DRUG TRAFFICKING IN TURKMENISTAN
Some of the heroin and opium produced in Afghanistan passes through Turkmenistan on routes that go through Iran, the Caucasus, and Central Asia on its way to Russia and Europe. When the routes between Afghanistan and Iran are sealed, drugs make there way to Iran through Turkmenistan. In the late 1990s, more than 70 tons of different drugs were seized at Kushka, Turkmenistan, formerly the southernmost town in the Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan is less connected to the northern, Central Asia heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan than Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Most of the heroin passing through Turkmenistan – only two to four percent of what transits the region – moves on the “Balkan route” onto Iran and Turkey before hitting southeastern Europe.
According to the CIA World Factbook: Turkmenistan is a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russian and Western European markets” and a “transit point for heroin precursor chemicals bound for Afghanistan.” The historical Turkmenistan city of Mary lies on a major drug smuggling route between Afghanistan and Europe. As well as being an important transit country, Turkmenistan may produce significant quantities of opium. It is hard to telll however as Turkmenistan does not report any illicit cultivation of opium poppy or production facilities.
A Central Asian drug cartel reportedly has members in high positions in the Turkmenistan government. According to the United Nations: “Small Turkmen networks with organizational links to both Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran handle the bulk of the traffic through the country. There are few opportunities for transnational drug networks to take root in Turkmenistan. |[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]
Central Asian Drug Trade, See Central Asia
Major Drug Trafficking Routes in Turkmenistan
Geographically, Turkmenistan sits on the border between the “northern route” in Central Asia and the “eastern route” through Iran which is estimated to carry 53 percent of all opiates trafficked out of Afghanistan. There is believed to be significant drug trafficking going through Turkmenistan from the Afghan border and then to the Caspian Sea, and further to Russia and Western Europe. Some observers have speculated that Tajikistan's success in counter-narcotics efforts and higher rates of seizures of drugs coming from Afghanistan, coupled with a short border with Uzbekistan, also pretty tightly controlled, could lead drug traffickers to turn to the Turkmen-Afghan border, the Afghan side of which is not controlled at all. [Sources: United Nations, IRIN, August 2, 2004]
According to the United Nations: “Turkmenistan is in a precarious location sandwiched between the western route of Afghan opiates travelling through Iran and the northern route of Afghan opiates travelling through Central Asia. Recent seizures on the Turkmen-Iranian border suggest that traffickers increasingly cross between these routes. Additionally, the country is advantageous for traffickers attempting to use its ports on the Caspian Sea to carry drugs toward Europe. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]
“ There is a crossing at each end of the 744 kilometers Turkmen-Afghan border, most of which runs through desert. In the north is Imam-Nazar and in the south, close to Iran, is Serkhetabad. One route has the narcotics transiting through the Serhetabat border checkpoint on the TurkmenAfghan border and onwards to Mari-Turkmenbashi and Astrahan (Russia) or Azerbaijan. As transport routes are improved and with the continuation of relative stability in western Afghanistan, the volume of traffic between these countries looks likely to increase and with it the possibilities for increased trafficking. Likewise, the modern international air terminal inaugurated in Ashgabat in October 1994 is likely to bring increases in both licit and illicit traffic. |~|
“Over one million Turkmen live in Afghanistan in the Herat, Badghis and Faryab provinces and an equal number in Iran in the Mazanderan and Khorassan provinces. Strong cross-border ethnic links often facilitate various smuggling enterprises as observed on the Tajik-Afghan border. |~|
“The main entry points into Uzbekistan is at Farap, a potential crossing point for opium and heroin moving into Turkmenistan. While seizure data for this crossing is not available, the abnormally high levels of registered drug users and drug related crime in neighbouring Khorezm (Uzbekistan) suggest that it may an important transhipment point. |~|
“Similarly, while Atyrau and Mangystau (Kazakhstan) report low drug seizures, they have seen Kazakhstan’s highest increases in registered drug abusers in recent years, and report some of the highest proportions of heroin abusers among drug abusers in the country. The low population in the area argues that demand is very unlikely to be pulling drugs to the area: localized drug dealing is probably a consequence of larger quantities of drugs passing through. |~|
Heroin Trafficking Along the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Border
According to the United Nations: “Among Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan has the longest border with Afghanistan (744 km). Logistically, the country offers quite flat and sparsely populated terrain from the Afghan border to the coast and linkages to south Caucasus, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border itself consists mostly of desert, it is very remote and often crossed by nomadic tribes. Due to the flat terrain, border officers have a comparatively easier time monitoring trafficking activity, but Afghan traffickers rely on corruption as much as stealth. Several Afghan border police officials have been convicted for facilitating trafficking into Turkmenistan. The issue of drug corruption has also been acknowledged across the border in the statements of the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who called for immediate action against this threat.[Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]
“Locations near the official border crossing point of Imam Nazar in Turkmenistan (bordering Aqina in Faryab province, Afghanistan) and Sherhetabad (bordering Torghundi in Hirat province, Afghanistan) are two of the three primary entry points generally used for small opiate shipments. Currently, some 50 road vehicles cross the Imam Nazar border daily in each direction, consisting mostly of containerized cargo and fuel oil, or gas tankers. The Sherhetabad crossing has a rail link that continues 15 km to transhipment yards in Torghundi, in Hirat province. Rail services at Torghundi transport about 50 wagons per day and a small 2 kilograms-heroin seizure was reported on a carriage in May 2010. Most of the 20-30 trucks crossing daily at Sherhetabad are reported to be transit trucks and Turkmen officials state with confidence that 100 per cent of trucks are checked. Based on these accounts and the limited seizure data available, it is likely that traffickers bypass the crossings by a few miles and return to the road downstream. Commercial trade flows through the two crossing are set to increase, which may provide new opportunities for traffickers. As it stands, Turkmen border crossings experience smaller trade flows that make it harder for traffickers to blend into, when compared with crossings on Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmen authorities have also reported seizures of opiates –mostly opium- in the border areas of Badghis province in Afghanistan, with the small Murichak crossing in Murghab district (Badghis) as the presumed origin.
