Last week the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan broke up a transnational network funneling illegal drugs from Iran toward Europe via Azerbaijan. Two citizens of Azerbaijan were arrested in relation to this case, and authorities confiscated 19 kilograms of hashish from them. They had purchased the drugs from Iranian citizens and brought them into Azerbaijan through the border point in Jalilabad (Xalq Qazeti, October 11).
This is not the first time that the National Security Ministry has arrested members of international criminal groups using Azerbaijan as a transit country for drug trafficking. Several months ago, authorities captured members of a criminal gang that was using Iranian-Azerbaijani-Russian and Iranian-Azerbaijani-Georgian routes to move drugs. The gang members were residents of Jalilabad and Ganja, and they were attempting to transport 15 kilograms of hashish and 2,878 kilograms of heroin in their car. Searches of their homes turned up an additional 85.5 grams of heroin. The group has been using the forest along the Iranian-Azerbaijani border near Jalilabad for their criminal activities (Ministry Press Service).
Similarly, the Ministry of National Security arrested an Azerbaijan citizen who was smuggling drugs across the Iranian-Azerbaijani border near Beylagan. He had permission to graze his cows in the neutral area near the border but used the opportunity to transport illegal drugs and funnel drugs from Iranian citizens into Azerbaijani territory (Ministry Press Service).
In recent years Azerbaijan has become a major transit point for narcotics from Afghanistan and Iran en route to Russia and Europe. UN experts note that poppy production in Southern Afghanistan has risen 59% in 2006, registering at 6,100 tons. According to the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Kosta, Afghanistan accounts for 92% of the world supply. Experts predict that global usage of poppies will increase 30% and the total number of drug users around the world will rise from 180 million people in 2005 to 200-250 million in 2006.
Azerbaijan’s capability to guard its maritime and land borders is still low, and drug traffickers use the daily ferry links between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan as well as border points between Iran and Azerbaijan to smuggle drugs. For example, two Azerbaijani women were arrested in 2006 for trying to illegally move 141 grams of marijuana from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. One of them had left her three-year-old son in Turkmenistan as “collateral” with the criminal group that had recruited her.
Azerbaijan has a 661-kilometer border with Iran, and most of it is poorly guarded. The Talysh Mountains in southern Azerbaijan make border protection more difficult, and drug traffickers often exploit the security gaps for their illegal operations.
The autonomous republic of Nakhichevan represents another major drug route on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. Nakhichevan is under blockade by Armenia, and Iran and Turkey offer the only outside links for the impoverished citizens of the region. According to the Nakhichevan Commission against Drug Trafficking, during the first half of 2006 authorities seized 35,313 grams of heroin, 267,560 grams of marijuana, and 730,524 grams of opium, along with 62 hemp plants. Sixteen drug-related crimes were also recorded during this period.
Finally drug traffickers also use Karabakh, a region not currently under Baku’s control, as a very easy route, because they are able to cut deals with the separatist regime. This one-stop arrangement suits the drug dealers, because they do not have to cut separate deals with individual agencies, such as customs, border troops, etc. Azerbaijan’s 132-kilometer long border with Iran along the Aras River is currently under Armenian control and is also very poorly guarded.
Azerbaijan’s porous borders threaten the country’s national security and could potentially allow wealthy criminal groups to exert significant political and economic pressure on the government. Fighting such powerful criminalized groupings poses a deep threat to the central power of President Ilham Aliyev and his reform agenda.
Finally, drug-related crimes affect individuals’ health and economic well-being. Families have seen their main breadwinner become addicts, plunging the family into poverty. Increased drug usage has also negatively affected the family structure within Azerbaijani communities. The drug trade and the accompanying financial consequences have destroyed traditional family values and societal norms. HIV/AIDS has followed the drug trade and spread across Azerbaijani society. Most drug users share hypodermic needles, increasing the risk of being infected by HIV/AIDS.