According to 2012 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 90 tons of highly pure heroin, roughly a quarter of the substance exiting Afghanistan, passes through Central Asia annually. “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,” the report said. 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. [Source:David Trilling, Eurasia. Net, May 18, 2012]

The trade of opium through Central Asia was pioneered in the early 1990s. Heroin first appeared in 1995. By 2002, a forth of the opium and heroin coming out of Afghanistan went through Central Asia, earning the region $2.2 billion a year, or 7 percent of its GNP. At that time it was estimated that 90 percent of the heroin used in Europe passed through Tajikistan. Tajikistan was believed to have earned $200 million from the drug trade, or about 35 percent of Tajikistan’s GNP at that time. Smuggling and the drug trade are believed to have accounted for 40 percent of Central Asia’s economies in the late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, heroin sold for $700 a kilo in Afghanistan, $1,000 a kilo at the Afghanistan -Tajikistan border, $3,000 per kilo in Kyrgyzstan , $8,000 to $10,000 per kilo in Kazakhstan and $25,000 to $45,000 a kilo in Moscow. Prices at that time had been going up. reflecting improvements in the quality. Less opium and more heroin was coming out of Afghanistan, reflecting the fact that more heroin was being processed in Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations: “Opiate trafficking has manifold social and political effects. Corruption is the most prevalent of these, and while it provides temporary shelter from poverty and insecurity, the net effect is the creation of shadow economies and greater insecurity for the population at large in the longer term. Moreover, the tolerance of crime and corruption also threatens the country’s development and transition to a market economy. The “dirty” money accumulated through smuggling creates a vicious circle that distorts the country’s economy by pushing it into a criminal or semi-criminal direction.[Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

The drug trade has increased corruption and imbedded itself deeply in the government and military. In October 1997, a deputy police commander in Tajikistan was arrested with 62 kilos of opium. Many local drug traffickers are paid with drugs which gives them the incentive to sell them locally for cash, creating drug problems in the transit nations, AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases are spread by the sharing of needles have spread because of drug use.The local drug mafia in Tajikistan traded heroin with the Taliban. The fall of the Taliban in the early 2000s had little effect on the drug trade. Some believe this is the case because so much opium is stockpiled from previous harvests. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

Heroin and Opium Production in Central Asia

According to the United Nations: ““Opium cultivation and production in Central Asia is minimal, with over 99 percent of opiates in the region originating from Afghanistan. There are no known production facilities for converting opium into heroin located in Central Asia. Consequently, all opiates transiting Central Asia are either processed in Afghanistan or will remain as opium until processed elsewhere. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Central Asia forms the “northern route” linking Afghan opiates with the lucrative markets in Europe, the Russian Federation, and increasingly China. Generally, opium production in Central Asia varies inversely with the availability of opium poppy from Afghanistan. Accordingly, while cultivation is not a significant problem currently, any success in reducing the opium supply in Afghanistan may be met with an increase in supply from Central Asia, particularly if the region becomes unstable. |~|

“The last UNODC study of opium poppy cultivation in Central Asia (1999) suggested that opium cultivation occurs in small quantities primarily in mountainous pastures, with a lesser amount found in small house gardens mainly for personal use. The potential opium production volume was assessed as equivalent to 40.6 kilograms per hectare. Given the 2006 regional total of 2.22 hectares of reported cultivation, this is equivalent to a potential output of 90 kilograms of opium, a minute fraction of the amount produced in Afghanistan. |~|

“There are no known production facilities for processing opium into heroin in Central Asia. Consequently, all opiates transiting Central Asia are either processed in Afghanistan or will remain as opium, at least until processed elsewhere. Similarly, the concentration of production in Afghanistan combined with its lack of domestic sources of precursor chemicals means that Central Asia may also serve as a conduit for illicit precursor chemicals entering Afghanistan to facilitate heroin processing. |~|

Money and Profits from Central Asian Drug Trafficking

According to the United Nations: “The profits generated from the opiate trade have a serious impact on state and society. UNODC estimates that in 2010 drug traffickers in Central Asia made a net profit of US$1.4 billion from the sale of transiting opiates. Such staggering amounts are comparable with and can destabilize the vulnerable economies of Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At the micro level, poverty in these countries leaves many -including low-paid local officials- with few viable avenues for economic advancement. At the macro level, struggling economies in the region have limited resources to devote to drug control. However, poverty is but one factor facilitating the illicit opiate trade. For instance, the economic development experienced by Kazakhstan is inversely proportional to its interdiction efficiency, which is the lowest in Central Asia.” [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“It is important to note that profits made from trafficking Afghan opiates into Central Asia (USD 344 million) in 2010 are dwarfed by the net profit pocketed by criminals trafficking onwards to the Russian Federation, which was around US$ 1.4 billion in 2010. This calculation does not include other drugs such as those of the cannabis group, which are also trafficked through the region. |*|

