As Czech crackdown on heroin widens, some wonder if new policies will follow

Czech authorities face new pressure as police began a months-long crackdown on a major, public drug trafficking ring this week.

The arrests could offer the Czech Republic’s leaders a chance to tackle a decades-old problem, but it’s not clear whether they will move ahead with long-gestating policy to combat opioid use.

It’s likely that the Czech Republic will soon bolster efforts to stem the flow of drugs — largely heroin — from Central Asia, with or without new official policies.

The crackdown started this week when officers from the State Investigation Bureau raided a room in central Prague where about 10 kilograms of heroin and 10 kilograms of narcotics were taken. Authorities said the raid, and subsequent seizures, targeted traffickers based in the city’s northern district.

Prosecutors then found hundreds of kilos of heroin and narcotics along with pills in two search operations in the area, Czech police officials said Wednesday.

Two Lebanese, a Turkish citizen and a native of Azerbaijan were charged in the operation as part of a joint initiative by authorities in the Czech Republic, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The residents of those countries were allegedly involved in the trafficking of more than 50 kilograms of heroin to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the European Union, the Czech National Police and the Interior Ministry said.

The Interior Ministry said another 47 kilos of heroin, another large amount of drugs and weapons were seized during other raids in western and northern parts of the country. The operation spanned one month, and helped uncover one of the biggest heroin-trafficking rings in the country, police said.

“We can also look to the possibility that among the people arrested was the heroin laboratory responsible for producing and packaging heroin with its proceeds,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said in a statement. “We have found that the location was constructed using materials imported from Turkey and used by the smugglers to mix the substances and package heroin.”

Authorities estimated that the seized drugs had a street value of up to $10 million. There were no injuries in the raids, police said.

Police also seized about 17 kilograms of drug smuggling methods, such as sprays, plastic wrap, packaging tools and bullets, the Interior Ministry said.

Last year, the Czech Republic had the fifth-highest heroin use rate in Europe and the 16th-highest rate of opioid use in the EU, according to a 2016 U.N. report. Almost one in five adults in the country use heroin, officials said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.N. watchdog, estimates that heroin use in Central and Eastern Europe increased 52 percent between 2000 and 2014.

The surge in heroin has been largely driven by “asymmetric flow,” a term used to describe where drugs are coming from and how they are trafficked. “Rise in heroin use in areas bordering the European Union is driven by several factors, including changes in geopolitical and socioeconomic setup in these countries, as well as the realization of Afghan heroin in the region,” the U.N. said.

The crackdown in the Czech Republic comes less than a month after Slovakia called for a major, ongoing investigation into the Islamic State in its territory after police killed a member of the group. Prime Minister Robert Fico, a former European Parliament member, said on social media that the Islamic State was “operating from across the border in Bosnia-Herzegovina and has set up a permanent fighting unit in Serbia,” according to a Slovak news service.

Authorities are investigating both the Islamic State and the main heroin dealing networks, and arresting traffickers at this point could potentially disrupt the networks and allow them to operate more smoothly in future.

“We can’t wait to cut off the supply chains that are used to move the drugs across the border,” Jiri Kramar, a director of the Interior Ministry, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

In the past year, the Czech Republic has faced pressure to crack down on heroin use, after a Mexican cartel was linked to a series of operations that caused a number of overdoses and deaths, including one in which the state security agency suffered a suicide. Police said they would set up observation points at all major and minor railway stations and airports, and ensure the air is not polluted with the usual volume of smuggled drugs.

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