DRUG TRAFFICKING IN UZBEKISTAN

DRUG TRAFFICKING IN UZBEKISTAN

Afghanistan-produced heroin and opium passes into Uzbekistan both directly from Afghanistan and via Tajikistan. According to the United Nations: “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. In 2006, Uzbekistan officially reported 1.44 ha of illicit opium cultivation and no opium production facilities. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Uzbekistan has some of the best international air connections in the region (see Annex); that said, UNODC is not aware of heroin shipments moving by air traced back to the country, indicating that the majority of opiates entering Uzbekistan are transported into Kazakhstan by road or rail. Uzbekistan is currently the obligatory transit country for Tajik trains and Afghan rail cargo. In 2011, the country reported an unusually high number of seizures on trains, accounting for nearly two thirds of rail seizures in Central Asia. Most train seizures are small, ranging between 5 and 15 kilograms and none are above 20 kilograms (see Annex) for a list of reported seizures in 2011). In 2009, Uzbek law enforcement seized 126 kilograms of heroin, which was intended for export by rail to the Russian Federation. This single load is by itself larger than all 2011 smaller confiscations combined. The effort placed into concealment varies greatly. Narcotics may be hidden in passenger luggage or clothes, but traffickers will also build false floors and hidden compartments or hide drugs in cargo. |*|

“CARICC analysts comment that in 2011 they saw an increase in “impersonal trafficking”. This method usually involves traffickers attaching heroin with magnets above railcar axles underneath the wagon. In some cases, the car is marked and the narcotics are removed later, usually before reaching destination. Smuggling opiates by rail through Uzbekistan requires less complex logistical arrangements than travelling by road and less interaction with law enforcement since rail traffic encounters far fewer delays at borders. One exception to this appears to be the hours-long inspection of Tajik labour migrants aboard the Dushanbe-Moscow train. Here again, increasing intelligence sharing between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would help to offset the risk of opiate trafficking, while perhaps reducing long procedures. At the moment, however, Uzbekistan is developing its border security policy largely in isolation. |*|

Major Drug Trafficking Routes in Uzbekistan

Major drug routes from Uzbekistan: Route 1) Tashkent – Saryagash – Shymkent – Taraz – Almaty – Taldykurgan – Ayaguz – Georgievka – Ust-Kamenorogorskl – Russia; Route 2) Tashkent – Saryagash – Shymkent – Taraz – Shu – Birlik – Balkhash – Karaganda – Pavlodar - Russia; Route 3) Nukus – 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 the United Nations: “Uzbekistan shares a 137 km border with Afghanistan and borders every other Central Asian state. It stretches to within 200 kilometres of both transhipment ports on the Caspian Sea (via Kazakhstan) and western China’s Xinjiang province, the latter a growing consumer market for Afghan heroin. |~|

“Both the road and railway network in Uzbekistan are well-developed, facilitating the movement of both licit and illicit goods. One railway line starts in Tashkent proceeding toward Arys (Kazakhstan) and Dostyk (on the Kazakh-Chinese border), passes into China and onwards to North-East Asia. Further expansions are planned including the proposed Djalal-Abad-Kashgar railway line between Kashgar (China) and Andijon (Uzbekistan) which could potentially carry 1– 2 million tons of traffic annually. |~|

“Most seizures since 1999 have occurred on Uzbekistan’s eastern border with Tajikistan, with drugs crossing into Surkhandarya from western Tajikistan. Surkhandarya’s borders with Afghanistan as well as its proximity to the Tajik-Afghan border are reflected in the largest seizures of heroin and opium in the country: 60 percent of total opiate seizures in 2006. Before the closing of the Uzbek-Afghan border in 1998, many seizures were also made at the land and railroad crossings in southern Uzbekistan covering the area of Termez on the Amudarya River. The reopened border with Afghanistan (2002) is heavily-guarded at the Termez-Hayraton checkpoint, however the large amount of licit trade utilizing this crossing may provide cover for contraband and drug smuggling. |~|

“From Surkhandarya, drugs travel towards Tashkent City in the north and onward to Kazakhstan. The high number of drugs seizures in recent years in southern Kazakhstan along the Uzbek border also indicates that this is a major transit point. Because the oblasts of Tashkent and Surkhandarya show the highest seizures in Uzbekistan, it is likely that drug traffickers have also continued crossing the Tajik-Uzbek border near Khojand into the Tashkent oblast. Another entry point into Uzbekistan is through the Panjikent crossing from the Sogd oblast into Samarkand city. |~|

“The high number of registered opiate users (1,416) in Khorezm oblast and its border with Turkmenistan also suggests that trafficking into the country through Khorezm could be of increasing significance. High seizures are also observed in 2006 in adjacent Karakalpakstan indicating high levels of smuggling activity in this region. The high prevalence of heroin dependence and cross-border rail connections to Western Kazakhstan also points to trafficking through the area. |~|

