Central Asia’s Heroin Problem

Central Asia’s Heroin Problem

From Afghan farms into the Tajik mountains, the drug trade cuts a wide swath.


In Khujand, Tajikistan, when someone shows up with a new Mercedes or Audi or Jaguar, the joke on the street is that people don’t ask how much money it cost. They ask how many kilos it cost.

As the drug trade has saturated Afghanistan over the past decade, trafficking routes have been carved through the brittle landscape of the Central Asian nations to the north, like Tajikistan. Increases in crime, corruption and addiction have followed, while repressive governments have used the fight against narcotics as another tool to crush political opponents.

One tour of the heroin route can begin in northern Afghanistan, where organized religious fanatics produce the drugs, and continue north through Tajikistan, where organized criminals of a more familiar stripe take over. A good place to start the tour is the city of Taloqan, where the elegant tree-lined boulevards and the bustling bazaar belie its role as a fiercely contested strategic point in the north. According to one United Nations diplomat, about two tons of heroin flow through Taloqan each month. The city was a prize taken by the Taliban from the Northern Alliance in 2000, and then, this past November, it was recaptured by the Northern Alliance in its US-backed blitzkrieg through the country.

Nearby, UN experts say, there is a group of warehouses with enough stockpiled heroin to export a hundred tons a year for the next three years. According to a Western diplomat familiar with the drug trade, when Taloqan fell this past fall the owners of the heroin warehouses reached a new accommodation with the incoming conquerors, switching sides even before the door had swung shut behind the exiting Taliban. The warehouses “are not destroyed, they are just waiting.”

In Afghanistan, poverty has made drug production necessary for survival, and warlords have used it to consolidate their power. Virtually the entire economy is black market, aside from aid money. The legal exports are worth approximately $80 million, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book: mostly carpets, dried fruit, nuts. The opium crop, at rock-bottom prices in Afghan markets, is worth at least $120 million, based on UN estimates of $30 a kilogram in February 2000. Since then, the wholesale price has jumped tenfold. The true value of the exported drugs, once they hit the streets in Moscow, Amsterdam, Geneva, London or New York, is estimated at up to $100 billion.

Unlike in Colombia, Afghanistan’s drugs aren’t grown high in tree-covered hills; instead, the poppy is cultivated more overtly in the only really fertile areas the country has: the bottom land along rivers, in Badakshan, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Oruzgan. Then it’s processed near the cities. Afghan heroin production is highly professional; the one-kilo plastic bags are stamped with the names of the factories where they are produced. One that I saw in November was stamped “999”; underneath, it said “95%. Azad private factory–The Best of All Export, Super White.” “Abdur Rauf” read another, “wholesale,” “Faizabad,” meaning that’s the city of origin. Faizabad has always been under the command of the Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan produces three-quarters of the world’s opium and heroin–hundreds of tons a year. As a result, America’s allies in the current global conflict, as well as its enemies, are neck-deep in the narcotics business. As the postwar gamesmanship shifts into high gear, a US official preparing for negotiations tells The Nation, “We’re going to be dealing with people at all sorts of levels who’ve had involvement with the opium trade.”

And that’s been the flavor of the confusing war on both terror and drugs in the region. Less than a year before the Taliban’s designation as the enemy in the wake of September 11, Afghanistan’s brutal rulers won accolades from the West for a ban on poppy cultivation. Last May the United States announced a $43 million aid package widely seen as a reward. The ban was successful–because of the Taliban’s implacable violence and a drought–but cynical, shoring up the price while allowing traffickers to unload huge stockpiles they’d built up.

In January Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai announced a new ban on drugs, hardly a surprise as he shakes international trees for aid, but unrealistic in an Afghanistan that is nearly ungovernable and desperate for cash. The problem was that under the green thumbs of America’s allies, large-scale planting had already begun when the Taliban fell. In some villages, as much as 70 percent of the acreage was sown with opium poppy instead of wheat. President Bush acknowledged in late February that the country had failed to stem drug production, but exempted the country from the cutoff in aid that ordinarily follows such a finding.

