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Dubai's $1 billion Captagon bust ranks as one of world’s biggest

Sales of the highly addictive stimulant continue to fund the Syrian government, despite regional efforts to break up smuggling rings.

DUBAI — Dubai police halted one of the biggest smuggling operations of the notorious amphetamine variant Captagon, capturing nearly 14 tons valued at more than $1 billion, according to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ministry of Interior on Thursday. 

"The six members of the criminal gang were arrested red handed," said UAE Minister of Interior Saif bin Zayed in a tweet from his personal account. 

More than 86 million tablets of the highly addictive synthetic stimulant were recovered from 651 wooden ironclad doors and 432 decorative panels made from graphite, all stored in five shipping containers, reported the governmental Emirates News Agency.

Police did not reveal where or when the arrests were made, nor who the suspects were or where the containers came from. 

The bust is the third-largest global seizure in recent years identified by Bloomberg. In 2021, Malaysian authorities notified Saudi Arabia of 95 million tablets entering the country with a value of $1.2 billion. In Italy, about 84 million pills with a value of $1.1 billion were confiscated in Salerno after being shipped from Syria’s port city of Latakia in 2020. 

Captagon has become a critical revenue stream for the heavily sanctioned Syrian government. Syria is believed to have been a major producer and consumer of the drug since 2014. 

The overall value of the Captagon trade is difficult to measure. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington estimated the total value of drug shipments sold by Syria in 2021 to be approximately $5.7 billion, at a rate of $1 per pill domestically and $14 in foreign markets. 

The UK government reported the overall market value to be much higher in March this year at up to $57 billion, sourcing independent analysts. The United Kingdom, along with the United States in March, imposed sanctions on prominent businessmen, militia leaders and relatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These sanctions involve freezing assets and travel bans.  

In June 2023, the Biden administration submitted a comprehensive report to US lawmakers mapping out an interagency plan to disrupt Syria’s Captagon trade. 

The multibillion-dollar black market for Captagon begins along the Syria-Lebanon border, according to the Washington-based Arab Center. The route travels through Jordan to reach Gulf states, where it has been a drug of choice among disenfranchised youth and a matter of grave concern for regional governments. 

Halting the Captagon trade is a main reason why Syria was brought back into the Arab League in May after its ousting in 2011 over its civil war, according to experts.  

Robert Ford, veteran US diplomat and the last US ambassador to Syria, told Al-Monitor in May that Syria is using the Captagon trade as leverage for its national and economic security. 

“Syria makes various promises and says that if we do not receive financial support we can’t rebuild Syria so that refugees can come home, or strengthen our security forces to block the [Captagon] drug trade,” he said at the time. 

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