Drug Trafficking Between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan

According to the United Nations: “Uzbekistan shares a 137-km border with Balkh province in Afghanistan. The main crossing is the Hairaton border crossing point located at a bridge over the Amu Darya River in Kaldar district. Customs data indicate relatively high traffic through Hairatan, with a daily turnover of 40-50 vehicles, mostly trucks. The crossing has been equipped with a scanner, although it appears to be periodically breaking down. The entire border is double-fenced with barbed wire and watchtowers with radio communications are positioned at frequent intervals. A large river port in the Uzbek city of Termez ships approximately 1,000 tons of cargo daily 25 kilometres east to the Afghan dry port of Hairatan on 65-foot barges. Virtually all out-bound cargo is in the form of steel shipping containers. The port also receives cargo from Afghanistan in return. Each day, three trains transport approximately 1,000 containers across the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, on a rail line that now extends into Mazar-i-Sharif, in Balkh province. Uzbekistan is one of Afghanistan’s main trade partners and the country has invested significantly in the rehabilitation of northern Afghanistan’s economy. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The drug trade along this border is sometimes simplistically portrayed as motivated by Uzbek ethnic ties spanning the border of both countries. In reality, Balkh provincial districts bordering Uzbekistan are dominated by ethic Turkmens (see map). These are usually smaller entrepreneurs involved in direct opiate crossings. Uzbek is also a minority language in Balkh province, Dari is spoken by about 50 per cent of Balkh’s population while the second most frequent language is Pashto, followed by Turkmen (11.9 per cent) and Uzbek (10.7 per cent). In fact, through the rest of Balkh’s districts, the main traffickers are ethnic Pashtuns rather than ethnic Uzbeks (see northern Afghanistan section). |*|

“Due to strict Uzbek controls at Hairatan (owing to the short and well-equipped border and significant law enforcement presence), Afghan smugglers prefer using unofficial crossing points or they make their way into Uzbekistan through the Tajik border. There are still attempts at direct smuggling across the Hairatan checkpoint. However, the bulk of trafficking through this border seems to make use of illegal crossing points and consists mostly of small opium shipments crossing under the cover of darkness. These types of crossings present some risk for traffickers given that Uzbek law enforcement use boats to patrol the Amu Darya River. Shootouts can readily occur and several traffickers continue to lose their lives attempting to cross into Uzbekistan. |*|

“ In 2010 Uzbek Customs seized two shipments consisting of 66 kilograms of opium and 2.5 kilograms of heroin, respectively. In 2010, a total of 2.5 kilograms of heroin and 131 kilograms of opium were seized on the UzbekistanAfghanistan border. This accounts for barely 1 per cent of 2010 total heroin seizures in Uzbekistan (1,004 kilograms), but a full 25 per cent of its total opium seizures (519 kilograms). This proportion, particularly as it concerns heroin, may change since the opening of a railway link connecting Hairatan to Mazar-i-sharif in August 2011. This will significantly enhance trade flows between the two countries, as the new line can carry eight trains in each direction per day, or nearly 9 million tons of cargo per year. While this will unquestionably stimulate development in northern Afghanistan, it may also provide Afghan traffickers with a more efficient means of crossing directly into Uzbekistan. Acetic anhydride traffickers may also find it convenient to use the country’s international trade connections and the infrastructure of Hairatan when aiming for the Afghan market. This increase in the turnover of cross-border goods is not proportional to the current anti-smuggling capacity of the Afghan border and Customs staff. There would be less cause for concern if cross-border cooperation were to increase, but at present -and in contrast to the healthy state of commercial relations- there is virtually no communication between Uzbek and Afghan border officials. |*|

Reported opiate seizures on the Uzbek-Afghan border (2010): Opium 131 kilograms at the Hairatan crossing; Heroin: 2.5 kilograms at Hairatan crossing. Total opium seized in Uzbekistan 2010: 1,004 kilograms. Border seizures as a proportion of total opium seizures 2010: 25 percent. Total heroin seized in Uzbekistan 2010: 519 kilograms. Border seizures as a proportion of total heroin seizures 2010: 1 percent. [Source: Compiled from Government Reports, UNODC Regional Office for Central Asia, Uzbek media sources.

Drug Trafficking Between Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

“In many ways, a similar communication problem prevails on the Tajik-Uzbek border. This is a much more serious concern for regional counter-narcotics efforts since the main Uzbek border targeted by opiate traffickers is its eastern boundary with Tajikistan. Once across the Tajik-Afghan border, traffickers use the length of the Uzbek-Tajik border to transport well-concealed opiates and, increasingly, hashish. This has resulted in several violent shootouts between traffickers and border controls on both sides. Traffickers may use official crossings or rely on extended family links in the villages straddling the border, thereby bypassing crossings.[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The border appears to be well monitored, Uzbek staff at the border is usually well-trained and salaries are relatively high. This has resulted in impressive seizures for Uzbekistan, but deeper cross-border cooperation would likely result in more intelligence concerning the links along the lines of supply. It should also be noted that, as in other countries in the region, bribes and informal payments at crossings still occur with some regularity. In many such cases, officials are being paid to look the other way rather than for active participation in the smuggling process. Uzbek officials are forthcoming about the problem of corruption and encouragingly Uzbekistan recently adopted a new programme to improve the Customs service. |*|

