View Full Version : Flood of Afghan heroin fuels drug plague in Russia

Magda Hassan
07-06-2009, 04:31 AM
Flood of Afghan heroin fuels drug plague in Russia


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By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers

CHELYABINSK, Russia Young men with sores on their arms shuffled up the stairs of a dark, underground shopping arcade and into the daylight to plop dingy wads of rubles into the drug dealers' hands. The dealers casually reached into their pockets or plastic shopping bags and handed over tablets of synthetic morphine, a type also used as a horse tranquilizer, and paper packets that appeared to contain heroin.
Across the street in this gray, post-Soviet industrial town, two Russian policemen sat in a faded wooden booth, and a couple more sat in a police truck outside. They didn't seem the least bit interested.
A police officer walked by but didn't interrupt the transaction. Asked whether he was worried, one of the dealers, a young man with a white driving cap tipped down over his eyes, leaned back against a railing and giggled.
In Miass, a small town west of Chelyabinsk near the foothills of the Ural Mountains, Elena Shapkovskaya wasn't laughing. She works at the No. 40 pharmacy and often has to call the police when heroin addicts crowd the shop and begin shooting up in plain view.
"Sometimes instead of calling the police, we call an ambulance, because they're lying on the floor," Shapkovskaya said, looking down at the tile floor beneath her feet.
Drugs have become yet another scourge of post-communist Russia, with millions addicted to heroin and an annual death toll reportedly in the tens of thousands from overdoses and other drug-related causes.

Russian authorities seized 2.4 metric tons of heroin in 2006, about three times the seizures in 2002, according to United Nations figures. That's a small fraction of the estimated 60 metric tons that are thought to arrive in Russia from Afghanistan each year.
In 2008, Russian officials said that the country had more than 5 million frequent drug users, up from 3 million in 2002. U.N. estimates are lower drug usage is notoriously hard to calculate but they indicate that the percentage of Russians who use opiates is the highest in the world for countries with populations larger than 100 million. Opiate usage in the United States, which receives very little Afghan opium or heroin, is about one-third of Russia's.
Russia had some 940,000 HIV-positive adults and children in 2007, up from 390,000 in 2001, according to the U.N., and an estimated 80 percent of Russians currently living with HIV were infected by dirty needles. AIDS killed about 40,000 Russians in 2007, but the U.N. says the toll could be as high as 71,000. It was 1,900 in 2001.

"It is difficult to be anything other than pessimistic when it comes to forecasting what the future holds for Russia vis-a-vis heroin abuse and trafficking," said a report last year by the U.N. office on drugs and crime.
Russian officials publicly blame America for the plague because almost all the heroin comes from U.S.-dominated Afghanistan, but they won't discuss in detail how drugs move through their country. They've yet to devise a comprehensive plan to address the issue. Trials of high-level traffickers are conducted in secret. Even midlevel police officials usually don't talk, and when they do, it's privately and away from their workplaces.
Chelyabinsk, a city of more than 1 million in southwest Russia, once was known as Tankograd "tank city" for its World War II production of T-34 tanks. It later gained notoriety as the center of a region swamped by radioactive waste from a nearby nuclear-weapons facility.
A different poison is spreading today: Chelyabinsk has become a major transshipment center for Afghan opium and heroin, which enters Russia from Central Asia.
The drugs usually reach Russia from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan in trucks or, in smaller amounts, tucked away in train compartments or nervous travelers' stomachs.
The trade is nothing new in Russia, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it exploded. Afghan opium production climbed from 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to a record 8,200 metric tons in 2007, partly because U.S. and NATO-led troops put a low priority on curbing it. Heroin flooded into Central Asia, and on to Russia.
"When I heard the Americans were going to enter Afghanistan I thought they were going to solve the problem, to stop the drugs," said Yevgeny Roizman, who had connections with Russian organized crime before he became a member of parliament. He now runs an anti-drug organization in the city of Yekaterinburg, another big heroin-distribution hub north of Chelyabinsk.
"But in the period after they came, there was a big increase in the region . . . ," Roizman added. "It makes me think the Americans have done nothing to stop the drug trafficking."
