In 2010 authorities in Central Asia seized less than 3 percent of the estimated drugs that flowed through it. In the mid-1990s, the five former Soviet republics agreed to cooperate to combat drug smuggling through Central Asia. But despite this and international efforts to help, the percentage of drug seizures keeps falling.

The nations of Central Asia than are known more squabbling among themselves than working together are cooperated to combat the drug trade in part because of the effect drugs have on having their populations.

For the most part the police and customs officials in Central Asia are poorly trained, underpaid and primitively equipped to handle the large amount of drugs that pour in across their borders. Because their salaries are so low and there are few other ways to make money, the police are susceptible to taking bribes. Drug smugglers caught in Kyrgyzstan are given a sentence of 18 years of hard labor. But very few are caught. In 2001, the anti-drug squad in Bishkek had only 14 narcotics officers, two cars and a single computer. The officers were paid only $38 a month. 2001

David Trilling of Eurasia. Net wrote: “Throughout the region, abetting the massive drug flows is a lack of coordination “complicated by mistrust and ongoing disputes, including on the crucial demarcation of regional borders.” With the threat that militants and violence could spill over those same borders, the hostility to cooperation comes at these countries’ own peril. The report doesn’t name names, but acknowledges that some high-level officials must be protecting or otherwise involved in the criminal networks trafficking the drugs: “An indication of their [the networks’] entrenched power, no major drug kingpin has been arrested in Central Asia since the region’s independence in 1991.” [Source:David Trilling, Eurasia. Net, May 18, 2012]

Efforts to Combat Drug Smuggling in Central Asia

According to the United Nations: “Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan “are often the most open to observation and cooperation. The Tajik Drug Control Agency (DCA) and the Kyrgyz SSDC, two agencies with strong mandates, are probably a model for bilateral collaboration in the region. Support to these two agencies, including in facilitating their bilateral relations, should be extended and may have a knock-on effect elsewhere in the region. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“The Tajik DCA has also established liaison officers in northern Afghanistan and maintains excellent and productive relations with the Afghan CNPA in that area. This is another bilateral initiative that can be replicated with other Central Asian countries, whether or not these border Afghanistan. The current multinational instruments (often due to extra-regional impulses) are the efforts of several regional security and counter-narcotics mechanisms, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Central Asia Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC). |*|

“These efforts are encouraging and indicative of a raised level of awareness towards transnational threats. Of concern is that in counter-narcotics, regional cooperation remains partly confined to rhetoric when implementation is needed. At the moment, CARICC is the dedicated law enforcement body focused on providing a working Kyrgyzstan has unresolved border disputes with Tajikistan (in the Isfara Valley to the south-west) and with Uzbekistan (on the status of Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere along the common border). Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan has yet to ratify the 2001 border delimitation with Kazakhstan. Due to the ongoing negotiation process with neighbouring states, as much as 30 per cent of the border line in Kyrgyzstan has not been delimited and remains almost uncontrolled platform for intelligence sharing and joint operations.” |*|

“Countries already recognize the need for a regional response to terrorism. This is evident in the formation of the SCO and the CSTO. Both of these regional security organizations have integrated counter-narcotics to varying degrees and a deepening of cooperation with CARICC may be warranted and achievable. This cooperation would however likely yield better results were Afghanistan more involved at the observer level or given full member status in these bodies, CARICC in particular. Deepening counter-narcotics cooperation with Afghanistan may yet prove to be the biggest hurdle to reaching efficient regional strategies for combating the drug trade. There is a lack of communication, notably between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan -which has not impacted the growing economic cooperation between the two countries- as well as between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. |*|

“Afghanistan cannot bear alone the burden of neutralizing what is a CIS-wide threat. In line with the principles of shared responsibility and a balanced approach to reducing supply and demand, consumer markets (including in the Russian Federation, which creates the strongest pull) need to continue strengthening their own efforts to reduce opiate consumption within their borders and alleviate the devastating impact on health. On the supply side, it is important for destination countries among others to continue supporting the capacity of Afghanistan to integrate regionally through the mechanisms already established for this purpose. The challenges and lacunae in counter-narcotics cooperation are in contrast to the relatively smooth and more productive cooperation between regional countries in economic and trade initiatives. Trade agreements (exemplified by EurAsEc and the recent Customs Union), the expanding transportation routes such as the current rail connection between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and the construction of three additional rail lines in Afghanistan, are all occurring at an increasing pace. The reason is simple; such agreements are in line with the interests of the countries that enter into them. Long-term counter-narcotics cooperation can thus only develop if the countries recognize that this is in their best interest.” |*|

