DRUG TRAFFICKING IN TAJIKISTAN

DRUG TRAFFICKING IN TAJIKISTAN

Despite improvements to customs controls and the large-scale coverage of border guards, the majority of heroin and opium that travels from Afghanistan through Central Asia flows nearly unimpeded into Tajikistan. “According to the United Nations: “The bulk of Northern route opiates is traditionally trafficked via the TajikistanAfghanistan border and this was largely still the case in 2010-2011. On the assumption that 75-80 tons of heroin and 18-20 tons of opium were trafficked through Tajikistan in 2010, on average approximately 200 kilograms of heroin and 50 kilograms of opium were trafficked into the country on a daily basis. However, yearly seizures represent only a fraction of the estimated flow. In 2010, Tajikistan confiscated 985 kilograms of heroin and 744 kilograms of opium. Nevertheless, Tajikistan is able to seize the most opiates in the entire region. The country’s border with Afghanistan has long been the most vulnerable in Central Asia, particularly on account of topography, but also capacity. An added challenge is that most of the remaining opium production and most laboratories in northern Afghanistan are situated in areas bordering Tajikistan. The heroin seized by Tajik law enforcement is reported to be high purity, hydrochloride (HCL) and is almost always found in the original laboratory packaging stamped with different brand logos. This correlates with production in Badakhshan province, which consists almost exclusively of heroin HCL. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Heroin seizures in Tajikistan have been steadily declining. Opium seizures, although more haphazard, have also been decreasing since 2007. A partially inverse trend is observed when looking at Tajik Customs data, which clearly shows an upward trend in heroin seizures. This is possibly a result of capacity building at Tajikistan’s official border crossings over the last decade. Whether true or not, it is clear that very little opium has been trafficked –or detected- at any of the country’s official border crossing points in the last decade. The number of opiate seizures made by Tajik Customs dropped by more than 50 per cent in the first half of 2011. |*|

“Customs aside, the first lines of protection on Tajik borders are the approximately 7,0008,000 border guards positioned in Tajikistan, of which 6,000 are conscripts. Border guards can be divided into two groups - the young, low-paid and poorly trained conscripts and the officers who are on the whole better paid (with an average salary of $200-400 at mid-rank) and crucially better trained. Tajik border guards also saw their opiate seizures decrease by more than 60 per cent in the first half of 2011. On the whole, border guards seize more opiates than Customs, which indicates that the entirety of the border is being utilized. An explanation for the overall decrease in opiate seizures across the border may be that traffickers are changing their modus operandi, trafficking smaller quantities and using alternate crossing routes. There is good communication between Tajik and Afghan border officials, in part due to a shared language. There is also a great deal of corrupt partnerships, which go a long way to facilitating trafficking operations. |*|

“Conditions along the Afghan-Tajik border are extremely challenging in terms of climate, topography and security. Violence manifests itself in frequent shootouts with traffickers or border trespassers. The key border district for both shipments and shootouts is Shurotabad district in Khatlon. In 2010, more than six Tajik border officials and DCA staff lost their lives there fighting with traffickers. In 2011 violence spread to other districts. In a single week in September, Tajik border guards were involved in several shootouts with armed traffickers in the Hamadoni and Kumsangir districts, leaving three dead among the trespassers. Local district residents are also victims of violence from drug traffickers. Kidnapping for ransom or extortion is rife and has been consistently reported in Shurotabad district for at least a decade. The bulk of the opiate flow travels through districts where Afghan Government authority is either patchy or applied without integrity. On the Tajik side, this corresponds to the districts of Ishkashim, Shugnan, Darvoz, Shurotabad, Hamadoni and Farkhor. There are two major flows entering Tajikistan, roughly divided between the eastern and western parts of the country. Upon entry, opiates are repackaged and consolidated first in Dushanbe and then trafficked northward to Osh in Kyrgyzstan or westward into Uzbekistan. A small portion is directed by air to the Russian Federation. |*|

Illegal Drug Trade in Tajikistan in the 1990s

In the last years of the Soviet Union and in the Russian Federation of the mid-1990s, the issue of drug trafficking was embroiled in political rhetoric and public prejudices. The Yeltsin administration used the combined threats of narcotics and Islamic fundamentalism to justify Russian military involvement in Tajikistan, and the Rahmonov regime used accusations of drug crimes to justify the repression of domestic political opponents. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Despite the presence of Russian border guards, the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan has proved easily penetrable by narcotics smugglers, for whom the lack of stable law enforcement on both sides of the boundary provides great opportunities. For some Central Asians, the opium trade has assumed great economic importance in the difficult times of the post-Soviet era. An established transit line moves opium from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Khorugh in Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province, from which it moves to Dushanbe and then to Osh on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border. The ultimate destination of much of the narcotics passing through Tajikistan is a burgeoning market in Moscow and other Russian cities, as well as some markets in Western Europe and in other CIS nations. Besides Pakistan and Afghanistan, sources have been identified in Russia, Western Europe, Colombia, and Southeast Asia. A shipment of heroin was confiscated for the first time in 1995; previously, traffic apparently had been limited to opium and hashish. *