Although it's an unintended consequence of the U.S. action in Afghanistan, some Russian officials trace the growing problem to an American plot.
Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, the national drug enforcement agency, told parliament in May that it was reasonable to "call the flow of Afghan opiates the second edition of opium wars." He was referring to the 19th-century war between Britain and China sparked by exports of opium from British India to China.
Ivanov isn't alone.
"I can name you a lot of politicians in Russia who said that the Americans specially arranged the situation in Afghanistan so that we would receive a lot of drugs, and this is the real aim of their occupation," said Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia's lower house of parliament. "I'm not sure this is true, but who knows."
The U.S. government takes no direct responsibility for fueling Russia's drug problem.
"I would say the entire international community is responsible. The U.N. Security Council looked favorably on the U.S. and NATO doing what they're doing in Afghanistan," a State Department official said, referring to the U.N. mandate backing the foreign presence in the country. "So when critics like Russia say the U.S. and NATO aren't doing enough, well, it's really the entire international community that needs to take action on this."
A second State Department official pointed to the lack of Russian effort to provide assistance in Afghanistan.
"The Russians have had opportunities to come to the table on this and to provide alternative options," the official said. "If this really was a priority for them, we could work something out."
Both officials were authorized to speak to a reporter only if they weren't identified.
In Russia, it's much easier to blame a U.S. conspiracy than to bring up the subject of corrupt officials, the Russian mafia and their involvement in the drug trade.
Russia's Federal Drug Control Service wouldn't respond to McClatchy's questions over the course of a month, nor would the Interior Ministry or the national intelligence service. The Russian government routinely suppresses basic information about drug-related trials, even the names of defendants.
Igor Khokhlov, a senior researcher at the Academy of Sciences, a government-funded research institute, has researched the drug trade and concluded that high-level authorities aren't involved.
"They have safer and better ways to benefit from their high offices," he said in an e-mail interview.
However, it's almost impossible to do business in Russia, legal and otherwise, without a "krysha" a Russian word that means "roof" a patron to protect a businessman from corrupt government officials, criminals and other realities of modern Russia. It seems unlikely that kryshas could operate in Russia's estimated annual $15 billion drug-trafficking industry without high-level government contacts.
A 2008 U.N. report concluded that Russian organized-crime groups "provide protection to drug trafficking networks in exchange for a share of the proceeds."
The former deputy director of the Federal Drug Control Service, Alexander Mikhailov, said that Tajiks usually ran the wholesale heroin business at the border and delivered the drugs to gypsy communities, who handled retail distribution. He acknowledged that both groups have patrons whose "job is to corrupt those who affect his business: police, customs, narco-police, the people who should be fighting drugs."
Who protects the drug dealers, and how do narcotics get from the border to places such as Moscow? Mikhailov, who served for 25 years in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service, ignored the questions. "I don't like to give names in the drug business," he said. "Most people don't."
Sporadic news reports suggest that narco-corruption occurs at senior levels of law enforcement. In 2003, five federal anti-narcotics agents were arrested, accused of taking bribes from a drug dealer. During 2004, an Interior Ministry lieutenant colonel was charged with leading a group of former police officers who were caught selling heroin in the Moscow region. Russian news wires reported in 2006 that more than 160 staff members of the federal anti-narcotics service had been caught for drug-related crimes.
As his friends died drooling and shaking with Afghan heroin burning through their veins, Alexei knew that things were getting out of control. In 2002 or 2003, it seemed as if a dam had burst: The number of heroin dealers in his north Moscow suburb grew from three to a few dozen, and the supply was purer than anything he'd had before.
Alexei, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of legal concerns, started shooting up heroin every day and earning cash as a drug courier.
After 2002, more than a dozen of Alexei's friends didn't survive overdoses after vomiting in nightclub bathrooms or on their apartment floors. Roman, 23, died in a hospital ward after shooting up in a stairwell. Christina, 21, overdosed at home. Pyotr, 37, went to a party, used some heroin and had a fatal heart attack at his girlfriend's apartment.
Nevertheless, Alexei, a 28-year-old with a buzz cut who favors black jeans and bright white sneakers, said he didn't worry much about getting caught ferrying packages of heroin between Moscow and outlying towns
"I was arrested in clubs and apartments, but . . . I paid bribes to get let go," he said.
