TALOQAN, Afghanistan -- In many parts of Afghanistan, living near the border brings advantages.
Villagers can earn money from the cross-border trade as merchants or as carriers. Even the poor can eke out a living along the highway, filling in potholes with sand in return for small change thrown by passing truck drivers.
But on Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan, the crossing point for an estimated one-fifth of Afghanistan's illicit drug exports, life is simply dangerous.
Here, ordinary villagers can be "sold" across the border by drug smugglers without warning. And once they are sold, they may not return for decades.
The "selling" -- as the villagers call it -- works very simply. Smugglers hire the victim to carry a package of drugs, wittingly or unwittingly, across the border. Then, they tip off the Tajik border police to arrest him.
The man and the drugs in the package are the small sacrifices the smugglers make to keep authorities away from their larger-scale shipments.
Those shipments, sometimes crossing the Tajik border by truckloads, total four metric tons of opium a day (equivalent to nearly 6 million doses of heroin), as extrapolated from UN statistics for 2008. Police Corruption
Often the smugglers are in cahoots with the individual policemen they tip off. The arrests enable the corrupt officer to pretend he is stopping the flow of drugs, reducing the danger he might be removed from his post for laxity.
If the people who are sold have good contacts or money, maybe they will be freed again, but without that you can stay for months or years until your fate is decided
The charade also helps explain why despite millions of dollars of Western aid for the regional drug war -- including more than $37 million from Washington to help Tajik law enforcement since 1992 -- smuggling continues unabated across the border.
The story of how people are "sold" begins at a day-labor market like this one in Taloqan, the capital of the Afghan border province of Tahar.
Young men gather at dawn to wait for menial jobs. One of them is Sher Ali: "I came to work but there is no work available now. This year the harvest is not good. We already have been waiting several days in the bazaar and we are going home empty-handed."
On a good day a job offer will arrive in the form of a rich man's foreman.
The foreman will bark out an order for one, or five, or 10 men to come help harvest a field or work in the kitchen of a roadside cafe, usually on the more prosperous Tajik side of the border. The pay is only a few dollars and the men rarely can afford to refuse.
But the offers are not always what they seem to be. Another of the men waiting with Sher Ali says that sometimes they are taken by smugglers.
"If the people who are sold have good contacts or money, maybe they will be freed again, but without that you can stay for months or years until your fate is decided. I was arrested and for 40 days I was in jail. So now I came here to find work," the man, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
The day laborers' fears of being duped are not idle. Just across the border, there are hundreds of penniless Afghans serving lengthy sentences in Tajik jails on charges of drug smuggling.
Many of them say they were handed over to the police just this way.
A man jailed in Dushanbe recently left this plea for help on the message recorder of Radio Free Afghanistan's popular "Liberty And Listeners" talk show. He addressed his words to the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
"Here in jail there are people who were just taken at random from the riverside. None of them had anything to do with drugs or criminal activities," he said.
"We are asking the foreign minister to help decide our fate. Here we have no influential contacts or friends to help us, only God. We are calling from the jail."
The prisoner did not give his name but claims like his are well-known to human rights activists in Afghanistan.
Fawzia Kuffi, a member of the Afghan parliament from the border province of Badakshan and a member of the parliament's Commission for Women and Civil Society and Human Rights, says when she visited the area recently "women came to me to say they don't know what happened to their husband or brother."
"These poor people work as porters for merchants doing cross-border businesses. But drug dealers ask them to just take along an additional package, and the couriers don't look at what is hidden inside [for example] among the cigarettes. They don't look because often the people who ask are respectable people," Kuffi said.
She said that the couriers are defenseless before the law because it is impossible to prove to whom a package belongs.
But those arrested as dupes in the war on drugs at least can consider themselves lucky that they did not suffer the fate of some other victims.
Kuffi said some people are simply shot and thrown into the river that marks the border between Badaskshan and Tajikistan.
Many local people in the border area believe that bodies floating in the river also serve the purposes of the drug lords. The dead can be claimed by corrupt police officers as part of the body count in the war on drugs. Too Poor For Lawyers
The readiness of drug cartels to use ordinary people as pawns in the drug business is as well-known to antinarcotics officials as it is to human-rights workers.
Afghanistan's minister for antinarcotics, General Khodaidad, says that the drug cartels are run by rich and powerful khans who, at the local level, have near impunity.
A Tajik guard on a bridge over the River Piandj on the Afghan-Tajik border. (Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev)
"Yes, the true drug dealers who are behind the drug cartels are never on the front line of the deal. They employ people to do the job for them. Unfortunately to catch the khans is impossible. The poor people who are the mules are the ones who are arrested in the border area. I am for punishing the mules, too, but we have to try to arrest the real dealers," Khodaidad said.
Law enforcement officials say that many people willingly act as mules because they desperately need money. At times, drug dealers will make payments to their family in exchange for their serving jail time.
But just how many of those arrested are, in fact, willing mules and how many have been tricked is impossible to know.
One reason is that those arrested by the Tajik border police are too poor to afford to hire lawyers to help defend them.
Rustam Nabatov, a Tajik legal expert in the Hamadan district of Tajikistan's border area, says he was an observer at several drug-smuggling cases and normally the sentence was 17 to 23 years.
"But the more sensitive thing is that the prisoners had no lawyers. Because of that, I think [the judges] do not study all sides of the cases very carefully and the process is not very fair," Nabatov said.
Even before their trial, many of the men spend months or years languishing in pretrial detention.
Elder Hajiaziz Sharwal, the head of the local governing council of Dasht-e-Qalah district, in Tahar Province, says, "If they had money, the Tajik court would give them a fast trial, not just keep them in pretrial detention."
Back home in Afghanistan, the relatives of those arrested try to learn what happened to their kin from bits and pieces of information that reach them.
Mohammad Akbar is the brother of one of the men serving a sentence in Dushanbe. Their village in Tahar Province is right next to the border, just 500 meters away, so family members frequently seek low-skilled jobs on both sides.
He says his brother, who had been working for several weeks in Tajikistan, was arrested when he tried to return home for a medical emergency.
"When my brother heard the news, he rushed home from Tajikistan in a minibus. At the border, the police searched the car and everybody -- the driver and the others -- fled," Akbar said.
"My brother was left there. There were 60 to 70 plastic bags full of a powder hidden in the car, so they arrested my brother and beat him, saying he was the drug dealer, and jailed him. The whole story was shown on television as a big drug bust."
Akbar is angry and what he says is impossible to independently verify. He also says he has been approached by people who claim they can get his brother released from jail for $25,000. After long negotiations, the figure came down to $10,000. But that is still far more than he can ever dream of earning.
His only hope now is that his brother might one day be repatriated under a prisoner swap between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The two governments signed an agreement on a prisoner exchange last year that has yet to be implemented.
"At least then, my brother would be in his own country and we could visit him in jail," Akbar says.Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Dyan Ahmadi in Tahar Province and RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mohmen Ahmadi in Dushanbe contributed to this story