Probing Jordan’s Covert Drug War
Jordan has adopted many approaches against the growing globalization of the drug trade: harsh laws, enforced by exhaustive and expensive policing, and punishment by mass arrests and incarceration. Much of this takes place in secrecy, with only the vaguest detail about what this drug war looks like and who is affected, even though drug arrests account for over half of all arrests according to the most recent available figures. This investigation gathers together the scant data available to piece together a picture of this war on drugs: where the drug routes pass through, what is being trafficked, who has been apprehended, and with what resources.
This story relies on the official crime figures published on the Public Security Directorate (PSD) website, which has published aggregate crime data for 2018. Multiple phone and email requests for interviews with the Public Security Division Narcotics Control Branch were declined and questions emailed to them went unanswered.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Jordan confirmed that UNODC collaborates with Jordan’s PSD to combat drug trafficking and to improve border security from 2015-2018, but declined to provide any detail, referring us instead to PSD. We rely on data and interviews from the private sector, and civil society organizations to begin to fill in the gaps.
Jordan Arrests Tens of Thousands of Suspects, Number Growing
Our analysis of the PSD crime data reveals that of the nearly 25,000 arrests made in Jordan in 2018, almost 20,000 were for suspected drug crimes. That means four out of five arrests across the country were drug-related. 2018 drug arrests are triple what they were in 2015. Data on what happens to the tens of thousands of the people arrested: including how many were charged, sentenced and incarcerated, are not available. The drug crime-rate per 10,000 people tripled from six in 2013 to 18 in 2018, outpacing and far overtaking the booming population.
The increase in the spread of drugs in Jordan is often attributed in mainstream media to regional instability and the resulting influx of refugees but these charges are all difficult to prove without data. Similarly though, there is speculation that drug use among Jordanians has grown in recent years, there are no studies available to ascertain the current levels of illicit drug use by Jordanians, only arrest records under police efforts to crack down on drug crime.
Arrest for Drug Trafficking Quadrupled from 2015 to 2018 Though Still Remains Uncommon
Police records distinguish between arrests made for drug trafficking, possession and use. While all categories are growing, data points to a crackdown on traffickers, though they still make up the minority of arrests. Drug trafficking arrests quadrupled between 2015 and 2018 while arrests for drug possession and usage doubled over the same period. Still, possession is a much more common charge, with over four out of five arrests for possession and use and only one in five for the illegal movement of drugs in and around the country.
Arrest Rates For Drug Trafficking Have Spiked Along Known Captagon Transit Routes
In a report published by Global Initiative, an international governance NGO based in Geneva, Captagon, an amphetamine-based drug, has been popular in the Middle East since the 1980s, where the demand for the drug did not take off until the early 2000s. Production takes place in Southeast Europe and gets trafficked to the Middle East, according to experts in the report, where it is now both produced and consumed, particularly, in Saudi Arabia. Jordan’s prominent geographic location between drug producing and drug consuming countries makes it a primary transit point for smugglers, who find the country’s long and remote desert borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia a perfect crossing point for smugglers.
Drug dealers smuggle drugs across Jordan to its final destinations in Egypt and the Gulf countries. Different types of drugs are being transited through the Gulf of Aqaba and the border with Syria, where Jordanian authorities seized 47 millions of Captagon pills in 2018.
Drug Seizures of Captagon Have Spiked Along With Arrests in Aqaba
Confiscations of Captagon have spiked along with drug-related arrests in Aqaba. According to Public Security Directorate (PSD) reports, there were three drug trafficking arrests in 2018 for every two arrests in 2015.
Another increasing seizing point is the Durra border, which is 280 km away from Saudi Arabia. The port of Aqaba also plays a role in the processing of Captagon. Cargo loads of Captagon coming from Syria are often shipped to Saudi Arabia and UAE.
According to a security source, the Anti-Narcotics Department (AND) arrested a number of suspected drug dealers as part of a crackdown on traffickers in the southern port city of Aqaba in October 2018, Jordan News Agency (Petra) reported. The drug dealers tried to smuggle 15,000 Captagon pills in a vehicle with non-Jordanian license plates, but the vehicle was stopped and seized as it approached a border post between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The police also raided the house of one of the suspects, where they found 32,000 blocks of Cannabis and 2,000 Captagon pills.
