El Chapo in Egypt: A deadly mix of murder and meth

Zeinab El-Gundy , Sunday 10 Apr 2022

Methamphetamine – known as “El Chapo” – is a highly addictive and destructive synthetic drug that is gaining public notice in Egypt for its role in fueling a series of horrifying murders over the past few years.

Sohag governorate
A file photo of a drug bust involving a Meth/ice lab in Sohag governorate, Upper Egypt (Photo: Egyptian Interior Ministry)

A series of violent murders shocked Egyptian society in 2021. Their common factor, in addition to taking place mostly within families, was the presence of methamphetamine, commonly known as crystal meth or – in Egypt – as El-Chapo, after the infamous Mexican cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Ahram Online has compiled this timeline through a cursory survey of Egyptian media.

(Warning: Extreme graphic and violent details, reader discretion is advised)

In March 2020, the Qena governorate woke up to a horrifying mass murder when a 35-year-old man killed his two elder brothers and injured his younger brother after taking El Chapo and fought with them. The media labelled the mass murder as “the brothers’ massacre,” but it soon fell out of the public eye due to coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2021, in a village in the Sohag governorate, an eight-year-old girl was stabbed brutally by her addicted cousin who wanted to steal her golden earrings to buy El Chapo.

In late April 2021, in a village in the Ismailia governorate, a father killed his own 10-year-old son by electrocution, allegedly when the boy refused to listen to his orders. According to the neighbors, the father – an El Chapo addict – had become extremely violent to the level that his wife left him.

Then in May, during the Holy Month of Ramadan, a baker killed his wife and six children in a Fayoum village after verbal fight during the Suhor meal. The graphic bloody details in the murder shocked society. The murderer, who attempted suicide after his crime, did not only turn to have mental issues but he also was addicted to both Strux and El Chapo drugs.

Strux is another, but unrelated, synthetic drug available on Egyptian streets.

In June, a man in his 30s killed his girlfriend in Ismailia governorate after beating her to death. The man admitted in front of the authorities that they both were addicted to El Chapo.

One month later, also in Ismailia, a university student killed own his father who worked as a mechanic after a fight between them over his addiction to El Chapo.

In October, the whole nation was shocked by a viral video online showing a man decapitating another man in the street in the daylight and walking with the victim’s head dangling in one hand on an Ismailia street before his arrest. The man, who turned to be addicted to El-Chapo, was sentenced to death in January.

The murders with the traces of El-chapo continue in 2022 till the early weeks of March with the same similarities that the preparator is close personally to the victim or victims and the murder is itself extremely brutal.

In almost all of the above cases, the murderers and victims alike came from the working classes in mostly rural areas outside Cairo, shattering the myth that meth is a rich person’s drug.

“Under the influence of El Chapo or methamphetamine, a person may take decisions or commit actions, he would not do normally and as a result later he may not even remember even what he had done,” Professor of Clinical Toxicology at Faculty of Medicine in Cairo University Dr Nabil Abdel-Maksoud explained to Ahram Online.

According to Abdel-Maksoud, those murders are the result of excessive physical force brought about by the poor decision making capabilities under the influence of meth, which is a very highly addictive drug.

“The end will be a criminal one, either the addict will harm himself or harm those around him and usually they are those who are the nearest to him from the family,” he said.

A crystal-clear dangerous history

Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant that appeared for the first time in 1893 in Japan, but won its infamous reputation as a Nazi drug during World War II.

During the war, the German army issued the drug to its soldiers under the name “Pervitin” so they could stay up for days without sleep or fatigue. The drug helped contribute to the German’s early battlefield successes, but also helped fuel war crimes by mentally exhausted troops

“Meth gives huge abnormal power and activity to the person who takes it and thus this person may have huge physical power that his body itself may not tolerate,” Abdel-Maksoud explained Ahram.

Even for the Nazi government, the violence produced by the constant use of Pervitin was too much that it ordered the reduction of doses for its soldiers.

Fast forward to the 1980s, the use of meth as a drug exploded in the United States, followed by a proliferation to the rest of the world.

Icy new route: A short history of meth in Egypt

Egypt began to witness a spread of synthetic drugs 2009, with nearly 700 types having been recorded so far. However, the most deadly and addictive so far has been El-Chapo, which is known as “ice” by the security forces.

The story of how it came to Egypt is quite different than that of other drugs.

“Egypt has known drugs since the 19th century as they were smuggled from Palestine and Lebanon as well as from the Mediterranean,” former minister of interior aide for drug enforcement and retired police general Sameh El-Kilany told Ahram Online.

He explained that most drug traffickers now have changed their methods, using routes through the Red Sea, Sudan or Libya.

