Africa

OP-ED

Drugs markets in the islands of the western Indian Ocean — gangs and corruption in Parc Coson, Mauritius (Part Three)

Members of the network known as the ‘Suicide Squad’, celebrating with bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label. This brand of whisky, together with the heavy golden jewellery sported by some members, are typical of the flashy lifestyles of the ‘new generation’ of dealers in Mauritius. (Photo: Social Media)

On 10 March 2021, Mauritius entered its second lockdown to counter the spread of Covid-19 and all non-essential businesses closed. Yet in Parc Coson (Creole for ‘pig park’) a slum in the Roche Bois suburb of Port Louis and Mauritius’ drug-selling capital, it was business as usual. Part Three of a four-part series — Part Four will examine case studies from Seychelles.

Read Part One here and Part Two here.

When Mauritius first went into Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, the drugs market boomed. But while vegetable prices soared owing to scarcity, heroin prices remained steady as supply appeared unaffected.

Both people wh0 use drugs (PWUD) and academics at the University of Mauritius point to the resilience of the drugs market during Covid-19 and the lack of lockdown enforcement in Parc Coson as further evidence of corruption, which is the single greatest structural enabler of the island’s longstanding drugs market.

The drugs market is by far the largest illicit economy in Mauritius. The country has long suffered from extremely high opiate consumption and falls only slightly behind the neighbouring Seychelles, which is afflicted by the highest opiate consumption rate in the world. Reports from the National Drug Observatory since 2016 point to a sustained increase in overall drug use year on year. Interviewees including PWUD, rehabilitation workers and police interviewed during 2020 and early 2021 corroborated this and pointed to an acceleration particularly in heroin use in 2020.

Scrutinising dynamics in Parc Coson during the two Covid-19 lockdowns in Mauritius provides insight into the evolving nature of the networks profiting from the trade, the protection structures underpinning the island’s drugs market and the challenges undermining current government responses.

Dealing dynamics in the Mauritian drugs capital

Many PWUD travel to Parc Coson, near the port area of the capital, to buy drugs, making it the most profitable drug-selling spot on the island. Ali*, who lives in Plaine Verte, a suburb close to Roche Bois, buys his doses of psychotropic pills and synthetic cannabinoids in Parc Coson. “Drugs are available since early morning till late at night. Even during this second lockdown… you can have your dose. Even the watchers are still on the lookout at Parc Coson.” Ali concluded that local police patrols are busy elsewhere enforcing lockdown.

Lookouts, known as “martins” after the small bird common to Mauritius, are typically paid in drugs or between 1,000 and 1,300 rupees (MUR) per day ($25–37); this amount is similar to the daily wage of a skilled manual labourer such as a stonemason. Access to Parc Coson is tightly controlled, and the lookouts will shout “crapaud!” (toad in Creole and French) to warn of approaching police. Casual observers looking to enter the area report being told that access is blocked by construction work, and purposefully steered away.

“The drug peddlers prey on deprived areas to run their business,” said Marie, a social worker in Parc Coson. Most residents of Parc Coson live in shacks with corrugated tin roofs propped up by eucalyptus poles, in stark contrast with the rapid development seen elsewhere on the island.

Parc Coson was “drug and crime-free long ago… a kind of haven for the needy, who could not afford a house,” says Marie. Now “there is some kind of stigmatisation in the Mauritian society with regard to people living near this hotspot. No taxi will venture in this area at night, even if it’s an emergency.”

Many Parc Coson residents are Rodriguans who have emigrated from the nearby island in search of work and represent some of the poorest demographics in Mauritius. Rodriguans are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by drug networks and are prevalent among the lower echelons of networks in Parc Coson, finding employment as low-level dealers, “go fasts” (who deliver drugs and transport money) or lookouts.

The profitability of the Parc Coson drugs trade has attracted many networks and dealers. However, growing demand keeps competition between networks in check, and players purportedly act like a cooperative, pooling finances to import drugs in bulk, with each then taking their share once the stock arrives on the island.

Four key players are known to authorities in Parc Coson: one individual, Hansley Selvanaden Moothoosamy, and three networks, namely Demolition, Suicide Squad (believed to operate as a sub-unit of Demolition) and Lekip Prelart (“Tarpauline Team”). Moothoosamy is more commonly known as “Gros Quart”, after the generous “quarter gram” of heroin he purportedly sells.

One of the most long-standing and powerful networks in the Mauritian drug trade, Demolition, has been operating for over a decade. The founders originally specialised in heroin trafficking, but later diversified their operations to include a broader range of drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids. The founders, two cousins, operate discreetly, making efforts to avoid the flashy trappings of wealth.

In contrast, Gros Quart, Suicide Squad and Tarpauline Team typify a new generation of dealers, who sport flashy lifestyles evidenced by heavy gold jewellery, gold teeth, luxury SUVs and expensive liquor. Stories of dealers flaunting their wealth abound: one Parc Coson dealer reportedly used two bottles of champagne (each costing approximately MUR10,000 or $250) to clean the windscreen of his Porsche Cayenne and to bathe his flip-flopped feet.

The Anti-Drugs and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) arrested Gros Quart on 27 February 2021, being in possession of over MUR1-million ($24,430) in cash, gold jewellery and 2.4 grams of cannabis. Charged with money laundering, Gros Quart remains in jail, pending full trial. The use of money laundering charges against Gros Quart is in line with a broader strategy leveraged by ADSU and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to prosecute mid- and higher-level dealers, who are often difficult to catch with large quantities of drugs.