An organized-crime network reportedly has developed around the Moscow narcotics market; Russian border guards, members of the CIS peacekeeping force, and senior Tajikistani government officials reportedly are involved in this activity. Besides corruption, enforcement has been hampered by antiquated Soviet-era laws and a lack of funding. In 1995 the number of drug arrests increased, but more than two-thirds were for cultivation; only twenty were for the sale of drugs. A national drug-control plan was under government consideration in early 1996. Regional drug-control cooperation broke down after independence. In 1995 the Tajikistani government planned to implement a new regional program, based in the UN Drug Control Program office in Tashkent, for drug interdiction along the Murghob-Osh-Andijon overland route. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the customs authorities, the Ministry of Health, and the procurator general all have responsibilities in drug interdiction, but there are no formal lines of interagency cooperation. *

Drug Traffickers in Tajikistan

Much of the drug trade in Tajikistan in the 1990s and early 2000s is believed to have been controlled by warlords, many of them connected with government officials and members of the Tajik and Russia military. The drug trade was the primary source of revenues for their operations. Without this money the couldn’t pay their militiamen and give bribes and would lose their power. During the civil war, anti-government forces made money from the drug trade.

The number of new Mercedes and Jaguars on the streets of Dushanbe and fancy villas in the suburbs offers evidence of the wealth and pervasiveness of the drug trade One Tajik newspaper editor told the Los Angeles Times, “If someone’s got a good house or a good car that means he’s a bandit, dealing narcotics. Because you can’t buy a car on $2 a month.”

According to Sensi Seeds: Trafficking of cannabis and heroin is largely controlled by organisations well-versed in conflict, and throughout the region, various ‘drug warlords’ have battled for supremacy over recent decades. As is often the case in regions subject to prolonged violence, the black market has become an important source of funding to various military groups. Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen and Taliban, Russian border forces, the Tajik opposition, and members of the Tajik government itself have been accused of having links to trafficking operations. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

According to the United Nations: “In Tajikistan, the drug market is divided between five major loosely grouped factions formed primarily around clan-based ties and coinciding roughly with the country’s provinces, or oblasts. One network is composed of members of the Leninobod (or Khojand) clan, particularly influential in the northern part of the country and the most powerful Tajik clan before the collapse of the USSR. The second faction consists of members of the Kuliab clan in the central region within Khatlon province. During the early years of independence and into the civil war, the Kuliab clan acted both as a conservative source of opposition to the communist leadership in Khojand and an ally against the Islamist and democratic opposition. This clan emerged as the most powerful after the Tajik civil war and is currently considered to be the most influential. Crucially, its influence is strongest in Dushanbe, a major opiate consolidation and forwarding area. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The third faction, the Kurgan-Tyube clan, identified with the region of the same name with Khatlon province, is more or less integrated with the Kuliab faction. The fourth faction, the Garm (or Kataregin) clan is based in south-eastern and central Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan), one of the strongholds of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), which was composed of the Islamic Renaissance Party and other Islamism opposition groups.A fifth faction, the Pamiri, is identified primarily with the Pamir ethnic group of the same name, notably the Ismailis. These various clans fought both alongside each other and against one another during the civil war and members are now competing for shares of a drug market controlled mostly by members of the Kuliab and Leninobad clans.” |*|

Rivalries Between Drug Traffickers in Tajikistan

The United Nations reported: “In differentiating between groups on a regional level, there are clear rivalries with groups based in Khatlon and northern Tajikistan and again with those in Gorno-Badakhshan. Such rivalries over the drug trade are a reflection of the divisions dating back to the civil war and before that to Soviet times. In the current situation, actual confrontation between groups in Tajikistan seems remarkably rare given the violent past. This is, in many other settings, an indication of consolidation and shared control by a few networks. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

According to one United Nations official, the entire Tajik-Afghan border is effectively divided between clans. Their level of control is such that clans permeate the power structures of the state. Thus, one clan with political power can be overrepresented in key ministries with law enforcement responsibilities. At the individual level, criminal group leadership is still dominated by former warlords active in the civil war. Many of these joined the political process in the 1990s and many continue to be reliant on illicit economies. These mid-level operators are involved in the drug trade either directly or through taxation, with some overseeing specific territories. This was the case in GBAO, for two ethnic Pamiri groups led by former commanders. Both groups have approximately 20-40 members, operate in Khorog and have international links with groups in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Indicative of their paramilitary origins in the civil war, these types of groups are highly organized with a single leader, a clearly defined hierarchy and a strong system of internal discipline. |*|

An interesting distinction is the degree to which organized crime groups in Central Asia have connections to Afghanistan. A common language and the relative ease of crossing the Tajik-Afghan border, when compared to the Uzbek and Turkmen networks, means that some Tajik groups access Afghan production directly. In this context, it is possible that integrated Afghan-Tajik groups have emerged, although so far these seem to consist only of mid to small-scale operations. The Langariev group, a now defunct Tajik trafficking organization led by former field commanders, had 20 per cent of its membership composed of Afghans. Similarly, although the responsibility of most Afghan groups stops at the Afghanistan-Central Asia border, there are increasing drugrelated arrests of Afghan nationals in Tajikistan (and Uzbekistan) There have also been drug-related arrests of Afghans in Uzbekistan and even further afield in Kazakhstan. Although linguistic and cultural limitations are mitigating factors, it may be justified to think that Afghans will eventually attempt to do away with the middleman and traffic opiates directly into the Russian Federation. |*|

