By Sandranathan Rubatheesan
Talented footballer Thaas* (name withheld) was once expected to become the first Jaffna youth to represent Sri Lanka’s national football team after the end of the 26-year war, but a puff of a special smoke changed his destiny.
The 19-year old still remembers the last tournament he played on a Saturday in July, 2017, scoring seven goals, the highest in the competition held in Ariyalai, a northern village famous for fisheries products in the Jaffna district.
Everything changed after that tournament. His team Kaamaadchchi club*, lost, but Thaas emerged a star player.
A close friend offered him a puff of a special smoke during a break to enhance his endurance and stamina. That was his initiation into the potent Kerala ganja, or cannabis.
Soon, he became a chain smoker and often mixed ganja with cigarettes to ease personal and school pressures, since he wanted to focus only on football – a wish strongly opposed by his educated and government servant parents.
His parents sought treatment for him and he was recommended to be sent to a state-run rehabilitation centre outside the north because there were no such centres around Jaffna.
Instead, considering pride and their social status, his parents chose a private, local rehabilitation centre, located 30 kilometres from the family home, run by a Catholic priest, Father Winston Patrick,
He still plays in local tournaments, but his well-built physique and ability to run more than 5 km with ease have disappeared.
“Soon after I returned from rehab, I realised everything has changed. My friends got busy with their own lives and I felt left out. My parents asked me to go to Colombo to follow an information technology course, but I want to focus on football. I want a new start,” Thass said.
Like Thaas, there are hundreds of drug addicts in the resource-limited former northern war zone, aged between 16 to 28 years. They gravitate to drugs because they feel depressed, or because of peer pressure.
A recent haul of Kerala ganja that was seized
In October, last year, a teacher from a Jaffna school found a 14-year old boy trafficking a heavy parcel of ‘mava’, a drug substance mixed chewing gum popular among students. But action was not pursued to protect the school’s reputation.
The Northern Province has become the hub of drug trafficking through Sri Lanka’s northern coast where Kerala ganja, hashish, ice (crystal methamphetamine), and beedi leaves, are being smuggled from India and Pakistan via maritime routes. The parents and the public have warned of increasing drug use among schoolchildren.
“The public accuse police of not doing enough to prevent drugs being trafficked to students and youths,” A. Uthayakumar, a counsellor at the Child Support Unit of Jaffna District Secretariat told the Sunday Times.
Ariyalai is among the hotspots in the north where drugs, particularly Kerala ganja, beedi leaves and drug-mixed tablets are being smuggled through to the island from South India, a Sunday Times investigation reveals.
Police and security forces have increased checkpoints in and around Jaffna since last month.
In 2019, the navy seized 3.5 tons of Kerala ganja in 140 operations where 221 suspects were taken into custody. They also seized about 739kg of heroin, 8kg of local cannabis, 42 tonnes of beedi leaves and a large consignment of drugs such as pills and drug mixed tablets.
They have increased surveillance near the Indian maritime boarder, but say it is nearly impossible to track the smugglers with at least 7,000 Indian fishing vessels in the deep seas on any given day.
“GPS technology is exploited by drug smugglers in mid sea to track each other’s location. Smugglers would bury these drug sacks in the deep seas until the exchange goes through,” Navy Spokesman Lieutenant Commander Isuru Sooriyabandara told the Sunday Times.
On Wednesday, four Indians were arrested by a naval patrol in Kudiramalai, Mannar where 41 gold biscuits weighing 4.2kg were seized. In 2019 alone, navy seized 11.7kg of gold in mid sea.
Lack of rehabilitation centres in the north also discourages those who seek medication as they do not want to send the drug addicts far away.
S. Thavarasa, the former opposition Leader of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) and a member of Civilian Security Committee, said that the criminal laws related to drug smuggling have to be strengthened further.
“When Kerala ganja sellers are arrested, they are released under police bail after a couple of weeks, and later they are back in business,” he said, adding that this raised suspicions whether there is hidden influence on the police and security forces.
Opposing drug use among youths can be dangerous.
Fr Winston Patrick, who runs a private rehabilitation home named Nambikkai Illam or House of Hope in Jaffna with limited facilities he had secured from the Jaffna District Secretariat, has been targeted by thugs.
On September 23 evening, two people came in a three-wheeler and asked him to visit their home to bless them in a common prayer. Fr. Patrick consented, but they took him to a isolated suburb of Jaffna town and beat him up mercilessly.
The attackers asked him why he is engaged in drug awareness campaigns in coastal villages. Later, he was dumped in Raasavin Thoddam street, a few kilometres from Jaffna town. He was identified by passers by and admitted to hospital with severe injuries. A police complaint was filed, but no one has been arrested.
“I believe, they wanted me to stop what I’m doing in the remote villages in Jaffna where many youths are addicted to drugs and this caused many social problems starting from the family to society level,” Fr Patrick told the Sunday Times.
His rehabilitation home has housed more than 600 people in the past 10 years.
Police deny allegations that they are not taking the drug menace seriously and say lack of Tamil-speaking police for intelligence is a limitation.
Kapila Kadupitiya, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) who has been appointed to Kankesanthurai, recently, believes drug smuggling is not as bad as it is claimed to be, and assures steps are being taken to tackle the issue.
People do not complain for fear of reprisals.
Last year, a school teacher was assaulted by a group of Advanced Level students in the school premises when he chided them for their alleged drug use. The school administration covered up the incident considering the school’s reputation. There was no complaint to police.
Some of them did not attend school for more that three months despite many efforts by the school administration and parents.
[This report was produced under the CIR Investigative Journalism Fellowship Program 2019/2020]