshall says.
The end of the Civil War signaled a decline in the trade, partly due to the fact that Damascus, then occupying large parts of the Bekaa, worked closely with Lebanese authorities to help crack down on drug production, in “an effort to win favor with Washington.”
But as events of last year showed, when local authorities were fired upon after attempting to close down Bekaa Valley cannabis farms, the trade still continues, brazenly and with little fear of punishment.
Could Lebanon once again become a “narco state,” one in which drugs account for a substantial part of the economy, and the state itself is deeply involved in protecting or fostering drug traffic?
“I don’t think the drug trade ended after the Civil War, but it never reached the magnitudes of that period,” he notes.
“So, I’d say maybe the term is a little less applicable, but I’d say that’s no great cause for comfort given all the other problems the country has, including endemic corruption, whether that’s drug trafficking or otherwise.”