Tackling the Precursor Drug Problem in Central Asia

According to the United Nations: “Results of 2006 assessment missions to Central Asia’s borders with China and Afghanistan suggested that a significant portion of border officials had no precursor training and lacked sufficient knowledge for their detection. Threat perceptions among the border service are oriented toward incoming traffic exclusively, neglecting precursors which may be exiting the region. Central Asian law enforcement officials do not consider the detection of precursor smuggling an operational priority. Most worryingly, the assessments indicate that intense inspections of both incoming and outgoing cargo are rare. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“However, precursor trafficking is more easily interdicted than drug trafficking. Precursors are of considerably lesser value by weight than heroin or other drugs and, given the large amounts of

precursors needed in opium processing, they are believed to be shipped in large volumes. Consequently, precursor trafficking cannot take advantage of the many mountainous green borders and must instead make use of established road and railways to ship large volumes of chemicals. |~|

Heroin and Opium Eradication and Seizures in Central Asia

According to the United Nations: “Opiate seizures in Central Asia are concentrated in Tajikistan, where the majority of drugs are assumed to cross the border from Afghanistan following the “northern route” towards their primary markets in the Russian Federation and Europe. Over the past decade, Central Asia’s aggregate opiate seizure trend has been fairly flat with average seizure volumes of just under 10,000 kilograms. The dynamics of opiate seizures in the region appear to follow a cyclical trend: from 1996 to 2003 heroin accounted for a steadily growing proportion of opiate seizures, however, post 2003 the proportion of opium seizures has been steadily increasing. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“As there is not a significant volume of opium cultivated in Central Asia, eradication efforts have been limited. While no data on cultivation or eradication is available for Turkmenistan, data from the other Central Asian countries for 2006 shows an eradication rate of 100 percent of areas of illicit cultivation detected, with the majority being eradicated as part of large-scale eradication operations such as operation “Black Poppy”. The total areas eradicated included 1.14 ha in Uzbekistan, 1.01 ha in Tajikistan and 0.07 ha in Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan did not report any cultivation or eradication in 2006. |~|

In 2006, most opiate seizures were in the form of opium rather than heroin. The dynamics of opiate seizures in the region appears to follow a cyclical trend: from 1996 to 2003 heroin accounted for a steadily growing proportion of seizures (from 1 percent to 70 percent), however, post 2003 the proportion of opium seizures has been steadily increasing (from 30 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2006). Of the 5,740.8 kilograms of opium seized in the region in 2006, Turkmen authorities seized the majority at 2,655.7 kilograms, followed by Tajik authorities (1,386.8 kilograms), Uzbek authorities (759.3 kilograms), Kazakh authorities (636.8 kilograms) and Kyrgyz authorities (302.3 kilograms).” |~|

In the late 1990s and early 2000s “the aggregate opiate seizure trend has been fairly flat. Average seizure volumes have been 9,632 kilograms with a high of 13,984.0 kilograms in 2000 and a low of 6,100.2 kilograms in 1998. Interestingly, the 2006 total of 9,393.9 kilograms is remarkably close to the 1996 figure of 9,155.2 kilograms. All countries reported a drop in opiate seizures in 2001, following the Taliban-imposed opium ban in Afghanistan. However, the subsequent rise in opium production and estimated increase in the opiate trafficking volume has not resulted in consistently higher opiate seizures in Central Asia. UNODC estimates suggest that the scope of opiate trafficking in the region is both significantly higher than the volume seized (total seizures amount to less than 4 percent of estimated opiate flows in heroin equivalence) and increasing annually (12 percent in 2006) due to copious supply from Afghanistan. Additionally, anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of large seizures is on the rise in Central Asia. This suggests that traffickers are increasingly organized and well financed to be able to buy and move volumes in excess of 100 kilograms. |~|

Data on Heroin and Opium Seizures in Central Asia

Heroin Seizures by Country 2000-2006 (kilograms, percent): A) Turkmenistan 1,128, 4 percent; B) Uzbekistan 2,189, 9 percent; C) Kyrgyzstan 1046.4, 4 percent; D) Kazakhstan 2512.7, 10 percent; E) Tajikistan 18,795, 73 percent. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

Opium Seizures by Country 2002-2006:(kilograms, percent): A) Tajikistan 8801.86, 48 percent; B) Kyrgyzstan 891.1, 8 5 percent; C) Turkmenistan 5407.83, 29 percent; D) Uzbekistan 1480.75, 8 percent; E) Kazakhstan, 1864.53 10 percent.|~|

Opiate seizure by year in Central Asia (kilograms, 1996-2006): 6,566.42 in 1996; 9,393.91 in 1997; 10,352.92 in 1998; 9,727.22 in 1999; 8,076.42 in 2000; 9,762.78 in 2001; 6,100.19 in 2002; 10,837.82 in 2003; 9,155.23 in 2004; 13,984.02 in 2005; 11,995.42 in 2006. |~|

According to the United Nationss: “UNODC estimated that in 2006, 118 metric tons of heroin were smuggled through Central Asia via the “northern route”. Of the estimated amount smuggled, only a fraction (3.1 percent or 3,651.2 kilograms) was seized in Central Asia. Of this amount, Kazakh law enforcement agencies seized 554.7 kilograms, Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies seized 260.8 kilograms, Turkmen law enforcement agencies seized 201.1 kilograms and Uzbek law enforcement agencies seized 537.1 kilograms. Tajik authorities, however, seized almost 4 times the amount of other Central Asian countries at 2,097.5 kilograms. |~|