The cross-border opiate trafficking from Tajikistan relies heavily on car and truck trips and mostly continues on to Kazakhstan. There are a number of drug routes through the country, but the capital Tashkent is the final centralization point for most opiates in Uzbekistan. The good rail and road connections with the adjacent oblast of southern Kazakhstan and opiate seizures indicate that this is the country’s key export route. Another rail and road drug corridor travels through the isolated Karakal-Pakstan region towards western Mangystau Oblast in Kazakhstan. Although at first glance it may appear counter-intuitive, this route also branches off into Turkmenistan. For a long time this trafficking was thought of consisting mostly of small shipments into Turkmenistan destined for the local market in border areas. It now appears that larger shipments of 20-30 kilograms of heroin are also trafficked. Uzbek law enforcement interdicted a smuggling group using this route in April 2010. Importantly, there is no reported incoming opiate trafficking from Turkmenistan.

Combating Drug Trafficking in Uzbekistan

To deal with the drug trafficking threat, three agencies--the National Security Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the State Customs Committee--share jurisdiction, although in practice their respective roles often are ill-defined. The international community has sought to provide technical and other assistance to Uzbekistan in this matter. In 1995 Uzbekistan established a National Commission on Drug Control to improve coordination and public awareness. A new criminal code includes tougher penalties for drug-related crimes, including a possible death penalty for drug dealers. The government's eradication program, which targeted only small areas of cultivation in the early 1990s, expanded significantly in 1995, and drug-related arrests more than doubled over 1994. In 1992 the United States government, recognizing Central Asia as a potential route for large-scale narcotics transport, began urging all five Central Asian nations to make drug control a priority of national policy. The United States has channeled most of its narcotics aid to Central Asia through the UN Drug Control Program, whose programs for drug-control intelligence centers and canine narcotics detection squads were being adopted in Uzbekistan in 1996. In 1995 Uzbekistan signed a bilateral counternarcotics cooperation agreement with Turkey and acceded to the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The United Nations reports: “Uzbekistan leads all of Central Asia in heroin seizures for 2010. It is also the only Central Asian country where heroin seizures increased (by 25 per cent). This is probably a reflection of the strength of its police, Customs and national security services. On the assumption that 9 tons of heroin were trafficked through Uzbekistan in 2010, the country’s interdiction rate is relatively high at above ten per cent. The seizure ratio is much lower for opium, slightly above 3 per cent. Heroin seizures are usually small to mid-sized (5-40 kilograms), but in 2010-2011 the country continued to make large single confiscations (70-120 kilograms). The single largest heroin seizure in 2010 consisted of 116 kilograms seized by Customs at the Oybek vehicle crossing bordering northern Tajikistan. In 2011, 91 kilograms were seized in a single seizure in Samarqand; the shipment originated in Tajikistan and was destined for the Russian Federation. Single seizures of that size rarely occur in Tajikistan and almost never in other Central Asian countries. This may indicate that smaller shipments may be consolidated in Tajikistan before onward trafficking to Uzbekistan. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

Distribution of heroin seizures in Central Asia by country (2010): Turkmenistan, 4 percent; Kazakhstan: 13 percent; Kyrgyzstan: 6 percent; Tajikistan: 38 percent; Uzbekistan: 39 percent. [Source: UNODC Regional Office for Central Asia]

Heroin and Opium Seizures in Uzbekistan

According to the United Nations: “The vast majority of seizures since 1999 have occurred on Uzbekistan’s eastern border with Tajikistan. Surkhandarya’s borders with Afghanistan as well as its proximity to the Tajik-Afghan border are reflected in the largest seizures of heroin (294.64 kilograms) and opium (493.36 kilograms) in the country, equivalent to 44 percent of total seizures. Other areas with significant levels of opium seizures are Tashkent city (68.9 kilograms) and Karakalpakstan (65.92 kilograms). Heroin seizures are significant in Tashkent city (45.48 kilograms) and Tashkent oblast (44.58kg). [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Before the closing of the Uzbek-Afghan border in 1998, many seizures also took place at the land and railroad crossings in southern Uzbekistan covering the area of Termez city on the Amudarya River. The reopened border with Afghanistan (2002) is heavily-guarded at the Termez Hayraton checkpoint; however, given the large volume of licit trade which crosses this checkpoint, it is likely that high levels of contraband and drug smuggling may also occur. |~|

“Uzbekistan opiate seizures (kilograms), 1996-2006: 2,187.7 in 1996; 1,883.5 in 1997; 332.3 in 1998; 487.6 in 1999; 574.5 in 2000; 976.5 in 2001; 1,298.4 in 2002; 708.3 in 2003; 2,683.2 in 2004; 3,617.1 in 2005; 2,434.4 in 2006. |~|

There has been a marked difference in total opiate seizure in Uzbekistan in the Taliban and post-Taliban eras. Seizure volumes dropped significantly in 2001 (74 percent), the steepest fall in the region. It is interesting to note that opiate seizures have remained fairly low post-2001. |~|

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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