“The mark-up on heroin brought into Central Asia and sold in the Russian Federation is as much as 600 per cent...As prices increase purity decreases; this is explained by the growing distance from the source and by the practise of cutting the heroin with adulterants. This means that 1 kilograms of heroin at 70 per cent purity can become 2 kilograms at 35 per cent purity. This inversely proportional relationship between price increase and decrease in quality translates into greater profits for traffickers. |*|

“With a net profit of US$ 1.4 billion from the heroin trade alone, in 2010 drug traffickers earned the equivalent of a third of the GDP of Tajikistan (US$ 4.58 billion) or Kyrgyzstan, but only 5 per cent that of Uzbekistan (US$ 28 billion) and 1 per cent of that of Kazakhstan. The economies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan appear to be the most vulnerable in Central Asia, while in Kazakhstan the entire amount would constitute a very small part of total economic activity. “ |*|

Beneficiaries of Central Asian Drug Trafficking

According to the United Nations: “It is difficult to define a profile for beneficiaries, as criminal groups can vary in size, level of organization and structure, and can be nationally or internationally based. It is clear, however, that a diverse range of actors operate the drug trade within Central Asia. These actors range from large-scale crime networks capable of organizing the trafficking of hundreds of kilograms of heroin down to small-scale and mid-size operators. Whether big or small, networks in Central Asia have historically been built upon kinship and clan ties, as well as the geographic residency of members. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“A related observation is that Central Asian organized crime groups have very diverse anatomies, some having clear and rigid structures while others being based on loose intangible relationships that develop according to mutual interests. Such is the case of groups forming to carry out a specific operation, for example trafficking a single shipment across the Tajik border. |*|

“Of primary interest to this study, the larger organized crime groups controlling the trade in Central Asia are firmly rooted in the region’s domestic political, economic and social structures. This is possible through the development of intimate ties between organized crime and state power structures. On some occasions, the power structures co-opt groups or attempt to control the trade, becoming themselves part of the organized crime structures. The possibility of state capture provides a central challenge in combating the threat regionally. An indication of their entrenched power, no major drug kingpin has been arrested in Central Asia since the region’s independence in 1991. Although criminal groups are active in every Central Asian country, the countries most at risk are Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.. |*|

Drug Trafficking through Central Asia Decreasing?

According to the United Nations: “In 2010, approximately 2.6 tons of heroin were seized in Central Asia, less than 4 per cent of the total flow transiting the region. All Central Asian countries, with the exception of Uzbekistan, registered a decrease -some by more than 50 per cent when compared with 2009. Overall, Central Asia is also seizing 50 per cent less opium than a decade ago, but these seizures are more volatile than in the case of heroin. The rise in seizures in 2003-2007 shown in the figure below is likely attributable to increased production in northern Afghanistan during that period,264 on the strong assumption that this region is the main supplier of opium for Central Asia. One supporting indication is that opium seizures in Central Asia abruptly dropped by a quarter in 2008, never to recover. That same year, southern Afghanistan reached the highest production volumes in its history. Opium seizures in Central Asia were in effect decreasing, while southern overproduction was increasing towards its peak production volumes. Seizures of opium in Central Asia were much more consistent with northern production which began to decline in 2007. As of 2011, opium seizures across Central Asia appeared to continue along the same decreasing trend, while in southern Afghanistan opium production had increased by nearly 1,000 tons. This may indicate that northern Afghanistan is not strongly influenced by southern Afghan opium inputs. It also supports the lack of seizures or intelligence in Afghanistan, pointing to southern opium moving northward. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“As previously stated, a partial explanation for decreasing seizures may also be political instability and insecurity in key transit states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Although this case can be made over a one-year period in Kyrgyzstan (2010), steady declines in seizures have been observed in Tajikistan for the last six years. In 2010, Tajikistan reached its lowest total heroin seizures in a decade (985 tons) and worryingly this occurs despite the country’s significant investment in law enforcement capacity and border management. It has also been advanced that some heroin routes have shifted away from the Tajik border to other Central Asian countries. There are however no indications that Turkmenistan is receiving and exporting more heroin or that Uzbekistan is receiving heroin from anywhere but Tajikistan. |*|

Organized Crime and the Drug Trade in Central Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia much of the drug trade is controlled by organized crime syndicates, many of them formed along ethnic lines, and many with connections in the government and the military. Over time the traffickers have become more sophisticated and more heavily armed. They organize both large shipments and small loads.

