Baku Struggling to Curb Drugs Trade

Azeri customs officials are being overwhlemed by the scale of drugs trafficking through the country.

Baku Struggling to Curb Drugs Trade

Azeri customs officials are being overwhlemed by the scale of drugs trafficking through the country.

Wednesday, 14 November, 2001

In June this year, Azeri officials burned 50 kilos of heroin at a ceremony to mark the signing of a UN-funded programme to fight drug-trafficking in Azerbaijan. Officials, here, have won plaudits from the UN for their fight against the smuggling of narcotics through the country to Russia, Turkey and much of Europe. However, the same officials complain that lack of training, funds and public support has left them struggling to combat the scourge.

With a kilo of opium changing hands for 2000 US dollars, smuggling remains a very attractive proposition for much of the Azeri population. The Caspian shoreside town of Lenkoran, near the border with Iran, is on the front line of this illegal trade. Some 90 per cent of the heroin passing through the country comes via Azerbaijan's (southern) neighbour.

Most of the 20,000 or so drug-related arrests and seizures in recent years have been made in Baku and Lenkoran. But despite the efforts of law enforcement agents, many traffickers are still apparently slipping through the net. "Everyone is having a go and there's no limit to their creativity," said a Lenkoran customs official, who preferred not to be named. In the past, everything from cans of tomatoes to the soles of training shoes have been used to transport drugs through the country.

Azerbaijan assumed its role as a major channel for drug-trafficking following its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Previously, the Balkans had been the preferred route for criminals seeking to get their drugs into Europe and particularly Russia, but this was disrupted by the outbreak of war in the region.

With its 700 km border with Iran, Azerbaijan soon became an alternative. Traffickers would smuggle heroin produced in Afghanistan across the Caspian sea or overland via Iran and finally into Azerbaijan.

By 1993, the US state department reported that Azerbaijani criminals controlled 80 per cent of drug distribution in Moscow. Russian figures confirmed that 82 per cent of narcotics-related arrests in Moscow were Azerbaijanis while 38.6 per cent of illegal drugs entering Russia from former Soviet republics came from Azerbaijan. At the time, the Russian government alleged that Baku government officials were involved in the smuggling themselves, using its profits to fund military operations in the contested border region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Over the years, pressure has been brought to bear on Azerbaijan to sign up to various international drug treaties and operations of which the aforementioned UN programme is but a recent example. However, at the front line there still remain many problems for the country's overstretched customs officials.

Azeri women are regularly used to smuggle heroin concealing the drug on their persons. The customs officers from this overwhelmingly Muslim country find dealing with such situations very difficult. According to the Lenkoran customs officer, "Officers feel very uneasy trying to find and remove the drugs and we can't force all women who cross the border to be checked at the gynaecologists here."

As a result, officers will only search women if they have very good grounds to suspect they are carrying drugs. The Lenkoran officers' most recent female victim was only apprehended because she was shopped by her smuggling companion for cheating her on profits.

One outcome of the trafficking has been a huge addiction problem in Azerbaijan itself. The government claims it has increased 100 per cent in the last three years alone. A recent US state department report estimated that 12, 000 Azerbaijanis were registered in hospitals for drug abuse with its actual level estimated to be many times higher.

The Baku government has blamed much of this domestic drug abuse on the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, through which, it says, much of the drugs smuggled into the area passes. Although a recent statement by Azerbaijani presidential official Ali Hasanov to this effect was rebuffed by the Karabakh interior minister Bako Sahakian. He claimed that his ministry fully controls the situation in the region and affirmed his readiness to cooperate with Baku to crack down on drug smuggling.

Over the years, the interception of drug consignments has improved greatly. Back in 1993, only seven kilos of narcotics were seized by custom officials at border points. Just three years later, law enforcement officers discovered and destroyed nearly 350 tonnes. Yet even this is probably just a fraction of narcotics smuggled through the country.To stop Baku being overwhelmed by the traffic in heroin - further training, more resources and a change in public attitudes will all be necessary.

Gulnara Mamedzade is a staff writer at Baku-based newspaper Echo

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