A federal anti-narcotics officer who works in a region near the Kazakh border sat down recently with a McClatchy reporter for a meal of grilled pork and vodka, but agreed to an interview only if his name wasn't used; his agency had said that its agents weren't allowed to talk to journalists.
"I've heard about a lot of cases of local police taking bribes to protect drug dealers," said the agent, who had a pink face, thick shoulders and a gold tooth that shone when he smiled. Those cases, he said, are investigated by police departments' internal affairs bureaus, which aren't above suspicion themselves.
The agent said he earned $540 a month for working to control a trade worth millions of dollars in his area. Local police, he said, make even less.
A second federal officer, who met a reporter in his car in a parking lot, sighed when he talked about the subject. "I can't tell you that there's not much police corruption," said the officer, a thin man wearing a cheap brown jacket who drove up in a small white Lada, a matchbox-like Russian car.
"I can't say the situation is getting any better," he said, speaking anonymously for the same reason as the first federal officer. "The amount of heroin coming in increased a lot during the past two years."
Vladimir Bogomolov, who's run a drug treatment center in the city of Chelyabinsk for 10 years, started to describe the network to a visiting American reporter.
"The Russian (criminal) groups are above the Tajiks and gypsies; they allow them to sell drugs and take a percentage of what they make," he said between sips of coffee. The police, he said, "are extremely corrupt."
An associate who sat in on the interview interrupted Bogomolov: "We shouldn't talk about what's happening right now."
So Bogomolov, who's committed much of his life to fighting the drug problem in his city, stopped talking about it.
He had the look of a defeated man.

Magda Hassan
07-06-2009, 04:37 AM
U.S.-built bridge is windfall for illegal Afghan drug trade

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By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers

NIZHNY PANJ, Tajikistan In August 2007, the presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan walked side by side with the U.S. commerce secretary across a new $37 million concrete bridge that the Army Corps of Engineers designed to link two of Central Asia's poorest countries.
Dressed in a gray suit with an American flag pin in his lapel, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the modest two-lane span that U.S. taxpayers paid for would be "a critical transit route for trade and commerce" between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Today, the bridge across the muddy waters of the Panj River is carrying much more than vegetables and timber: It's paved the way for drug traffickers to transport larger loads of Afghan heroin and opium to Central Asia and beyond to Russia and Western Europe.
Standing near his truck in a dusty patch on the Afghan side of the river, Yar Mohammed said it was easy to drive drugs past the Afghan and Tajik border guards.
"It's an issue of money," Mohammed said, to the nods and grins of the small group of truckers gathered around him near the bridge at Nizhny Panj. "If you give them money, you can do whatever you want."
The roots of the global drug trade are often a murky tangle of poverty, addiction, violence and corruption. However, it's clear why the dirt-poor former Soviet Central Asian republic of Tajikistan is on the verge of becoming a narco-state.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States and other Western powers looked the other way as opium and heroin production surged to record levels, making Afghanistan by far the world's biggest producer.
Much of the ballooning supply of drugs shipped across Afghanistan's northern border, up to one-fifth of the country's output, has traveled to and through Tajikistan. The opium and heroin funded rampant corruption in Tajikistan and turned the country, still hobbled by five years of civil war in the 1990s, into what at times seems like one big drug-trafficking organization.
Every day last year extrapolating from United Nations estimates an average of more than 4 metric tons of opium, which can be made into some 1,320 pounds of heroin, moved on the northern route. Put another way, the equivalent of nearly 6 million doses of pure heroin at 100 milligrams each is carried across the northern Afghan border each day.
After it's cut with other substances and sold on the street corners and in the apartment stairwells of Russia and Western Europe, the main retail markets for Central Asian heroin, that could produce at least 12 million doses.
Nevertheless, it's clear even to a casual visitor at the bridge that neither the Afghan or the Tajik border guards have much interest in curbing, or even inspecting, the exports that pass in front of them.
