PRAGUE, March 21, 2006 (RFE/L) -- Clashes with smugglers are a weekly occurrence on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. As spring and summer take hold, they can become a daily event.
One of the latest clashes, on March 16, ended in a major success for Tajik border guards, with an hour-long gun battle resulting in the seizure of 83 kilograms of drugs, mostly heroin.
And it was in a series of such clashes over the course of 2005 that led to the capture of 17 Afghans, who -- in a rare event in Tajikistan -- were successfully tried and sentenced on March 20.
For crimes that include the murder of a number of Tajik policemen, drug-smuggling, gun-running, and hostage-taking, they will now serve sentences ranging from two and a half to 25 years. Some may ultimately find their jail terms extended, as the police are investigating further drug-smuggling charges.
The efforts of the Tajik authorities are winning recognition and extra support. Just in the past week, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have praised the country's efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the country. And on March 13 the United States pledged extra funds to boost border security.
The Porous Border
But the reality is that the mountainous Tajik-Afghan border is one of the most porous in the world -- and it seems almost inevitable that it will remain that way. Stretching for some 1,200 kilometers through some of the most rugged terrain in the world, this is a border that is very hard to secure.
The best estimates of international and local drug enforcement agencies suggest that only between five to 10 percent of drugs and smugglers are intercepted.
Locals also have plenty of reason to shuttle across the border and break the law: both Tajikistan and Afghanistan are extremely poor countries, and lucrative, illegal goods are in plentiful supply.
Weapons are plentiful in this region. From 1992 to 1997, a civil war raged in Tajikistan. For decades, war ripped Afghanistan apart.
And, of course, there is heroin from Afghanistan, the largest producer of the drug in the world.
Rustam Nazarov, the head of Tajikistan's state agency for narcotics control, claimed on March 20 that there are 50 drug-producing laboratories in the region of Afghanistan immediately bordering Tajikistan.
Mules And Hostages
But not all those involved in trafficking chose this business.
Among the crimes committed by the 17 Afghans sentenced on March 20 was hostage-taking. For them, hostage-taking was probably not a separate source of revenue; it was part of how they ran their operation.
Traffickers employ couriers -- known in the business as mules -- to take their drugs further into Tajikistan and sometimes all the way to Russia. Sometimes they choose to carry the drugs; sometimes they are forced to. In either case, criminal gangs typically take a member -- or members -- of the drug courier's family hostage to ensure the courier pays them for the drugs.
For ordinary Tajiks forced into the trade and for the Tajik police, there seems little prospect that the problem of trafficking will ease substantially any time soon. But at least the police had something to celebrate on March 20.