Trafficking between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is reportedly controlled by mixed TajikUzbek networks, as both ethnic groups span the border on both sides. Logistic operators for these groups appear to be based in the border areas of each country and function by leveraging close family ties. These groups are facing restrictions owing to political tensions on the Tajik-Uzbek border and the concentration of Uzbek agencies along its length. There is little information on the groups controlling the trade inside Uzbekistan. Law enforcement agencies estimated that in 2009 about 20 networks were active in trafficking heroin through the country, and involved Uzbek nationals as well as members of other Central Asian nationalities. For example, the leader of a major regional organization trafficking opiates into the Russian Federation was a Tajik citizen residing in Uzbekistan. |*|

Major Drug Trafficking Routes in Tajikistan

According to the United Nations: “Tajikistan has reported the region’s largest heroin seizures since 1999. Its regional share of heroin seizures peaked in 2003 when it accounted for 82 percent of total regional seizures. As previously noted, heroin production facilities have become increasingly concentrated within Afghanistan itself and many of these facilities, along with clandestine repository networks, are believed to be located in north-eastern Afghanistan near the Tajik border. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Approximately 50 percent of Tajik authorities’ seizures take place on the border with Afghanistan, and the majority of border seizures take place on the more secure border section in the western Khatlon oblast. Once inside Tajikistan, drugs flow through the country via several paths using the major transport infrastructure in the country. Trafficking into the least populated, least developed and very rugged eastern province of Gorno-Badakhshan follows the Pamir Highway north, crossing extreme terrain and high altitude passes en route to Sary-Tash and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. A second major route flows north over a lower section of the Pamir Highway to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe from where drugs may be transported to a variety of locations. |~|

Major drug routes from Tajikistan : Route 1) Dushanbe - Saryasia (Uzbekistan) – Bukhara (Uzbekistan) – Tashkent – Shymkent – Taraz- Almaty – Balkhash - Karaganda- Astana – Kokshetau – Petropavlovsk – Russia. Route 2) Dushanbe - Saryasia (Uzbekistan) – Bukhara (Uzbekistan) – Tashavuz (Turkmenistan) – Kungrad (Uzbekistan) – Beineu – Opornaya – Makat – Atyrau – Ganyushkino – Russia. Route 3) Dushanbe – Chorjou (Turkmenistan) – Bekdash – Janaozen – Beineu – Opornaya – Makat – Atyrau – Ganyushkino – Russia [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

According to Sensi Seeds: “Opium, heroin and hashish smuggled through the country primarily originates in Afghanistan, with which Tajikistan shares a 1,300km-long, mountainous, and poorly-policed border—although a smaller proportion may originate in Pakistan or elsewhere. In 1995, it was estimated that 80 percent of the narcotics trafficked through Tajikistan follow the Khorog-Osh road in Gorno-Badakhshan, which begins at Khorog (on the border with Afghanistan) and leads to the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, at the border with Uzbekistan. However, it appears that the situation has changed markedly since then—in 2008, it was reported that 60 percent of all contraband entering Tajikistan is trafficked through the heavily-populated southwestern province of Khatlon, which lies at the western border with Afghanistan. The changing map of drug trafficking networks in Central Asia are both a cause and a consequence of the ongoing violence affecting the region—and affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of local inhabitants. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

Moving Drugs Across the Afghanistan-Tajikistan Border

An estimated 80 to 100 tons of heroin is believed to pass through Tajikistan every year. Tajikistan shares a 1,400-kilometer (875-mile) border with Afghanistan that runs through rugged, mountainous terrain. The border is fairly well monitored where the Pyandzh River is wide but is less well guarded along the slopes and gorges of the Pamir mountains. The opium and heroin is often carried in sewn cotton bags, sometimes printed with the name and address of the manufacturers, floated across of the river on inner tubes or inflated animal skins and then moved on donkeys and horses on remote mountain trails. One border guard told Newsweek, “These hills are full of paths and hiding places that only the local people know. It’s more or less impossible to stop the drugs coming over the river. There are million places to cross.”

Approximately 200 kilograms of heroin and 50 kilograms of opium enter Tajikistan every day. Much is believed to pass across the US-built Nizhny Pyanj Bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan. According to the United Nations: “Investigations of Nizhny-Panj by UNODC suggested that many independent traffickers did not cross the actual bridge, but rather crossed the river by boat and then connected with the road serving Nizhny-Panj on the other side, in Kumsangir district. At the same time, research in Afghanistan indicated that traffickers working together do make use of the official crossing to move large loads of heroin. The recent arrests on narcotics smuggling charges of high-ranking Tajik officials within the department for combating drug trafficking, may be one indication of this invisible traffic. Encouragingly, such arrests will likely help to deter others from partaking in drug corruption. The other official crossing is Ai-Khanum in Farkhor district (Tajikistan), bordering Takhar province in Afghanistan. Law enforcement sources reported that most illegal exports, including narcotics, circumvent the crossing point. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Armed groups of Afghan smugglers carry shipments of 10-60 kilograms of heroin on makeshift rafts or dinghies across the river into Tajikistan. These traffickers may be transporting other narcotics and mixed seizures of hashish, heroin and opium are not uncommon. According to DCA officials, once across the border smugglers hike by foot 5-6 kilometres to remote villages where the heroin is stockpiled until onward trafficking. According to the same sources, smugglers are each paid US$200-300 per river crossing. Traffickers that can afford it, pay off Afghan border guards and police officials to facilitate trafficking. In some cases, officials are themselves responsible for the trafficking, as attested by recent arrests in Dash-i-Qala district of Takhar. |*|

