Opium, heroin and hashish are produced and smuggled in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—the latter three border Afghanistan. In the 1990s Almaty became a crossroads for opiates and hashish from southwest Asia. This role resulted in large part from lax customs controls and the city's position as a transportation hub. In 1994 an estimated 1.4 tons of morphine base from Afghanistan were stored in Almaty. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhstanbased networks are also small, but probably benefit from the best international connections. David Trilling of Eurasia. Net wrote: “There’s room for smuggling to grow. Thanks to the new Customs Union linking Kazakhstan with Russia and Belarus, customs units have quit the country’s northern border. The single economic space could facilitate drug shipments into Russia, which has over two million heroin users: The Customs Union “can be misused as traffickers may opt to re-route opiate deliveries to Europe through the northern route, as opposed to the traditional Balkan route.” [Source:David Trilling, Eurasia. Net, May 18, 2012]

According to the United Nations: “As in other Central Asian countries, opium cultivation in Kazakhstan is relatively insignificant. The last UNODC survey conducted in 1999 found that 18,676.5 m2 were under illicit cultivation, the vast majority of which was reported in Southern Kazakhstan (18,324.0 m2). The majority (84 percent) of cultivation was in remote, mountainous areas. In 2007, Kazakhstan officially reported a substantially lower 0.07 ha of opium poppy cultivation and no production facilities for converting opium into heroin.” [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

From Kyrgyzstan there are three major routes into Kazakhstan. “A major route starts in Bishkek before crossing the border into Korday (Kazakhstan) toward Almaty and onward to Ayaguz via Georgievka and UstKamenogorsk and into Russian territory. Again from Bishkek, a second route passes. through Almaty then onwards through Saryshagan, Balkhash, Karaganda, Astana, Kokshetau and Petropavlovsk before reaching Russian territory. A third route runs westward from Bishkek into Taraz via Symkent-Kyzylorda, Aktobe and Uralsk into Russian territory.

Kazakhstan and the Drug Route from Afghanistan to Europe

It is believed that the bulk of the illegal drugs that pass through Kazakhstan on their way from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe is transported by trucks. According to the United Nations: “It remains unclear whether transit traffic is checked at the Kazakh border, but the current volume of trade from neighbouring Uzbekistan is high and continues to grow. Kazakh and Russian officials cannot check each and every load. One of the most enduring means of concealing drugs is within shipments of fruits and vegetables directed to the Russian Federation. These are a major import product for the Russian Federation, but Kazakhstan is not an exporter which means most of this supply is in transit from other Central Asian countries - and to a lesser extent China.[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

Uzbekistan, for example, exported 200,000 tons of fresh fruits, vegetables and dried fruits to the Russian Federation in 2010 - a 50 per cent increase since 2009. In Tajikistan, 96 per cent of fruits and vegetables produced are destined for the Russian market. In 2011, the largest seizures using this modus operandi were effected in the Russian Federation and had travelled from Kyrgyzstan through Kazakhstan. There are thus ample opportunities for traffickers to blend drugs into trade flows and traffic large loads into the Russian Federation through Kazakhstan; for instance, a truck hauling 20 tons of fruit can hide hundreds of kilograms of heroin. |*|

“There are strong suspicions among law enforcement that traffickers are increasingly using the International Road Transport Convention system (TIR) to transport narcotics through Kazakhstan in seemingly sealed trucks. TIR trucks operate according to the international Customs system and are not subject to Customs control for tax purposes. The risk is that the seal can be tempered with and drugs placed and removed at any point during the trajectory. |*|

“According to Chinese law enforcement officials, trains are also a confirmed means of heroin traffic into the westernmost Xinjiang province and some recent arrests on the rail line between eastern Kazakhstan and Urumqi appear to support this.Additionally, although drug flights from Kazakhstan into the Russian Federation are rarely - if ever- reported, it should be noted that there are records of heroin being shipped by air from Afghanistan or Pakistan into Kazakhstan and further to China. Given the increasing demand for Afghan heroin in China and the developing commercial links with Kazakhstan, this supply route will likely expand. Missing from the picture is Turkmenistan, which shares a remote and largely forgotten 379-km border with Kazakhstan. As previously mentioned, a handful of heroin shipments sourced in Iran were destined to be trafficked through Kazakhstan in 2009. That said, UNODC is not aware of any heroin or opium shipments having crossed. |*|