Corruption in Parc Coson

Although Parc Coson has been a key drug distribution point for over a decade, its notoriety surged in 2018 following a media report showing a queue of over 50 people lining up at a shed in the area to buy drugs.

This triggered ADSU to bulldoze the shed and Aadil Ameer Meea, opposition MP of Port Louis Maritime and Port Louis East’s constituency, to repeatedly raise the issue of drug trafficking in Parc Coson in Parliament.

“The situation hasn’t changed since 2018,” stated Meea, interviewed in February 2021. “Why can’t the police arrest the drug peddlers? Is there collusion between them and the local ADSU team… Is there a lack of will to stop them?” Meea’s questions were repeatedly echoed by people interviewed in Parc Coson and elsewhere in Mauritius.

Social worker Marie suggested that “some officers [in Parc Coson] are doing their job. You can’t blame all the police force for one rotten apple.” However, PWUD,  prison officials and lawyers interviewed in 2020 and early 2021 were consistent in their observations that corruption is widespread within the ADSU, with one ICAC official dubbing the unit “rotten” owing to corruption.

Corruption is particularly acute in units tasked with patrolling highly profitable drugs hotspots; two members of the ADSU unit patrolling Parc Coson, including a senior officer, are currently under investigation by ICAC for allegedly conspiring to transport drugs in police vehicles.

The Constitutional Commission of Inquiry found corruption to be endemic across Mauritius’ criminal justice infrastructure and recommended the disbandment of the ADSU in 2018. Like the vast majority of the 460 recommendations made by the commission, this recommendation has not yet been implemented, engendering widespread frustration at a perceived stagnation in the government’s response to the drugs market. Many commentators point to high-level protection of the drugs market, not only in law enforcement but also across other state institutions, as the most significant obstacle to an effective response.

State response to the drugs market

The government’s response to the drugs market is heavily premised on interdiction. ADSU arrest figures record an increase from 1,767 in 2015 to almost 3,400 for drug-related offences in 2020. However, despite the increase in arrests, the Mauritian government has acknowledged that there has been an “upsurge in drug trafficking” since 2015. Experts interviewed emphasised that arrests have little impact and that the response is increasingly falling behind.

Aadil Ameer Meea suggested one reason for the limited impact of growing arrests: “We only see PWUD being arrested for possession of drugs.” PWUD similarly argue that the focus of ADSU is on arresting PWUD, not higher-level dealers.

These observations are supported by ADSU arrest statistics in Roche Bois, the suburb encompassing Parc Coson: the vast majority of arrests are for possession of heroin, and only 16% for dealing. However, despite ADSU arrest statistics across Mauritius evidencing greater rates of arrests for possession, they also reflect a sizeable and growing proportion of arrests for dealing: 38% of arrests in 2019 and 47% in 2020. ADSU officials state that, particularly since 2019, the unit has been focused on arresting dealers, in part as a strategy to dissuade the youth from entering the drugs market.

A move away from arrests on possession charges, which typically involve PWUD, is to be lauded. However, approaches centred on interdiction are doomed to fail, particularly in the context of Mauritius’ drugs markets, which have been highly fragmented since 2015.

The explosion of trade in synthetic cannabinoids since 2015 has fundamentally transformed the structure of the drugs market, which was originally built around profits from heroin trafficking. While heroin trafficking requires connections with overseas suppliers, synthetic cannabinoids and their precursors can be purchased online and imported by mail order, lowering dealers’ barrier to entry. This prompted what observers in Mauritius described as “a democratisation of the [drugs] trade” as new players, attracted by the lucrative profits, entered the drug market.

A growing number of PWUD and small-scale dealers became ti patron (Creole for “small kingpins”) and formed independent but interconnected networks that grew in parallel to existing networks, expanding the drugs marketplace. In the words of one ADSU official: “Everyone can be a kingpin today.” This undermines the impact of ADSU arrests, as one “kingpin” is quickly replaced by another.

A booming market

Despite Covid-19 lockdowns and border closures, Mauritius’ drugs market is booming. The dramatic expansion of the drugs marketplace since 2015 materially increased the scale of drugs profits and shaped the island’s emerging gang culture.

The government’s response to the drugs market is undermined by endemic corruption, which weakens law enforcement and is reported to penetrate the higher echelons of the state. In addition, the continued focus on interdiction as a core pillar of the state’s response appears to yield few results, similar to the scant success of such strategies elsewhere. A strategy focused on arrests, typically of low- or mid-level players, is flawed. At best arrests have little impact; at worst they do significant harm to PWUD, drawing them into the criminal justice system and minimising opportunities for licit employment in future.

A pivot in approach and greater recognition of corruption within state infrastructure are required. ADSU’s shift away from arrests for possession should be accelerated and arrests of PWUD avoided. Interventions in the drugs market should seek to offer alternative employment opportunities to vulnerable and marginalised segments of society, who, like the Rodriguan population, are often at heightened risk of recruitment as consumers and dealers. Such interventions are urgently required given the impacts of Covid-19 on tourism, a key pillar of the island’s economy and a prominent source of employment.

Further, greater resources should be directed to ICAC, not only to bolster follow-the-money approaches but also to encourage investigations into mid- and high-level corruption within state institutions, which underpins the flourishing drugs market. DM

*Not his real name.

This article appears in the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly East and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally. To receive monthly Risk Bulletin updates, please sign up here.

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