“Data on drug seizures in Central Asia must be interpreted cautiously; they reflect not only the volume of drugs present in each country but also the effort devoted to their seizure by national law enforcement agencies and their respective governments. Conventionally, opiate seizures in Central Asia have been concentrated in Tajikistan, where the majority of drugs are assumed to cross the border from Afghanistan following the “northern route” towards the Russian Federation and Europe. Between 1996 and 2006, Tajikistan effected 48 percent of total opium seizures and 73 percent of heroin seizures. Khatlon province on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan consistently registers the highest volume of heroin seizures further emphasizing Tajikistan’s salience as the gateway to the “northern route”. |~|

Problems Combating Drug Trafficking in Central Asia reports: Central Asia’s entrenched corruption makes the region a perfect smuggling route, says the report. Senior officials are complicit in the trade, or at least take bribes to look the other way, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A lack of cooperation among neighbors also offers a boon to traffickers. [Source: David Trilling, Eurasia. Net, May 18, 2012]

According to the United Nations: Cooperation between the Central Asian nations is “complicated by mistrust and ongoing disputes, including on the crucial demarcation of regional borders. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the more vulnerable countries in Central Asia and the most pressing border problem is the boundary between those two countries. Neither country can allot significant resources to border regime management. Focused external assistance and advice would provide an important boost to the process of establishing safe and established borders between the countries. In both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan large parts of the political and law enforcement establishment are seriously undermined by direct or indirect involvement in the drug trade. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Some countries do not share operational information or enter into multilateral operations. The unfortunate truth is that criminals cooperate much better than law enforcement agencies in the region, despite a ready platform at the disposal of those countries...The issue of trust is common and one that in the past has placed limits in formal counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism exchanges between Central Asian countries and Afghanistan. The many challenges facing Afghanistan, including the shortcomings of its public service and border control system, are well noted and documented. At the same time, in recent years very concrete steps have been taken to advance meaningful drug control in the country. In order for these initiatives to take root and become sustainable, Afghanistan will have to be integrated in regional structures. For their part, Afghan officials could also consider making use of the CARICC to initiate joint operations and controlled deliveries on the Northern route, something that so far has not been requested by Afghan authorities. Proactive Afghan law enforcement could have a powerful effect on energizing regional counter-narcotics efforts with Central Asia.

Need for More Cooperation Combating Drug Trafficking in Central Asia

According to the United Nations: “Efforts to combat the Afghan opiate trade — a common threat to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region — would benefit tremendously from a deepening of regional cooperation...In that regard, better outreach and public relations on the part of CARICC are crucial. Much more can be done to raise awareness of the advantages of regional counter-narcotics cooperation and the crucial role that CARICC can play in facilitating this. It is important to ensure a common strategic vision, which would be developed through CARICC in a participatory manner, involving all countries, including Afghanistan. This approach would instil a sense of ownership in participating countries, ensuring commitment and active engagement. Just as important are the cases that CARICC can detail involving controlled deliveries of narcotics and subsequent arrests. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“These show the benefits that result from mid-level intelligence and operational –albeit still limited- regional cooperation. Since 2008, CARICC has coordinated a total of 23 international operations on the Northern route to Russia, Europe, China and Canada, which led to the arrest of 46 persons, including organizers and active members of organized crime groups. There is added urgency for countries to step up cooperation in light of the fluidity with which routes can be used, the responsiveness of organized criminals to law enforcement activity and the increasing trade flows. When states cooperate, the results are evident as shown by the 300 kilograms of heroin seized through joint efforts by Tajik and Russian law enforcement in 2010. Clearly, ‘hard’ border control measures alone are not sufficient and such restrictions can also be countered by smuggling or unofficial payments. There are of course a few specific nexus points where opiate routes converge. |*|

“The areas of Batken and Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan continue to play a key role in sustaining the Northern route and the efforts of the central Government to exercise its legitimate authority over the full expanse of its territory should be supported. While it is possible that smuggling feasibility has increased in line with the multiplication of transport links and the escalation of international trade, border controls should also not undermine the potential of these initiatives to boost Tajikistan, Afghanistan and the entire region’s legal economy, helping to lift it out of poverty. In developing responses, the challenge is to mitigate the negative flows of opiates without affecting the positive flows of trade and commerce. Indeed, trade liberalization does not have to run counter to the fight against transnational trafficking if regional counter-narcotics cooperation initiatives are acted upon and accompanied by intelligent policing and customs practices. Economic and counter-terrorism cooperation are several steps ahead of counternarcotics. The challenge is to map and measure the multiple dimensions of narcotics impacts, from economic to health to security, in order to improve awareness of the urgency to act. It is important that countries in the region recognize and address this transnational threat before it creates more considerable damage.”|*|

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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.

Last updated April 2016

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