|The Globe and Mail, Saturday, August 30, 2003
-- Page F3
HEROIN'S NEW KILLING FIELDS
By SHAWN BLORE
The Taliban falls and the opium poppy rises.
SHAWN BLORE visits the Tajik-Afghan
where the fierce Russian anti-drug
this week made its biggest seizure
DUSHANBE -- In the southern marches of Tajikistan,
the hills roll down to the Afghan border
covered in a lush carpet of grass, dotted
with bright red poppies. Across the river
Pyanch in Afghanistan, the hills and grass
look much the same, but the poppies mostly
sprout up purple, with seedpods that when
carefully nicked yield a viscous teardrop
of fluid. Collected by nimble fingers and
processed into opium and heroin, those teardrops
are responsible for much of the money and
a good deal of the violence in the country
where about 6,000 Canadians now serve as
The drug trade once suppressed by the
is burgeoning once again. International
have warned that this year is likely
a bumper crop, much of which finds
across this stretch of border. The
become so great that the Afghan traffickers
are virtually at war with the Russian
recruited to stop them.
This week, a shootout between the two
ended when 10 smugglers fled back into
leaving the border guards to seize
biggest prize yet -- more than a quarter-tonne
of heroin, as well as a Kalashnikov
rifle and three loaded magazines.
Just a day before, officials in Moscow
complained that cheap heroin is flooding
Russia and causing "an acute problem."
To address the situation, President
Putin has set up a special committee.
month, just after it set to work, the
announced Russia's largest-ever drug
417 kilos of heroin found in a truck
just outside Moscow.
A visit to the remote border town of
makes it abundantly clear how drugs
source to marketplace. The region is
dream -- the river is broad, easily
and even more easily crossed by raft.
are sandbars and small islands of indeterminate
nationality on which to rest and hide.
shoreline and banks are covered in
and brush. Beyond that, hundreds of
tracks lead back into Tajikistan. And
portion of the frontier is the easiest
the Russian Border Service to control.
The headquarters of the border patrol
located in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe,
a three-hour trip north for those with
car and driver, and otherwise a nine-hour
journey in a wheezing Soviet-era bus
a score of old men, six bales of cotton,
two rugs, a bed frame and three nursing
In a small, salmon-coloured mansion
quiet, tree-lined boulevard, the force's
Ukrainian commander, Colonel Pyotr
is a 50-plus career soldier with iron-grey
hair and watery blue eyes. He opens
that in the 10 years his 11,000-man
has been guarding the Tajik border,
been killed and 320 injured in battles
armed Afghans, mostly drug traffickers.
works out to an average of one soldier
every 10 days, and one soldier killed
Over the past two years, the rates
and violence have essentially doubled,
Gordienko continues. Pulling a three-ring
binder from a dingy shelf, he flips
typed report and begins reeling off
In all of 2001, the border force seized
tonnes of narcotics, including 2.3
of heroin. In the first four months
year, they already had seized 2.1 tonnes
of drugs, including 1.4 tonnes of heroin.
This, he adds, was in winter, when
the passes normally brings trafficking
Col. Gordienko won't say explicitly
the increase in trafficking is the
of the regime change in Afghanistan.
he moves to a map on the wall and traces
out the entire 1,300-kilometre length
the Tajik-Afghan border. From China,
hand moves through the 8,000-metre
of the Pamirs, over the verdant lowlands
of the Rivers Pyanch and Amu Daria
border with Turkmenistan.
Three years ago, most trafficking activity
was either through the Pamir mountains
in this segment, he says, indicating
border from Pyanch to Kalaikhom, which
opposite the Northern Alliance's long-time
Afghan stronghold. From Pyanch to the
border -- the region long controlled
Taliban -- used to be fairly quiet.
accounts for about 60 per cent of border
United Nations figures confirm the
assertions. According to Global Illicit
Trends 2003, the UN's annual bible
statistics, opium poppy production
shot up from an all-time low of 7,606
in 2001 to a near-record high 74,100
Opium manufacture increased nearly
from 185 tonnes to 3,400. Afghanistan
once again the world's opium breadbasket,
responsible for about 70 per cent of
To control this traffic -- and the
flow of Islamic nationalism -- in 1993
Russians and Tajikistan signed a 10-year
treaty (since extended by five years),
what is officially known as the Russian
Border Service in the Republic of Tajikistan.
Operationally, the 11,000-member force
deployed in detachments of about 400,
of which is responsible for about 50
of border. Each has its own barracks,
and watchtowers, communications lines,
and barbed wire.
The cash-starved Russians can't afford
kind of high-tech surveillance gear
on the U.S.-Canadian border, so they
do with low-tech substitutes. "We
dogs a lot," Col. Gordienko says
Anyone within a kilometre of the border
subject to challenge and detention.
the colonel's forces intercepted 37
to cross the border. Forty-one presumed
were killed. Or rather, Col. Gordienko
himself with characteristically Slavic
He flips to another page in his worn
In addition to the drugs, his troops
6,300 rounds of large-calibre ammunition,
1,250 grenade throwers, 510 mines and
hand-held rockets. The armaments make
sound less like an anti-smuggling operation
and more like a small-scale war.