“The payment process is generally the same across the length of the border and usually involves cash payments. In some cases, when traffickers are linked by family ties, drugs may be sold on loan and in these cases the volumes are generally small. In organized trafficking schemes, lots are sold in US$ 100,000 amounts, which depending upon the negotiated price translates into 35-50 kilograms of heroin for the buyer. In some cases, Tajik traffickers will barter with Afghans for vehicles - sometimes stolen in the Russian Federation. This has also been observed in Tajikistan where UNODC officers report that 6 kilograms of high quality heroin is “worth one land cruiser”. In another case of barter, some drug traffickers send alcoholic beverages from Tajikistan as part of the payment. |*|

Small Time Drug Smugglers in Tajikistan

Many Tajiks who live along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border make a living from the drug trade. When one border guard was asked by Newsweek who was involved, he replied, “Everyone.” Many of the small time smugglers are poor villagers and get involved in the trade because they have few other ways to feed their families.

In the early 2000s, villagers were paid $100 or more for carrying a load of opium or heroin the 550 kilometer (350 mile) distance between the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and Dushanbe. Sometimes they were cheated out their drugs by drug traffickers in Dushanbe and returned home without the money they were supposed to bring back for the people who hired them. The smugglers are then told they have to come with money owed their employers. In some cases members of the smuggler’s families are held hostage and kept as virtual slaves until the smugglers come up with the money.

Describing how 300 kilograms of heroin was moved across the Panj river from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, one drug trafficker told the Independent, “We blew up with air the skins of slaughtered cows. We roped them, seven or eight together to form a raft. When he had four of these, we crossed with 15 armed guards on the first two rafts. On the other side we had arranged with senior military officers for somebody to shine a torch as a signal when it was safe to go.”

Paragliders, Swallowers and Drug Smuggling in Tajikistan

For three years a man routinely moved drugs from Afghanistan into Tajikistan with a paraglider. At first border guards thought that he was person enjoying the sport in an area where the Pamirs meet the Hindu Kush but then figured there must be more to it than that. In August 2005, the paraglider was brought down with a hail to bullets. The smuggler was able to escape but not before leaving 18 kilograms of heroin behind.

Flight attendants and train conductors are told to keep an eye out for people who don’t eat or drink, and ask for antacids — a sure giveaway for glotateli (“swallowers”), who hide drugs in their stomachs. They no longer use balloons or condoms but employ heat-sealed plastic tubes especially designed for drug smuggling. They also swallow rubber glove fingers warped in plastic.

Smugglers are regularly busted on the Dushanbe to Moscow flight. People who take this flight are often gone through with a fine tooth comb. They are strip searched and then X-rayed to see if they have drugs in their stomachs. Couriers are paid between $300 and $700 for the journey. Occasionally the bags burst in the stomachs of couriers during a flight and when the plane lands they are rushed to a hospital so the bags can be surgically removed. Drugs have been found in the stomachs of children. In one case the parents reportedly were paid $1,200 for this. A mullah was even found to have swallowed drugs. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

Tajikistan Drug Trafficking: the Western Flow

The movement of opium and heroin through western Tajikistan is referred to as the “western flow.” According to the United Nations: “The importance of the western flow is reflected in the seizures reported by Khatlon province. In 2010, 42 per cent of all drugs were seized in Khatlon, primarily in the border districts of Hamadoni, Shurabad, Farkhor and Pyandj. A noteworthy district missing from this list is Kumsangir, which hosts the Nizhny-Panj bridge (Sher Khan Bandar in Afghanistan), the main crossing point of the Tajik-Afghan border. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Heroin seizures at that crossing rarely surpassed 100 kilograms of heroin in 2007-2009 and seemed to have dropped down to negligible levels in 2010. Heroin aside, very little opium has been seized at the crossing itself, consistent with overall Customs seizures. Low opium seizures appear strange at face value, given opium’s distinct and noticeable odour and given the several tons of opium estimated to be trafficked into Tajikistan. Across the border in Kunduz province, the low opium and heroin seizures suggest that Afghan law enforcement is as unsuccessful as their Tajik counterparts in stemming the flow of opiates. Approximately 30-40 trucks are using the crossing each day, a seemingly manageable amount for dedicated searches, although the quality of the searches remains unclear as the scanner appears to be periodically breaking down. Border officials at the crossing told UNODC that physical inspection is carried out on every truck, including sealed cargo. Reportedly this includes transit traffic even if Tajik Customs does not record the seizure of any narcotic on a transit vehicle. An assessment by Border Management in Northern Afghanistan (BOMNAF) states that Tajik authorities allow few non-Tajik trucks onto their roads. As a result, goods –in many cases only transiting Afghanistan- have to be loaded onto Tajik trucks before leaving the crossing point. On the one hand this increases the risk of detection; on the other, the procedure still allows for illicit transit shipments since it is not focused on any specific search criteria. |*|

