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Central Asia: Heroin Pours Through Region En Route To Western Markets

  • Bruce Pannier

Earlier this month, Russian border guards in Tajikistan reported a record seizure of narcotics, nearly 200 kilograms. That record was broken 10 days later when more than 200 kilograms were confiscated. Most of the drugs seized were heroin. The amount of narcotics passing through Tajikistan is staggering and growing worse by the day. RFE/RL spoke with the official coordinating United Nations efforts to combat narcotics trafficking in Central Asia and learned just how grim the situation now is.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 5 July, the spokesman for Russia's military troops in Tajikistan reported a record drug seizure along the Tajik-Afghan border. Aleksandr Kondratev said Russian border guards had seized some 190 kilograms of narcotics -- mostly heroin -- in two separate shoot-outs with drug traffickers in less than 24 hours. The record did not last long. Last weekend, Russian border guards reported seizing more than 200 kilograms of narcotics in one haul -- again, mostly heroin. The trickle of narcotics crossing the Afghan-Tajik border is now a flood, and increasingly, the drug being brought across that border is Afghan heroin.

In an attempt to get an idea of how bad the situation has become, RFE/RL spoke with Roberto Arbitrio, the program coordinator in Central Asia for the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP).

According to Arbitrio, the problem of drug trafficking in Tajikistan has grown much, much worse in just the last six years. He gave figures to support this claim. "We start in 1996, with 6 kilos of heroin seized, and we go to 1999, where we have more than 700 kilos of heroin seized. But then we start to see a sharp increase, in 2000, with almost 1.9 tons of heroin seized, while in 2001 we are over 4 tons of heroin seized. In the first quarter of 2002, we have almost 1 ton of heroin already seized," Arbitrio said.

Governments in Europe and North America, where drug-interdiction measures are considered more effective than those in the Third World, estimate that only 5 to 10 percent of narcotics entering or passing through their countries is seized. Arbitrio said that according to joint estimates by Tajik law-enforcement agencies and Russian border guards, it is possible that as much as 100 tons of heroin passes through Tajikistan each year. How much does that represent? "One hundred tons of heroin per year would cover basically the West European and North American requirements in terms of consumption of heroin for about a year," Arbitrio said.

Tajikistan, which shares a mountainous 1,200-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan, has increasingly become the route of choice for drug traffickers. Arbitrio explained why traffickers prefer this route to other passages out of Afghanistan. "We can say that [Tajikistan] is one of the main entry points for drug trafficking from Afghanistan. As you know, the border with Iran is heavily guarded. In Pakistan, there are efforts to tighten security and they have the financial resources to do that. In countries like Tajikistan, financial resources are not available and therefore it is increasingly being chosen by traffickers as the best conduit for trafficking in narcotics," Arbitrio said.

Arbitrio said there are two kinds of heroin being smuggled into Tajikistan. One is high in purity and is meant mainly for export to Western countries. The other is less pure and is intended for consumption in Central Asia.

Once in Tajikistan, heroin starts to increase in value as it moves north and west. Arbitrio, citing UN figures, said the price doubles every time the heroin crosses a border. "In Dushanbe, a kilo of high-purity heroin would cost around $6,000 while the low-level purity is around $1,500 to $2,200. Then, every time they cross the border there is the tendency of doubling, almost doubling, the cost and there you have the business between criminal organizations. But the real business, actually, [is] when the heroin is crossing Central Asian borders to go to Russia toward Europe, and in Europe a kilo of heroin is quite expensive," Arbitrio said.

Arbitrio said that European figures for heroin can range between $30,000 to $100,000 per kilo. The street price for a kilo of heroin can go up as high as $300,000.

It is this sort of money that is attracting more and more people to the world of drug trafficking. Average wages in Central Asia run between $10 and $100 a month, and unemployment is widespread, especially among the region's youth. For traffickers, a single successful deal can amount to the equivalent of several years' wages.

Trafficking is a perilous business. Just this week, four Tajik citizens were taken hostage by Afghan drug dealers. It now appears the Tajiks failed to pay their Afghan dealers for a shipment of narcotics. The Afghan kidnappers are now demanding $80,000 in ransom, in either cash or livestock.

Arbitrio said the trafficking has also led to mass drug addiction in Central Asia itself.

And as bad as the problem is now, the flow of drugs from Afghanistan to Central Asia is likely to worsen. The heroin and other narcotics crossing the region now are from last year's harvest, meaning this month's record seizures are the product of a time when the Taliban militia was actually trying to cut opium-poppy cultivation. Arbitrio said there is already evidence that this year's crop will be much larger. "There was recently a survey conducted by the UNDCP in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, those which are bordering with Central Asia, in which it was reported there was actually an increase [in poppy cultivation] compared to last year," Arbitrio said.

Arbitrio said there has been a 50 percent increase in the amount of land turned over to poppy cultivation in these northern areas. In the south, the percentage may be even higher.

Arbitrio credits the Russian border guards with being an effective first line of defense in the war on drugs. He said the Russian troops in Tajikistan account for about half the narcotics seizures there every year. But the Russian government has reduced the number of guards in Tajikistan and may continue doing so if the country's leadership decides there is no interest in sending troops to this far corner of the Commonwealth of Independent States.