Old and Young Drawn into Kyrgyz Drugs Trade

Issykkul shows its darker side as pensioners and schoolchildren harvest the region’s cannabis crop.

Old and Young Drawn into Kyrgyz Drugs Trade

Issykkul shows its darker side as pensioners and schoolchildren harvest the region’s cannabis crop.

Kyrgyzstan’s drugs trade is thriving because the authorities are loathe to arrest and charge the mostly elderly people involved in cannabis production and the children who are used to sell the drug.

The involvement of children and the elderly is causing extreme concern among drug agency officials, who are trying to stamp out the trade.

Officials are hoping that the government will choose to toughen the republic’s stance on drugs dealers when a new bill is debated next month. “We hope that stricter measures will be introduced against drug dealers, regardless of their age,” said Turatbek Orozakunov, head of the Department for Combating the Drug Trade.

At present, few of those involved in the trade are being caught and jailed, apparently because the bulk of the harvesting and production is being done by pensioners working in isolated villages in the Issykkul region.

One elderly woman told IWPR that it was easy for older people to gather and sell cannabis. “When a policeman sees a woman old enough to be his grandmother, he just ignores her,” she said. “You know our mentality. The old are respected in this country. I’ve never heard of an elderly person being jailed for drugs offences.”

While Issykkul is one of the most beautiful regions in Central Asia, with more than 400 sanitoriums dotted around the shore of the picturesque Lake Issykkul, there is a dark side to it.

The region, specifically the Tyup, Aksui and Jetyoguz areas, has been regarded as a major drugs producer since the Soviet era.

Issykkul’s climate favours cannabis and it can be found growing wild everywhere. According to the Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency, DCA, around 2,000 hectares of the crop are harvested in Tyup and Aksui, and around 1,500 in Jetyoguz.

September is the key month for cannabis production, as the plant becomes unusable after the first frosts.

IWPR struck up a conversation with one 12-year-old drug seller after gaining his trust by agreeing to buy a joint from him for just under one US dollar.

He told IWPR that he is routinely sent to the regional centre of Karakol to deliver harvested cannabis to a regular client, explaining, “We sell [matchboxes full of cannabis] at different prices depending on the quality and quantity. The average price in Karakol in autumn varies from eight to 12 dollars, rising to as much as 46 dollars in winter. When it gets to Bishkek, the drug triples in price.”

Emil Nurdolotov, senior criminal investigations officer at the Kyrgyz interior ministry’s anti-drug department, said that they had no power to bring criminal cases against under-16s for selling or possessing drugs.

“Minors face nothing more than a telling-off by their parents and a record at the local police station,” he said. “And no one will punish a pensioner as harshly as they would a young adult.”

Residents of the so-called cannabis regions complain that they are a long way from the tourist spots and the service industry that has sprung up around them, and therefore have little other way to make a living.

Jamilya-eje, a 60-year-old Tyup resident, told IWPR that tourists rarely come to her area, and that the potato crops she cultivated did not bring in enough money.

“But if I gather the cannabis that grows in our fields, I can live off this for a year. You will never go bankrupt with cannabis, but growing potatoes is a risky business, which happened this spring to many people,” she said.

Jamilya-eje has been earning her living by harvesting and selling cannabis for a long time, and has been arrested on numerous occasions. But she claims that she has avoided punishment partly because of her age, and partly because she gives the police “presents”.

The work is hard and stressful, she said, and sometimes dangerous.

“Once I had to run away from the police when they raided the cannabis fields,” she said. “I had to urinate on my own hands to wash the cannabis pollen off them, and prevent the dogs from sensing the drug.”

A fellow villager told IWPR that most of the harvesting is done at night, as it is far easier to hide from the police patrols under cover of darkness.

“We have people who warn us beforehand about raids, and because entire streets and families work together to gather the harvest, the police cannot catch and punish us,” she said.

Moorkan, a 70-year-old Tyup resident, told IWPR that her entire family is in the cannabis business as there are no other money-making opportunities in the region.

“I grow cannabis in my garden, hidden among cabbages and medicinal herbs so that it’s harder to see,” she said. “But don’t think for a moment that we use the drug ourselves – it’s strictly for sale only.”

The authorities have little sympathy with the villagers’ claims that they have no other means of earning a living.

“When residents complain about bankruptcy, the government and bad harvests, this is in fact a screen to hide their criminal activities,” said interior ministry spokesperson Joldoshbek Buzurmankulov.

Aida Kasymalieva is an IWPR contributor and Aijan Rakhimdinova is an IWPR trainee.

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