DHAKA/NEW DELHI • Police who seized Asia's largest-known shipment of liquid cocaine at a Bangladeshi port last month say it was headed for India - the latest sign that drug cartels are increasingly plying their trade in South Asia.
It is not clear if India was the final destination for the cocaine, worth up to US$14 million (S$19 million), or if it was a transit point to other markets in Asia or Europe.
"They wanted to redirect it to India when it got stuck at Chittagong port," said Bangladeshi police official Mohammad Kamruzzaman.
What is clear is that big drug busts in the region are becoming more common. Indian and foreign police sources say that, in the past three months, larger-than-usual amounts of high-purity cocaine, carried mainly by South American and African drug mules, have been seized in India.
Multi-kilo hauls have also turned up in Kathmandu. The seizures point to South Asia's role as a possible transshipment hub - as highly organised gangs, possibly from Latin America, look to hide their tracks to United States and European markets by taking advantage of soft security at the region's ports.
NO TIME TO LOSE
This is a huge wake-up call.
MS CRISTINA ALBERTIN, the South Asia representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, referring to the Bangladesh bust
Like other global businesses, drug cartels such as Mexico's Sinaloa see Asia as a growth market, and have turned up in Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The United Nations believes more cocaine is moving through South Asia undetected.
"This is a huge wake-up call," said Ms Cristina Albertin, the South Asia representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), referring to the Bangladesh bust.
Until now, much of the work of counter-narcotics agencies in the region has been focused on the smuggling of heroin and synthetic drugs - and especially on Afghanistan, which produces some 90 per cent of the world's illicit opiates.
The recent hauls of cocaine have taken the agencies by surprise.
In last month's bust, acting on a tip from British intelligence, Customs agents seized 107 plastic barrels of sunflower oil from a container in Chittagong, the country's busiest port. Officials say 60-100kg of cocaine had been mixed into the oil. The cocaine probably hails from Bolivia, which is listed as the source country for the oil and is a leading cocaine producer.
UNODC has been training port officials at Chittagong to improve how they follow paper trails so they can spot suspicious cargoes. But the drug-testing kits given to them were adapted to the region, so they did not have the test for cocaine. "Now, we will also have to give them that," Ms Albertin said.
Cocaine use, while still low compared with that in Europe and North America, is on the rise among newly wealthy party-goers in the top cities of Asia's fast-growing economies.
"Latin American drug-trafficking organisations, those who are well structured, are looking for new markets, particularly for cocaine and methamphetamine production," said UNODC representative Antonio Mazzitelli in Mexico. "Asia is that market nowadays."