From Taloqan and cities like it, the smuggling route heads north along the dusty steppes, with opium and processed heroin in armed convoys passing the streams of refugees, toward the infinite informal crossing points on the 900-mile border with Tajikistan. There is the Pyanj River, where fishermen use grenades to kill carp, and beyond that the no man’s land that ends with a double chain-link fence.

Across the border, the small Tajik town of Moskovsky has become one of the major transit points these days. It is separated from Afghanistan by a kilometer or so of flat, landmined terrain, guarded by underpaid Russian troops. Even after the USSR’s implosion, the Russians’ 201st Motorized Division stayed to protect this unlikely border, marking the territory it considers vital as a buffer. The Russians have frequent skirmishes with armed smugglers. On October 12 a group of smugglers tried to sneak across with about forty-two kilos of heroin. They were intercepted, and in the fighting, a Russian soldier and a smuggler were killed. Two weeks later there was yet another battle. This time the smugglers fled back to Afghanistan, abandoning about eighty-one kilos.

On the northern side of the Pyanj riverbank, men in leather coats, square-tipped shoes and fancy cars take over from the turbaned, bearded Afghans. They arrange for the heroin to be repacked, hidden in cars, trucks, or on mules, or smuggled by impoverished peasants.

North along this two-lane road in Tajikistan is Farhar. Last fall, Davlat Ivganovich, a local driver, who used to make about $1.80 a day, couldn’t find work for five months. This father of five ran into a friend, a heroin trafficker, on the street one day near his house. “I said I needed money, that was my only way out.” His friend said, “Twenty dollars.” He was to head up north to Khujand carrying a half-kilo packet of heroin in a bag with a flowery design. At a prearranged spot, a man would recognize him by the bag and would collect the heroin. Davlat agreed at once. “Of course I knew it was illegal, but I had to do this in order to live.”

He was caught on the way. When I met him he was brought out of an unlit holding cell, a short man, disheveled and nervous. “I think my children will probably become beggars,” he said, showing no emotion. He’s probably right, and they are not alone. The levels of poverty here are obscene even by the standards of the former Soviet Union. The average monthly income is less than $10.

Tajikistan is still recovering from its civil war, which began as if on cue in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 people, and in a nation with a population of only 6 million, that means blood was literally splattering the countryside. In 1997 a fragile peace agreement resulted in a coalition government. The clannish makeup of this society meant that groups of warlords, once the war was done, could easily transfer their energies to smuggling. “There were structures on both sides, big shots on all sides, who were already organized,” says one UN official. “That’s why organized crime developed so quickly.” It is a smuggler’s dream, with an unstable, corrupt and weak government; mountainous, sparsely inhabited terrain; and borders impossible to police. The rise in smuggling has made the authorities’ heads spin. Five years ago heroin was virtually unknown in the country. Last year, authorities reported they’d seized almost four tons of the stuff as of November.

The drive that Davlat Ivganovich took, hugging his half-kilo of heroin in the flowery bag, follows a winding road through stunning, merciless mountains. The path is lined by checkpoints manned by Tajik security officials. Usually they want a small bribe, a dollar or so, to let the cars go on their way. It is a truism that the cars that most obviously belong to drug dealers, the snazzy, incongruous Mercedes, or even Jaguars, are the ones that are not stopped and searched; the officers have to assume that someone who can afford a car like that is too powerful to hassle.

The road climbs past a beautiful lake in territory controlled by a warlord who is, according to some officials, allied with the leader of one of the most feared terrorist groups in that part of the world, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been closely linked with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. The group has launched armed incursions into Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley over the past few years. The attacks, some officials speculate, were intended to help solidify new drug-trafficking routes.

In Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, Gen. Rustam Nazarov, the head of the nation’s Drug Control Agency, sees his country’s problems as a direct result of the troubles in Afghanistan. Asked about the difference between the sides in the conflict there, he waves his hand dismissively. The prospect of the Northern Alliance cracking down on the drug trade in a grateful token of appreciation for US aid in its victory is unlikely, Nazarov believes. The drug trade finances the Northern Alliance just as it did the Taliban. To give it up would be to give up their income. A compact man with a five o’clock shadow at 10 in the morning, he quietly sums it up: “One part of the Afghan population fights. The other side produces drugs.”

