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Central Asia: Drug Trafficking Has Devastating Social, Economic Impact (Part 2)

About one-quarter of Afghan heroin and opium destined for European markets is believed to be trafficked through the five Central Asian countries. The illicit trade is having a serious social and economic impact on the region, including the spread of HIV/AIDS. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari reports in the second and final part of our series on drugs in Central Asia.

Prague, 22 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Intravenous drug use, fueled by the illicit trafficking of relatively cheap drugs, is contributing to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Central Asia.

"The UNAIDS and other studies in Central Asia indicate that between 60 and 70 percent of all the newly registered HIV/AIDS cases are [caused by] transmission by injecting drug users, people sharing needles," said James Callahan, the regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "So that's by far the most serious health problem and the most profound effect on society of drug abuse in this region."

Official statistics show a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of people infected with HIV/AIDS. In 1995, 88 persons were officially registered as being infected with HIV/AIDS in the region. In 2003, reported infections jumped to more than 6,700. These are only the registered cases. Experts warn the real figures are significantly higher. The World Bank estimates that the real number of HIV-positive cases in Central Asia most likely approaches 90,000.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is at its early stages in the five Central Asian countries. The World Bank warns that the disease could affect the region's economic development if measures are not taken immediately.

Niklas Swanstrom is director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University.

"It is a demographic disaster, or at least has the potential of being a demographic disaster, since it affects mostly young people," Swanstrom said.

Most of those testing positive for HIV/AIDS are believed to be younger than 30.

The narcotics industry is becoming embedded in the regional economy, and an increasing number of people, including women, are turning to drug trafficking as a means to survive.
"It is a demographic disaster, or at least has the potential of being a demographic disaster, since it affects mostly young people." -- Niklas Swanstrom, director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University

In Tajikistan, where about 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many war widows are reportedly getting involved in drug trafficking to support their children.

"We don't see any new [economic] trades coming out because why should you start focusing on something that would earn you $100 when you can get $1,000 for smuggling drugs?" Swanstrom said.

The burgeoning drug trade is also contributing to a rise in crime, as addicts sometimes resort to robbery to get money to buy drugs.

Nancy Lubin is the president of JNA Associates, a research and consulting firm dealing with the states of the former Soviet Union. She said the drug trade is leading to growing corruption in the region.

"Economically, you see the growth of corruption, vast gaps between rich and poor, corruption not only economically but increased corruption of political systems and certainly a deep social toll in terms of the growth of HIV/AIDS and the increased role of women in the drug trade, leading -- many researchers believe -- to more domestic abuse and destruction of family life," Lubin said.

In recent years, a number of high-level security officials in the region have been arrested while carrying drugs. Low wages make police and customs officials especially prone to corruption. According to a 2001 report by the International Crisis Group, some 50 percent of Central Asia's customs officials may be involved in the trafficking of narcotics to some extent.

Tamara Makarenko is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. Makarenko said some members of extremist groups in the region are also involved in drug trafficking.

"If not the entire group itself and their interest in trafficking drugs to make money, then definitely there is a link between sort of terrorist group members or extremist group members, involving themselves in small-scale trafficking in order to secure money for ... either an immediate operation or to feed themselves over the next week," Makarenko said.

"The Washington Times" quoted Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Tokaev as saying earlier in June that the failure of international forces to curb Afghanistan's poppy production threatens to destabilize the entire Central Asian region and bankroll a new generation of terrorists.

Makarenko added that the fight against the drug trade should focus on all the different groups who are involved in it.

"The trade itself is so large in Central Asia now and there are so many different types of people and groups involved, that the strategy that has to be considered is one that involves all different levels -- from the farmers who in some cases grow poppies, for example, in Afghanistan because they know it'll bring them lots of money, and we have to somehow find support for that lowest grass-roots level to bring people away from growing the crop itself. To tackling this as a political problem and to say there is no room to compromise with warlords. There is no room to compromise with known drug traders. There is no room to compromise with corrupt officials. We have to clean things up today because if we don't, this becomes ingrained within society," Makarenko said.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.