According to the United Nations: “It is difficult to quantify the problem of organized crime in Central Asia. Governments in the region have yet to devote substantial attention to the issue despite a growing volume of anecdotal evidence. Consequently, there is little data available on the number of organized crime groups operating in Central Asia and even less data regarding the extent to which these groups are involved in producing, trafficking or selling drugs. Most Central Asian governments have prioritized front-line interdiction focusing on transporters as well as on individuals with personal use-size quantities in their possession rather than investigating and interdicting highvalue targets. Without this type of investigatory work, it is difficult to draw even a rough sketch of the number, size, and level of sophistication of organized criminal groups. However, some indicators suggest that drugs may be increasingly being moved through Central Asia by larger, more organized criminal networks. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“In general, trafficking through Central Asia is still characterized as relatively unstructured, comprised mainly of small traffickers working in ethnically-homogenous groups. Small amounts of drugs are believed to be bought and sold multiple times, with trade usually controlled by the dominant ethnic group of the country being transited. |~|

“Large volume controlled deliveries carried out within and through the region have provided an early indication that organized criminal groups may be a new composite element in Central Asia’s hitherto unstructured drug trade. Transporting shipments of up to 500kg of drugs involves significant financial resources beyond the reach of small traffickers. The second indicator is the flow of precursors through Central Asia. Because these chemicals must be shipped in large quantities, a level of organization and sophistication of traffickers is required to traffic them. Indeed, many of the techniques used by small scale traffickers such as swallowing, intra-cavity concealment, or pack mule transport, are simply not possible for precursor trafficking. The need to use main roads and official border crossings, in turn, necessitates networks of corrupt border guards or the capacity to make fraudulent documents. The third indicator is based on the experiences of neighbouring countries. It is questionable whether there would be a total absence of organized criminal groups in Central Asia given their known involvement in trafficking in neighbouring countries. Finally, a surge in the number of reported armed traffickers coupled with the greater difficulty of financing terrorism in the wake of 9/11 inspired reforms suggests that organized criminal groups and possibly even terrorist groups may be involved in trafficking. |~|

“The experience of Kazakhstan, the only Central Asia state for which organized crime data is available, supports this thesis. In 2005, Kazakhstan reportedly interdicted 14 organized criminal groups involved in drug trafficking: 8 in Karaganda, 4 in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1 in Southern Kazakhstan and 1 in Western Kazakhstan. While evidence from the remainder of the region is largely anecdotal, it points to the possibility that organized criminal groups are increasingly, albeit marginally, involved in opiate trafficking through Central Asia. However, it is worth noting that these groups do not resemble hierarchical organizations with a clearly defined leadership as seen, for example, with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Rather, evidence from Central Asia suggests the evolution of networks of organized crime groups who regularly do business. This pattern does not, however, preclude the possibility that some group or groups may become dominant and attempt to monopolize the drug trade in the region. |~|

“As witnessed in Kyrgyzstan, the influence of organized criminality on the state is potentially a much wider security threat, which can destabilize large areas and spill over into other countries. It can also lead to potential alliances between criminal and terrorists for political ends. Understanding and countering this nexus should be energizing counter-narcotics cooperation. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Drug trafficking and organized crime are sources of conflict in Kyrgyzstan and potentially in the region as a whole. The inter-ethnic clashes that occurred in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 have been used by ethnic Kyrgyz criminal groups to assume predominance over ethnic Uzbek criminal groups and to control the drug routes through this part of Kyrgyzstan. Rising militancy has been reported across Central Asia, but there are no observed direct connections between extremist groups and drug trafficking. The preoccupation with combating insurgents in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan does, however, hinder counternarcotics efforts by, at least partly, shifting the focus of law enforcement away from drug control. |*|

