With revelations that several of the PNB officers now in custody for allegedly running their own drug trafficking ring have been with the bureau for more than a decade, some even winning Presidential Awards and receiving cash rewards for their anti-narcotics operations, Sandun Jayawardana and Damith Wickramasekara report on the scandal that has rocked the [...]


When drug busters become part of the rot


With revelations that several of the PNB officers now in custody for allegedly running their own drug trafficking ring have been with the bureau for more than a decade, some even winning Presidential Awards and receiving cash rewards for their anti-narcotics operations, Sandun Jayawardana and Damith Wickramasekara report on the scandal that has rocked the specialised unit

The suspects leaving the Magistrate's Court on Thursday. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Fears are mounting that years of progress made in the fight against illicit drugs could be rolled back by the sheer scale of the scandal involving the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB), after it emerged that a group of officers within the elite unit allegedly operated their own drug trafficking ring with the aid of several drug traffickers.

As of Friday (3), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had arrested 15 PNB officers and three civilians over their alleged role in the operation. The arrested PNB officers include an Inspector (IP), two Sub-Inspectors (SI), four Sergeants and eight Constables. Another IP, thought to be the group’s ringleader, is on the run. The CID has obtained a travel ban against the suspect. While there are some reports the suspect has fled the country illegally by boat, police say they are confident that he is still in the country and investigations are ongoing to arrest him. Four police teams are currently working on the wide ranging investigation.

Those arrested are being held under detention orders and they will be prosecuted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance (Amendment) Act and the Public Property Act. Police have also initiated an internal inquiry under the Police Ordinance Act.

The Sunday Times learns that several of the PNB officers in custody have been with the bureau for more than a decade. Some have won Presidential Awards for their service in anti-narcotics operations and have also received cash rewards given for successful drug busts.

The group’s activities unravelled due to the chance arrest of a suspect by the Minuwangoda police last month on charges of drug possession. It was this suspect who revealed under interrogation that he took charge of a stock of heroin which an overseas based drug trafficker had sent him in early May. The suspect had told investigators that he had been fearful of keeping the drugs at his home as the entire country was under curfew at the time due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He had claimed the drug trafficker had told him he would have “no problem” as these drugs will be brought to him “by a team of police officers.” He had told investigators that several men had duly arrived in a vehicle and handed over a stock of heroin to him. He had described the appearance of the men.

Investigators probing the case have already uncovered over Rs 30 million in cash from the bank accounts of the PNB officers in custody, the Police said in a special press briefing on Friday. Two vans, a car and a double cab allegedly used by the PNB officers to transport the drugs have also been taken into custody. Meanwhile, some 10 acres of lands in different parts of the country allegedly purchased by the corrupt officers using drug money have also been located while over 20 pounds of jewellery also suspected to have been purchased using money earned through the drug trade have been seized. A number of bank accounts used by the suspects have also been frozen by court order.

Police Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Jaliya Senaratne told the media that CID detectives had uncovered that the officers in custody had helped drug traffickers to transport stocks of drugs smuggled into the country. In one operation, the group had allegedly helped to transport 130 kilograms of heroin for drug traffickers. Police have seized 70 kilograms of this stock based on information from a drug trafficker arrested in Minuwangoda. Investigators have learned that the rest had been transported to Colombo and handed over to another trafficker. Investigations are ongoing to trace the rest of the heroin and arrest the other traffickers involved, the police stated.

In another incident, the same group of PNB officers had seized 243 kilograms of heroin smuggled into the country via boat, but had only declared 200 kilograms as having been taken into custody. They had then sold the 43 kilograms of heroin to drug traffickers who employed them.

Police have further uncovered that the group was also engaged in transporting weapons for drug traffickers. Five pistols had also been sold to traffickers along with the 43 kilograms of heroin. One has been recovered while the other four are yet to be traced.

In yet another incident, the suspects had allegedly taken 8 kilograms out of 500 kilograms of ‘Ice’ drugs seized during a raid, changed its composition and then sold to drug traffickers.

Suspicion has also fallen over a stock of 226 kilograms of heroin recovered in a raid at a house in Welisara in May this year. The stock was found hidden inside rice bags and the CID is investigating reports that the same group of officers had been responsible for packing the drugs, which had been landed by boat on the southern coast, into the rice bags and transporting them to Welisara.

Investigators are also trying to ascertain if any of the officers in the drug ring are connected to the 2017 ambush of a team of PNB officers at Piliyandala, in which a PNB officer and an 11-year-old girl were killed and several other PNB officers and bystanders injured.

