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Afghanistan: UN Drug Control Program Needs Help

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan has become the world's leading exporter of opium, creating a flood of drugs moving through neighboring countries to western markets. In the third part of a three-part series, RFE/RL interviews the UN Drug Control Program's representative in Tehran on Iran's need for assistance in the fight against smuggling.

Prague, 20 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Antonio Mazzitelli heads the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) office that opened in Tehran last year to assist Iranian efforts to fight drug smuggling from Afghanistan. He spoke with our correspondent by phone from Tehran.

RFE/RL asked Mazzitelli to describe the financial resources available to Tehran in combating traffickers.

"The UNDCP, which launched this operation here in 1999, is currently running a program of assistance worth $12.7 million over a period of four years. We have received some contributions to this program, but we haven't reached the full funding of these projects. Just to give you an example, the budget of the drug control secretariat in Iran for one year amounts to something in the order of $125 million, without including the items of expenditures by the army, the disciplinary forces, Ministry of Health, judiciary, etc., etc. Iran roughly estimates its drug control commitment so far at $1.5 billion [over the past ten years]."

Mazzitelli said that Iran needs more assistance to strengthen its efforts but that European countries -- the main destination for the drug trade -- have yet to provide significant bilateral assistance outside the UN program.

"They are just starting negotiations, and France has initiated a bilateral program which, however, is very small. They are working on a sniffer-dog program with one trainer and eight dogs. I don't know the numbers but I guess it would not exceed $50,000. Bilaterally there is nothing else. We are working on defining figures, but at this stage, rather than money what Iran needs is political support, exchange of experiences and some opening in terms of the possibility of importing certain equipment that is required for the anti-drug campaign at the border with Afghanistan. Almost everything is subject to embargo right now, so it is very difficult for the Iranians to procure not [even] really sophisticated but [just] efficient military equipment. I was at the border and we had to fly on 20-year-old helicopters."

He says that the drug traffickers are better equipped, particularly in communications equipment, than the security forces fighting them.

"Traffickers, because they can have access to the open legal market, have much better equipment, satellite telephones, radio communications, etc., etc., so there is a certain disparity in these areas. Iran in the latest 15 years has paid to the drug war the price of 2,800 soldiers, [something] that I think is a very heavy price. This year, only 187 soldiers were killed."

RFE/RL asked Mazzitelli how these losses compare with those of other countries fighting drug trafficking.

"I am coming from Colombia. Before being posted in Iran, I was in Colombia, where the drug war is a very serious one. And I cannot remember having read similar figures in terms of human losses. [In] Colombia there is a civil war; in Iran there is not. All the officers that I have mentioned have been killed during shooting with drug traffickers, not with terrorist groups. You can also imagine what is the public opinion feedback to these figures here in Iran. Considering that a large part of these illicit consignments are destined to other countries, the families of law enforcement officers killed ask the Iranian government 'why?'"

He said that despite the losses, Tehran remains highly motivated in the battle against drug smuggling. One reason is Tehran's concern that the flood of cheap drugs from Afghanistan fuels a growing drug addiction problem in Iran. He says up to 2 percent of Iran's population now suffers from a serious drug abuse problem.

"In 1999, the UNDCP and the government of Iran finalized the first rapid assessment survey, which gave quite a clear picture of the drug abuse situation in Iran. According to the findings of this assessment, 1.5 to two percent of the Iranian population has a serious problem of drug addiction. [In] practical numbers, we can say that between 900,000 to 1.2 million people have a serious drug abuse problem, not including consumers [casual users, that is] people who do not have a drug-related health problem. In 1997 -- this is official data that we just gather from Iranian authorities -- drug-related deaths in Iran accounted for 788 people, which is a quite impressive number."

(This concludes the three-part series on Afghan drug smuggling.)