Conversely, Captagon from Lebanon enters the port of Aqaba via the Suez Canal. A large seizure in Tripoli, Lebanon in March 2016 was headed for transshipment to Saudi Arabia via Aqaba. Smugglers target rich countries because one Captagon pill there is worth around JD7, while its market value in Jordan does not exceed JD1 per pill, according to The Jordan Times.
In 2016, Ammonnews said that the Customs agents at the Tripoli port in north Lebanon foiled an attempt to smuggle to Jordan a large quantity of Captagon pills. The drugs, which had come from Syria, were bound for the Jordanian coastal town of Aqaba.
Drug Seizures of Captagon Spiked Along With Arrests in Ramtha, Mafraq, and Irbid
The ongoing Syrian conflict may have contributed to the growth of the illicit trade of Captagon in other parts of the country as well.
Many long-established drug trafficking networks prefer Syrian routes and borders with its neighboring countries, such as Jordan, taking advantage of Syria’s political instability. This, in turn, makes Jordan’s northern border with Syria an area of concern. Millions of pills have been seized or tracked leaving Syria via Jordan.
Captagon moves from Syria through the Jaber border crossing near Jordan's border city of Al Ramtha heading for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE. Drug trafficking arrests have increased sevenfold in Al Ramtha and around threefold in Irbid and Mafraq from 2015 to 2018. This huge jump could be attributed to the presence of drug crime investigators based in Al Ramtha, which connects to Syria through Jaber crossing.
In 2017, border guards seized over three million Captagon pills, after they foiled an alleged attempt to smuggle the drugs into the Kingdom from Syria across Jordan's northern border, according to Roya.
In 2016, in one raid, AND agents confiscated 65,000 illegal pills that were hidden in the dashboard of a vehicle a suspect was allegedly planning to transport from Mafraq to a neighbouring country, a senior AND official said. “Our agents received a tip that a man had stashed thousands of Captagon pills that he intended to smuggle to a neighbouring country, so we monitored him for a while and arrested him at a border-crossing point,” the AND official told the Jordan Times. He added that pills, such as Captagon, the brand name for fenethylline, are sometimes manufactured and transported from neighboring countries in the north via Jordan to rich countries on the southern border.
Drug Seizures of Captagon Grew Along With Arrests in Ma’an Through Mudawara Border and in Zarqa
Ma’an is another Jordanian stop along the route for drug trafficking. Drug arrests in the city have skyrocketed to six times their 2015 levels. This could be attributed to the Mudawara area in Ma’an. The area is believed to facilitate drug smuggling, since it is close to the N5 Highway that heads southwards toward the border post with Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, the AND personnel at the Mudawara Border Crossing seized 20,000 Captagon pills found hidden in a pillow, according to Jordan Times.
In August 2017, AND personnel foiled an alleged attempt to smuggle 1.2 million narcotic pills at the Omari border crossing between Jordan and Saudi Arabia. According to the proceedings of the case, the suspect was in Jordan on February 18, where he received 20,600 Captagon pills, before he placed the pills into a suitcase and attempted to leave the country through the Omari border.
PSD data shows that drug trafficking arrests also tripled in Zarqa during the period of 2015-2018 though no information is available about increased police presence or patterns of drug seizures in the region.
PSD Invests More in Security and Military Equipment, Devices and Machinery Between 2015 and 2019
Limited information has been made public about the public resources and international aid that has fueled the crackdown on drug smuggling in Jordan. Public declarations about the use of modern drug detection equipment are generalized, as is the budget, where such equipment would fall under general spending categories: security and military equipment and devices and machinery being two of the more obvious ones, though these include non-drug related expenses as well. Based on a Council of Europe Union report published in 2015, the government made public that it had been training border officers on detecting smugglers and purchasing modern drug detection devices. Added to this, the country started importing more X-ray machines for transit hubs.
PSD Increases Capital Expenditure on Security Equipment To Tighten Overall Security
From 2015 to 2018, PSD spending on new security machinery nearly doubled from JD 11 million to JD 18 million. The budget also included JD 5 million to modernize and update existing equipment in 2018. On the international level, Jordan has joined international efforts to combat drug trafficking. In November 2017, the Jordanian cabinet agreed to a $7.3 million plan funded by the EU to tighten security measures at border crossings. The project aims to improve border crossing buildings, buy needed equipment, and open training centers for tackling drug smuggling and cross-border crimes, according to the National.