“It is unlikely that the same dedication is placed on outgoing shipments since Tajik border measures are focused on opiate imports. This may provide an incentive for the trafficking of acetic anhydride from Tajikistan to laboratories in northern Afghanistan. In that context, the Nizhny-Panj bridge’s direct connection to Kunduz city and the ring road could be misused for transporting chemicals towards Badakhshan, for instance. There appear to be ongoing attempts to bring acetic anhydride into Tajikistan for onward trafficking; however, no evidence of acetic anhydride trafficking from Tajikistan has emerged in the form of seizures in northern Afghanistan. Outside the Nizhny Panj crossing, the topography of the Tajik-Afghan border region makes large-scale precursor trafficking challenging. Tajikistan is Afghanistan’s biggest export partner in Central Asia (see figure below). Cement and fruit appear to be the main cargo entering Tajikistan. Tajik border officials comment that the bulky nature and time consuming process of searching through cement bags makes inspections difficult. An added difficulty is the apparent impossibility for either sniffer dogs or scanners to detect heroin in a cement bag. This presents clear opportunities for traffickers and there have been cases of heroin concealed among cement shipments at several crossings on this border. Such cases also serve to highlight the limits of hard border control measures, which need to be supplemented with intelligence sharing and risk assessments.. |*|

“There are recent indications that Tajik citizens cross into Afghanistan to purchase narcotics, suggesting good cooperation and trust between traffickers. For the most part, deals between Afghan and Tajik traffickers are settled by phone, a process facilitated by the availability of Afghan and Tajik mobile services on both sides of the border, as well as the availability of satellite phones, but more importantly made possible by a shared language. This, much more than a shared ethnicity, is the true facilitating factor in cross-border trafficking. As shown below, Tajiks represent the majority in only one Kunduz district, Aliabad, which does not border Tajikistan. In the key Imam Sahib district, Uzbeks are the majority both numerically and in terms of influence over the drug trade. In another border district, Qala-I-Zal, ethnic Turkmens are the overwhelming majority. Linguistic links appear to be a more important variable than ethnicity in terms of understanding trafficking on this section of the border. Profit is, of course, the ultimate driver. |*|

Tajikistan Drug Trafficking: the Eastern Flow

The movement of opium and heroin through eastern Tajikistan is referred to as the “eastern flow.” According to the United Nations: “The eastern flow is smaller in volume and travels through the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in the area between the Tem and Ishkashem border points. This is the traditional opiate route to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. GBAO has been economically depressed since independence and virtually cut off from the rest of Tajikistan, having its own police, military and tax systems. GBAO is somewhat distinct from the rest of Tajikistan, hosting seven different Pamiri groups speaking many different Persian dialects. Among these are the Ismailis, who are Shia Muslims and followers of the Aga Khan. The difference in poverty rates with the rest of Tajikistan is stark. Around 84 per cent of the population on average are below the poverty line in GBAO, versus 45 per cent in the rest of Tajikistan. Economic activity is mostly related to livestock herding and mining, and most residents live a subsistence lifestyle. The remote region makes up around 45 per cent of the country’s land area, but represents only 3 per cent of the population (approximately 200,000). [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Crossing the border is particularly difficult in winter and most traffic, illicit or otherwise, occurs during the warmer months. No seizures have been recorded at GornoBadakhshan crossings. This may be linked to trade flows which are too light to conceal any substantial drug movements, averaging five Tajik trucks a week. Collusion on one or both sides of the border is also a possibility. For example, in 2011, the Tajik DCA arrested a member of the Afghan Border Police trying to smuggle heroin into Shughnan district. Ishkashem is the main crossing point in the province. The port has a Customs presence and is also the connecting node from Afghanistan to both China and Kyrgyzstan. According to locals, a portion of traffickers circumvents this official crossing, preferring to cross the river at the many illegal crossing points. From Ishkashem, the river becomes relatively narrow (30–75 metres) and fast flowing with stretches of turbulent white water. Foot crossings are possible and enable traffickers to simply wade through the river with small to moderate size shipments. |*|

“Drugs are trafficked and stored in border villages until further movement is organized, usually towards Murghab and further to the Kyrgyz border. Transporters on this section of the border reportedly pocket around US$ 100-150 per kilograms of heroin. Bribes to Afghan border officials add to the cost if traffickers choose border crossing points or monitored areas. The remoteness of this border proved to be facilitating another form of intrusion. |*|

“Given the ease of crossing and the remoteness in certain sections, these shipments can aggregate into significant volumes. Central government control is weakest in Gorno-Badakhshan, which impacts law enforcement results. In 2010, the entire province accounted for just 2 per cent of total seizures in Tajikistan, leading the Tajik DCA to starkly conclude that GornoBadakhshan is the only region of Tajikistan where seizures of all drugs decreased.The DCA has opened two offices in the region, but intelligence on shipments remains rare. While reporting the lowest seizures in the country, the province also has the lowest and most stable opium prices. This can suggest steady supplies of opium and in this context the low seizures highlight weaknesses in counter-narcotics law enforcement. |*|

Clan Links, Terrorists and Drug Trafficking on the Eastern Flow

The United Nations reported: “Linguistic links greatly facilitate communication between Tajik and Afghan traffickers, but in Gorno-Badakhshan Ismaeli connections run much deeper and are concentrated around border areas. These cross-border links were unearthed following the fall of the USSR and were strengthened during the time of instability in both countries (including a civil war in Tajikistan), when armed groups moved back and forth between the two. In Afghanistan, Ismailis make up the overwhelming majority of the population in border districts like Shegnan, Eshkeshem and Wakhan. Isamili villages in adjacent Tajik districts like Darwaz (around the Kalai Khumb crossing) and Shughnan (Khorog crossing) are closely interconnected with villages on the other side of the border. Shootouts with traffickers are rare, almost unheard of on this section of the border. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“In 2009, the insurgency plaguing northern Afghanistan spilled over into Tajikistan with foreign and Tajik fighters led by the late Mullah Abdullah crossing the border into GBAO. The militants all crossed into central (Darwuz) or eastern Tajikistan (Shipad area) and continued into Tajikabad district (Jirgatol) with some crossing into Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province. There are no observed links with drug trafficking and such incursions may even have the opposite effect of increasing the presence of law enforcement and military in the area, making crossing more difficult for traffickers. |*|

“Tajikistan also faced a related emergency situation the following year. On August 23, 2010, 25 individuals including citizens of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation, managed to escape from a prison in Dushanbe. The majority of the prisoners were sentenced for terrorist activities and/or affiliation with extremist movements. According to CARICC analysts, the extensive counter-terrorist operations which ensued “negatively affected the amount of time and efforts that could have been spent on counter-narcotics activities in the third and, probably, fourth quarter of 2010.” In 2011, Tajikistan continued to grapple with militancy, which now includes suicide bombings. According to a deputy Prosecutor-General of Tajikistan, 196 militants were detained, of which 168 were convicted in 2011. Most of those detained are reported to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This seems to be an increase over 2010 when 38 IMU members were detained in the country. DCA officials have reported arresting several traffickers who turned out to be IMU members, although this is yet to be confirmed officially. |*|

Flow of Heroin and Opium Through Tajikistan

According to the United Nations: “Once across the Tajik-Afghan border, some direct deliveries continue to destination in the Russian Federation, but most small to medium size shipments are consolidated and repackaged further downstream in Dushanbe or northern Tajikistan. This is partially supported by seizure data, which shows that the largest single seizures in Tajikistan are not made at the border but downstream. Shipments are then trafficked further into Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

The following main overland routes have been used since the 1990s and are listed in order of importance: 1) Pyanj district — Kurgan Tyube city — Dushanbe city — Khudjand city — Isafara — Batkent (Kyrgyzstan) — Osh city — Shurotabad district — Kulyob city — Dushanbe city — Khudjand city — Isfara — Batkent (Kyrgyzstan) — Osh city; 3) Shegnan — Murghab — Sary Tash city (Kyrgyzstan) — Osh city; 4) Darvoz — Murghab — Sary Tash city (Kyrgyzstan) — Osh city; 5) Shurotabad — Kulyob — Dushanbe — Garm — Batkent (Kyrgyzstan) — Osh; 6) Pyanj — Kurgan Tyube city — Dushanbe city — Uzbekistan. Although these shipments are primarily organized using the road networks, trains are once again seeing an increase in the number of seizures. |*|

Flow of Heroin and Opium Out of Tajikistan

According to the United Nations: “The largest Tajik seizure reported in 2010 consisted of 119 kilograms of heroin seized in northern Sughd province on a train destined for St. Petersburg, Russia. The direct rail line from Kulob to Moscow has also been targeted. Tajik trains travel through Uzbekistan, where the bulk of seizures are effected (see Uzbekistan section) rather than upstream in Tajikistan or downstream in Kazakhstan. The Russian Federation also continues to make large heroin seizures on trains originating in Tajikistan. The largest in recent memory is a November 2010 joint operation conducted by the Tajik DCA and the Federal Drug Control Service (FDCS) resulting in the seizure of 300 kilograms of opiates including 179 kilograms of heroin and 1 kilograms of opium in St. Petersburg. Another noteworthy heroin seizure is the 80-kg shipment confiscated in August 2009 by the Customs officers of Astrakhan on a train on the Dushanbe-Moscow route. Some opiates are trafficked into Europe. In October 2011, two seizures of around 5 kilograms each were carried out, involving heroin trafficked by cargo trains from Tajikistan to destinations in Europe including Lithuania in one case. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Finally, a portion of opiates is sent to the Russian Federation and other destinations by air. This method usually involves small amounts of high-purity heroin concealed in body cavities (0.5-1 kilograms) or in luggage (1-5 kilograms), using increasingly sophisticated concealment methods. For traffickers this is less challenging logistically than a long overland trek across Central Asia, but there is substantial upfront investment involved, consisting of up to US$ 1,000 to pay the transporter and US$ 800-1,000 for an air ticket to the Russian Federation. Profit margins are still very attractive, taking into account that 1 kilograms of heroin can be sold for at least US$ 20,000 (wholesale price) in Moscow, while the same kilogram generates only US$ 4,000 in Tajikistan. In 2009, one attempt to traffic heroin by air to the Russian Federation involved 14 kilograms of heroin, which would have resulted in a gross profit of US$ 280,000 for the trafficker. |*|

