Recruiting drug couriers from Tajikistan

Tajikistan's border lies alongside some of the most lawless and unstable regions of Afghanistan

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Tajikistan is a transit point for one of the most lucrative drugs routes in the world.

Illegal drugs from neighbouring Afghanistan flood into the country on their way to Russia and Western Europe.

The rewards that come with trafficking the drugs can be hard to resist for Tajik people, who struggle to make a living along the country's long and open border with Afghanistan.

In many Tajik villages on the border, villagers are sometimes recruited to help smuggle drugs along their journey into lucrative markets.

Prison sentences

Shadia (not her real name), a woman I met in a remote region near the Afghan border, knows only too well about the risks people in her village take when they give in to temptation.

"My husband wanted to buy some flour to make bread and agreed to carry some drugs," she says.

"The police caught him along with his two brothers. Now they are all in prison."

Unemployed and with no income, she is looking after her children by herself.

In this remote and impoverished rural community it is virtually impossible to find a job.

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Listen to the full report on Assignment on the BBC World Service on Thursday 17 January.

She is being put up by her neighbours in a tiny, dark bedroom and relies on her elderly parents' help.

Although Shadia's village is home to 50 or 60 families, many of them have relatives serving prison sentences for drug trafficking.

Tajikistan's territory is around 90% mountainous and agricultural land is sparse.

Dozens of small communities are scattered along the Tajik-Afghan border, cut off from the rest of the country for most of the year.

But access is not a problem for Afghan drug producers, who cross the border on foot looking for villagers willing to take the risk of smuggling their drugs through Tajikistan.

With the financial rewards on offer, it is easy to see why people in this impoverished region find the work hard to resist.

Looking for smugglers

"I saw armed Afghan traffickers in a nearby village," recalls Shadia.

"I was scared that anybody can cross the border with drugs and arms and roam around in our villages."

Southern Tajikistan lies along some of the most lawless and unstable regions of Afghanistan where warlords rule and drug barons control the contraband routes leading to Central Asia and beyond.

Start Quote

Christer Brannerud, UN Drugs and Crime Agency

My concern is the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan will become more porous than it is now”

End Quote Christer Brannerud UN Drugs and Crime Agency

Since the Russian border guards withdrew from the Tajik-Afghan border in 2005 the Tajik authorities are solely in charge of a divide that stretches almost 1,300km.

Khushnud Rahmatullaev, a spokesman of the Tajik Border Forces in Shurabad, a southern border district, says crossing into Tajikistan is easily done.

"You just need to pump up an inner tube and cross the river," he says.

Every day they patrol the frontier looking for smugglers.

It is a difficult task in a terrain offering plenty of hiding places among the forests and undergrowth.

Protected by corruption

However, the trade has brought violent crime to the area.

Momin, a young farmer from Shurabad, was among a number of shepherds who were kidnapped by smugglers a few months ago.

"They were angry that their drugs had been seized by Tajik police so they robbed us and took our cattle," he says.

There have also been shoot-outs between Afghan traffickers and police.

Questions remain about whether the country's law enforcement agencies are prepared to target well connected figures who it is believed are at the top of the trafficking chain.

"People are protected by the corruption we have in this country," says Christer Brannerud who worked for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Tajikistan last year.

"The higher you come in the hierarchy the harder it is to target those really responsible for these illegal activities," he says.

Tackling the problem

But officials like Rustam Nazarov, the head of Tajikistan's Drugs Agency in the capital Dushanbe are adamant they are tackling the problem.

Drugs seized by Tajik Drug Control Agency Drugs seized by Tajik Drug Control Agency

"Last year we seized around five tonnes of Afghan drugs. If we were only catching small-time traffickers, where would these five tonnes come from?" he asks.

However, the amount seized is just a fraction of the total number of opiates that reach Russia each year via Tajikistan, according to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mr Nazarov admits that situation is not likely to change unless measures are taken to stop the drugs production in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan became a major drugs route when it plunged into civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its borders were exposed amid the conflict.

One former trafficker in Dushanbe, tells me he started trafficking drugs to Russia during the war and boasted he bought apartments and expensive cars with the proceeds.

"There were many desperately poor women who were willing to carry my drugs and I knew some people among the officials who helped my couriers reach their destination in Russia," he recalls.

'I would do it again'

In the end he got caught, went to prison, lost everything and now borrows a car to work as a taxi driver.

"Ordinary men like me can't do this trade any more, the authorities will arrest them. Only 'big people' can do this business," he says.

"If I had the chance I would do it again," he admits.

"Look around at these expensive cars and houses. Do you think their owners earn money in an honest way?"

There are not many well-paid jobs in Tajikistan.

In a country where some people receive a monthly salary of $17, a flat bread can cost $1.5 in a market in Dushanbe.

But there are drugs in Afghanistan and consumers in the West.

In the absence of a functioning economy, the temptation to get involved in the opium trade is unlikely to subside.

Listen to the full report on Thursday, 17 January on Assignment on the BBC World Service.

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