OSH, Kyrgyzstan -- The Kyrgyz city of Osh in the Ferghana Valley is known as the "capital of the South." But it also bears another name that gives no reason for pride: Osh is also called the region's "drug capital."
The city is located on one of the major drug-trafficking routes from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe.
Drugs, mostly heroin, are brought from Afghan labs to Tajikistan and then into Osh. From there it is shipped north, to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, across the border to Kazakhstan, and on to Russia.
Several factors contribute to Osh being the regional drug capital, one being its geographical location. Kyrgyzstan shares a long, poorly controlled border with Tajikistan, which mostly runs through mountainous terrain.
But, according to Ruslan Altybaiev, the deputy head of mobile operational groups at the Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency, corruption and poverty also play a role.
"What are the reasons for large amounts of drugs getting here, into our transit country?" he asks. "First of all, it is the geographical location of our country; it is situated along the so-called northern [drug-trafficking] route, and the second reason is a bad social situation. Drug dealers and criminals involved in drug trafficking use it and get our citizens involved in drug trafficking and the drug business."
The country of 5.5 million people is one of the poorest of the former Soviet republics and the Kyrgyz economy relies heavily on production from a few gold mines and cash sent home by migrant workers. It lacks the rich energy reserves of some of its neighbors, such as Kazakhstan.
Poverty makes it easy for drug dealers to recruit drug couriers. It is believed that up to one quarter of the heroin produced in the world crosses through Central Asia.
Toktomamat Mamashev, department head at the Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency, says that every year staff of the Drug Control Agency in Osh confiscate tons of drugs and that in 2012 alone they " confiscated over six tons of various drugs, including over 76 kilograms of heroin, 51 kilograms of hashish, over one ton of cannabis, and over five tons of drug precursors."
Rising Numbers Of Addicts
Easy access to drugs has taken its toll on the Osh population. The number of drug addicts has been steadily rising in recent years.
Osh resident Dildor tried to stop taking drugs several times. But he claims he was lured back into his addiction partly by easy access to drugs:
"There is always a desire to stop it, to get out of it, I've tried to stop three or four times. I even went to Russia," he says. "But when you come back -- even on the way back you think, you know that once you get back you will go to a drug dealer. Even before you get home, you go to a drug dealer, get this poison, get home, and take it. And you start again."
Data from the regional narcotics center indicated that there were 530 registered drug addicts in the Osh region and 1,400 in the city in 2012. But, according to the center's chief, Aidul Sadieva, the real numbers are much higher. "We multiply these official figures by 10 and then we get an approximate number of drug addicts," she says.
Osh was the scene of ethnic tension in the summer of 2010 which left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.
Some believe that corrupt officials and the drug mafia played a role in inciting the violence.
The Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency was disbanded in 2009 by then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev and reestablished a year later, after Bakiev's ouster.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pays special attention to Central Asia and one of its key projects in the region is aimed at the strengthening of drug-control agencies and cross-border cooperation between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Last year the UNODC announced its decision to grant Kyrgyzstan almost $3.5 million to fight drug trafficking.