Turkmen, Russians, Africans, and the Central Asian Drug Trade

According to the United Nations: “Small Turkmen networks with organizational links to both Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran handle the bulk of the traffic through the country. There are few opportunities for transnational drug networks to take root in Turkmenistan. Kazakhstanbased networks are also small, but probably benefit from the best international connections. Kazakh officials often single out Caucasian ethnicities, such as Chechens, as dominant in international heroin trafficking through Kazakhstan. Other reports have also noted Chechen organized crime groups to be active in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the role of transporters, leaving the identity of the main organizers unclear. Further afield, in the Russian Federation, Tajik citizens appear to dominate the retail market. |[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Although in some areas such as Siberia, Azeri nationals may be active in the opium trade. At the macro level, leadership is probably still dominated by Russian nationals, but these can come from a variety of ethnic groups. Former sportsmen and military personnel are also reportedly well represented in Russian organized crime. One example is the so-called “Kamorra” group, which allegedly transported drugs from Central Asia to Russia (via Kyrgyzstan using Kyrgyz nationals as couriers). In August 2010 the Federal Drug Control Service detained the head of the group, a Russian national, along with other operatives including former athletes acting as the ‘lieutenants’ of the group. All in all, the group was comprised of around 200 active members and operated at the level of US$ 0.5 million per month. Beneficiaries need not necessarily be native to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the Afghan rim region. |*|

“Despite sharing no linguistic or ethnic links, West African groups, dominated by Nigerian nationals, have managed to acquire a small share of the regional drug trade. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, national security officials estimate that such groups control 10 per cent of the heroin trade. Although West Africans were still being arrested at Bishkek airport as of 2011, such groups mostly hire non-African air couriers to traffic drugs into other Asian countries, notably China. These may be locals (mostly women) or foreigners, as evidenced by the arrest of an Azeri citizen in Bishkek who was trafficking heroin to the Russian Federation. West African groups are also very active in countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, although this is not always reflected by arrest figures. |*|

Insurgents, the Taliban and the Central Asian Drug Trade

According to the United Nations: Whether Central Asian insurgents benefit from the drug trade is an open question. The drug terrorism link has emerged in recent years in a variety of theatres including West Africa, India and Afghanistan. With regard to the latter, the Taliban are reported to provide funding to foreign groups, particularly Central Asian ones. Given their confirmed revenue from drug trafficking, it would not be a stretch to claim that the insurgencies that Central Asian countries are experiencing may be indirectly tied to the drug trade. However, despite many declarations and anecdotal reports, there is currently no strong evidence that any Central Asian insurgent group is benefiting directly from the regional opiate trade.[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“While northern Afghanistan remains one of the most stable regions of the country, security has deteriorated and a progressive infiltration by the Taliban and Al-Qaedalinked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been reported since 2009. AGEs have established two main areas of activity in northern Afghanistan: one front in the provinces of Kunduz and Takhar bordering Tajikistan, and a second front spreading northward in the provinces of Badghis and Faryab bordering Turkmenistan. Along with narcotics, insecurity has spilled over the border with IMU and other insurgents crossing into Tajikistan – and further to Kyrgyzstan- waging a low-level conflict in both countries in 2009-2011. |*|

“Some observers see the insurgent activity in northern Afghanistan and Central Asia as the result of the IMU re-asserting control over drug routes. So far, UNODC has not seen strong evidence of current insurgent involvement in opiate trafficking through Central Asia but, at the very least, terrorist acts and incursions are putting an additional burden on law enforcement and shifting resources away from counter-narcotics. It should also not be excluded that members of the IMU or other Taliban-linked groups would seek to acquire a share of the Central Asian opiate market as recent media reports from the Russian Federation seem to suggest. In Afghanistan, the involvement of Taliban insurgents in the drug trade is evident, particularly in the south, and has been detailed in previous UNODC research. |*|

” However, excessively focusing on insurgents’ linkages with the drug trade risks obscuring the deeper involvement of corrupt government officials in the Afghan opiate trade. In northern Afghanistan, many actors who in previous years had been involved in opiate trafficking have now become public officials, politicians and businessmen. Some of these stakeholders continue to be involved in drug trafficking, making high-level corruption another important cog in the large wheel of organized crime in Afghanistan. Similarly, large parts of the political and law enforcement establishment in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are seriously undermined by the involvement in the drug trade. As a matter of fact, all of Central Asia is concerned by drug trade-related corruption and the problem extends far beyond this transit region into consumption markets. |*|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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