So far, international efforts to combat the Central Asian heroin trade have been troubled. Nazarov’s agency, funded by the UN, has a massive budget by local standards. The idea is simple: Pay police officers more to cut down on graft. The UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCCP) pays its officers about $200 a month, a livable wage (other police officers get around $15 a month). UN diplomats say the agency’s massive seizures are proof that it is working. Even so, there are lingering allegations of corruption and a concern that the agency may just be rewarding a system of graft by paying high salaries to those involved.

As Central Asia blossomed into one of the world’s most significant drug and crime bazaars, America was barely watching, following a relatively hands-off policy in contrast to its concern with other drug-producing areas. Because of precarious security in Tajikistan, the United States has not had an embassy there since 1998. Nazarov flew to the United States himself to plead with the Drug Enforcement Administration for aid, and he says he left empty-handed. “The United States has been ignoring this region until the events of New York,” he says quietly. “Until then there was an impression that Afghanistan doesn’t exist for the Western world.”

The region has received some antinarcotics aid through the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs–about $11 million over three years–and from the UN, which is spending $16 million on various programs. But aid here can be more like a cluster bomb than a surgical strike, with unintended consequences. In a recent report for the Open Society Institute, chief author Nancy Lubin asks “whether the training and equipment provided by the United States and others to Central Asia has actually been used to fight drug trafficking, or to crack down on domestic political opposition,” or to assist government officials and others to more effectively traffic drugs.

Matilda Bogner of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan, where religious opposition figures are tortured, maimed, imprisoned and executed, agrees. “Police officers will plant either a small amount of narcotics or they will plant a few bullets on someone they want to arrest.” Now the DEA plans to send two agents to Tashkent, where they will be confronted with such policing tactics and may have to distinguish legitimate drug investigations from thinly veiled repression.

It is the suddenness with which heroin has penetrated this region that has shaken it so much. Antonella Deledda, the graceful Italian diplomat who heads the UN’s antidrug efforts in the area, points out a startling change in the traditional fabric of life in the region–the rising role of women in the drug trade. According to one report, 30 percent of the “mules” handling narcotics in Kyrgyzstan are women, and the figure in Tajikistan may be even higher.

For many of Tajikistan’s women, their journey down the heroin route ends over the passes of the Fan Mountains north of Khujand. In the badlands there, a dirt road leads past some sheep grazing on clumps of weeds, toward the only women’s prison in Tajikistan. One woman shuffles near the gate, wearing a filthy chakan and slippers, and carrying a little bowl of food. There are almost 300 women here behind the dirty white walls topped with barbed wire. More than half of them are imprisoned on drug charges. They are arrested as they work their way to Russia by train or by plane, at border checkpoints or in sweeps. Peasant women have taped drug packages under their breasts, inserted them inside their vaginas or anuses, or swallowed them. One press account reports that a woman flying to Moscow from Dushanbe had swallowed more than seven kilos of the stuff: In terms of volume, that’s bigger than a basketball–it’s probably closer to a beach ball.

Colombia, where women have been mules for decades, might offer some lessons for this latest war in a number of ways. Until the current campaign against terror, Colombia was America’s biggest military engagement, a war viewed by successive administrations solely though the prism of the drug trade, where the United States continues, to no evident effect, its fight by proxy against “narcoterrorists.” The real terrorists operating out of Afghanistan made that vague term seem even more inaccurate. With the fall of the Taliban, there may be opportunities during the reconstruction to wean the economy off narcotics, but so far, victory has meant propping up a coalition of warlords, many of whom are linked to the drug business. In early February the DEA sent a contingent of agents to Afghanistan as well. They have their work cut out for them. The UN estimates that the crop planted under the friendly new Afghanistan may yield up to 2,700 metric tons of opium. It will be ready for harvest in the spring.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy