Crime & Justice

Houthis turn to drug smuggling as sanctions target Iran

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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A group of Houthis and their supporters chew qat in Sanaa in 2015. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Yemeni authorities told Al-Mashareq there has been a noticeable increase in recent months in the amount of drugs smuggled to parts of the country controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah).

They attribute this increase in drug smuggling, at least in part, to the Houthis' need to find alternative revenue streams as Iran cuts back its support to its proxies under pressure from sanctions.

According to Aden security officials, on October 28th, judicial authorities in Aden destroyed 250 kilogrammes of cocaine discovered in the port of Aden.

Arab coalition forces on October 23rd intercepted half a tonne of smuggled drugs found inside a sugar shipment; one of 15 shipments coming from Brazil.

The shipment's transfer, facilitated by Lebanese Hizbullah, was headed to the Houthis, the Arab coalition said.

Aden governor Ahmed Lamlas stressed the need for security forces to remain vigilant to "confront criminal activities including smuggling drugs".

The illegal drug trade "causes social and economic damage", he said.

In January, the Specialised Criminal Prosecution in Marib province destroyed 3,343 kilogrammes of hashish, with a street value of about $9 million.

According to judicial official Jamal Omair, security forces seized the hashish in Marib in the final months of 2019, local media reported.

At the time, the director of Marib's Criminal Investigation Department said 64 drugs-related cases had been referred to the Specialised Criminal Prosecution in the past year.

Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez told Al-Mashareq the Houthis are responsible for the increase in the amount of drugs entering Yemen.

The militia has engaged in drug smuggling to fund its activities, he said. But its own fighters also use them to enhance their performance on the battlefield.

Drugs for weapons and money

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which supports the Houthis, has long been accused of helping the Yemeni militia with drug-trafficking.

"IRGC-affiliated militias use drugs as barter to obtain weapons and money," political analyst Adel al-Shujaa told Al-Mashareq.

"Selling drugs has been common practice by the Lebanese Hizbullah as well, whose members planted hashish and now help train the Houthis," he said.

Hizbullah has a long history of involvement in the drug trade. It has its roots in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a remote rural area where hashish and opium cultivation has flourished.

Hizbullah exploited this to its own advantage, later branching out into other drug markets, and now has a reputation as being one of the biggest operators of drug trade and smuggling networks in the region and the world.

Al-Shujaa said the Houthis are following the same path, spurred into finding new revenue streams by the IRGC's failure to provide them with funds, in light of US sanctions against Iran as part of its "maximum pressure campaign".

Economist Abdul Aziz Thabet told Al-Mashareq the Houthis recently increased the amount of drugs they smuggle into Yemen as a means to fund their activities, since Iran can no longer support them at the same level.

He said the Houthis are using Yemen as a "transit zone" to transfer drugs to more prosperous target markets.

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