“Air trafficking is estimated to account for approximately 8-10 per cent of trafficking to the Russian Federation. Around 80 per cent of the heroin trafficked by air comes from Tajikistan. There are flights to Moscow departing twice weekly from Kulob in southern Tajikistan, in addition to international connections in Kuyrgan Tube and Khudjand (see Annex). The best air connections are from the capital Dushanbe with direct flights to five cities in the Russian Federation (as well as Kazakhstan, Iran, Dubai, China and Turkey). Most Central Asian drug flights originate in Tajikistan. Widespread unemployment and low wages in Tajikistan translate into an increasing availability of couriers for drug flights. The average monthly salary in Tajikistan is US$ 100, while one drug flight alone can bring revenues of up US$ 1,000. Such glaring disparity between licit and illicit activity creates an obvious incentive for employed and unemployed alike. Traffickers target primarily unemployed women, as they are particularly vulnerable. |*|

“Whether by air, rail or road, corruption plays the main role in lubricating drug routes into and through Tajikistan. The incentive is obvious given the huge sums involved. UNODC estimates that in 2010 traffickers in Central Asia made 1.4 billion in net profit 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 economy in Tajikistan relies on two revenue streams, commodities and remittances. When compared with the value of its two primary export commodities (aluminium and cotton) the drug trade looms large. For example, total aluminium exports (accounting for more than 50 per cent of total exports) were valued at US$ 589.5 million.The other main source of income, remittance flows (US$ 2.40 billion in 2010) has been affected by the economic downturn in the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan. Simply because there are so few revenue streams to tap into, it is easy to see how an economy like Tajikistan’s could become highly dependent on the drug trade. In the country’s most impoverished areas like GBAO and Khatlon, drug money is likely a lifeline for isolated communities.

Impact of the Drug Trade on Tajikistan

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 United Nations reported: “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 fuelling 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. Widespread corruption also poisons the perception of people's relations with the police, bureaucrats and politicians.” A Toyota Land Cruiser, the U.N. says, is worth about six kilograms of high-quality heroin. Eurasia.net worked out that with “an estimated 76.5 tons of heroin transiting the country, that could translate into 12,750 Land Cruisers. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Almost half of the Tajik population believes that the majority of officials take bribes. A recent public opinion survey found that law enforcement agencies were perceived as the most corrupt state body in Tajikistan in a list which unfortunately includes the state anti-corruption agency. This has an obvious impact on police work; law enforcement officers in Tajikistan have repeatedly announced knowing the identities of the major drug traffickers, but they have not stated why they have chosen not to arrest them. Many arrest figures consist therefore of small time dealers and often desperately poor couriers. |*|

Combating Drugs in Tajikistan

According to Sensi Seeds: “Tajikistan has stringent drug laws, with custodial sentences ranging from 5-10 years for small quantities with intent to supply, 12-15 years for larger quantities, and 15-20 years if conducted as part of an organised group. Tajikistan’s criminal code also states that the death penalty may be carried out for the third category of offence, but in 2005 a formal moratorium on capital punishment was issued, and all death sentences commuted to prison terms. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

According to the United Nations: “Tajikistan has made progress in several sectors including governance, poverty reduction, police reform and border management. Since 2004, the Tajik DCA has posted liaison officers in northern Afghanistan and joint operations with the CNPA have been successfully conducted. Encouragingly, arrests of mid-level officials on drug trafficking charges are increasingly being reported. Corruption is also publically acknowledged as a problem at the highest levels. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“A 2011 survey on corruption was prepared by the Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of Tajikistan, jointly with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Undoubtedly, Tajikistan is not alone in struggling with corruption, a problem shared by all countries in the region. That said, the combination of poverty, weak governance and extremist violence make the situation of Tajikistan virtually identical to that of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which happens to be the main destination for opiates transiting Tajikistan.” |*|

At the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan borders in the mountains, customs officials try to locate hiding places for drugs in vehicles by tapping the panels of cars and trucks. Many of the passes are so high that sniffer dogs are not effective. According to the United Nations: “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.”

To combat drug use, there is a popular and successful campaign involving teenagers and mothers—the first of its kind in Central Asia. RAN, a Dushanbe-based NGO, provides counseling and clean syringes to drug users. Unfortunately there is little in the way of drug treatment. Some that offer treatment simple lock addicts up and give them sleeping pills.

