Part one of a three-part series on Drug Trafficking in Central Asia
Medics in Moscow spent three days last December removing more than half a kilo of heroin from the stomach of a drug courier from Tajikistan. At the same time, a Russian woman was detained in a Kazakhstan railway station for the possession of half a kilo of heroin, stuffed inside a smoked chicken. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, twenty four kilos were found in the car and apartment of Tajikistan's trade representative in Kazakhstan, while over 60 kilos of heroin (approximately 140 pounds), with a market value of about a million dollars, were found stashed in two other cars elsewhere in the country. Valuable quantities of drugs are smuggled in innumerable other ways, hidden in the shoes of a fifty-year-old man and his children, inserted into pomegranates in Moscow, or mixed with apples and pears in Uzbekistan.
Drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Central Asia has expanded dramatically over the past two decades. Today, Afghanistan accounts for an estimated three-fourths of the world's heroin supply, with an increasing proportion (one-half to two-thirds) of those drugs trafficked through the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Most of this supply is sent into European and Russian markets, and sometimes to the U.S. and Canada. An estimated 80 percent of the heroin seized in Europe, and 95 percent in Great Britain, originates from poppies in Afghanistan, most of which is trafficked through Central Asia.
As in other parts of the world, narcotics trafficking here flourishes as big business for some, and as an essential part of life for others. Some experts estimate that the opium cultivated in Afghanistan, sold in the form of heroin, would be worth about $100 billion at current market levels.
While the price for a kilogram of heroin in Afghanistan may be upwards of $300, in Moscow the same kilogram can cost as much as one hundred times that amount, and in western Europe, more than five hundred times that amount, or upwards of $150,000.
Indeed, despite its repeated assurances to eliminate the growth of opium, the Taliban has reportedly de facto sanctioned, and even taxed, the cultivation and sale of opium. Estimates of the Taliban's annual revenues from the opium market during the late 1990s range from $10 million dollars to upwards of $75 million. These profits finance the ongoing wars against opposition forces and are also reported to fund terrorist activities.
At the same time, cultivation and trafficking is a way of life, and sometimes a matter of survival, for many in the region. Opium poppy cultivation has become an integral part of the rural economy in Afghanistan, where many farmers are dependent on such profits to make ends meet. In Central Asia, increasing numbers of impoverished people are likewise willing to risk the harsh legal penalties of drug trafficking because they view opium as their only ticket to survival.
These realities keep the drug trade vibrant and have spawned a range of policies and programs on the part of Western governments and donors to stem the production and trafficking of drugs in this part of the world. In the past decade, tens of millions of dollars have been directed to a number of entities to reduce opium poppy cultivation and heroin production in Afghanistan; to provide training, equipment, institutional development, and other inputs to support interdiction efforts in Central Asia; and, reportedly, to initiate drug education programs in both regions.
The UN's Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UN ODCCP), the primary sponsor of counter-narcotics programs throughout the region, has worked for over a decade to reduce opium poppy cultivation through rural development activities in Afghanistan. It has also instituted a host of other programs, ranging from mapping illicit crop cultivation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, to supporting research at Uzbekistan's Institute of Genetics on the development of a fungus capable of destroying the opium crop at its root.
In Central Asia, the ODCCP's main focus has been on assisting each country in developing a centralized counter-narcotics infrastructure, i.e., assisting the creation of indigenous counter-narcotics and drug control agencies and administrations; drafting legislation; providing training and equipment to border guards, customs officials, and others working on counter-narcotics initiatives; and, recently, helping to establish separate courts for the prosecution of narcotics consumption and trafficking crimes. The ODCCP is also supporting regional collaboration in all of these areas through a year 2000 agreement on regional cooperation in fighting transnational crime.
U.S. bilateral programs with Central Asia overlap those of the ODCCP, focusing on law enforcement training, equipment provision, and providing technical assistance to legislatures, prosecutors and others to develop and implement more effective counter-narcotics legislation. Germany, Britain, and other European donors are increasingly following suit. Many U.S. experts believe that European countries should bear the brunt of counter-narcotics efforts in Central Asia, as they are most directly affected by the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan. Still, U.S. interest is on the rise, fueled by the role of drug profits in financing terrorist activities and potentially destabilizing the region as a whole.
But what has been the impact of these programs? Have they helped significantly to abate the drug flow throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia, or is it possible that they have further complicated the problem? Have they alleviated the associated human rights, ethnic, religious and other indirect impacts of the growing drug trade, or perhaps inadvertently exacerbated them? What kinds of questions do the programs raise regarding the challenges that loom ahead?
Nancy Lubin is President of JNA Associates, Inc. -- a research and consulting firm that works on assessments and projects concerning the NIS, especially Central Asia. She has lived, worked and traveled throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus for well over twenty five years -- as a Congressional staffer, University Professor, and now for JNA -- and consults for international donors, the media, major corporations and smaller, start up companies.