"That's exactly what we are fighting
-- a war," Col. Gordienko says.
What the colonel doesn't say is that
a war he's mostly losing. According
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC),
operations such as the Russian border
typically apprehend only 5 to 15 per
of trafficked narcotics.
The colonel looks hurt when this statistic
is mentioned. Azerbaijan seized only
kilograms of heroin last year, he protests.
Turkmenistan, just to the west of Tajikistan,
recently decided to stop collecting
drug-seizure statistics, which in the
view is likely because they haven't
any. "Maybe if you average their
with our record, the result is only
cent, but we're getting more than that."
How much more? "About 50 per cent,"
he says. But he admits the figure is
on nothing more than gut feeling and
of experience. He digs through a stack
incident reports and comes up with
faxed in from the field: One man swam
river near Pyanch, was intercepted
forces and tried to hide in the reeds.
was killed. Annihilated. The border
retrieved a machine gun and 19 rounds
ammunition, six kilos of heroin, three
of "chang" (a semi-processed
precursor) and a radio transmitter.
This sort of incident happens all the
Col. Gordienko says. It's the new tactic,
sending over a shipment in small pieces.
That way, all that's at risk is a few
of product and a single courier, both
easy to come by. Here the colonel grins
starts humming a familiar guitar riff.
is what that rock band called -- what
it? -- a dirty deed done dirt cheap."
In fact, financing is a bit of a sore
Russia and Tajikistan are supposed
equally to the border service's $30-million
yearly budget. In practice, the cash-starved
Tajiks contribute only about 3 per
Russia makes up the difference, mostly
a sense of self-preservation. More
per cent of the adult population in
is addicted to heroin, according to
Reliable figures for Tajikistan are
to come by, but the problem is certainly
Contrary to the Soviet-satellite stereotype,
Dushanbe is a graceful city of tree-lined
boulevards and neo-classical architecture.
The economy, however, never really
from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
ensuing five-year civil war didn't
More than one million Tajiks now live
work abroad. The savings they remit
do much to keep the country afloat.
aid from governments and non-governmental
organizations makes up another huge
of the domestic economy, up to a third
most estimates. Unemployment in many
of the county exceeds 50 per cent.
wonder that crime appears as an attractive
The centrepiece of the city is a new monument
-- replacing the old statue of Lenin -- featuring
a single golden arch and a tall statue of
an eighth-century Tajik king. The militiamen
who guard this national shrine do a brisk
business extorting bribes for private tours
or access to the best photo spots. A little
farther up the street is a small compound
that houses the local office of the UNODC,
the UN drug mission to Tajikistan.
The program co-ordinator, Sergey Bozhko,
has some enlightening figures on Tajik
levels. More than 4,000 drug-related
are currently serving time in Tajik
he says. They include a number of soldiers
and one or two officers of the Russian
service, convicted of aiding and abetting
trafficking networks. He estimates
are now about 43,000 Tajik heroin addicts,
about 0.8 per cent of the population.
The mechanism behind this surge in
is simple, Mr. Bozhko continues. Some
to 40 tonnes of heroin pass through
every year, assuming the seizure rate
about 10 per cent. When I tell him
thinks he's getting 50 per cent, he
in disbelief, but even using that figure
means that two to four tonnes are crossing
through the country each year. The
who facilitate this traffic get paid
heroin that they convert to dollars
it to the locals.
The UN office is one of the measures
put in place to deal with Tajikistan's
drug problem. Much of its work is focused
on raising awareness and building up
legal system. In addition, the Tajikistan
government has also created a U.S.-style
drug czar, a single office reporting
to the president. Its focus has been
exclusively on enforcement. Tajikistan
extremely stringent drug laws, including
long sentences for traffickers and
alike. Almost nothing is being done
of abuse prevention or harm reduction.
A few blocks north of the presidential
at an outdoor café, I meet up with
who tried to introduce European-style
reduction to the country. Well-travelled
and fluent in English, he went to work
an NGO with Soros Foundation funding
set up a needle exchange for injection-drug
users in the capital. The first day
of addicts showed up -- and so did
who promptly tossed the users in jail.
program has continued sporadically,
the police raids.
Public drug use in Dushanbe seems next
non-existent, so I ask my NGO contact
introduce me to some local users. He
me to the city's main park, where a
that in Soviet times was a palace of
has since been privatized into a disco.
is a smattering of the city's more
youth, plus a large contingent of French
peacekeeping troops, some of them getting
noisily drunk, others swapping spit
local Tajik prostitutes.
One of the women comes over to introduce
herself to me. She already knows my
from the needle exchange. She has lovely
huge eyes and the underweight look
of a fashion
model. She answers a few questions,
it becomes clear we're not customers,
begins to move off.
I learn that she is Russian, 27, and
user for about four years. Before she
I ask whether it's tough for her to
enough money to cover her habit. She
Heroin in Dushanbe now costs about
dollar a gram, she says. Sometimes
as low as 50 cents. It's the cheapest
she has seen in years.
Shawn Blore is a freelance correspondent
based in Rio de Janeiro