According to Sensi Seeds: As well as being an important step of the journey from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe, Tajikistan is becoming increasingly important as a producer of opium and hashish. In response to this development, the US has increased levels of security assistance; in the 1990s, aid to Tajikistan made up just 5 percent of total spending in Central Asia, but by 2007 it had increased to over 30 percent of the total. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

Heroin and Opium Seizures in Tajikistan

According to the United Nations: “Drug seizures reported in Tajikistan confirm this country’s status as the gateway for drugs entering Central Asia from Afghanistan. Approximately 60 percent of all Afghan opiates entering Tajikistan cross the plains surrounding the Afghan-Tajik border in Western Tajikistan, namely Khamdoni, Nizhni Pyanj, Shurabad district and Parhar. A secondary route is through Pyanj at the westernmost part of the Tajik-Afghan border. Once in Tajikistan, most drugs pass through Dushanbe, a centre for repacking, distribution, and onward trafficking. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Most heroin seizures in 2006 occurred in the southern oblast of Khantlon (1,021.79 kilograms), followed by Dushanbe city (562.3 kilograms), and the northern oblast of Sogd (392.44 kilograms). A similar pattern occurs with opium seizures which in 2006 were concentrated primarily in Khantlon (785.55 kilograms), Sogd (315.68 kilograms) and Dushanbe city (189.52 kilograms). |~|

“While opiate seizures have remained at over one ton since 1996, the ratio of heroin to opium seizures and the total volume of seizures have been sporadic, ranging from 1,461.89 kilograms in 1998 to 7,903.33 kilograms just three years later. Between 1996 and 2006 the average yearly change in seizure volumes was +/- 49 percent. |~|

“Tajikistan opiate seizures (kilograms), 1996-2006: 1,978.1 in 1996; 3,449.0 in 1997; 3,484.3 in 1998; 6,661.4 in 1999; 5,582.3 in 2000; 7,109.7 in 2001; 7,971.3 in 2002; 7,903.3 in 2003; 1,461.9 in 2004; 3,515.5 in 2005; 3,411.4 in 2006. |~|

“Interestingly, some large variations of opium seizures have been observed at the sub-national level. Dushanbe city and the Republican Subordinated Regions (RSS) witnessed substantial drops in recorded seizures in 2006, while Khatlon, Gorno-Badakhanshan (99 percent) and Sogd (53 percent) saw large increases. Data on seizures by oblast are not available from before 2005, making it difficult to know if this is a linear, cyclical or other trend in trafficking or law enforcement activities. |~|

“Khatlon reported not only the largest volume of seizures, but also the largest increase in seizures (203 percent). It is worth noting that the volume of heroin seizures has remained fairly constant, with this increase being caused by increasing opium seizures. |~|

Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency

The United Nations helped establish an independent drug control agency in 1999 in Tajikistan that answers directly to the President. Widely regarded as a success, it significantly reduced the flow of drugs and was regarded as relatively corruption-free. In 2000 and 2001, it seized more than 16 tons of illegal drugs, including 4.3 tons of heroin in 2001.

The drug agencies periodically burns its haul in an oven installed in their offices. Cars founded loaded with heroin and opium that have been seized have included a Mercedes, Chrysler and a Russian Zhiguli. More than 3,000 men applied for jobs to be drug control agents.

The agency operates mostly on tips from citizens. Officials believe that rivalry among drug traffickers generates the tips. The leaders of the agency say they know who main the drug barons are but can not arrest them because of their political connections. One indication of the agency’s success is the fact that a gang of gunmen attempted too assassinate a senior narcotic officer with the agency

Tajikistan Border Guards

The Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is fairly well monitored where the Pyandzh River is wide and guard towers have been set up but is less well guarded along the slopes and gorges of the Pamir mountains. In the early 2000s, border guards said they heard shooting almost every night.

The border is monitored mainly by Russian border guards. The Tajik border guards are regarded as untrustworthy. In one ambush involving armed smugglers that left seven people dead, most of the dead were Tajik border guards.

Border guards seized about four tons of drugs coming from Afghanistan in 2002, compared to two tons in 2000, one ton in 1999 and 6.5 kilograms in 1996. As of August 2005, 800 kilograms of heroin brought in from Afghanistan had been seized.

The European Union, the United States, Russia and China are all cooperating to help Tajikistan create an effective border guard that can keep drugs out. Border guards now have test kits, sophisticated communications equipment and four-wheel-drive vehicles,

Drug Busts and Violence in Tajikistan

It estimated that less than five percent of drugs moving through Central Asia are seized by authorities but of the drugs that are seized about and 80 percent of the drugs seized in Central Asia are taken in Tajikistan. One European Union anti-drug official told Newsweek, “We are always years behind the smugglers. They always create new ways, especially with globalization.

In the summer of 2002, a broad narcotics sweep involving 25,000 law enforcement officials in 15 countries of Central Asia and the Balkans resulted in the arrest and detention of thousands of suspects and the seizure of 3,700 pounds of heroin and nine tons of other narcotics. He bust was organized at regional command centers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Bucharest, Romania.

In July 2005, the Tajik Security Ministry, in a joint operation with Afghan agents, announced the arrest of several drug smugglers, including Saidkobir Sharipov, the leader of an international drug ring, and Mukhtado Dzhalolov, a member of the Taliban. Sharipov was sentenced to 20 years in jail.

According to Sensi Seeds: “In recent years, drug-related violence has intensified elsewhere in Tajikistan. In February 2014, Tajik counternarcotics officers were attacked in Khatlon province near the Afghan border by a force of around thirty gunmen thought to be linked to local Afghan drug lords; two officers were killed and at least three injured before the attackers fled back across the border to Afghanistan. It is thought that the attackers were responding to an incident several weeks earlier, during which Tajik border guards killed six Afghan traffickers and seized a significant quantity of hashish and opium. [Source: Sesheta, October 15, 2014, Sensi Seeds sensiseeds.com *-*]

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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