It was an October noon in 2013. Shah Jalal, a local man of Cox's Bazar, and his cousin were in the Rangikhali village of Teknaf's Hnila union on some errands. Both the men had legal troubles as they were accused in drug peddling cases.
The two would not see the sundown that day.
There, under the autumn sun, they came face to face with a group of men, allegedly from their rival drug gang wielding sticks and guns. The duo were first attacked with sticks, then, when they fell to the ground, they were shot. A local union member, Mohammad Shafiq was made the accused in their murder case.
Following that fateful day, seven other members of Shah Jalal's family, including his brother-in-law Sona Miah, were killed, some in crossfires with law enforcement agencies. In between these murders, Shafiq, also an alleged drug dealer, was left dead, his body riddled with bullets in a movie-style ambush.
Think Santino Corleone in The Godfather. That was Shafiq's fate.
Each of these murder cases is still pending in the courts in Cox's Bazar.
Kilometres of sandy beaches glittering in the sun, right next to an unending pearl blue ocean, bracketed by hills on the other side, have made Cox's Bazar the top tourist destination in the country.
But behind the city of splendour, covered by the glitz, lies an alternative reality: Instead of being a sea-side resort for honeymooners and long lazy evening walks down the beaches with crashing waves just metres away, Cox's Bazar is also the sin city.
The gateway to the crazy medicine – Yaba – Cox's Bazar has steadily earned a reputation as the crime capital of the country.
This southernmost district is reportedly now a haven of Yaba smuggling network peppered with murders, run by powerful druglords and a thriving human trafficking racket that sends out boatloads of hapless people who may not return alive again.
The most egregious, however, remains the drug trade: a record amount of methamphetamine – nearly 172 tonnes – was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2021, with over 1 billion methamphetamine tablets recorded for the first time. The total is seven times higher than it was 10 years ago, according to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes.
In 2018, amid a crackdown on drugs, 1.28 crore Yaba tablets were seized in Bangladesh alone. The anti-narcotics drive also left 519 people killed in gunfights and over one lakh were arrested.
Till July this year, 38 lakh meth tablets have been seized in different raids. The amount seized, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, a minuscule amount of what is smuggled in, according to law enforcers.
With the proliferation of the drugs comes an eye popping amount of money. In 2016, government officials said the business was worth over an estimated $3 billion annually, according to media reports. There is no current or reliable estimate available officially.
Drug dealers with deep pockets buy influence and arms. They can also often purchase impunity.
A person connected with law and order in the district, on condition of anonymity, said, "I have seen blood feuds between families and clans in Tamil movies. Murders happen in the daylight, out in the open. But after coming here, I saw that this was real."
He said murders in Cox's Bazar are over disputes over salt fields, land or even to establish dominance.
"Even the murder of a rising politician is very common. If a case is filed over such an incident, at least 20-30 people are made defendants."
Eight hundred murder cases are pending at the Additional District and Sessions Judge' of Cox's Bazar Abdullah Al Mamun's court alone. There are three more such courts in the district right now.
Apart from this, there are about 400 cases under trial in the district and session judge's courts, and 300 murder cases with three women and child repression prevention tribunals.
Around 500 more cases are being prepared for trial in the Magistrate Court.
The Cox's Bazar court alone has 2,000 murder cases.
A dubious distinction
Analysing statistics from courts across the country, Cox's Bazar comes out as the most crime-prone district in Bangladesh with an average of one criminal case for every 95 persons.
Dhaka has one case every 138 persons, Chattogram 155, Rajshahi 174, Barishal 181, Panchagarh 257, Rangpur 263 and Sylhet 269.
The lowest in the list is Khulna with one criminal case for every 461 persons.
The data was collated from criminal cases filed with different courts across various districts from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021.
The beach town is located on the southernmost tip of the country. Panchagarh is the northernmost. The distance from Teknaf at Cox's Bazar to Tentulia of Panchagarh is about 925 km, but from one end of the country to another, the crime rate is different. The nature of the crimes is also more violent in the beach front region.
Cox's Bazar has the highest number of murder and drug cases among the districts, excluding the big divisional cities.
