Pinned down by half-a-dozen officers of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), Henry Ideofor was seething with anger. It was at the call of the local shopkeeper, Gajraj Singh, that the 35-year-old Nigerian had opened the gates of his rented house in that Greater Noida neighbourhood on the morning of May 10.
“We never got to know each other, but I think he saw me as a friend. He was angry that I had tricked him into opening the gate,” Singh, 55, said.
Singh was among those rare local residents who Ideofor had interacted with during his four years there. They didn’t know each other by name. Ideofor would refer to Singh as “Baba”; the shopkeeper would call him “Mister”. Their interactions were limited to Ideofor occasionally purchasing eggs, bread or water from Singh’s shop.
Singh’s guilt did not last long, even as he is yet to come to terms with how ignorant he had been.
According to NCB, the house was serving as the storehouse for pseudoephedrine – a precursor chemical used for manufacturing a range of narcotics– and a laboratory for cocaine.
By the time the raid ended in the evening, NCB declared that it had recovered 1,818kg of pseudoephedrine and 1.9kg of cocaine – the total worth of the seized drug was about ₹26 crore in the international market. While the pseudoephedrine was being smuggled to Africa, the cocaine, NCB officials said, was for sale in the National Capital Region.
“It was the biggest-ever seizure of pseudoephedrine in India outside the limits of factory premises,” said NCB’s north zonal director, Madho Singh.
Through all of last year, a total of 2,500kg of illegal pseudoephedrine were recovered across India.
THE PERFECT SETTING
But none of the residents of this sparsely populated neighbourhood of Greater Noida’s Sector P4 had any reason to suspect that the house was serving as a “drug den”.
According to NCB officers, it was the “perfect setting” of the house and location that allowed the racket to go on undetected for so long.
Located about 4km from the Pari Chowk Metro station, just about 50 of the 224 houses in this green colony are inhabited. Most of these houses – mostly single-storey structures constructed over big plots — are owned by senior government officials who live elsewhere and have caretakers maintain their houses.
No security guard, infrequent patrolling by the local police, and poor transportation mean that residents here are hardly bothered by anyone. The house serving as the drug den was surrounded on its three sides by five plots, none of which were inhabited.
Built over a 300 square metre plot, the single-storey three-bedroom house was guarded by three CCTV cameras, including one at the rear through which there was no entry. An NCB investigator said that Ideofor used his mobile phone to monitor the footage.
The fact that the house was owned by Devendra PN Pandey, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer posted in Lucknow, helped the alleged drug dealers stay undisturbed. Pandey rented out the house in 2015 for ₹24,000 a month – a princely sum in a neighbourhood where entire houses were rented out for as little as one-fourth the amount.
Pandey would visit the house only a couple of times in a year.
“Ideofor and a woman who he introduced as his wife (30-year-old Chimando Okora) would host me in the front room. I never checked the house as I thought it was rude to invade their privacy,” said Pandey.
According to the NCB officials, Pandey never knew that the rooms in the rear of the building that served as the storehouse for drugs. “The Nigerian nationals had stacked the pseudoephedrine in 52 big drums, all concealed in the large washrooms. They ensured that the rooms showed no signs of drugs,” said an NCB officer involved in the raid.
Pandey also did not know what was cooking – quite literally – in the basement of the house. “A large electronic apparatus used for cooking adulterated cocaine was recovered from the basement,” said Madho Singh.
According to the NCB investigation so far, the house was occupied by Ideofor and his friend Okora since 2015. But most residents saw the house as unoccupied because of a large lock hanging from its main gate. Those who observed closely recounted the effort that went into giving that impression.
“The African couple would move around only after midnight in cars bearing yellow number plates. They rarely brought the cabs to their doorstep. Instead, they would ask the cab driver to accompany them to the house, ask him to lock the main gate from the outside, and then hand over the keys to them. We wondered at this odd behaviour, but never thought about it,” said Chhatarpal Bhati, the shopkeeper’s son.
NCB officers said the couple stored food and water that could last for months. The Nigerian couple did not drink or smoke publicly.
“They never behaved in a way that would make us angry,” Bhati said. Whenever Ideofor visit the local shop, he never carried more than a ₹100 note. “We wouldn’t have imagined he was dealing in drugs worth crores of rupees,” said Bhati’s father.
According to SK Jha, the deputy director general of NCB, the two Nigerians were procuring large quantities of pseudoephedrine from contacts in India, where the drug is sold legally in a controlled manner to manufacture medicines.
Their exact source is yet to be identified, but Jha said that the destination of the pseudoephedrine has been established. “They would courier the pseudoephedrine to the African countries where they would be turned into methamphetamine for sale across the world,” said Jha.
Commonly known as crystal meth, or just meth, methamphetamine was central to the plot of the popular American TV series Breaking Bad.
Ideofor has allegedly told his interrogators that he was only working at the behest of another African man, Bruno Kuffor, who remains on the run. Kuffor, allegedly the kingpin of the racket, operated from his country, Sierra Leone.
NCB officials said the modus operandi was to send small quantities of pseudoephedrine to African countries by packing them in specially designed cavities of suitcases, many of which were recovered from the house.
“They would pay ₹2 lakh and sponsor the air tickets of African people willing to visit India and take back a few kilos of the drug. These couriers would visit the Greater Noida house and take back 20kg to 30kg of the drug with them,” said an investigator.
According to Madho Singh, a total of 10 Africans have been arrested at the Delhi airport for smuggling pseudoephedrine. “But none of them could lead us to the source of the drug. The racketeers made efforts to ensure that the couriers don’t know the exact location they picked up the drugs from,” he said.
A LONG STAY
When Nomsa Lutalo, a 31-year-old woman arrived from South Africa to pick up the drugs from the Greater Noida house, her return tickets could not be immediately arranged. “The woman ended up staying here for a month during which she often loiter in the neighbourhood,” said Madho Singh.Lutalo was caught by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) at the Delhi Airport on May 9 while she was allegedly smuggling 24.7kg of pseudoephedrine in the cavities of maths and science textbooks packed in a suitcase.
“When we questioned her, she was able to provide certain details of the neighbourhood she stayed in. We worked on the inputs to zero down on the Greater Noida house,” said Madho Singh.
In the Greater Noida neighbourhood, residents have been looking at anyone and anything with suspicion since the raid. “Those are marijuana plants. The Africans must have been cultivating them”, Mukesh Yadav, the caretaker of a bungalow, is quick to point out on spotting some small, tender plants at the rear lane of the notorious house.
He is still figuring out the difference between marijuana, pseudoephedrine, and cocaine.
May 18, 2019 05:31 IST