Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Drug Trafficking Scourge Grows

Smugglers may be exploiting international law to take Afghan heroin through the country en route to Russia and Europe.
By Namik Ibragimov

Azerbaijan has become a major transit point for drug runners smuggling Afghan heroin into Russia and Western Europe, with the problem increasing every year.


Only days ago in Baku, a group of traffickers were caught with around 30 kg of heroin. Lieutenant General Valery Putov, head of the North Caucasus region of the federal frontier service, told the media that the local street value of the drugs was estimated at 600,000 US dollars.


Putov, who was speaking at the opening of a sophisticated new traffic checkpoint called Yarag Kamalyar, on the Russian-Azerbaijan frontier, said that the smugglers had carried heroin from Afghanistan through Iran and into Baku, with Germany as their intended destination. “This is a well-established route,” he warned.


Yarag Kazmalyar is being seen as a step forward in the fight against the traffickers. It can process around 500 cars and twice as many passengers a day, and is equipped with state-of-the-art customs equipment such as radiation detectors.


But one official at the internal ministry’s drugs control department, who wished to remain anonymous, told IWPR that many smugglers exploited a legal loophole allowing them to transport their cargo in sealed loads.


He said that around 300 lorries with such loads cross the Azerbaijan-Iran border every day. As Baku recently ratified an international convention on cargo transportation, it is only possible to search such vehicles if the authorities have precise information that an illegal consignment is inside.


If not, the authorities are required to pay the haulier the entire cost of the cargo being inspected.


So there is little doubt that the recorded seizures are only the tip of the iceberg, and that far larger quantities are making it through Azerbaijan undetected.


Other factors making life easy for the traffickers are Azerbaijan’s virtually transparent borders with Iran and Russia, the relaxed visa regime and poor checkpoint equipment.


Former anti-narcotics worker Alim Madatov, who now heads the legal NGO Society and Law, told IWPR that criminals began targeting Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.


The subsequent Balkan wars forced drugs smugglers to find alternative routes into Europe, he said, adding, “Azerbaijan, of course, is conveniently located for trafficking purposes.


“It’s obvious that this must be fought against but it is also advantageous for Azerbaijan to develop strong economic ties with other CIS countries. The borders should be as transparent as possible - but not for drug smugglers.”


Baku police lieutenant Tamerlan Vagabov said that the authorities were stepping up their efforts against drugs with the introduction of a national programme to combat the spread of addiction.


“The geographical location of our country – where Asia joins Europe – means close attention has to be paid to trafficking across our borders,” he said.


However, the battle against the traffickers is often complicated by corruption and weakness among local officials.


Lenkoran, on the Azerbaijan-Iran border, has become a magnet for small-time dealers as well as rich and powerful drug barons.


The local police force has come under criticism for arresting drug users while dealers and smugglers somehow evade justice. Whenever the police arrest someone they say they are unidentified Iranians, not Azerbaijani citizens.


When a Russian state television crew arrived in Lenkoran to film a documentary on the local narcotics trade, they were shocked by the luxurious homes and possessions owned by the alleged drugs kingpins.


TV crew chief Alexander Voinov, whose team also uncovered evidence that many Azerbaijani leaders of the narcotics mafia are now based in the northern Russian city of St Petersburg, told IWPR, “From talking to local residents, we discovered that these mansions belong to powerful drug dealers.


“We were also told that it is impossible to press charges against them, as their enormous influence and wealth protects them from being taken to jail.”


Namik Ibragimov is the head of current affairs for the newspaper Zerkalo