The gang-land style murder of Tajikistan Deputy Interior Minister Khabib Sanginov in Dushanbe on April 11 is a sign of intensifying competition among Tajikistan's drug lords. Tajikistan Interior Minister Khumdin Sharipov described the assassination as a criminal act, noting that Sanginov had been heading a government crackdown on organized crime. Sanginov's murder may be a sign that Tajik government anti-trafficking efforts are having an effect, and are provoking a reaction.
The assassination was reportedly carried out by up to eight gunmen. Sanginov's driver and two bodyguards were also killed in the attack. A statement by the Islamic Renaissance Party said the killings posed a threat to stability in the country, and urged the government to bring the culprits to justice. Reflecting the seriousness of the government's response, President Imomali Rahmonov is personally overseeing the investigation.
The assassination marks a significant setback in Tajikistan's fight against drug trafficking. That effort began in April 1999, when the Tajik government began working with the United Nations Drug Control and Prevention Program to develop a systematic anti-drug trafficking strategy. By April 2000, the Tajik Drug Control Agency (TDCA) had been established. During its first year of operation, the TDCA has recorded major gains in drug interdiction, winning accolades from international organizations and major foreign governments. Tajik officials seized about 267 kilograms (587 lbs.) of drugs in 2000, most of it heroin. About 600 Tajik citizens were arrested on various drug charges last year.
Over the past decade, Tajikistan has emerged as a major transit route for narcotics produced in neighboring Afghanistan. Organized criminal gangs have taken advantage of the country's mountainous terrain and its fractured infrastructure, in which the country finds itself effectively divided into three transportation zones: the Badakhshan region in the east, the Leninobod Oblast in the north, and the south-central region.
The underdeveloped transportation network in Badakhshan is connected to the rest of the country by just two roads and no railway. Leninobod Oblast has relatively good connections to the Ferghana Valley, but its link to southern Tajikistan, including Dushanbe, consists of a solitary mountainous road that is often closed during the winter. Meanwhile, Russia's 201 Motorized Division patrols large portions of Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, but is unable to put a complete stop to drug trafficking.
The geographical factors have helped foster intense competition among various criminal groups for control of the best trafficking routes. The greatest struggle centers on the road running northeast from the capital, Dushanbe, connecting the Garm region with southern Kyrgyzstan. This road climbs gradually through the Surkhob river valley, eventually connecting to the Kyzyl Su valley in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Government control over the main trafficking areas has remained tenuous. During the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, the area was dominated by anti-government forces. It may have been that Sanginov, a former member of the opposition and a former member of the National Reconciliation Commission, was under great pressure, as a representative of the opposition, to take on the drug lords. The price Sanginov paid dramatizes the scale of the stakes in this competition.
While poppy cultivation is a centuries-old phenomenon in Tajikistan, the trans-shipment of narcotics is a new problem. The recent increase in drug trafficking dates from the explosion of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. According to UN estimates, Afghanistan's poppy harvest in 2000 was about 3,000 metric tons, making the country by far the largest producer of the drug in the world.
Early distribution routes took Afghan-grown drugs eastward through Iran, and south via Baluchistan to Pakistan and Karachi and beyond. Only in the past few years has widespread cultivation reached Afghanistan's northern provinces, prompting increasing reliance on Central Asian trafficking routes.
Concurrent with anti-trafficking endeavors, Tajik authorities have been struggling to promote legitimate foreign trade. Geography is a major obstacle for Tajik trade, as Uzbekistan enjoys de facto control over virtually all major trading routes. Trade is further hampered by an underdeveloped transportation infrastructure.
Now, Tajikistan appears to be caught between competing goals. If the government succeeds at improving the trade environment through improved transportation routes, simplified customs procedures, and a more efficient banking system, these same efforts can lead to greater problems with drug trafficking and smuggling.
Gregory Gleason is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and a Fellow-in-Residence at the Oppenheimer Institute for Science and International Cooperation.