Major Drug Trafficking Routes in Kazakhstan

According to the United Nations: “Kazakhstan lies directly transverse several main drug routes linking Central Asia to the Russian Federation and Europe. Indeed, all drugs smuggled via the “northern route” must transit Kazakh territory unless they are shipped by air or across the Caspian Sea. The numerous major road and railway links across the Kazakh-Russian border, as well as its length (6,800 km) and topography make anti-trafficking efforts difficult. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan, due to its significant financial resources, is probably the best equipped of all Central Asian states to tackle the trafficking threat. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“There are three main drug routes passing through Kazakhstan from Tajikistan. The first starts in Dushanbe, crosses over into Saryasa district in Uzbekistan’s southernmost province of Sukhandarya and continues to Bukhara before reaching Tashkent and crossing the UzbekKazakh border. From Shymkent (Southern Kazakhstan) the drugs flow eastward via the city of Taraz toward Almaty. From there, shipments move towards Karaganda, reaching Astana, then Kokshetau and lastly Petropavlovsk before arriving on Russian territory. The second route mimics the first one until its reaches Bukhara. It then crosses into Tashavuz (Turkmenistan) before coming back into Uzbekistan at Kungrad. From here, drugs are shipped via rail through Beineu (on the border with Kazakhstan) and continuing north crossing into the Russian Federation. The third route also starts in Dushanbe but crosses into Chorjou (Turkmenistan) from Bukhara via Bekdash railway crossing and continuing north through Atyrau and into the Russian Federation. |~|

“There are also three routes transversing Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan. The first route starts in Bishkek before crossing the border into Korday (Kazakhstan) towards Almaty and onward to Ayaguz via Georgievka and Ust-Kamenogorsk into the Russian Federation. From Bishkek, the second route passes through Almaty then onwards through Saryshagan to Petropavlovsk before reaching the Russian Federation. The third route runs westward from Bishkek into Taraz via Symkent-Kyzylorda and Uralsk into the Russian Federation. |~|

“From Uzbekistan, two routes move opiates into Saryagash followed by Shymkent and Taraz. From there, one route proceeds through the Shu valley into Karaganda before exiting the country via Pavlodar. The second branch of this route proceeds east into Taldykugan then moving to Georgievka and Ust-Kamenogorski before crossing into the Russian Federation. The third route from Uzbekistan begins in capital of Karakalpakstan, Nukus, moving into Beineu and Makat before reaching Atyrau and exiting the country through the small village of Ganyushkino. |~|

“In addition to those mentioned above, trafficking from Turkmenistan across the border north into Kazakhstan is also likely. This route provides access to north and western Kazakhstan and facilitates onward trafficking to areas such as Orenburg in the Russian Federation which has large numbers of drug users. Authorities have effected only minor seizures in oblasts neighbouring Turkmenistan – Atyrau and Mangystau – but a large volume of seizures is recorded in Western Kazakhstan, presumably of drugs leaving the country. More generally, the vulnerability of Kazakhstan’s westerns regions to trafficking should be acknowledged, because of its integration with the extra-regional transport infrastructure leftover from the Soviet period. |~|

“Railways linking Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation are considered important trafficking channels for drugs trafficking. It is estimated that most illegal shipments entering Kazakhstan by train cross at the border points of Arys and Biney on the borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively. Drug trafficking using vehicles enters the country mostly across the borders in Shymkent, Zhambyl and Almaty provinces. Significant exit points on the KazakhRussian border include Astrakhan, Orenburg, Chelyabinsk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk. |~|

Drug Trafficking Routes in Kazakhstan

The United Nations reports:“Once across the border, the immensity of the state and the number of possible road routes across the country present a major challenge for national authorities... Southern Kazakhstan, Almaty City and eastern Kazakhstan are the only places in Kazakhstan with reasonably consistent opiate seizures, reflecting their centrality to trafficking operations. For the most part, shipments appear to move directly through Kazakhstan although one often mentioned convergence point is the city of Karaganda, which straddles the major route. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

The key entry point for traffickers on the Uzbek-Kazakh border is Shymkent, considered a strategic node for drug trafficking. With a sizeable Uzbek population, Shymkent city is 100 kilometres from Tashkent and has come to resemble Osh in its importance as a regional drug trafficking centre. It has also drawn comparisons with Osh due to the growth of extremism in the city and the wider region. As of 2011, militants were considered active across Kazakhstan and the first suicide bombing in the country’s history was reported.

According to Kazakh officials, 90 per cent of drugs trafficked through the country are transported by road or rail. For their part, Russian FDCS officials have publically stated that the majority of drugs is trafficked into the Russian Federation by rail. The welldeveloped rail network through Kazakhstan thus appears to be both targeted and vulnerable. Rail networks are an efficient means of transport and popular method of drug trafficking. At the same time, the fixed nature of rail networks allows authorities greater interdiction opportunities than with vehicles. Nevertheless, whereas Uzbekistan continues to make numerous seizures of heroin bound for Kazakhstan and further to the Russian Federation, the tally for Kazakhstan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan is limited.

