With his pony tail, long sideburns, tight jeans and cowboy boots, Noah Zaayter cuts an odd figure as he struts through this tiny Lebanese village trailed by his own militiamen.
The 37-year-old is one of about 50 drug barons who operate with near total impunity in the Bekaa, a lawless region controlled mainly by Hezbollah and for years synonymous with drug trafficking and militancy.
AdvertisementZaayter sports a baseball cap, worn back-to-front, and a chrome-plated pistol on his waistband, but his men -- nicknamed "tiger", "scorpion" or "bin Laden" -- are armed with machine-guns, some equipped with grenade launchers.
A Hummer and several other four-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted glass are parked outside his mansion, where a watch tower stands as a warning to visitors that this is no place for a Sunday stroll.
"I fear no one but God," said Zaayter defiantly, standing near fields of cannabis that surround his home on the outskirts of the village.
Though not considered by police the biggest drug lord in Lebanon, Zaayter, who is a Shiite Muslim, is one of the more outspoken and does not shy away from publicity.
He speaks openly about his illicit activities and insists the life of crime he leads is not by choice. He also says that he is not affiliated with or protected by any one of the country's rival pro- and anti-Syrian factions whose bickering brought the country close to civil war in May.
"I and other farmers in the region plant hashish because we have no other choice," said the father of four who is constantly surrounded by 14 bodyguards. "That is the only crop we can sell.
"If we plant potatoes, cotton or tobacco, the state won't subsidize that so we plant hashish."
He said he reaps about 1.5 million dollars in profits on a good year. Part of the money is spent helping the village's 200 or so residents, some of whom have no running water or electricity.
"I look after these people, I give them bread and water since the state is not capable of doing so," Zaayter said, gesturing angrily. "I am a wanted man, but I am wanted by a bunch of thieves and I have more honour than all of them.
"Once there is a state functioning in this country and a proper judicial system, I will be the first to turn myself in," he added. "But I am not going to surrender to a bunch of thieves."
Mohammed Shammas, a local farmer, said villagers feel indebted to Zaayter.
"He is a generous man and what the authorities are doing to him is unfair," Shammas said. "They charge him with anything bad that happens in the region but if it weren't for him some people here wouldn't survive."
The Bekaa region for long has been reputed as a fertile ground for drugs and a bastion of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organisation by Washington.
During the country's 1975-1990 civil war, the drug trade flourished into a multi-billion dollar industry, with Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon until its troops were forced to pull out in 2005, actively involved.
Following the war, drug cultivation collapsed amid pressure by the United States to wipe out production but it has increased in the past two years due to political unrest.
"The rotten political situation in Lebanon has allowed for this," laments Colonel Adel Mashmushi, head of the country's drug enforcement bureau. "In the last two years production has significantly shot up because of the situation."
He said some 3,500 hectares of land (35 square kilometres) were cultivated this year with cannabis and poppies, the source for opium before it is converted into heroin.
A kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of hashish, which is derived from cannabis, sells for 300 to 400 dollars wholesale, while heroin sells for 9,000 to 10,000 dollars a kilogramme, Mashmushi said.
"We are unable to do much against the drug lords because tribal law rules in the Bekaa region and given the unsteady political situation and our means we cannot expose our troops to danger," he said.
"So those wanted by the state are taking advantage and operating out in the open."
Mashmushi said the drug barons export their production or sell it on the local market.
Some, like Zaayter, stamp the wrapping on their products with their initials.
"People like Noah Zaayter think they are above the law ... but one day they will end up in prison because that's where they belong," Mashmushi said. "One day we will go after them."
Zaayter's rap sheet reads pages long. He is wanted on 487 criminal charges ranging from drug trafficking, car theft and terrorism to weapons dealing, fraud, kidnapping and extortion. He is also wanted by Interpol.
He brushes aside the charges saying they are but a reflection of the authorities' obsession with him.
"Don't ask how come they haven't caught up with me yet but rather why I haven't caught up with them," said Zaayter, who dreamt of becoming an army officer while growing up.
"If selling hashish is a crime but selling the state, killing its citizens and keeping its people hungry is not, then I will proudly remain the biggest criminal."