Public Prosecutor of Cox's Bazar District and Sessions Judge Court Faridul Alam said there are more than 90,000 criminal cases pending with the court. Out of these, 30,000 are related to drugs and 1,000 are murder cases.
Apart from these, cases of arms, human trafficking and money laundering are also high.
Over 550 criminal cases have been filed in only the last six months, of which most relate to Yaba and crystal meth.
Mizanur Rahman, a resident of Teknaf upazila who has been following the worrisome rise in crimes and murders in his home town, told The Business Standard that most crimes in Cox's Bazar are drug related.
Absolute control of an area is a must for the drug traders to operate with immunity. There are regular turf wars between the drug syndicates. Some of these turn into blood feuds, plunging the syndicates into a series of retaliatory killings.
Flush with money, drug lords find it easy to recruit for their crime gangs and build their arsenals.
Kidnapping is now a regular occurrence in the Rohingya camps and the hills, he said.
Abu Taher, a member of the Cox's Bazar District Law and Order Committee and president of the press club, told TBS that the overall situation in Cox's Bazar has been deteriorating over the years.
The most serious crises in the districts are Yaba smuggling and the influx of Rohingyas, he said.
With a border that runs along dense forests and steep hills, surveillance is not strong and drugs continue to pour in unabated from the neighbouring country leading to more murders and kidnappings.
Myanmar's role as the biggest producer of the drug has exacerbated the situation, especially following a 2016 military crackdown in the country which forced over a million refugees to flood into Bangladesh.
Along with them came the drug and a better network for the trade was established.
Cases filed over murders and kidnappings are frequent now and the tourist city is turning into a notoriously gritty spot, he said.
Since the mass transfer of police officials in the recent past, the situation has become harder to control because many law enforcers struggle to understand the local dialect.
The general secretary of Cox's Bazar People's Forum, Farhad Iqbal, said Cox's Bazar was a border district and life was not smooth.
Rohingya-centric crimes, drug trafficking syndicates, kidnappings and murders are causing an stressful situation.
He called for quick repatriation of the Rohingyas and strict border control.
At the same time, if the pending cases were disposed of and the criminals were prosecuted, it would contribute to tame the crime situation, he expected.
A glance at drug-related cases shows that more than 2,000 such cases have been filed in five years centring the Rohingya camps alone.
According to a statistic from the Police Headquarters, there have been more than 1,650 drug cases related to Rohingya camps since 2017. Apart from this, 181 arms cases have been registered with 480 accused.
The untouchables revisited
Abdur Rahman Bodi is a name forever associated with the Yaba trade. He is also an example of the close connections that drug traders enjoy with the ruling party.
Bodi was a former MP representing the Cox's Bazar-4 constituency during 2009–2019. When the AL decided against giving him the ticket in the next election, the party nomination went to his wife, who went on to win the seat.
Like a modern day version of the legendary Hatem Tai, although with a tainted track record, from 2019, Bodi would spend roughly Tk 19 crore per year distributing rice among 56,000 poor people in Teknaf every month.
He would also donate sugar, milk, oil, lentils and chickpeas to the needy during the month of Ramadan.
His annual income, according to his 2014 polls affidavit, stood at around Tk 15.46 crore.
Eventually, law enforcers were forced into taking action. They figured out, the only way to tame the "untouchables" was to offer a deal they could not refuse.
The drug kingpins in Cox's Bazar were offered an amnesty, they had to surrender their arms and vow to never go back to the drug trade.
According to different reports, around 123 top narcotics dealers surrendered to the police in 2019.
Two of Bodi's brothers were also arrested during the surrender. One, who got bail, had committed to never returning to the drug trade. He, however, allegedly broke his promise and took up the trade a few months into his bail period.
Another released Yaba dealer became the chairman of Teknaf Union Parishad.
President of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Abu Morshed Chowdhury said there are geographical and geopolitical differences between Cox's Bazar and other districts of the country.
"There is no quick solution to this problem unless a special court is made to complete the trials quickly. At the same time, as a special district, there is a need to increase more activity in maintaining law and order and change the strategy," he said.
Our Cox's Bazar correspondent contributed to this report.