A trial for drug smuggling begins in Regensburg. A Lebanese organization is said to be behind it. This also draws attention to a larger development with powerful backers.

The hiding place of the drugs shows creativity and some effort. The small round pills, marked “Captagon,” lay neatly sealed in plastic between bags of crushed marble.

The banned goods weighed around 250 kilograms and promised the Lebanese backers a tidy profit. The drugs came from the Middle East and were to be transported to Saudi Arabia. But they were found in a raid about a year ago in a completely different place: in a remote warehouse south of Regensburg.

A trial against two Syrians who are said to have been involved in drug smuggling begins in the local district court this Friday. According to the public prosecutor’s office, they acted on behalf of a Lebanese organization. The process also draws attention to a larger development that investigators are observing: Captagon production has been increasing massively for several years. Although destined primarily for the Gulf States, smuggling is increasingly going through Europe. Behind this are networks in Lebanon and Syria with the very best contacts in the highest circles.

Assad’s followers play a central role

Experts have no doubt that followers of the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad play a key role in this. “People who are very close to the regime are involved,” says Jihad Jasigi, editor-in-chief of the “Syria Report”. Captagon has been manufactured in Syria since the 2000s, initially on a smaller scale. But with the start of the civil war in 2011, the economy collapses. Warlords and armed groups are gaining influence, seeking sources of income in the chaos of conflict and finding it in drug production.

With military profits from the government, more and more people loyal to Assad took over this illegal but lucrative business. Members of the government are now “main players in the Captagon trade,” conclude the authors of a study by the Washington-based New Lines Institute. Research by the New York Times revealed that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the 4th Division – a notorious elite force commanded by Mahir al-Assad, the president’s brother.

Captagon originally prescribed as a drug

German investigators also have information that the world’s largest Captagon production facility is likely to be found in Syria today. The name is misleading though. Captagon originally came onto the German market as a drug in the 1960s, but is no longer legally produced. What is smuggled today under the name Captagon normally does not contain the original active ingredient fenetylline, but amphetamine, like the pills in Regensburg.

The production is comparatively simple. The production costs for a tablet are in the 10 cent range. Depending on the quality and market, it can be sold for up to 25 US dollars. So it’s a billion-dollar business that is of interest to Assad’s followers not least because the country is subject to international sanctions and the isolated economy is lying idle.

It is instrumental in ensuring the survival of the powerful. Since 2018, drugs have “become an important financial lifeline for the Assad regime and its international allies,” according to a study by the EU-funded Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) on the “narco state” in Syria. The authors estimate that the country exported nearly $3.5 billion worth of Captagon in 2020. “They need the drugs because they need the money,” says co-author Ian Larson.

Production facilities are getting bigger and bigger

The business is so lucrative that production is expanded further. According to the study by the New Lines Institute, ever larger production facilities are being used, which are concentrated in government areas near ports and along the border with Lebanon, among other things. Leaders of the Shiite Hezbollah from Lebanon are also involved in the smuggling. Their militia is fighting alongside the government troops in the Syrian civil war.

In general, some of the smuggling goes via the neighboring country, where there are also production facilities, albeit smaller ones. In the past year alone, Lebanese investigators found more than 42 million Captagon pills – a strong increase compared to previous years.

Customs authorities in the Gulf are now keeping a closer eye on exports from Lebanon and Syria. Smuggling is therefore increasingly taking place via Europe in order to cover up the transport routes. Especially in the past two to three years, this has been observed more and more, according to German security circles.

Amphetamine pills from Syria in the port of Hamburg

The traces lead time and again to Germany, not only in the Regensburg case. Investigators from Recklinghausen in North Rhine-Westphalia arrested several people last year. They are said to have organized the smuggling of amphetamine tablets from Germany via the Romanian port of Constanta. The suspects are part of a criminal group “close to Syrian government circles”. Place of production: Syria. In 2018, customs discovered around 175 kilograms of amphetamine pills in the port of Hamburg. The shipment was shipped from Syria.

The drugs were hidden in furniture. In general, the smugglers are very resourceful when transporting the prohibited goods, says a German investigator. “The perpetrators go to a lot of trouble to hide the pills. The imagination knows no limits.” In December, investigators in Lebanon found Captagon tablets squeezed into hollowed-out oranges. A defendant is said to have searched for camouflage goods for weeks to transport the tablets found in Regensburg. Including test delivery without drugs.