In fact, as the Afghan drug supply has grown, Tajik seizures have fallen. In 2004, Afghanistan produced 4,200 metric tons of opium, and some 5 metric tons of heroin or its equivalent in opium were seized in Tajikistan, according to U.N. figures. Last year, with Afghan cultivation rising to 7,700 metric tons of opium, Tajik authorities seized less than 2 metric tons of heroin.
Although the United States wields enormous influence in both countries, their drug problems have taken a back seat to the war against the Taliban. Until the past year, Afghanistan's growing drug production was at best a midlevel priority for Washington, and the U.S. hasn't pressed Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to rein in his country's drug trafficking, Western officials said. Nor, they said, has any other Western government with troops in Afghanistan.
All along the Afghan-Tajik border, smugglers for years have thrown sacks of heroin over the Panj River, waded across when the water is low, set up flotillas of car tires and used small ferries or footbridges.
The U.S.-financed bridge has made drug trafficking even easier, truck driver Mohammed said with a toothy smile: "You load the truck with drugs."
The ferry that used to operate at Nizhny Panj carried about 40 trucks a day. The bridge can carry 1,000 vehicles daily.
Organized crime groups now are focusing on using official checkpoints to move their drugs, a senior official at the Tajik State Committee for National Security said, speaking to a recent meeting of Central Asian counter-narcotics officers.
"Especially through the Tajik-Afghan bridge on the Panj River," Davlat Zarifov said.
Zarifov apparently didn't know that a reporter was present, and he declined further comment and quickly walked away.
To try to get the Tajik government's side of the story, a McClatchy reporter approached Sherali Mirzo, the official in charge of the country's border guards, a man with a full mustache and medals across his uniformed chest. Mirzo said he didn't talk to the media.
Rustam Nazarov, the director of the country's drug control agency, said in a brief interview that the declining heroin and opium seizures suggested that there was less trafficking of those drugs through Tajikistan, an analysis that the facts on the ground would seem to contradict.
Nazarov, however, did allow that, "There is corruption in Tajikistan; no one denies that. Unfortunately, we have some civil servants who are corrupt."
A few days later at the Afghan-Tajik border, as the sun began to dip below a horizon framed by jagged mountains, Mohammed Zahir, an Afghan truck driver, gave a simple explanation for how drugs get across the bridge.
"People involved with the drug business know the guards," Zahir said. "Before sending their drugs across, they pay them money."
A second driver, Qand Agha, chimed in: "If high officials on the border weren't involved, then people like me couldn't take drugs into their country."
Down the road, a line of trucks was crossing the bridge.
Sitting in a $40,000 SUV with soft leather seats and a dark orange paint job, a man named Negmatullo hitched up his shirtsleeve to show the sore on his arm from the heroin he'd been shooting up. He fiddled with his designer sunglasses, absentmindedly brushed his hair and said in a junkie's mumble that, "If you pay someone at the border, you can bring drugs up."
Negmatullo, a thin man with dirty blond hair, had just come out of a drug treatment clinic in the town of Kurgan-Tyube, a halfway point between the border and the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. He asked that his last name not be used for his own security.
When Negmatullo was asked why guards and other Tajik law-enforcement officials would be susceptible to corruption, he rubbed his fingers together and muttered "dengi, dengi," Russian for "money, money."
The car's license plate flashed by as Negmatullo pulled away; it was number 7777, a calling card of those connected to the president's inner circle.
The spoils of the drug trade are as obvious as the shiny new BMWs speeding down the dusty roads that cut from south to north across the steppes of Tajikistan, passing hunched old men who tend the cotton fields with hoes. It's an ancient setting: Alexander the Great and his men conquered parts of the territory in the fourth century B.C, and they're said to have crossed the Panj River by floating on leather hides.
These days, in a nation where some 50 percent of the population makes less than $41 a month, there's a steady stream of new Mercedes and Lexus sedans, not only in Dushanbe, but also in the hamlets that dot the way to the Afghan border.
Locals say the cars often are given in trade for loads of heroin shipped north to the Russian border. The stuff is easy to get.
"You can just take two bags over your back, walk across the Panj and bring them back filled with heroin. It's no problem," said Vazir, a Tajik who was released from a Russian prison last February after he was caught trying to take 600 grams of heroin through a Moscow airport. During an interview in Dushanbe, he asked that his last name not be used because he feared retribution.
