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The politics behind Lebanon's big hash bust

There's more to the recent clean out of drug gangs and the destruction of their hash crop in the lawless Bekaa Valley than meets the eye.

YAMOUNI, Lebanon — Lebanese hashish farmers and dealers have had an easy go of it the past three years, growing the crop freely and in large quantity due to the Lebanese Army’s preoccupation with a war, sectarian violence and assassinations.

However, Lebanon’s security situation has calmed in the past year. As a result, the army has been available to help the lightly armed national police wipe out about six square miles, or an estimated 95 percent, of the Bekaa’s hashish crop. The bust and clear-out operation began in September, according to Gen. Michel Shakkour, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) officer in charge of the eradication.

In the fields between two hills on the backside of Yamouni, a town that sits at an altitude of 5,000 feet on the edge of what was once one of the breadbaskets of the Roman Empire, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, only the barren fields remain, with a few scrawny hashish plants poking through the dry soil. It seems almost an affront to the history of this place, steeped as it is in hedonistic mythology. Yamouni is, after all, only a few miles from where the Romans chose to erect their temple to Bacchus, the god of wine, on the dry and arid flat land perfectly suited to growing grapes.

It is also a place where great quantities — at least three quarters of a square mile — of hashish was grown, according to Hikmat Shrif, a Lebanese journalist who hails from the village.

“This used to be the richest valley with hashish crop. But not anymore,” he said as he drove on a road through the fields. The ISF's Shakkour says that more than 1,000 soldiers and 500 police were needed to eradicate hashish fields in places like Yamouni in the three-week operation.

The reason behind the government's sheer show of force has much to do with the lawless nature of the Bekaa and the region's sometimes lethal mix of heavily armed families, Hezbollah, hashish farmers, criminal gangs and drug barons. The region’s 15 familial “clans,” who are mostly Shiites, often have members in each group, creating a dizzying and dangerous puzzle of relationships. The powerful Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah for many years gave protection, or turned a blind eye, to the clans who run the hashish farming and smuggling operations, due to family links and the grassroots political support the clans gave to Hezbollah.

“The families and the political parties are from the same source, they are from the same families,” Shakkour said. “And it’s difficult for [the political parties] to say to the farmers we are against the hashish plantation, or else the next year they will not vote for them.”

Shakkour says a political agreement was reached earlier this year that allowed the army and the police to begin arresting some of the bigger drug barons and to eradicate the crops. This came on the heels of several events that appear to have prompted Hezbollah to drop its protection of the clans and their unsavory criminal elements.