Meanwhile, the CID has sealed the PNB’s production room where large stocks of seized drugs are kept. Officially, police say they still have found no evidence that any drugs had been removed from the room and sold to traffickers. A senior CID officer involved in the investigation however, told the Sunday Times on grounds of anonymity that it will likely take several weeks, perhaps months, to complete an inventory of the production room and cross check it with records at the Government Analyst’s Department. He also revealed that one of the PNB officers in custody worked at its production room. “Large consignments of drugs were also placed in the production room during the months the country was in lockdown due to COVID-19. Security may not have been as tight then. The reality is, we just don’t know at this point if any drugs were smuggled out of the production room and sold, but it is a distinct possibility,” the source noted.

Far reaching consequences

The enormity of the scandal engulfing the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB), the police’s elite unit formed more than three decades ago to combat drug trafficking, has already seen dramatic changes at the very top of the bureau. Both the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) in charge of the PNB Sajeewa Medawatte and the PNB’s Director, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Manjula Senarath were transferred out this week. They are being replaced by DIG G.K.J. Aponso and SSP Sujith Wedamulla. Police have emphasized that the two senior officers are not under suspicion at present but that they could not escape “command responsibility” over the scandal.

The scandal however, is sure to have far reaching consequences for the PNB and to the larger fight against drug trafficking. A senior PNB source noted that the issue will affect informers who provide valuable tips to the PNB regarding drug smuggling operations. “We have a large network of informers working with us. Given this situation, they will justifiably think twice about sharing information with us as they don’t know which officers among us are in the pay of drug traffickers. Who is going to share information if there are fears that the officer you give a tip-off concerning a drug deal will in turn contact the drug traffickers and warn them about the tip-off? You could very well lose your life if your identity is compromised.”

It is not just informers who will be reluctant to give information. Many successful drug busts happen due to information provided by ordinary people who notice something suspicious. The scandal would dent public confidence in the police and the PNB in particular, leading to people being reluctant to come forward with information, the source opined.

The officer also revealed that the PNB’s major operations have come to a standstill since the arrests of the first group of officers last week. Morale within the unit has taken a beating. “This is a tragic situation as it provides room for drug traffickers to conduct their smuggling operations. While other law enforcement agencies and the armed forces are still conducting anti-narcotics operations, the suspension of most PNB operations is a major blow,” the source pointed out.

Meanwhile, another officer expressed fears that the developments could potentially undermine dozens of pending court cases concerning drug busts where the suspected officers were involved. “Lawyers for the drug dealers on trial will seize on this to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of judges about the integrity of the investigation. The matter has already been raised in at least one case this week. We fear that this will happen more in the coming days.”

Future of the PNB

In the wake of the scandal, questions have been raised whether the PNB should be disbanded and reconstituted with a new team of officers. DIG Ajith Rohana, who spoke at a media briefing on Wednesday however, explained that this was not possible. The PNB is a specialised unit and its officers are given specialised training in anti-narcotics operations. He said the nature of the unit made it difficult to transfer out officers as in the normal police force. “When they are given such specialised training, their expertise must be utilized for the unit. The PNB has over 300 officers and it would be impractical to completely disband it and have new officers take over,” he remarked.

The DIG also mounted a passionate defence of the PNB, appealing to the public not to lose faith in the unit, noting that only a small number of officers out of hundreds have been implicated in the drug trafficking ring. “This should not detract from all the good work done by the PNB over many years,” he emphasized.

A CID officer involved in the investigation stated that drug traffickers were constantly looking for weaknesses among police officers involved in anti narcotics operations with an eye to “turn them.”

“This is the same the world over. They look to exploit weaknesses among the officers and recruit them into their service. Having such moles within a specialised unit like the PNB is a real coup for them. However, we must also look into the possibility if the officers were enticed to become involved in the drug trade with the specific intention of betraying them later and ensuring that the PNB is discredited,” the officer claimed.

While the activities of the group were revealed with the arrest of the drug dealer in Minuwangoda, a PNB source claimed that an internal investigation had been initiated weeks before this over suspicions that some officers had connections with drug dealers. Several were interdicted and others who were under suspicion were transferred, the source claimed, adding that the IGP was also informed over the matter. DIG Ajith Rohana too told the media that it was some officers within the PNB who had first revealed their suspicions concerning their colleagues, leading to a probe being launched.

A senior PNB officer meanwhile, said that while it was impractical to disband the PNB, large scale reforms needed to be undertaken. “We need to train new officers in batches and gradually introduce them to the bureau. We also need to retain the many good officers who are still with the unit but must ensure that all avenues whereby they can be corrupted are blocked,” he remarked.

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