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UN Report Tracks Crossborder Impact Of Afghan Heroin

Heroin seized on the Tajik-Afghan border by Russian border guards (file photo)
The United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released a sweeping investigation into large-scale opiate trafficking through Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East en route to the world's 15 million addicts.

Billed as a "sequel" to previous UNODC reports on Afghanistan's opium trade, the new findings focus on the global trade of opiates -- still largely produced in Afghanistan and increasingly distributed by way of Central Asia.

There, terrorist groups and insurgents are quick to feed off the illicit trade, with their efforts aided by the immense market in Russia.

The report concludes that there is "something basically wrong" with the worldwide counternarcotics effort.

Report spokesperson Walter Kemp explains that the report's findings are a "warning signal." He thinks the world could witness a migration of drug- and crime-related instability.

"The nexus between drugs, crime, and terrorism that we've seen on the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of those symptoms also seem to be manifesting themselves in Central Asia," Kemp says.

For instance, according to the report, the states of Central Asia intercept only about 5 percent of the world's deadliest drug, heroin, as it travels across the region en route to Russia.

UNODC cites what it sees as a "perfect storm of drugs, crime, and insurgency" moving into Central Asia by way of groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkistan Liberation Organization, and other extremist groups closely tied to the drug trade.

Drug-related funds going to insurgents and warlords, the report found, range from $200-$400 million a year. Central Asia also moves 30 percent of Afghanistan's opium into the world market, with Europe as the main consumer.

Reluctant To Crack Down?

Kemp says the meager seizure levels -- hovering at 4 or 5 percent in Russia and all of Central Asia -- suggests that countries are reluctant to crack down on a growing market.

"More than 90 tons of heroin is going through Central Asia, basically to feed the world's biggest national market for heroin, which is in Russia," he says.

Addiction is also on the rise. Russian addicts consume 75 to 80 tons of Afghan heroin each year, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Russians die in drug-related incidents annually.

Iran has 1 million opiate users, making it one of the world's worst cases in terms of addiction, according to the report. And the UNODC warns that an HIV epidemic is spreading throughout Central Asia due to widespread drug use.

Kemp says the problem is complex because all the countries are "interlinked" in their roles as conduit and consumer.

"All countries need to realize the self-interest that they have in tackling this problem and working with other countries, because this is a transnational problem that no country can tackle on its own," he says.

As the drug trade continues to swell in Central Asia, the report cautions, the region's famed Silk Road is fast turning into a heroin route.