- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2004

GOA, India — The peaceful, fun-loving and tourist-friendly image of India’s western beach state of Goa has suffered a major blow after a new police report pointed to at least 59 “mysterious deaths” of foreign tourists in the past 15 months.

Twenty-five of the visitors died in a three-month period — the peak tourist season between December 2003 and February 2004 — and many suspect most of the deaths were caused by drug overdoses.

“Up to 10 foreign tourists had died here almost every year, and it hardly made any news. But this time the toll was sensationally high,” said David Lobo who runs a restaurant at Calangute, a beach popular among foreign tourists.

Although police linked only five deaths to drugs last year, activists campaigning for a “clean and drug free Goa” believe that overdoses of heroin and a killer cocktail of other drugs openly available at local pharmacists caused the “mysterious deaths” of 59 foreign tourists.

A Goa Medical College forensic medicine specialist, who asked not to be named, said that because of “inordinate delay” by police in collecting the viscera from bodies of dead tourists, traces of ketamine were going undetected.

Since the “plasma half-life of ketamine is just 2 to 4 hours, the viscera [in cases of suspected ketamine deaths] should be collected soon — if possible within 24 hours of death. But in as many as 90 percent of cases, this [doesn’t happen] … making detection of traces of heavily decomposed ketamine in the viscera difficult.

“In quite a few cases, tourists admit in their dying statements to have taken ketamine. But later, forensic experts fail to find any of the drug in the viscera after death, obviously because of a delay in collecting the viscera. … In such cases police cannot link the death to ketamine.”

Ketamine hydrochloride, or ketamine, was originally used as an anaesthetic for American soldiers in the Vietnam War. It resurfaced as “Special K” in the 1990s, and became popular at rave parties, used with cannabis, heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy.

“Under the influence of ketamine, which gives its users an ‘out of body’ or ‘near death’ feeling, some tourists dived into the sea without knowing how to swim, and died. Later, police registered them as ordinary drowning deaths,” said Joel De Souza, a restaurant owner in Anjuna, another popular beach in Goa.

Of the 59 foreigners who died, the largest number, 28, came from Britain. Ian Hughes, the British deputy high commissioner in Bombay, visited Goa recently to meet with police officials, members of narcotic squads and doctors at Goa Medical College to discuss the deaths.

About 20,000 British backpackers visit Goa every year, far outnumbering tourists from other countries. It could be one reason why nearly half the drug fatalities in Goa are from Britain.

An officer at police headquarters in Panaji said: “Some professional British drug traffickers have probably started operating on this circuit, smuggling ketamine and other drugs to the UK and other European destinations. Only a few ‘small fries’ have been caught, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.”

A federal Narcotics Control Bureau official from New Delhi said: “Because of the well-publicized crackdown on drug cartels in Thailand last year, the price of heroin and other drugs shot up there. So, in recent months an increasing number of foreign drug users have switched to Goa and Manali, where they find a variety of drugs easily available in the underground market.”

Manali is a hill station in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the gateway to the Himalayas.

In the last three months, Goa’s Food and Drugs Administration seized ketamine and methamphetamine worth about U.S. $10,200 from four unauthorized pharmacists around Goa’s popular beaches.

When Nicholas Thiery Sabrice Borjnat, 30, a French citizen, was found dead in his hotel room off Anjuna beach on Jan. 25 this year, police found an empty vial of ketamine.

In the room of British tourist Nicholas Roy Beckett, 37, who died Dec. 9, 2003, police found empty vials of ketamine and methamphetamine. Later, the postmortem report confirmed that he died of acute pulmonary and brain edema caused by a drug overdose.

A 37-year-old British jeweler and his French companion died in December, also at Anjuna beach, after the two overdosed on ultra-pure heroin bought from a local trafficker.

Among the 59 foreign tourists who died mysteriously in the past 15 months, most were between 20 and 45 years old. Twenty-two were from European countries other than Britain — Germany, Italy, Portugal, France, Sweden, Spain, Finland, Norway, Austria and the Netherlands — and nine were from Israel, Japan, Russia, Bahrain, Canada and Kenya.

Devika Sequiera, a reporter for the Deccan Herald who has been tracking the story, agreed that most of the deaths could be linked to overdoses. “It is strange that the authorities do not admit the connection of drugs to these deaths,” she said. “Often, all the signs — like pulmonary and brain edema — are present, indicating that the deaths were due to a drug overdose.”

In India, ketamine is mostly used as an anaesthetic in walk-in surgery. Although it is listed prescription-only, it can be bought freely at pharmacies in Goa. The beach shacks — restaurants and bars operating on the beaches during the peak tourist season from October to April — are known to supply ketamine illegally.

The beach shacks, and nearby hotels, bars and restaurants, often organize “rave” parties where heroin, ketamine and other drugs are served surreptitiously to foreign guests, along with food and alcohol sold openly.

S.N. Tripathi, director of Goa’s Food and Drugs Administration, said: “It’s apparent that abuse [of ketamine] is greater than its genuine medical use. Rules prescribe it must be sold only on a doctor’s prescription. Medical stores are within their rights to stock it. But it appears that unaccounted bulk sales are taking place.”

Western backpackers discovered the golden beaches of Goa in the 1960s, when hippies fell in love with the tranquillity and the cheap marijuana. Four decades later, Goa is still a favorite haunt for those who come to India seeking cheap and easy drugs.

Some European tourists have reportedly taken to trafficking ketamine and other drugs to fund their trips to India. British, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian traffickers apparently operate on a “triangular circuit” — arriving to spend the summer and buy cannabis in Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas. Then they travel to Goa to sell the cannabis to backpackers in the winter. Finally, the sale proceeds are used in Goa to buy ketamine, methamphetamine and other drugs to be trafficked to Europe.

In Goa, one liter of ketamine (1.06 quart) costs about U.S. $450. After being smuggled to Europe in bottles of rose water, its street value soars to U.S. $6,000 or more.

Last year, Food and Drugs Administration and customs officials seized about 150 liters of ketamine from unauthorized suppliers and European tourists. In most cases, ketamine seized from the European passengers flying out of Goa’s Dabolim airport was discovered disguised as rose water.

Although the passengers could not be detained since ketamine is not a listed narcotic drug, the bottles were confiscated in all cases because the passengers could not produce the mandatory medical prescriptions.

In April last year, a judge in London sentenced a Briton and his two Portuguese and Italian accomplices to jail terms for smuggling ketamine from Goa into Britain.

Ketamine and methamphetamine are not listed narcotics in India, so the authorities find it difficult to impose stiff penalties on traffickers. However, customs officials in Goa said they had recently requested that federal authorities in New Delhi include ketamine, methamphetamine and some other pharmaceuticals in the schedule under India’s Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.

According to local sources, drug traffickers from the Himalayan states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh have also started smuggling high-grade heroin into Goa. Some foreigners accustomed to taking low-grade heroin in large doses used the same quantities of the high-grade heroin, with fatal results.

Some 2 million tourists visit Goa every year, about 10 percent of them foreigners. Many Goans have complained that local authorities turn a blind eye to drugs in Goa to protect the tourist trade.

Bruno Almeida, a native Goan, said: “If there is a crackdown on drugs, tourism will be hit badly and it will affect the local economy, which is tourism-oriented. So the ruling party does not support any action against the drug sellers and drug users.”

Elma Figueiredo, a college teacher from Panaji said: “Now, many local young people are being sucked into the world of new drugs like ketamine and falling sick. Dropout rates in the schools are soaring. It is already a big problem for Goan society as well.”

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