“Turkmenistan, headed toward Kazakhstan in 2010-2011. Land routes aside, the Caspian seaports of Aktau and Atyrau in Kazakhstan could potentially create incentives for traffickers in other Caspian coastal countries given the seaports’ integration in extraregional transport infrastructure.

Combating Drugs in Kazakhstan

According to Sensi Seeds: “Kazakhstan has retained the strict drug laws implemented during the Soviet era, although attitudes towards drug addicts have softened in the post-Soviet era and now focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than penalisation. Trafficking is dealt with much more harshly, and is considered a threat to national security; in 2008, amendments to the Criminal Code introduced maximum life sentences for drug trafficking. Kazakhstan retains the death penalty, but uses it only in exceptional cases and does not apply it to drug trafficking charges; the death penalty has been suspended since 2003, but has not been formally abolished. [Source: Sesheta, August 28, 2014, Sensi Seeds -]

In the 1990s there were virtually no drug treatment centers in Kazakhstan. The Ministry of Health ran a center offering treatment and prevention programs. However, by 1994 lack of resources had made treatment on demand impossible and stimulated reorganization of the program.

In the mid-1990s, the five former Soviet republics agreed to cooperate to combat drug smuggling through Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, an An active government narcotics control program began in 1993, although limited personnel and funding handicapped its efforts. In 1994 only 400 police, 100 sniffer dogs, and twelve special investigators were active. Most Ministry of Internal Affairs interdiction occurs along the Chinese border. Cooperation has been sought with the narcotics programs of other Central Asian states and Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1993 and 1994, Russian forces made eradication sweeps through the Chu Valley, but Russian helicopter support ceased in 1994. Antinarcotics agreements have been signed with Turkey, Pakistan, China, and Iran. Kazakhstan also has requested United States aid in drafting narcotics provisions in a new penal code. *

David Trilling of Eurasia. Net wrote: “One of the report’s biggest surprises is how little Kazakhstan is pulling its weight. A map of seizures in Central Asia shows plenty of activity on Kazakhstan’s borders, just not by Kazakh officials. “The economic development experienced by Kazakhstan is inversely proportional to its interdiction efficiency, which is the lowest in Central Asia,” says the report. Kazakh authorities seized less than 1 percent of the 70-75 tons of heroin that passed through in 2010, even though the oil-rich country has the best trained and best paid border forces in the region. [Source:David Trilling, Eurasia. Net, May 18, 2012]

Heroin and Opium Seizures in Kazakhstan

According to the United Nations: “In 2006, Kazakhstan law enforcement agencies seized 554.7 kilograms of heroin and 636.8 kilograms of opium, equal to 13 percent of total opiates seized in the region. The largest heroin seizure volumes were in Southern Kazakhstan (151.1 kilograms), Western Kazakhstan (133.8 kilograms) and Almaty city (89.0 kilograms). The largest opium seizure volumes were in Almaty city (330.7 kilograms), Pavlodar (108.3 kilograms), and Eastern Kazakhstan (56.7 kilograms). Large opiates seizures are conspicuously absent from Zhambyl oblast as it is contiguous with oblasts with high seizures, particularly Southern Kazakhstan oblast, and it is located on the main transport corridor between Bishkek and Almaty. Geographically, it is worth noting that there is not a regional concentration of seizures, which indicates that opiates transiting the country are bound for markets as far apart as London and Beijing and utilizing the maze of possible transit corridors through the country. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Although Kyrgyzstan is the most vulnerable neighbouring state, a record-breaking 537-kg heroin seizure made in Kazakhstan in 2008 was in transit from Uzbekistan. The shipment was scanned and seized by Customs on the border with the Russian Federation. Since then, no seizure made in 2009-2010 has exceeded 55 kilograms and most are significantly smaller. The largest seizure reported in 2011 was effected in southern Kazakhstan and consisted of 36 kilograms of heroin. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“In most provinces, the volume of opiate seizures has been erratic from year to year. Heroin seizures, for example, decreased markedly in North Kazakhstan (79 percent) and Eastern Kazakhstan (94 percent) while increasing by over 5,000 percent in Western Kazakhstan. Similarly, opium seizures have varied markedly with Southern Kazakhstan recording a 78 percent decrease and Pavlodar recording an increase of over 200 percent. This trend may be partially explained by the frequency of large volume seizures. |~|

Kazakhstan opiate seizures (kilograms), 1996-2006: 1,191.4 in 1996; 1,294.5 in 1997; 810.5 in 1998; 899.5 in 1999; 181.3 in 2000; 173.0 in 2001; 398.4 in 2002; 224.5 in 2003; 347.0 in 2004; 1,043.0 in 2005; 501.5 in 2006;