“Nevertheless, in case of ice, it did not come through those routes, but through a group of our Egyptian expats from Sohag governorate working in the Gulf, specifically from Kuwait from nearly seven years ago,” he said.

Working in Kuwait as contractors and labourers, they began to use the drug as a stimulant to give them more energy, bringing it back into the country in small batches, according according to the retired police general.

The ice that arrived in Egypt from Kuwait can be traced back to the infamous Golden Triangle area in South Asia, spanning the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

According to recent reports on world drug trafficking, the Golden Triangle is now one of the world’s leading areas for the production of synthetic drugs, meth in particular.

“The first time this drug surfaced publicly in Egypt was in Upper Egypt and this was a strange thing considering the history of drug movement in the country,” he told Ahram online.

“It moved from Sohag to Assuit then to Cairo and other governorates,” he explained, adding that it was a completely new route he had never seen before, despite working over 38 years in counter-drug activities.

Egypt takes pride that its Anti-Narcotic General Administration (ANGA), under the Ministry of Interior, is the oldest drug control agency in the world, having been established in 1929.

It is noteworthy that many of ANGA meth busts have been in Sohag, according to statements by the Ministry of Interior over the past year. It has become a hot zone.

But the deadly drug is not only smuggled into the country, it is also manufactured locally in underground labs which increases the challenge for the ANGA to stop its spread despite its initial expensive price.

Spread in Egypt: Different factors to deadly results

According to Egypt’s National Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction “there has been a noticeable increase in the use of the synthetic drugs in Egypt, reaching 17 percent in 2021.”

“Seven percent out of the 17 percent of the people admitted to the fund asking for help last year were addicted to meth,” Dr. Amr Osman, the director of the fund and assistant to the minister of social solidarity, told Ahram Online.

According to Osman, the reason behind the noticeable rise in use of meth in Egypt is related to fact that the synthetic drugs in general have spread during the coronavirus lockdown, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC).

“The social impact of the pandemic – driving a rise in inequality, poverty and mental health conditions particularly among already vulnerable populations – represent factors that could push more people into drug use,” the UN’s World Drugs 2021 report issued in June 2021 said.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, the traditional drug trafficking routes through ports for example could not operate, thus drug traffickers and dealers began to head domestically to produce drugs thus the recent spread of synthetic drugs including meth,” Osman told Ahram Online.

Nevertheless, the direct reason behind its recent increase in Egypt according to Former Police General Sameh El-Kilany may not be the pandemic, but rather the simple market rule of supply and demand.

“The drug depends on its price and whenever its price is reduced it spreads more and more, meth is spreading now because its price is getting cheaper,” he said, giving the example of how one gram of cocaine was sold for EGP 3,000 but now it is sold for a price between EGP 500-1000.

Dr Nabil Abdel-Maksoud has a different view on how meth began to spread after it began to be was locally produced, despite its high price.

“El Chapo began to be locally produced, not with pure methamphetamine but rather with small amount of meth as it is hard to get while other cheaper drugs and materials like glue and acetone [inhalants] are added to mix,” he explained, adding that the user cannot differentiate between the ingredients as the final product looks identical to the infamous crystal shape of meth abroad.

Nevertheless, it was expensive, but a little less expensive.

“One gram of meth is sold for EGP 1,000 while one gram of cocaine is sold for at most LE 1,000. But one gram of cocaine is sold for one personal use only while one gram of meth can be used by several people as one person can inhale it once or twice then loses control [and others can continue using it,]” the professor of toxicology said.

One gram of meth can be enough for 10 people with each can paying EGP 100 and distributing it among themselves, he elaborated

Despite the three experts emphasising different factors affecting meth’s recent spread in Egypt, they all agree on the most important factor: it is highly addictive and can turn a healthy person into an addict with only one use.

Is there a way to treat a highly addictive drug like meth?

The short answer is yes, but the long one that it is very complicated according to both Dr Nabil Abdel-Maksoud and Dr Amr Osman

There is not one definite treatment for the type of drug that directly attacks the human’s nervous system from the first use, but medicine can help the patient till the body gets rid of it and its use stops, according to Dr Abdel-Maksoud.

Dr Amr Osman believes the nature of the synthetic drugs make it more complicated and already many of those addicts have other psychological problems that can be treated and help the patients to overcome their need for drugs.  

“Each drug in Egypt usually starts as something small then gets bigger till it becomes a public phenomenon and some of these drugs disappear like a drug called ‘phantom’ that no one can recall publicly,” retired police general Sameh El-Kilany told Ahram Online.

Drugs are like a fashion, some of them rise and fade for newer drugs, he said, expressing hope that El Chapo may fade soon.

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