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.