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

Dushanbe Concern Over Drug Trade

Over the last decade, Tajikistan has become a major transit route for Afghan drug traffickers.
By Vladimir Davlatov
With growing alarm, Tajikistan finds itself swamped by drugs flooding in from Afghanistan where combatants use the trade to finance their never-ending civil war.



"There's more and more drugs coming in. We are really worried," General Rustam Nazarov, director of Tajikistan's Illegal Substances Control Agency, ISCA, was quoted as saying at a press conference on August 15 in Dushanbe, the capital.



ISCA statistics show Tajik police seized around 7,000 kilograms of narcotics in 2000, with heroin making up about 30 per cent. In the first seven months of this year, the haul was already around 6,000 kg, with heroin again forming close to a third. This compares with a mere 10.9 kg confiscated in 1991 - the year before the civil war.



As the world's leading drug producer, Afghanistan, with its normal economy in ruins, must sell narcotics to buy weapons. Nazarov said that, ever since Iran sealed its Afghan border against traffickers in 1989, Tajikistan has increasingly become the favoured route for sending drugs to Central Asia, Russia and Europe.



The trade has also been heightened by Tajikistan's own civil war which brought massive ruin and poverty. Transporting drugs is a last resort for Tajiks desperate to earn a living. Nazarov pointed out that a kilo of heroin selling for only $400 - 500 in Afghanistan fetches $800 - 1,000 in Tajikistan. In Russia or Europe, the price can be a hundred times higher.



Faced with such tempting profits, Tajik drug couriers are willing to risk heavy punishment and even the threat of death. A favourite way to carry drugs is in small containers inside the body. Sometimes, especially in airplanes, the containers burst and kill the courier. But traffickers, unable to find other jobs, keep on doing it.



Russian guards on the Tajik-Afghan border seize major shipments of narcotics literally every day. Other loads are captured inside Tajikistan. Police find huge amounts of drugs carried by passengers on virtually every train or plane bound from Dushanbe to Moscow.



General Nazarov believes the drug problem will grow as long as fighting goes on in Afghanistan. "Once they stop fighting, the problem will fade in Tajikistan," he said. "I wish the international community would intervene and broker some kind of settlement in Afghanistan."



The general dismissed claims by Taliban leaders that they are fighting narcotics production in Afghanistan. He noted that production has steadily grown over the years and quoted figures to show that some 7,900 tons of raw opium were produced in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2000. This year, Nazarov said, there has been illegal planting on 205,000 acres of land. ISCA puts the number of heroin laboratories in Afghanistan at between 300 and 400.



Analysts have lately suggested that the increasing flow of raw opium, the key component for manufacturing heroin, may be because Tajikistan now has its own heroin laboratories. Alexander Kostiuchenko, commander of the Moscow border guard unit stationed on the Tajik-Afghan border, made this allegation in an interview with the Tajik independent weekly "Asia Plus". He said guards recently seized 2,185 kg of raw opium, the largest seizure since the border post was established eight years ago.



Other media echoed this theory, quoting various "unofficial sources" , but failed to produce anyone who has seen or heard about a drug laboratory in Tajikistan. General Nazarov vehemently denied the stories. "No heroin is manufactured in Tajikistan," he said. "We've had no evidence to make us believe there may be a heroin lab in this country. All heroin comes from Afghanistan."



Nazarov said the authorities closely monitor the use of illegal chemicals in Tajikistan, including components that may be used to make heroin. They also keep a check on electricity consumption since it takes a lot of electric power to process raw opium.



Commenting on Alexander Kostiuchenko's allegation, a source at the Russian border guard headquarters in Dushanbe remarked that it was the commander's personal opinion, and did not represent the official policy of border guard staff in Tajikistan.



But border guards and others wonder why so much raw opium is sent to Tajikistan simply for shipping on to other destinations. General Nazarov has his own theory. "The quality of Afghan heroin has recently deteriorate," he said. "It's harder to sell elsewhere in Central Asia or Russia, so people have started shipping raw opium instead."



Sponsored by the UN, the Tajik Illegal Substance Control Agency was established in early 2000. It reports directly to the Tajik president Emomali Rakhmonov. Nazarov said the agency finds it hard to fight drugs with a staff of only 350. He praised the efforts of the Russian border guards, but noted that they are not expected to monitor the aircraft which make numerous illegal flights into Tajikistan and back. And Tajikistan itself, ruined by civil war, cannot afford air defences.



A number of international officials have reported that only five to 15 per cent of the drug flow is stopped in Tajikistan. Nazarov says nobody can tell this without a precise knowledge of how much narcotics arrive in and leaves the country. He also complained that law enforcement authorities in some other countries often have to wade through red tape to get permission for joint anti-drug operations with the Tajik police.



"Drug traffickers," Nazarov said, "don't have this problem. They just go ahead and act."



Vladimir Davlatov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.