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OSCE: Drug Traffickers 'Better Organized' Than The Governments Fighting Them

As RFE/RL reports, combating the production and trafficking of illicit drugs is one of the greatest challenges faced by government and law enforcement agencies around the world. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the economic impact of drug trafficking, which was the subject of a recent seminar in Tashkent and one of the main topics at this week's economic forum in Prague sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Prague, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This year's economic forum of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is focusing on three major problems -- the economic impact of drug-trafficking, and the fights against trafficking in both human beings and light weapons.

Preliminary seminars on each problem were held, the most recent of which took place in Tashkent in March, devoted to the economic impact of drug-trafficking.

Dutch diplomat Daan Everts chaired the Tashkent seminar and is also leading the three-day economic forum, which ends tomorrow in Prague.

"We hope in the next few days to come out with some very concrete recommendations," Everts says. "We will look at the realistic nature of some of the measures proposed. We have had enough of talk and analysis. Now we have to come to some very, very concrete measures and packages of policy that will help to make a dent in this business. Because right now, the traffickers are better organized than we are on the governmental side. That is obvious."

Antonio Maria Costa spoke at the opening session of the Prague meeting. Costa, who is executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, pointed to four main global drug routes -- the flow of Afghan opiates through Central Asia to the West; cocaine and heroin trafficking in the Americas; the trafficking of heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants in Southeast Asia; and the illicit trafficking of drugs in sub-Saharan Africa.

In his presentation, Costa noted that opium production in Afghanistan had increased from 200 tons in 1980 to almost 3,500 tons by 2002. Costa added that the number of drug addicts in Russia using drugs originating from Afghanistan more than doubled between 1998 and 2001.

The United States Mission to the OSCE noted the wealth of ideas the three preparatory seminars had produced and suggested the OSCE could support speedy ratification and implementation of the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime and support efforts to promote farming of legal crops.

Meanwhile, in its recommendation to the three discussion groups at the Economic Forum, the International Crisis Group (ICG) -- a Brussels-based think tank -- emphasized the difficulties in receiving reliable information on the real extent or pattern of drug trafficking in Central Asia. For example, while government sources suggest that just 55 kilograms of heroin were seized in Turkmenistan in 2002, it is believed a large proportion of the total drugs transiting through Central Asia pass through Turkmenistan.

There are also believed to be links between civil servants and businesses and drug traders in Central Asia. Governments in the region have been reluctant to prosecute major narco-traffickers.

The ICG notes that Uzbekistan seized more than 800 kilograms of narcotics in 2002 and initiated 8,000 criminal cases, which resulted in some 900 prosecutions, suggesting that each prosecution was for less than 1 kilogram of narcotics. Uzbek drugs officers admit they tend to go after low-level gangs and avoid major traffickers, who often have significant political connections.

The Tajik delegate to the OSCE forum, Khodjamakhmad Umarov, told delegates he thinks many participants are avoiding the issue of the suffering caused to individuals by illegal trafficking in people, weapons, and drugs.

Umarov, who heads the Department of Macro-Economics at the Institute of Economic Studies in Dushanbe, told OSCE delegates he now is under the impression that international organizations don't want to upset governments that may have either direct or indirect ties to trafficking, or which may have other geopolitical considerations.

He said he thinks delegates sent to such events do not want to raise such issues out of fear they may lose their jobs once they return home.

RFE/RL asked the OSCE's Everts whether battling the drug trade is more difficult because of the reported involvement in heroin trafficking of some Afghan warlords -- including some who are either members of the Transitional Authority or are senior members of factions in the internationally backed Afghan central government.

Everts confirmed the role of Afghan warlords in the drug trade "obviously" makes anti-heroin trafficking measures more difficult. But he told RFE/RL that the OSCE does not have direct leverage over Afghanistan because it is, strictly speaking, outside of the OSCE's area of operations.

"But drug trafficking is not just a question of producing countries. It is also transit countries and destination countries. So here, it is again, getting to grips with the trade and making sure that there is transparency. Who are the actors? What is behind it? What do they do with the money? Where are the bank accounts? How can we target their profits? How can we target their practices? It requires concerted efforts, obviously. It's a huge issue. It is a huge fight to come. And right now we have hardly started," Everts said.

During the first two days of the OSCE forum in Prague, the seat of the Afghan representative remained vacant, although Afghanistan has a special "associative status" with the OSCE.

One U.S. specialist argued at the Prague forum that exerting pressure on the Afghan government to crack down on drug cultivation could prove counterproductive.

Phil Williams, a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, says: "One big source of money in Afghanistan is opium cultivation and heroin trafficking. For the international community to encourage the [Transitional Authority President Hamid] Karzai government, or pressure the Karzai government, to clamp down would actually make it much more difficult for that government to establish a high degree of legitimacy [within Afghanistan]. It's going to be difficult enough anyway. Clamping down on the drug trade now would make it virtually impossible."

The aim of the Tashkent seminar in mid-March was to build on the foundation of OSCE and UN cooperation in the field of combating drug trafficking in Central Asia in order to formulate a policy agenda from an economic perspective. The current economic forum in Prague is expected to make specific recommendations to individual OSCE member states.

The discussions in the four working groups into which the Tashkent seminar was divided focused on the causes of drug trafficking, financial flows and money laundering, the investment climate, links between trafficking networks, and transportation routes.

In Tashkent, Everts emphasized both the security and the economic threat posed by drug-trafficking.

"Drug trafficking devastates national economies," Everts said. "The violence and insecurity it brings stops serious foreign and local investors from investing. Criminal networks are increasingly infiltrating the legitimate economy, not just with their money but with their ethics."

Everts said inadequately trained and corrupt law enforcement officials and customs agents often figure in the payrolls of criminals involved in drug trafficking.

"We must get our act together and arrive at a joint strategy to meet the dangers posed by drug trafficking," he said. "Drug trafficking is big business, and the criminals involved will not give up without a fight."

All four groups recommended closer cooperation between law enforcement bodies and other institutions involved in the fight against drug trafficking and recommended the OSCE increase its preventive work in Afghanistan, even though that country is not an OSCE member.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this report.)