Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706






























Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706































Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706






























Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706































Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706































Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

























Shawn Blore
Journalist
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

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 border, where the fierce Russian anti-drug squad this week made its biggest seizure yet


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 peacekeepers.

The drug trade once suppressed by the Taliban is burgeoning once again. International experts have warned that this year is likely to yield a bumper crop, much of which finds its way across this stretch of border. The flow has become so great that the Afghan traffickers are virtually at war with the Russian troops recruited to stop them.

This week, a shootout between the two sides ended when 10 smugglers fled back into Afghanistan, leaving the border guards to seize their biggest prize yet -- more than a quarter-tonne of heroin, as well as a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and three loaded magazines.

Just a day before, officials in Moscow had complained that cheap heroin is flooding Russia and causing "an acute problem." To address the situation, President Vladimir Putin has set up a special committee. Last month, just after it set to work, the authorities announced Russia's largest-ever drug bust: 417 kilos of heroin found in a truck stopped just outside Moscow.

A visit to the remote border town of Pyanch makes it abundantly clear how drugs get from source to marketplace. The region is a smuggler's dream -- the river is broad, easily swum, and even more easily crossed by raft. There are sandbars and small islands of indeterminate nationality on which to rest and hide. The shoreline and banks are covered in reeds and brush. Beyond that, hundreds of goat tracks lead back into Tajikistan. And this portion of the frontier is the easiest for the Russian Border Service to control.
The headquarters of the border patrol is located in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, a three-hour trip north for those with a car and driver, and otherwise a nine-hour journey in a wheezing Soviet-era bus with a score of old men, six bales of cotton, two rugs, a bed frame and three nursing mothers for company.

In a small, salmon-coloured mansion on a quiet, tree-lined boulevard, the force's Ukrainian commander, Colonel Pyotr Gordienko, is a 50-plus career soldier with iron-grey hair and watery blue eyes. He opens by saying that in the 10 years his 11,000-man force has been guarding the Tajik border, 159 have been killed and 320 injured in battles with armed Afghans, mostly drug traffickers. That works out to an average of one soldier injured every 10 days, and one soldier killed a month.

Over the past two years, the rates of trafficking and violence have essentially doubled, Col. Gordienko continues. Pulling a three-ring binder from a dingy shelf, he flips to a typed report and begins reeling off statistics: In all of 2001, the border force seized four tonnes of narcotics, including 2.3 tonnes of heroin. In the first four months of this year, they already had seized 2.1 tonnes of drugs, including 1.4 tonnes of heroin. This, he adds, was in winter, when snow in the passes normally brings trafficking to a standstill.

Col. Gordienko won't say explicitly that the increase in trafficking is the result of the regime change in Afghanistan. Instead, he moves to a map on the wall and traces out the entire 1,300-kilometre length of the Tajik-Afghan border. From China, his hand moves through the 8,000-metre peaks of the Pamirs, over the verdant lowlands of the Rivers Pyanch and Amu Daria to the border with Turkmenistan.

Three years ago, most trafficking activity was either through the Pamir mountains or in this segment, he says, indicating the border from Pyanch to Kalaikhom, which sits opposite the Northern Alliance's long-time Afghan stronghold. From Pyanch to the Turkmen border -- the region long controlled by the Taliban -- used to be fairly quiet. Now it accounts for about 60 per cent of border seizures.

United Nations figures confirm the colonel's assertions. According to Global Illicit Drug Trends 2003, the UN's annual bible of drug statistics, opium poppy production in Afghanistan shot up from an all-time low of 7,606 hectares in 2001 to a near-record high 74,100 in 2002. Opium manufacture increased nearly 20-fold, from 185 tonnes to 3,400. Afghanistan is once again the world's opium breadbasket, responsible for about 70 per cent of the global supply.

To control this traffic -- and the northward flow of Islamic nationalism -- in 1993 the Russians and Tajikistan signed a 10-year treaty (since extended by five years), establishing what is officially known as the Russian Federal Border Service in the Republic of Tajikistan. Operationally, the 11,000-member force is deployed in detachments of about 400, each of which is responsible for about 50 kilometres of border. Each has its own barracks, blockhouses and watchtowers, communications lines, artillery and barbed wire.

The cash-starved Russians can't afford the kind of high-tech surveillance gear used on the U.S.-Canadian border, so they make do with low-tech substitutes. "We use dogs a lot," Col. Gordienko says simply. Anyone within a kilometre of the border is subject to challenge and detention. In 2002, the colonel's forces intercepted 37 attempts to cross the border. Forty-one presumed traffickers were killed. Or rather, Col. Gordienko corrects himself with characteristically Slavic bombast, annihilated.