Foreigners Less Likely To Be Arrested for Drug Crimes Despite Migrant Influx and Suspected Syrian Drug Production
Although foreigners make up nearly a quarter of Jordan’s population, they are less likely to get arrested for drug charges. In 2018, only 7 percent of the total of 3050 trafficking arrests and 8 percent of arrests for possession were foreigners.
Drug Possession Arrests Concentrated in Non-trafficking Areas, Common in Large Cities
According to PSD reports, the highest number of drug possession arrests took place in Amman, particularly, in the downtown area, where recorded cases grew slightly.
The AND raided an East Amman “laboratory” where Captagon pills were being manufactured and arrested eight suspects in a “first of its kind case” in the Kingdom in 2018, the Jordan Times reported, citing Petra News Agency. AND also raided an apartment in the capital, which was used for storage for the narcotic pills, discovered around 2 million Captagon pills and made another arrest. The preliminary investigations indicated the suspects were allegedly planning to produce huge quantities for smuggling. The investigations also indicated that the seized chemicals are sufficient to produce over 100 million narcotic pills.
Central Amman saw the highest number of drug crimes in general in 2018 at 8,667. The second highest number of arrests for possession was in East Amman, where 1097 were caught just for possessing drugs in 2015, which doubled by 2018. South Amman came third on the list with 1064 and 1765 arrests, nearly double the previous number, in 2015 and 2018 respectively.
The Secretary General of the Economic and Social Council, Mohamed Al-Nabulsi, explained that arrests are expected to be higher in Amman, Irbid and Zarqa because of several factors including a higher population density and ease of movement that allow for greater anonymity in general. Small towns and villages where many residents belong to the same tribe are less prone to involvement in the drug trade. In addition to that, the economic pressures and burdens of city residents may lead them to involvement in drugs.
Drug Seizure Data Suggests Cannabis, Captagon Are the Most Popular Drugs
According to a study published by the Economic and Social Council 2018, the seizures of Captagon increased twofold between 2013 and 2018 (23 million pill in 2013 to and 42 million pill in 2018), with 87% increase due to their affordability and availability. Also, Captagon is cheap and simple to produce, with costs not exceeding JD1 per pill.
Al-Nabulsi, explained, “We used to be proud that Jordan was [only] a transit country, but now it is a host country and there are a large number of cases of drug addiction and drug trafficking [in Jordan].”
The data shows that the seizures of Cannabis tripled from (444 Kg) to (1478 kg) respectively between 2013 and 2018, with a 233% increase, due to their affordability and availability. From the published data, it is not possible to determine whether the seized drugs were en route to distribution in other countries or for sale within Jordan. Concurrently, there has been a 75% decrease in heroin seizures and as well as a drop in cocaine and marijuana seizures over the same period.
Captagon is cheap and poses an emerging challenge to law enforcement. The Drug Enforcement Administration in Amman raided a production factory and seized tons of chemicals obtained under the pretext of producing cleaning materials, according to Petra News Agency and Al Jazeera in January 2018.
“Joker” Presents A Unique Challenge in Jordan
The data on “Joker” or synthetic cannabis, demonstrates a rapid emergence onto the illicit drug scene. Joker is manufactured locally and consists of a combination of 14 substances. Al-Nabulsi said users could buy three Joker cigarettes for one dinar. There is “no information” on “Joker” in 2013, most likely because it was only made illegal in 2015. In 2014, 15,919 bags of Joker were confiscated by security forces, and once officially made illegal in 2015, this number decreased by almost half. However, despite becoming illegal, 2017-2018 showed an average increase possibly because it is affordable, easily made and addictive. According to the Guardian, smoking is extremely prevalent in Jordan anyway, with half of men classified as smokers according to a UN report from 2018. Joker is usually smoked in a similar way to a cigarette, which could explain its popularity among Jordanian youth whereas it may be seen as an easy replacement for tobacco with 2361 arrests in 2018, up from 1943 in 2015.
