In Tajikistan, a Gateway for Heroin

Washington Post, Friday 26 July 2002; 10:56 AM

Tajiks Confront Growing Problems as Afghanistan's Drugs Flow Through the Country

Tajikistan, a mountainous land of about 7 million residents just to the north of Afghanistan, has become the most important corridor for drugs, mostly heroin, produced in Afghanistan and intended for markets in Europe. The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention estimates that about 90 percent of all the heroin consumed in Europe comes from Afghanistan. The Taliban conducted a largely effective campaign to stop the growing of opium poppy in 2001, but officials now suspect that was more a ruse to cut supply in a glutted market than a serious effort to control drug smuggling. Large stockpiles of opium and processed heroin remained in Afghanistan, and are now being shipped, largely through Tajikistan, to Russia and on to Western Europe. Shipments of high-grade, often pure heroin are being maintained at a high level.

Q. Who is transporting drugs through Tajikistan?

A. Afghan, Russian and Central Asian gangs are the principal actors, according to the U.N. and officials in the region.

Q. Has the drug transhipment problem gotten worse since the rout of the Taliban?

A. No, it's about the same. Business is good.

Q. Are the drug trafficking syndicates protected by the government officials and police?

A. By all accounts, there are corrupt officials throughout Central Asia who accept payoffs to protect the drug trade. Some have been caught; many have not.

In Tajikistan, where the problem was worst, the U.N. has paid for the creation of a new Drug Control Agency which is now a model for the region. Led by a General with a reputation for probity among both Tajiks and westerners who work with him, Rustam Nazarov, the agency has been responsible for a huge increase in the amount of drugs seized in Tajikistan.

The agency has about 350 employees. When we interviewed Gen. Nazarov, he spoke proudly of his tea, who he said were selected from more than 3000 applicants. The president of Tajikistan personally interviewed the 22 top people in the agency. The agents earn, on average, $170 a month, which is--amazingly--nearly $150 a month more than the average wage in Tajikistan. Nazarov said it was enough to support a family, so the men on his force do not have an obvious financial incentive to accept bribes. (Ordinary Tajik police make a fraction of that salary, and are tempted to participate in corrupt activities all the time.)

Tajikistan seized 4.3 tons of heroin in 2001, and is on pace to capture about the same amount this year. In 1991, Tajik authorities seized 10 kilograms of drugs. Last year, for the first time, seizures of heroin were greater than of opium, suggesting that more and more is being processed inside Afghanistan.

Q. [From a Reader in Copenhagen,Denmark]: There was an article where a Russian official express worries over the heroin trafficking through Tajikistan, and how the border guards were overwhelmed by the amount of drugs. If you drop by Tajikistan, try to find the root of the Russian saying If you come home from the Tajik border without being rich, you are a fool. For some odd reason, the mechanized rifle regiment guarding the border is one of the very few in the Russian Army that actually has volunteers. Could it be that the main smuggling operation is carried out with the knowledge and active cooperation of the border guards?

A. We certainly heard about this problem in Tajikistan. You should know, however, that nearly 90 percent of the troops in this Russian unit are Tajik citizens, recruited by the Russians. The officers are from Russia. Some of them have been caught helping drug dealers. Last fall, when she was covering the war in Afghanistan, Lois watched drugs being floated across the river on the Afghan-Tajik border under the noses of border guards who were obviously on the take.

Q. Are Central Asians becoming drug users, too?

A. Sadly, they are, in ever-increasing numbers. The U.N. estimates that drug usage is now at very serious levels in Kyrgyzstan (more than 1600 users per 100,000 population) and Kazakhstan (more than 1100), and also high in Tajikistan (900). In western Europe, comparable figures are around 600. Worse, the numbers are escalating fast, and the availability of cheap, impure heroin is also growing steadily. The prognosis is not good.

Q. What sort of treatment is available?

A. This is Lois Raimondo. I visited a number of facilities in the region. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, there is only one drug treatment center open to the public, the Narcological Hospital, which treats alcoholics as well. It's a low-budget, overcrowded, understaffed treatment center where patients live four and five to a room while recovering. There are four units, all under lock and key, each holding clients with varying degrees of drug problems.

I spoke with Elena Khasanova, resident psychiatrist, who said she works 12-hour days, seven days a week at the hospital. She has been working there for sixteen years. She was exhausted the Saturday morning I met her and said she was tired of talking to foreign journalists since their sudden interest following the September 11th attacks.

The first heroin addicts started showing up at the clinic in 1997. Treatment is anonymous and consists mostly of nutritional supplements, counseling, and some psychotropic drugs for those going through withdrawal.

We base our therapy on the 12-step program, Khasanova said. We have recovering addicts come and talk to the patients. We conduct group therapy sessions. We do everything we can, but the success rate is very poor. We have no facilities for rehabilitation, we cannot give them job training, and many have already lost their families, so they just go back out on the streets and get caught up again in drugs.

Other than the counseling provided by concerned doctors, the greatest relief provided to patients is physical therapy. Electrical acupuncture treatments, massage, ultrasound, heat packs and targeted laser treatments are available to those who choose to participate in the program.

After a long conversation and a guided tour, Khasanova admitted, We work very hard with severe limitations. There is a psychological frustration and I work every day not to give in to my emotions.

Q. What are the prospects for the future?

A. Not too encouraging. The U.N. Drug Control agency held a regional meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in late June to discuss the next phase of regional efforts to control drugs. One of the U.N.'s fears is that farmers in the Central Asian countries will begin growing poppy themselves. The conditions are as good in these countries as in Afghanistan.

The U.N. Agency's budget for Central Asia is currently less than $9 million, a pittance against a billion-dollar drug industry. (It's exact size isn't known, of course, but it is huge.) The agency is developing a new program for the next three years to help the Central Asians cope, but no one we talked to thought the problem would be smaller in three years than it is today.