He flips to another page in his worn binder. In addition to the drugs, his troops seized 6,300 rounds of large-calibre ammunition, 1,250 grenade throwers, 510 mines and 150 hand-held rockets. The armaments make it 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 it's a war he's mostly losing. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), enforcement operations such as the Russian border service typically apprehend only 5 to 15 per cent of trafficked narcotics.

The colonel looks hurt when this statistic is mentioned. Azerbaijan seized only seven kilograms of heroin last year, he protests. Turkmenistan, just to the west of Tajikistan, recently decided to stop collecting and publishing drug-seizure statistics, which in the colonel's view is likely because they haven't made any. "Maybe if you average their zero with our record, the result is only 15 per cent, but we're getting more than that."

How much more? "About 50 per cent," he says. But he admits the figure is based on nothing more than gut feeling and 11 years of experience. He digs through a stack of incident reports and comes up with one recently faxed in from the field: One man swam the river near Pyanch, was intercepted by border forces and tried to hide in the reeds. He was killed. Annihilated. The border guards retrieved a machine gun and 19 rounds of ammunition, six kilos of heroin, three parcels of "chang" (a semi-processed heroin precursor) and a radio transmitter.

This sort of incident happens all the time, 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 kilograms of product and a single courier, both fairly easy to come by. Here the colonel grins and starts humming a familiar guitar riff. "It is what that rock band called -- what was it? -- a dirty deed done dirt cheap."

In fact, financing is a bit of a sore point. Russia and Tajikistan are supposed to contribute equally to the border service's $30-million yearly budget. In practice, the cash-starved Tajiks contribute only about 3 per cent. Russia makes up the difference, mostly from a sense of self-preservation. More than 2 per cent of the adult population in Russian is addicted to heroin, according to the UNODC. Reliable figures for Tajikistan are harder to come by, but the problem is certainly growing.

Contrary to the Soviet-satellite stereotype, Dushanbe is a graceful city of tree-lined boulevards and neo-classical architecture. The economy, however, never really recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. An ensuing five-year civil war didn't help. More than one million Tajiks now live and work abroad. The savings they remit home do much to keep the country afloat. Foreign aid from governments and non-governmental organizations makes up another huge portion of the domestic economy, up to a third by most estimates. Unemployment in many parts of the county exceeds 50 per cent. Small wonder that crime appears as an attractive alternative.



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 crime levels. More than 4,000 drug-related offenders are currently serving time in Tajik prisons, he says. They include a number of soldiers and one or two officers of the Russian border service, convicted of aiding and abetting trafficking networks. He estimates that there are now about 43,000 Tajik heroin addicts, about 0.8 per cent of the population.

The mechanism behind this surge in crime is simple, Mr. Bozhko continues. Some 20 to 40 tonnes of heroin pass through Tajikistan every year, assuming the seizure rate is about 10 per cent. When I tell him Col. Gordienko thinks he's getting 50 per cent, he snorts in disbelief, but even using that figure means that two to four tonnes are crossing through the country each year. The Tajiks who facilitate this traffic get paid in kind, heroin that they convert to dollars by peddling it to the locals.

The UN office is one of the measures recently put in place to deal with Tajikistan's domestic drug problem. Much of its work is focused on raising awareness and building up the legal system. In addition, the Tajikistan government has also created a U.S.-style drug czar, a single office reporting directly to the president. Its focus has been almost exclusively on enforcement. Tajikistan has extremely stringent drug laws, including long sentences for traffickers and users alike. Almost nothing is being done in terms of abuse prevention or harm reduction.

A few blocks north of the presidential palace, at an outdoor café, I meet up with a Tajikistani who tried to introduce European-style harm reduction to the country. Well-travelled and fluent in English, he went to work for an NGO with Soros Foundation funding to help set up a needle exchange for injection-drug users in the capital. The first day a number of addicts showed up -- and so did the police, who promptly tossed the users in jail. The program has continued sporadically, as have the police raids.

Public drug use in Dushanbe seems next to non-existent, so I ask my NGO contact to introduce me to some local users. He takes me to the city's main park, where a pavilion that in Soviet times was a palace of culture has since been privatized into a disco. Inside is a smattering of the city's more cosmopolitan youth, plus a large contingent of French peacekeeping troops, some of them getting noisily drunk, others swapping spit with local Tajik prostitutes.

One of the women comes over to introduce herself to me. She already knows my companion, from the needle exchange. She has lovely huge eyes and the underweight look of a fashion model. She answers a few questions, but when it becomes clear we're not customers, she begins to move off.

I learn that she is Russian, 27, and a drug user for about four years. Before she goes, I ask whether it's tough for her to make enough money to cover her habit. She laughs. Heroin in Dushanbe now costs about one U.S. dollar a gram, she says. Sometimes it goes as low as 50 cents. It's the cheapest price she has seen in years.

Shawn Blore is a freelance correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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