The North's drug-busters pounce

The Lebanon Border Special Drug Unit hunts heroin traffickers.

police lebanon border drug smuggling (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
police lebanon border drug smuggling
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
They navigate the mountains, valleys and forests of the Lebanese border area like Beduin trackers and use cutting-edge technology to carry out their missions. They are the police officers of the Lebanon Border Special Drug Unit, who lie in ambush night after night, waiting for the heroin traffickers who seek their fortunes by smuggling poisonous drugs into Israel. In the twilight hours of Thursday morning, at 4 a.m., the officers of the unit - armed with M-16s, night-vision goggles, jeeps and all-terrain vehicles - headed out to their positions on the Lebanese border. The unit's members say all the hours of waiting, the cold, the hunger and the boredom disappear the minute they hear a rustle in the bushes, or receive word on the radio from their lookout of a drug deal about to go down. "It's the best feeling in the world. You wait for months, and suddenly you spot something," a smiling Insp. Gal Ben-Ish, deputy commander of the unit, recounts. "It's a lot of adrenaline. Three days could go by with no sleep, but the minute you see something, the body forgets and you go into action mode," said First-Sergeant Major Eli Matia, who is tasked with manning the lookout post this morning. "Our mission is to minimize the flow of drugs into the country. To make the risks and costs of smuggling drugs not worth it for the criminal organizations that bring them in," Ben-Ish added. The Lebanon Border Unit has taken several steps in accomplishing that goal over the past year. One-hundred-fifty-nine kilograms of heroin were seized by the unit in 2008, and 32 traffickers arrested. Only last week, the unit intercepted a shipment of 5 kg. of heroin, spending almost 12 hours pursuing the smuggler through a dense forest before capturing the man. "The deal went down at 2 p.m. At midnight, the trafficker was arrested," Ben-Ish said. Typically, drug dealers in Lebanon will send their own scouts and lookouts to scan the area before sending a dealer with a package to a prearranged spot on the border fence. After hiding for hours in an attempt to detect a police presence, the Lebanese dealer will throw the package over the fence, and money will be thrown back by the smuggler on the Israeli side. "Drugs fuel the world of crime. We see crime organizations with jeeps, their homes filled with plasma screens... criminal murders across the country... and all of it comes from the drugs," a member of the unit said. "The saddest sight is seeing the addicts pick up their welfare checks, and then boarding the train to Lod like clockwork to pick up their stuff," said Matia as he manned a post overlooking Shi'ite Lebanese villages scattered across the border. The sun was just beginning to rise over the misty mountains, and on the radio, camouflaged officers radioed in their positions on the border in whispers. When the heroin enters Israel, it is 90-percent pure, which is considered to be top quality, Matia explained. A kilo is worth NIS 100,000 in street value. The dealers then mix rat poison, dexamol, and other toxic chemicals with the heroin to inflate its weight and street value, thereby maximizing their profits. All the officers agreed that Hizbullah had given its blessing to the heroin smuggling trade. "This is Hizbullah's territory," Ben-Ish said. "Nasrallah has said that he wants to poison Israelis with heroin." Still, financial greed is easily the main driving force behind the trade, with traffickers standing to make hundreds of thousands of shekels from a single drug run. The unit was first founded in 1985 in the buffer zone held by Israel in southern Lebanon. In 2001, the unit was disbanded, but Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. David Cohen decided to reestablish it last year. The Lebanon Border Unit can easily be mistaken for an IDF unit, but when it comes to engaging suspects, its officers must adhere to police regulations. Officers are armed with pepper spray and handcuffs, in addition to their automatic weapons. "The army can open fire on infiltrators, but we arrest them," Matia explained. The officers watch UN vehicles crawl along roads on the Lebanese side of the fence, but say that the traffickers easily circumvent the UN positions, as well as the Lebanese Army. "The dealers are sophisticated. If we had what the Shin Bet had, we would be catching many more of them," Matia said.