The politics behind Lebanon's big hash bust

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.

The first incident was the reported carjacking of the son of Hezbollah’s slain military commander, Imad Mugneeyah, earlier this year, by criminal elements of one clan, the Jafaars. The other incident came after one of the same clans’ biggest drug baron, Ali Abbas Jaafar, was shot and killed by Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint near his hometown in March. Jaafar had 172 warrants for his arrest. A month later, the Jafaar clan retaliated by ambushing and killing four Lebanese soldiers.

Attacking the army, one of the few state institutions that has worked over the last three years and which is respected by all Lebanese political parties, is not acceptable to most Lebanese. At the time, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said that the army was a “red line.” He vowed “to strike with an iron fist” against those responsible.

The next day, hundreds of troops accompanied by armored personnel carriers and helicopters rolled into the Bekaa and begun conducting raids. Shakkour says the raids on drug storage houses resulted in the seizure of tons of hashish. The army established checkpoints in the Bekaa, and the usually untouchable drug barons fled to hideouts deep in Lebanon’s rugged eastern mountains near the Syrian border.

Catching the drug barons is easier said than done. One of the most famous and flamboyant is Noah Zaayter. Shakkour said the army raided Zaayter’s home in February, seized more than a ton of hashish, and is now occupying it.

“Before the operation, Zaayter was living in his house, and the army or the police were, I don’t want to say afraid, but they took care in approaching him,” he said. “Now, that’s changed.” Zaayter is now in hiding.

The Lebanese security forces know where he is, but Shakkour says they’re not going after him any time soon, because the drug lord is protected by dozens, if not hundreds, of heavily armed family members.

“To go and fight him there will create a lot of problems between the families, and as a result, maybe we’ll get 100 people injured, or dead,” Shakkour said. “So we think, we’ll give [it some] time to get the good opportunity to get him in the right way, without making a lot of people injured or killed.”

But it’s been far less dangerous for the army and ISF to focus on the source of the drug baron’s income: the hashish crop. Still, the eradication wasn’t completely free of violence. On the third day, an army truck rolled over a booby trapped hand grenade in one field. No one was injured.

But those who have been harmed by the eradication efforts are the Bekaa Valley’s poor farmers. They lost this season’s crop, just two weeks before harvest time. “The situation of the farmers is bad,” said Talal Shrif, the mayor of Yamouni. “It’s the most important crop for farmers that they can get money from. Now, for sure, they don’t have the money, because they don’t have the plant anymore.”

Yamouni is an especially good area for growing hashish. The village is isolated in the foothills of the Mount Lebanon range. The air is hot and dry by day and cool at night. Spring water bubbles from the mountainside and into the flat fields, which sit in a narrow valley floor. As a result, the plants grown here are strong with tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in the hashish plant, formally known as “cannabis.” At 5,000 feet, locals say there’s not a whole lot else to grow but hashish. Farmers also grow apples, and lower, on the floor of the Bekaa itself, potatoes.

But Shrif said farmers have grown hashish here since 1936, mainly because it’s so much easier to grow, and more profitable, than other crops. At $500 to $1,500 per kilo, farmers can make 10 times the amount of money from hashish than they can make in a good year from other crops.

“You have many risks to [grow] potatoes and it costs the farmers a lot of money; a lot of money for the seeds, for the water, for the electricity, for the diesel,” Shrif said. On the other hand, a farmer need only throw the seeds of the hashish plant into the ground, and it will grow “without any efforts,” he said. “He is sure he will win, and not lose.”

Dealers who buy the crop can turn a big profit: hashish sells for about $4,000 per kilo in Cyrpus, which serves as a gateway to the European market. Both dealers and farmers risk big penalties if they’re caught: the minimum prison sentence in Lebanon is five years, with the possibility for life.

A farmer named Abu Ali says he stopped growing hashish 10 years ago because he says he doesn’t want “problems” from the government. Since he stopped growing it, he’s depended on remittances from his brother outside to support his family. “It’s the poor people who grow hashish in our village,” he said. “And when they come to destroy it, they have no money to live.”

In the 1990s, after Lebanon’s civil war ended and the Bekaa Valley’s massive hashish fields were eradicated by the Syrians due to U.S. and European pressure, the U.N. and Lebanese government pledged to help Lebanese hashish farmers find another source of income. But Shrif said that help has never come, and hashish farming remains one of the few crops that can turn a profit in this region.

“Most of the people in the Bekaa don’t like to [grow] the hashish plant,” he said. “But the government is not taking care of the Bekaa valley. People stopped planting hashish in 1992 … and they have been waiting for the U.N. and government to find something else to help people in the Bekaa. But after waiting for 10 years, they didn’t find anything to do. So then they tried to come back to it.”

Shakkour agrees with Shrif, and said that after this year’s eradication by force, he hopes the government can provide the farmers with enough development and aid so that hashish harvesting becomes a thing of the past. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the headline.