KHORUGH, Tajikistan -- Officers from Tajikistan's antidrug agency descend upon a village in a remote southeastern province, confiscate 15 kilograms of hashish and a kilo of heroin, detain a drug smuggler -- and let him go.
The scene: mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, which shares a lengthy border with northeastern Afghanistan. The suspect: a 13-year-old from Afghanistan's neighboring Badakhshan Province.
It's a catch-and-release scenario that is being repeated with increasing frequency. Drug smugglers, wary of increased measures being taken against their trade, have been forced to change their tactics.
Aware that Tajik law does not allow for minors under the age of 14 to be prosecuted as adults, drug smugglers have turned to children to do their dirty work for them.
Saidmusallam Shohmusallamov, the chief judge in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Province, says the change is due to authorities' increased efforts to stem illegal cross-border activity.
Shohmusallamov notes that last year a local court sentenced two Afghan drug smugglers to jail terms of 15 to 22 years. Two others were sentenced to up to seven years in prison for illegal border crossing.
Such harsh punishments, he says, may have prompted drug smugglers to recruit young people as potential drug mules.
"Criminals are paying attention to the harsh punishment of drug smuggling and illegal border crossing,” Shohmusallamov says. “That is why they’re looking for new opportunities and inviting juveniles into their illegal business."
In Afghanistan's Badahkshan Province, poverty is profound and 30 percent of the children living along the border do not attend school.
"A number of drug smugglers, by promising money or just by using their influence, lure children into their business -- whether they are attending school or not,” says Abdujamil Okhundzoda, who represents Afghanistan at the diplomatic office in Khorugh, Tajikistan. “They understand that children under 14 years old won't face harsh punishments or will be released soon."
Okhundzoda hopes that in time, the government will take steps to address the problem. In the meantime, he says, local Afghan authorities, border guards, and security services should pay more attention to vulnerable families and children, and explain to them the illegal nature of trafficking.
Local journalist Lutfishoh Dodo, however, suggests that both the drug smugglers and the young people they hire know just what they are doing.
"The criminal world has its politicians and scholars, and they learn the laws of the different countries where they transit their drugs,” Dodo says. “According to our law, juveniles cannot be punished. They know this and abuse it.”
“Those 12- and 13-year-old boys who cross the Panj river and come to Tajikistan, they are aware of their status,” Dodo says. “They know that they could be sent to [juvenile detention] or special schools, but not to prison."
Dodo says controlling the border is the best way to combat illegal drug trafficking. But he also says this won't put an end to the use of young participants in the drug trade.
This, he says, is because Tajik drug dealers are no less savvy than their Afghan colleagues, and are also likely to employ the services of minors immune to prosecution.