It is known in Asia as the "madness drug," or in the West as "Nazi speed," a highly addictive mix of methamphetamine and caffeine first developed by Hitler's scientists to keep soldiers fighting for days. Now, authorities in Bangladesh are increasingly sounding the alarm over the rise of Yaba, after the largest ever haul of the drug was intercepted by the country's navy.
The consignment of more than 1.5 million Yaba tablets was seized during the early hours of February 5 from a trawler approaching Bangladesh's main seaport at Chittagong, officials told local media at the weekend. The discovery, they say, highlights how smugglers are turning to sea and river routes to import the drug from its source in Myanmar, as Bangladeshi security forces clamp down on trafficking overland.
The seizure had a street value of around $10.6 million, authorities said. "According to our information, this is the biggest seizure in Bangladesh," Pranab Kumar Neogi, operations director at the Department of Narcotics Control in Dhaka, told VICE News.
Two days before the latest haul, on February 3, a team of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) seized 50,000 yaba tablets and arrested eight Myanmar citizens near Shahporir Dwip in Teknaf, near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
Also on the same day, an anti-smuggling team of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary force, arrested 12 sailors in a mechanized fishing boat off the port of Cox's Bazaar, carrying 300,000 pieces of Yaba tablets.
According to Navy and Bangladesh Coast Guard sources, 1.1 million Yaba tablets were seized from smugglers in the Karnaphuli estuary, connected to the Chittagong port, in 2014.
Colonel Khalequzzaman, the BGB commander in Cox's Bazaar, told VICE News that a few years ago Yaba traffickers used land routes around the Naf river, which runs across the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, to smuggle the drug into the country.
"As watchful vigilance by the anti-smuggling authorities was increased on the land routes, smugglers now prefer the Karnaphuli estuary and the Bay of Bengal," he said.
BGB sources claimed that the smugglers mostly use fishermen and trawlers to bring in supplies.
The pills, usually consumed orally or inhaled after being melted, elevates mood and increases alertness, concentration and energy. "That is why, it is extremely popular among the youth especially students who consume it prior to their examinations," said a former Yaba addict in Dhaka to VICE News.
He explained that Yaba helps students to stay up night after night to cram prior to examinations. "But just a few weeks of regular consumption can make an addict out of anyone," he said. Yaba also has nasty side effects, including paranoia, violent behavior and psychosis.
Saad Hammadi, an investigative journalist based in Dhaka, explained how Yaba had become popular in Bangladesh around 2006. "Back then, it was consumed by those in the entertainment industry and youth hailing from rich families. It helped people to stay up all night, they did not feel tired and were sold by peddlers at parties in upscale areas," he said to VICE News.
He pointed out that over the years, the drug has gained a wider exposure. "The amount of Yaba being seized by law enforcement agencies is a reflection of how the demand has increased," he said.
In October 2007, RAB raided a warehouse in Dhaka's diplomatic zone, where they found 130,000 Yaba tablets and 5,000 pieces of crystal meth. "That seizure was the largest haul at the time. Clearly, it suggested how the trade was only going to get bigger because of the patrons behind it," said Hammadi.
Most Yaba is produced in Myanmar, but as demand has grown, factories have also sprung up in Bangladesh.
"Presently, there are a number of factories in Teknaf of Bangladesh that produce Yaba," a Yaba peddler and resident of Cox's Bazar told VICE News. Alleging that these factories are owned by influential locals, he said that the Yaba they produce are "a low-quality variation of Champa pills that are smuggled from Myanmar."
Red in color, Champa is one of the best-selling Yaba types in Bangladesh. "The locally-produced Champa has bigger grains and they burn easily," he said.
He divulged that traders buy Champa yaba in bulk from traffickers in Naikhongchhari, near the Myanmar border, at Tk 45 ($ 0.70) per pill.
Both Myanmar and local variations of Champa are currently sold to end-users at Tk 250 to 300 per pill (nearly $4).
The other variety smuggled from Myanmar is R7D, which is more expensive due to its quality. These orange-coloured pills are bought in bulk at Tk 150 (less than $2) per unit in the border areas. After transferring through several hands, it is sold to end-users in Dhaka, Chittagong and other areas at Tk 500 to 600 (less than $8) per pill.
The yaba traders move the items to Cox's Bazar, then to Chittagong and from there to other parts of Bangladesh including the capital Dhaka. "Usually, highly influential yaba traders use the influence of unscrupulous law enforcment officials to transfer the drugs from one part of the country to the other," said the peddler.
Small scale traders use traffickers and courier services to move the illegal pills.
The sources said that demand for Yaba has spiked in part due to the consumption habits of users in Bangladesh.
"Most addicts take five to 10 pills at a time," the peddler said. But hardened addicts can take 25 to 30 pills at a go.
"There have been cases when addicts have died following strokes after they overdosed on Yaba," the former addict told VICE News.
Neogi, of the Department of Narcotics Control said that smuggling and sales of the drug were "rampant" in Bangladesh, despite seizures by authorities, due to the large profits involved.
Colonel Khalequzzaman said that Bangladeshi officials had repeatedly raised the issue with the Myanmar government. "Time and again, during high-level delegation meetings between Bangladesh and Myanmar, we have informed our Myanmar counterparts about the smuggling of Yaba," he told VICE News.
"They are sincere in their efforts to stop the smugglers. But the smugglers have proven to be more influential," he said.