An investigative field study conducted by the Economic & Social Council, published in 2016 on the spread of narcotics and drugs in Jordan, revealed that the costs of acquiring narcotics are among the lowest worldwide, which helps explain the spread of drugs in society. Noticeably, the study highlights that East Amman is a primary drug shopping destination. The study further indicates that both dealers and consumers have utilized social media platforms for coordinating the process of buying and selling drugs. Nearly 30 percent of drug purchases were made online, according to Al-Rai newspaper.
Al-Nabulsi believes that cost is driving consumption patterns. As heroin and cocaine became unaffordable, people turned to the much cheaper synthetic drug, Joker.
Law Amended To Send First Time Offenders To Rehabilitation, Not Jail; Limitations Seen
If a person in Jordan is caught by the police possessing drugs for his/her own use for the first time, the person usually receives a jail sentence of up to 15 days while the general prosecutor investigates. After up to 15 days in jail, the prosecutor will send him/her to the State security court in Amman for a judicial decision. If found guilty, the penalty for possession of drugs is between three months to two years in prison and a penalty of 1,000-3,000 JOD.
In 2015, the law was amended to create a separate process for first time drug offenses. According to the amendment, if an individual is caught under the influence of illicit drugs and is a first time offender, they are routed to a rehabilitation center instead of facing criminal charges, but if an individual is caught using drugs for the first time and has drugs in his or her possession, he or she will be charged with drug possession even if it is a first time offense. Lynn Al-Khayyat, a lawyer who specializes in criminal cases and has experience in drug cases, explained that the amendment was introduced as Jordanians started using illicit drugs in larger numbers for the first time.
Loophole in Law Means Many Sent to Prison Instead of Rehabilitation
Many charged with drug crimes seem to fall in the gray area between the more rehabilitative legislation designed for users and the harsh penalties for traffickers. Al-Khayyat explained that many first time offenders, who do not face charges for illicit drug use, are charged with drug possession and are processed through the criminal court system. Al-Khayyat explained that drug users are held in detention for a week before being processed, during which time they may not be permitted to communicate with their families or lawyer. The accused may spend up to a month in detention before the case for first time users is dropped but the possession charge moves forward.
Stakes Are High for Those Convicted of Trafficking
Drug Trafficking penalties in Jordan are harsh. The Jordanian law states that the death penalty can be applied to narcotics offenses. The Law on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances states that the death penalty is mandatory for repeated production, sale or trafficking offenses.
The Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 2016 states mandates the death penalty for anyone who collorates with international gangs dealing with narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances.
Two truck drivers were caught in 2018 attempting to transport 90,000 Captagon pills to Saudi Arabia inside two plastic gallon containers under two blocks of ice. Upon their arrival at the Al-Omari Border Center and before they entered Saudi Arabia, drug control officials arrested them, and they were charged with intent to traffic drugs across the border. The court sentenced the suspects to six-year with temporary work and a fine of six thousand dinars.
In the same year, court documents show that PSD arrested a Ma’an resident who agreed to transport Captagon pills in exchange for forty thousand Saudi riyals from Jordanian lands through the Mudawara border center to Saudi lands. Two weeks later, he returned to Jordan and transferred another quantity of Captagon pills after hiding them in the same way and tried to make another run, but was caught. The court sentenced him to prison with hard labor for a period of no less than fifteen years and a fine of no less than ten thousand dinars.
In addition, in 2017, the State Security Court sentenced a Saudi suspect to five years of hard labor, and fined him 5000 Jordanian dinars, for attempting to transport 20.600 Captagon pills in his vehicle from Jordan to Saudi Arabia through the Omari border, according to Roya.
The Outlook for Jordan’s War on Drugs
Very little information is available on the effectiveness of Jordan’s war on drugs. No data is available either on the fate of the thousands of people arrested each year for drug crimes nor on the millions of JOD spent on the war on drugs.
The legal community has not come to a consensus on whether harsher penalties will contribute to limiting the spread of drug abuse, possession and trafficking or whether the lighter penalties for first time offenders have led to successful rehabilitation. Al-Khayyat explained that the government needs to take a more aggressive role in increasing social awareness about the potential harm that drugs pose instead of relying heavily on a punitive legislative process as a deterrent.
Attorney Sakher Al-Khasawneh, in his response to our question about whether toughening penalties would contribute to a reduction in drug crime, said that law enforcement needs to work together with civil society organizations, educators and mental health professionals, who may have an even more important role to play in reducing drug crime.