The last discovery of a smuggling tunnel between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reportedly occurred in June. It was the Kyrgyz authorities’ fourth such find of the year.
For many above-the-board traders, the tunnels have solved a mystery.
Raziya Khamdamova, 57, a hawker at the sprawling bazaar of Kara-Suu in southern Kyrgyzstan, has been toiling at her stall since the 1990s. That was when her parents rented the pitch where she has over the years sold clothes, shoes, socks, fabric, dresses and shirts. Since that time, Khamdamova has installed a cargo container on the spot.
Khamdamova wonders if what she perceives as the overnight success of some of her peers might not be explained by smuggling.
“Just think, I’ve been there in the market for so many years, but I’ve never been able to get rich. And there are beginners who have been trading for a couple of years, and already they are wealthy. They have the same goods, the same variety. How are they making so much profit?” Khamdamova asked a Eurasianet correspondent in consternation.
A fellow Kara-Suu bazaar trader, Ugiloi, joined in the exchange about the tunnels with a wry rejoinder.
“We heard about underground tunnels before, but we always thought that was fairy tales,” she said with a smile. “We wondered how they could build them beneath the Shakhrikhansai canal, you’d think the water would burst through and flood the tunnel. That’s why we never believed it.”
But build them they did.
Three of the cross-border tunnels detected by Kyrgyz law enforcement bodies were not far from the Kara-Suu bazaar. That is a natural spot for a smuggling operation. The market is a vast entrepôt for goods arriving from China and lies right alongside Uzbekistan’s portion of the Fergana Valley, home to more than 9 million people.
These tunnels were formidable constructions that must have taken considerable time to excavate.
One said to have been found in the village of Telman, in the Kara-Suu district, in late May stretched 270 meters. The passage was capacious enough to enable an adult male to walk through without crouching. In a curious detail, Kyrgyz security services said at the time of this discovery that the owner of the plot under which the tunnel had been built was receiving treatment in a psychiatric facility. “A repeat examination to ascertain his sanity is planned,” they said in a statement.
A second Kara-Suu tunnel, whose discovery officials announced in early June, was dug 18 meters in depth. The passage started from a residential property on the Kyrgyz side and ran 155 meters to Uzbekistan.
A third tunnel found in the town of Kara-Suu was the product of international cooperation, as the GKNB explained. The owners of two connecting houses on the border, who had been friends since 2014, reached an agreement on the project back in September.
A fourth passage, perhaps the best-appointed one of all, was found in Batken, hundreds of kilometers further to the west. Its detection was announced by Uzbek security services. The 130-meter tunnel was equipped with an elevator, electricity and close-circuit cameras, the Uzbek State Security Service, or SSS, said. A truck seized during the same operation was found to be carrying thousands of mobile phones worth a total of around $1.4 million, the security officials said.
The nebulous and haphazard information dissemination standards of Kyrgyz and Uzbek security services alike have, however, sown considerable doubt about when these tunnels were found and how many of them there are.
The Uzbek SSS released a statement in mid-June to say that eight people – two from Uzbekistan, six from Kyrgyzstan – had been sentenced to prison terms of between six and eight years for smuggling cash and goods. In that press release, Uzbek officials revealed that the sweep that culminated with the arrest of that gang had led them to the discovery of a cross-border tunnel just across from the Kyrgyz town of Kara-Suu as early as January. The officials said in the same statement that they had prevented the smuggling of more than $1.6 million in hard currency during their operation.
It is unclear whether the various Uzbek and Kyrgyz statements have been alluding to the same tunnels and, if so, what accounted for the difference in chronology.
At any rate, concerns are abounding that the builders of the tunnels appear to be so determined and well-resourced. Uzbek and Kyrgyz security services have only spoken about these structures being used for the smuggling of goods and money.
But political analyst Ikbol Mirsaitov said he believes that the passages may be intended for more than just underground trading.
“People could be sent forward and back through them,” he said.
Mirsaitov said greater investigative energy should be invested into getting to the bottom of the ultimate beneficiary of the tunnels.
“You only have to remember those scenes from Western movies, of tunnels from Mexico to the United States through which they send weapons, drugs and people,” he said.
And what has been found so far may be only the tip of the iceberg. One Kyrgyz border guard official who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity estimates that there may be as many as 18 tunnels along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in total. He did not divulge on what basis he was making that estimate.
The border guard source said that one problem hindering a proper crackdown on this phenomenon was the fact that some sections of the shared border have still not yet been demarcated by joint agreement between the two countries.
“There are disputed and undelimited areas where you do not see border guards of the two countries. Inhabitants of villages [in those areas] can, under the guise of grazing or doing farming work, dig tunnels unnoticed and carry on smuggling,” he said.
Bakyt Ibraimov is a journalist in Osh.