For years, Burera and Gicumbi districts had become synonymous with smuggling of illicit alcohol and drugs from across the border in Uganda.
This smuggling activity is often conducted by a criminal network locally known as Abarembetsi.
Residents in the two districts say that members of the Abarembetsi are often armed with edged sticks, machetes and spears, among other lethal weapons, and are considered a threat to society.
“It is a big racket that is well organised and coordinated,” said Anastase Niryayo, a local leader at Gatare Cell, Kivuye Sector in Burera District.
Police say that these criminals are responsible for smuggling illicit substances into the country.
Among the popular illicit brands often smuggled include kanyanga, Chief Waragi, Blue Sky, Simba Waragi, Coffee Sprit, Host Waragi, and African Gin as well as drugs like marijuana.
Rwanda National Police’s Northern Region spokesperson, Chief Inspector of Police (CIP) Hamdun Twizeyimana, said that Police are cracking down on the group’s operations and have impounded illegal substances as well as arrested some of its members.
He said that the Police were able to destroy thousands of kilogrammes of illegal substances.
CIP Twizeyimana noted that the progress has been dependent on partnership with multiple stakeholders, including local government, and residents -- who unanimously agreed to launch a campaign against the illegal operations.
Statistics show that significant amounts of illicit substances have been impounded along the popular smuggling routes in the two districts over the last two months.
The impounded items include over 38,000 litres of kanyanga, 150kg of cannabis, 3,370 litres of Chief Waragi, as well as 580kg of khat.
Local residents from the two districts who spoke to The New Times said that the drug smuggling has reduced significantly in recent days owing to Police crackdown, that’s supported by the residents.
Syverie Bakesigakye, 70, from Bungwe Sector, Burera District, said that, as a person who was previously a drug user and dealer, he decided to leave the vice after his family was torn apart by its dire consequences.
“From my childhood, I was a renowned drug smuggler as I used to pass through various porous borders to Uganda to bring in illicit substances, especially kanyanga. I did this for about 50 years,” he said.
He admits that his family’s welfare bore the brunt of his actions.
“The use of illicit drugs has affected my family’s wellbeing. When I learnt about the consequences, including a 5-year jail term for smuggling, I decided to give up the vice about four years ago,” he said.
Jean-Paul Bimenyimana, a resident of Nyankeke Sector in Gicumbi District, said that the partnership between various authorities has significantly reduced the vice in the region.
To further curb drug smuggling and use in the region, anti-drug clubs have been set up in all sectors of the two districts.
The clubs convene community members to raise awareness of the danger of drug use as well as how to help those who are already caught up in the vice.
“There is a significant reduction of use of illicit drugs courtesy of the various measures taken, including the anti-drug clubs which were solely created to disseminate information related to the use and trafficking of illicit drugs within districts. The clubs are productive,” says Twizeyimana.
Statistics from Police indicate that a total of 705 members of the criminal syndicate were apprehended last year and their files transferred to prosecution.
Among the detainees, 251 were from Burera District, 205 from Gicumbi, while the remaining were from Gakenke, Musanze and Rulindo districts.
Juvénal Mudaheranwa, the Mayor of Gicumbi District, said that the anti-drug clubs have proven to pay off in the fight against drug dealers and drug use.
“In those clubs, we take members through ways to help their friends and neigbours quit drug use,” the mayor said.
Article 594 of the Rwandan penal code stipulates that unlawful production, importation or sale narcotics and psychotropic substances within the country is punishable by imprisonment of between three and five years and a fine of between Rwf500,000 and Rwf5m.