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

Drugs Traders Exploit Dagestan

Small republic increasingly powerless to withstand surge in heroin trafficking.
By Musa Musayev

Dagestan is increasingly becoming a centre for the drugs trade, and the number of addicts in the republic is growing sharply.


The Caspian Sea republic's strategic location on ancient trade routes with Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Russia make it a good transit point for the international narcotics trade. And its climate has turned it into a drugs producer, too.


Heroin is at the heart of the new trade. It is coming into Dagestan by air, sea and land. Some of it is low-grade heroin from Chechnya, which retails at low prices. Some of it comes from Central Asia and travels on to other parts of Russia. And a proportion comes south from Russia itself. Recently a drugs trafficker from Moscow was arrested in Dagestan carrying two kilograms of heroin.


The problem is compounded by widespread corruption amongst officials supposed to be combating the drugs trade. And police officers from the former Department for the Fight against Illegal Drugs Trade fear that recent reforms have undermined their work. In June the department was abolished by presidential decree and a new Committee for the Control of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances was formed instead. The officers worry that their experience and database will be lost.


Serious problems with drugs began in 1996, says Zinaida Yaraikina, a nurse who works in the city drugs clinic in Makhachkala, the republic's capital. In that year, cheap heroin from Chechnya first appeared on the market and many young people got addicted. Almost none of them are alive today, she added.


Official figures suggest that Dagestan, with a population of two million, has 23,000 registered drug addicts. At least 3,000 people a year are swelling these ranks. Yaraikina says that 80 per cent of them register as addicts unwillingly, and do so only when caught red-handed. Experts fear that the real number of drug users may be many times higher.


The city police department in Makhachkala detains people every day for drug offences. Last year was particular bad, with 386 arrests. This year 101 have been detained so far.


Anti-narcotics police have also discovered large poppy plantations in southern Dagestan, the harvest from which is exported across the border into Azerbaijan.


According to the newly-formed drugs committee, the authorities discovered 76,000 square metres of drug plantations last year and destroyed 100,000 opium poppy and cannabis plants. They confiscated 22 kilos of narcotics and successfully prosecuted 525 people.


The heroin business is hurting young people most of all, particularly those from prosperous families who have the means to develop a habit.


Marat Karimov became a heroin addict in prison. An only child from a relatively well-off family, he drank heavily and smoked marijuana as a young man. He was arrested for petty theft on a bus and spent six months in detention awaiting trial. It was there that he was first offered heroin and became addicted.


Marat was released from prison, but went on to finance his heroin habit with more serious crimes, stealing jewellery, equipment, cars and even his mother's fur coat. He ended up trying to sell his family's dacha, or weekend house. He is now having treatment and has stayed off heroin for two months.


Patimat Hajieva's daughter Zarema was a high-flying student, but her parents insisted on marrying her off to an older man. A year later they barely recognised her. She avoided them, and looked much thinner and more anxious.


A doctor diagnosed that Zarema was abusing drugs, so her parents took her back home. But she ran back to her husband.


A year later, Zarema's husband was given a suspended sentence for selling drugs. Her parents went to his home village to see their daughter, but when they got there he told them Zarema was dead.


As more and more heroin comes through their republic, people in Dagestan fear that this story will be repeated many times over.


Musa Musayev is a reporter with Dagestanskaya Pravda.