Vazir continued: "You can give your bag of heroin to one of the guards, and he will carry it across for you."
The supply chain appears to reach far beyond hustlers such as Vazir. Many Western officials and Tajik observers suspect that the Rahmon government controls the drug trade.
"I don't know if the president is involved personally, but he gives the percentages to different groups for what they can do," said one Western diplomat in Dushanbe, who like others spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of criticizing the regime. "Just go to the airport. There are bags of heroin going through unchecked. . . . People are pretty open about it. There's more and more a culture of impunity."
After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russian troops continued to patrol the Tajik border. They withdrew from the area in 2005 after the Tajik government demanded that they leave though it allowed them to stay in other parts of the country asserting that as a sovereign nation Tajikistan was capable of securing its own frontiers.
An assortment of local conscripts replaced the relatively professional Russian contingent, which trained and financed the Tajik officer corps.
"You have conscripts earning maybe $3 a month stretched out over 1,344 kilometers of border" 835 miles said another Western diplomat in Dushanbe, discussing the problem of drug dealers paying border guards to look the other way. "It's obvious that if you need to eat, corruption is an option."
Some Russian and Western officials said privately that the Tajik government wanted the Russians out of the way to ensure a larger supply of opium and heroin.
It was a move designed to gain "hold of a bigger part of the drug trade," one Western diplomat in Dushanbe said.
"Frankly speaking, there were forces in the government of Tajikistan who wanted to replace the Russian troops with Tajik troops to allow more holes in the border," said a Russian official in Moscow who travels regularly to Tajikistan and has high-level contact with the Tajik government. "It was to make the penetration of drugs easier."
The State Committee for National Security, Tajikistan's version of the KGB, took control of border enforcement in 2007 and almost immediately barred the country's Interior Ministry and drug control agency from access to the border region.
When a McClatchy reporter drove to the border at Nizhny Panj to do interviews, troops turned him back because he didn't have official permission. A border guard supervisor in plainclothes pulled the reporter's driver aside and suggested in a menacing tone that the driver was a spy. The Tajik government later denied McClatchy permission to visit the southern border.
The reporter resorted to crossing the bridge into Afghanistan with a routine visa, and he saw no evidence that Afghan or Tajik officials were inspecting trucks for contraband.
Despite the public nature of the drug trade and related corruption in Tajikistan, however, the West has done relatively little to pressure President Rahmon.
Some Western officials acknowledge that it's the result of a political tradeoff: No one wants to risk alienating Rahmon on the issue of drug corruption because his authoritarian regime's cooperation is important for preventing Islamic militants from using the Tajik-Afghan border as a sanctuary.
"The Americans want to have a logistics base here, so do you think they're going to pressure the government about corruption?" said William Lawrence, a chief adviser for a U.N. Afghan border-management program based in Dushanbe. "The answer is no."
The U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe declined to comment, but a State Department official said that such balancing acts were common.
"There is always going to be a tradeoff based on different foreign-policy objectives, different security objectives, the tolerance for different types of corruption, different levels of corruption," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. "I don't think the situation in Tajikistan, frankly, is that much different than the rest of Central Asia in terms of these types of tradeoffs."
A second Western diplomat in Dushanbe was more blunt about Western governments ignoring reports on Tajikistan's official complicity in drug corruption.
"We send reports every month to our capitals, very negative, but they don't (care)," said the diplomat, whose country has troops in Afghanistan. "Because it's a so-called stable country leading to Afghanistan, we accept it."
The diplomat said that his country had funded projects to help train and equip the Tajiks to deal with the drug problem. The United States and other Western nations have done the same.
This month, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan broke ground on a $2.5 million project to overhaul the border guard training academy in Dushanbe. The American Embassy said in a recent news release that it had implemented more than $37.5 million of initiatives to help Tajik law enforcement since 1992.
However, the second Western diplomat said, there isn't much arm-twisting to make sure the Tajik government cracks down.
"We don't dare to say to the president, 'We give you money for anti-corruption but the first thing you see on the streets is these police taking bribes,' " the diplomat said. "Nobody says, 'We'll give you money for border security, but in three years we want to see a reduction in drugs.' "