A new report by the United Nations drug agency sheds light on the nuts and bolts of narcotics transit from Afghanistan through Central Asia, highlighting the former Soviet republics’ lackluster efforts at interdiction.
The 106-page report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released this month, describes how smugglers traffic heroin and opium from Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer, to Russia, the world’s largest consumer. Ninety tons of highly pure heroin, roughly a quarter of the substance exiting Afghanistan, passes through Central Asia annually. Yet in 2010 authorities in the region seized less than 3 percent of it. And despite international efforts to help, that number keeps falling.
Central Asia’s entrenched corruption makes the region a perfect smuggling route, says the report. Senior officials are complicit in the trade, or at least take bribes to look the other way, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A lack of cooperation among neighbors also offers a boon to traffickers.
The stakes are huge.
“UNODC estimates that in 2010 drug traffickers in Central Asia made a net profit of $1.4 billion from heroin sales. Much of this profit was likely incurred by Tajik traffickers, given that Tajikistan is estimated to handle most of the flow,” said the report. They profit by marking up the heroin by as much as 600 percent once it gets to Russia. Between 70 and 75 percent of the drugs travel by road, leaving a trail of new addicts across Central Asia.
One of the report’s biggest surprises is how little Kazakhstan is pulling its weight. A map of seizures in Central Asia shows plenty of activity on Kazakhstan’s borders, just not by Kazakh officials. “The economic development experienced by Kazakhstan is inversely proportional to its interdiction efficiency, which is the lowest in Central Asia,” says the report. Kazakh authorities seized less than 1 percent of the 70-75 tons of heroin that passed through in 2010, even though the oil-rich country has the best trained and best paid border forces in the region.
Here, moreover, there’s room for smuggling to grow. Thanks to the new Customs Union linking Kazakhstan with Russia and Belarus, customs units have quit the country’s northern border. The single economic space could facilitate drug shipments into Russia, which has over two million heroin users: The Customs Union “can be misused as traffickers may opt to re-route opiate deliveries to Europe through the northern route, as opposed to the traditional Balkan route.”
Back in Tajikistan, approximately 200 kilograms of heroin and 50 kilograms of opium enter every day. But seizures are declining and the national economy is growing addicted to the drug profits.
“Despite improvements to customs controls and the large-scale coverage of border guards, the majority of northern route opiates continues to flow nearly uninterrupted into Tajikistan,” says the report. “The Tajik economy has been growing but not at a level which can explain the country’s ongoing construction boom. Observers believe that drug money is fueling abnormally high property prices in Dushanbe and in the provinces. Other signs of great wealth are visible, including lavish houses and vehicles that are well beyond the means of the public servants who own them.”
A Toyota Land Cruiser, for example, the report says, is worth about six kilograms of high-quality heroin. (With an estimated 76.5 tons of heroin transiting the country, that could translate into 12,750 Land Cruisers.)
At the US-built Nizhny Pyanj Bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, “Low opium seizures appear strange at face value, given opium’s distinct and noticeable odor and given the several tons of opium estimated to be trafficked into Tajikistan.”
From Tajikistan, the heroin and opium pass through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan is the preferred route because of its porous, 870-kilometer border with Tajikistan (two-thirds of which has never been formally demarcated) and the country’s “widespread corruption.” Osh, near that border, is a “drug consolidation point,” and the stomping ground for criminal gangs that played a role in 2010’s ethnic violence. Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing instability directly and indirectly facilitates trafficking, says the report.
The Uzbeks, deeply distrustful of their neighbors, have more efficiently sealed their border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is the only country in the region where seizures rose in 2010 (by 25 percent). “The border appears to be well monitored, Uzbek staff at the border is usually well-trained and salaries are relatively high,” says the report. Still, opiates come over the border from Tajikistan, by road and rail, and, like the rest of the region, Uzbekistan faces a problem with police and security officials taking money to look the other way.
Insular Turkmenistan is less connected to this northern route. Most of the heroin passing through Turkmenistan – only 2-4 percent of what transits the region – moves on the “Balkan route” onto Iran and Turkey before hitting southeastern Europe.
Throughout the region, abetting the massive drug flows is a lack of coordination “complicated by mistrust and ongoing disputes, including on the crucial demarcation of regional borders.” With the threat that militants and violence could spill over those same borders, the hostility to cooperation comes at these countries’ own peril. The report does, however, praise new efforts at cooperation between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The report doesn’t name names, but acknowledges that some high-level officials must be protecting or otherwise involved in the criminal networks trafficking the drugs: “An indication of their [the networks’] entrenched power, no major drug kingpin has been arrested in Central Asia since the region’s independence in 1991.”