“Over the past decade, a very loose pattern differentiates the seizure trend between the Taliban and post-Taliban period. Between 1996 and 2000 opiate seizures remained fairly consistent, hovering near 367.9 kilograms annually (omitting the outlier in 1997). 2001 saw record low opiate seizures at 173 kilograms, followed by consistently rising seizures averaging 875.4 kilograms from 2002 to 2006 (an average annual increase of 88 percent). |~|

Lack of Drug Seizures in Kazakhstan

According to the United Nations: “Seizure volumes in Kazakhstan are surprisingly low, considering that Kazakhstan is the last country crossed before the drugs enter the destination markets in the Russian Federation. Almost 90 per cent of seizures in Central Asia are made before the heroin reaches Kazakhstan. Apart from a brief spike in 2008, Kazakh seizures have averaged less than 1 per cent of the total estimated flow transiting the country. In 2009, the country seized 730 kilograms of heroin. In 2010 it had seized less than half of this figure (323 kilograms). This is reason for concern, given that 70-75 tons of heroin are estimated to have been trafficked through Kazakhstan in 2010. Smaller volumes are seen in opium seizures, which totalled 168 kilograms in 2010. Opium seizures in 2011 fell to historic lows totalling only 9.5 kilograms for the first three quarters of 2011 (a 95 per cent decrease). As shown on the map below, seizures virtually disappear in Kazakhstan only to reappear in the Russian Federation. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“Low seizures partly reflect the country’s difficulties of policing and monitoring a long border (3,600 km). Crossing on foot or horse is common in more isolated areas of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border. Vehicles can also bypass official border checkpoints with reasonable ease, as there is a low risk of detection in many border areas. Seizures made in Kazakhstan usually consist of small to medium size shipments. By contrast, the Russian Federation regularly seizes large shipments tracked to Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. As in Kyrgyzstan, few seizures take place at the Kazakh borders. Once heroin has been trafficked through the initial border crossing, only good intelligence or good luck will expose a large shipment, suggesting this route is exceedingly well organized. |*|

Distribution of opiate seizures by Customs and other seizing agencies in Kazakhstan (2010): 39.8. kilograms of heroin seized by customs; 323 kilograms, total seizures of heroin. 0.42 39.8. kilograms of opium seized by customs; 168 kilograms, total seizures of opium. [Source: CARICC, UNODC]

Problems Halting Flow of Drugs Through Kazakhstan

“In theory, long borders should be partly mitigated by the fact that Kazakhstan has the best-paid, best-trained and best-equipped border control officials in the region. As an example, the 2009-2011 Program on Combating Drug Addiction and Narco-Business in Kazakhstan prioritized further strengthening the southern border with inspection equipments - scanners, sniffer dogs and drug test kits. Counter-narcotics divisions of the Ministry of Interior have also been provided with three mobile scanning machines for the inspection of trucks in the south-Kazakhstan region and in Kyzylorda, Almaty and Zhambyl provinces. It should be noted however that the quality of the equipment can vary. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

“During a UNODC visit to border crossings in the region of north Kazakhstan, Kazakh officials mentioned a recent large heroin seizure (trafficked by a truck) made on the Russian side of the border. The truck had been scanned on the Kazakh side, but only the Russian scanner had been able to identify the concealment of drugs inside the truck. The officer explained that the Kazakh side of border control has a scanner of poorer quality compared to the more reliable one at the Russian crossing. This should not detract from the fact that receiving bribes simply to look the other way during border crossings is also a reality at the various entry points across Kazakh borders. |*|

If Customs has reasonable suspicion and no drugs are found upon inspection, the concerned law-enforcement agency will bear all expenses and reimburse all damages incurred by the transporter. This is a highly de-motivating factor for law enforcement officers and here the importance of scanners is obvious. That said, Customs does not have the capacity to scan every single load, making intelligence sharing and regional cooperation a necessary complement to ‘hard’ border control measures. A possible indication that current measures are insufficient is that many law enforcement officials are actually clamouring for reconsideration of the rules of the TIR Convention, to allow for inspection of vehicles.As of 2011, Russian and Kazakh Customs are no longer operating on the RussianKazakh border (6,850 km), in line with the Customs union agreement between the two countries and Belarus. Thus, Russian border controls can now join Kazakh agencies in monitoring Kazakhstan’s borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. On paper, this constitutes a significant strengthening of the Kazakh border regime. It could also enhance cross-national cooperation between Customs Union members in the gathering and sharing of intelligence. However, assessing the actual impact is difficult at the time of this writing given that complete 2011 seizure data is unavailable. |~|

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.

Last updated April 2016

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