“Drug crossings across the span of the border can turn violent with shootings taking place between Turkmen border officials and drug traffickers. Given the insular nature of the state, it is perhaps surprising that Turkmenistan would provide some of the most dramatic violence associated with drug trafficking. In September 2008, a number of drug traffickers were neutralized in the capital Ashghabat, following a fierce gun battle that took the lives of several Turkmen police officers.Turkmenistan is ranked last in regional heroin seizure volumes for 2010 (with only 104 kilograms seized), but it comes first in opium seizures with 757 kilograms. According to Turkmen border guards, heroin shipments through Afghanistan are not large (2-20 kilograms at most) and crossing occurs in isolated areas and at illegal border crossing points. In 2010, reported Turkmen seizures on the Afghan border totalled 4 kilograms of heroin and 67 kilograms of opium. It should be noted that the lack of cooperation and information sharing between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan is not facilitating counter-narcotics operations. |*|
Reported opiate seizures on the Turkmen-Afghan border, 2010: Opium: 67 tons; Heroin; 4 tons. Total opium seized in Turkmenistan 2010: 757 kilograms. Border seizures as a proportion of total opium seizures 2010: 9 percent . Total heroin seized in Turkmenistan 2010: 104 kilograms. Border seizures as a proportion of total heroin seizures 2010: 4 percent, [Source: Compiled from Government Reports, UNODC Regional Office for Central Asia]
Heroin Trafficking and Turkmenistan’s Neighbors
“Although neighbours, in recent years Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have not even reported small heroin flows from Turkmenistan. This is unexpected in the case of Uzbekistan given the advantageous combination of vicinity, transportation infrastructure and topography. In fact, the opposite occurs as Turkmenistan intermittently receives small shipments from neighbouring Uzbekistan (see Uzbekistan). As regards sea connections, the ferry connecting Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan is no longer believed to be used for heroin trajectories. Neither of its Caspian Sea neighbours -Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation- have reported receiving opiates from Turkmenistan over the past decade. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]
“In the case of Kazakhstan, the flow of goods is negligible and the border region between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is extremely remote with almost no settlements. This, together with the current visa regime in Turkmenistan which constrains the entry of foreigners and exit by Turkmens, makes this route an unlikely target for opiate traffickers. However, the situation could change in the coming years, as a new railway line linking Turkmenistan with Kazakhstan and the Islamic Republic of Iran will be commissioned in late 2011. This will make the cargo transit route from the region to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman 600 km shorter, becoming an important part of the transcontinental transport corridor linking China and Europe. It is estimated that some 3-5 million tons of cargo will be initially transported annually, which will later be raised to 10-12 million tons. Leaving the Islamic Republic of Iran aside, the fact that trade links with Kazakhstan will also be strengthened may provide an incentive for traffickers to look for alternate routes to the Tajik or even the Turkish border. |*|
“In 2010, law enforcement intelligence in both Central Asia and Afghanistan reported that heroin flows into Turkmenistan were increasing, in part due to stricter controls along the Tajik-Afghan border and to the appearance of laboratories near the Afghan-Turkmen border. However, this is not supported by the limited seizure information made available from either side of the border. Turkmen heroin seizures actually declined by 75 per cent in 2010. There were, however, significant seizures of opiates in 2009 with one huge 215-kg seizure of heroin and another 228 kilograms of opium seized in November 2009. These, however, were destined for the Islamic Republic of Iran and not the Northern route. In a reverse course, some 100 kilograms of opium were also seized coming into Turkmenistan from the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2009. That same year, Turkmenistan also reported a handful of cases involving opium trafficking from the Islamic Republic of Iran across the Caspian Sea into Turkmenistan. In 2010, Turkmenistan officially reported 29 cases of opiates being smuggled into the country from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most of this appeared to be in the form of opium and consisting of small (2-10 kilograms) to mid-size (20-60 kilograms) shipments. As of 2011, a number of seizures continued to be recorded on the Turkmen-Iranian border, with attempts to traffic drugs in both directions. This two-way trajectory is no accident. |*|
“Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian country to share a boundary with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Irregular crossings along this border have always occurred, facilitated by ethnic links into north-eastern Iran. More importantly, the Islamic Republic of Iran receives nearly 35 per cent of the Afghan opiate production, which is trafficked further onto the Balkan route towards the Turkish border. It appears that some traffickers are bypassing the stringent Iranian border control measures focused mainly on the Iran-Afghanistan border and prefer to transit through Turkmenistan to reach the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, Turkmenistan appears much more linked to the Balkan route than to the Northern route.”|*|
Combating Heroin and Opium Trafficking in Turkmenistan
In 2004, IRIN reported: “Turkmenistan shares some 700 kilometers of poorly-policed border with Afghanistan, but nobody knows the amount of drugs trafficked through the ex-Soviet republic. Turkmen authorities “ haven't been providing statistics, seizure information to us or to anyone for that matter. So, it's difficult to know," Callahan of UNODC said. [Source: IRIN, August 2, 2004 /~/]
In the mid-1990s, the five former Soviet republics agreed to cooperate to combat drug smuggling through Central Asia. But in March 2004, “Turkmenistan's lack of cooperation with the international community in its fight against illicit drugs drew sharp criticism from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent UN body monitoring global drug proliferation. The INCB expressed concern that Ashgabat had failed to participate in several regional and sub-regional drug-control activities or was not actively participating in cooperative arrangements which it had formally signed up to./~/
Things seemed to change as Ashgabat began to feel the consequences of the drugs trade at home more fully. "The Turkmen government has become much more cooperative...with regard to our projects and programmes. I do have hope that we will be able to begin to get more information on this issue from them," Callahan said. On the UNODC's national project on border control with the Turkmen government, he said, "The situation looks quite good in terms of cooperation. I think we will be able to learn a lot more about what's going on and also to help the government there to deal with it [drug trafficking]." /~/
Heroin Seizures in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan has made some considerable seizures in the past, although the amount has varied significantly from year to year. The United Nations reported in 2012: “Heroin seizures made in Turkmenistan in 2010 produced a seizure ratio of 3-5 per cent relative to the country’s estimated intake of heroin flows. In 2009, Turkmenistan seized 420 kilograms for a very high heroin interdiction rate of 10-20 per cent on the strength of two major heroin seizures. As regards opium, it is surprising that Turkmenistan is estimated to import relatively little opium (1-3 tons as estimated by UNODC), given that in 20092010 it seized the most opium of any Central Asian country. The country’s seizure ratio in 2010 is estimated at 25-57 per cent, relative to the country’s estimated intake of opium flows, with seizures totalling 757 kilograms. Even at the lower end of the range, this indicates a very impressive performance on the part of Turkmen law enforcement. [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]
“Incredibly, this was topped the previous year, when Turkmenistan seized a total of 1,259 kilograms of opium. Part of this efficiency can be linked to a strong state intelligence and law enforcement network, including the establishment of a State Drug Control Service in January 2008. This, combined with the insular nature of the country, provide few opportunities for non-local drug networks to implant themselves in Turkmenistan. However, it remains extremely difficult to establish the magnitude of the flows with more accuracy due to consumption data collection and reliability problems in Turkmenistan.
The United Nations reported in 2006: “A handful of seizures have been recorded on the Turkmen-Iranian border with attempts to move drugs in both directions. This seems to indicate that traffickers are increasingly moving between the northern and eastern trafficking routes. In 2006, Turkmenistan officially reported two smuggling cases destined for Iran attempting to cross the Turkmen border. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]
“Turkmenistan does not report seizures by province making detailed analysis difficult. At the national level, opiate seizures have been somewhat sporadic from year to year. Opium seizures between 1996 and 2006 have varied from a high of 4600 kilograms in 1999 to a low of 267 kilograms just three years later. The near quadrupling of opium seizures between 2005 and 2006 – making Turkmenistan the regional leader in opium seizures at 2655.7 kilograms – is further evidence of this erratic trend. Heroin seizures have on the whole remained consistently low over the 1996-2006 period. |~|
Distribution of opium seizures in Central Asia by country (2010): Turkmenistan: 34 percent; Kazakhstan: 8 percent; Kyrgyzstan: 2 percent; Tajikistan: 33 percent; Uzbekistan: 23 percent. [Source: UNODC Regional Office for Central Asia]
Turkmenistan opiate seizures (kilograms), 1996-2006: 1,907.0 in 1996; 1,839.2 in 1997: 3,358.6 in 1998; 4,840.0 in 1999; 2,619.0 in 2000; 338.0 in 2001; 1,600.0 in 2002; 218.5 in 2003: 931.5 in 2004: 929.4 in 2005; 2,856.8 in 2006.
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016