Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 23

Central Asian Big Business: The Mafia’s Drug Trade

by Kadir Alimov

According to UN experts, the volume of financial turnover inthe world drug trade is second only to that of the arms trade.And it isn’t surprising that powerful and well-organized mafiaclans are concentrating their attention on controlling this sphereof criminal business.

The mafia of the former Soviet Union — including Russia, CentralAsia and the Caucasus– is one of the largest and, perhaps, themost powerful in the world. It consists of more than 5,000 groupsand more than three million people. It operates in all 15 formerSoviet republics and even has its own land, sea, and air forces.

During the period 1989-1991, this mafia’s income increased fromone billion to 130 billion rubles. It has set world records forthe number of victims killed. There are now 700 known "godfathers"who manage the activity of this far-flung criminal network, onthe territory of the former Soviet Union.(Novoye Russkoye Slovo,August 31, 1995)

The mafia also controls the production, transportation, distribution,and sale of drugs in the region. The former Soviet Union now produces25 times more hashish than the rest of the world.

The Central Asian countries play a special role in the productionand distribution of drugs. More than 4.5 million hectares of hempare planted in the vast Chue Valley, which spans the territoryof Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The nearest towns tothis valley are Almaty, Chimkent, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Djambul,whose combined total population is more than five million people.There are more than 40,000 hectares of uncontrolled land sowedwith poppies in Central Asia. (Srednaya Aziya: Islamskii faktor?Postfaktum: April, 1991.)

According to data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan,the central Asian "narcomafia" consists of several branches:

1. Producers — They grow the raw materials on their personalplots and in almost inaccessible regions; pick up wild, and unharvestedherbs from state-owned and private sowing areas. Fifty percentof the rural population grow drugs on their land. The amount ofland devoted to narcotic herb-growing has increased so much overthe past ten years that producers can’t harvest all the cropswithout the help of the local population.

2. Buyers (or "racers") — they buy up raw materialsfrom the producers and make narcotics. They are hired by wholesalers(or "bosses"). The buyers’ price is 100 to 1000 timeslower than the price in Moscow.

3. Transporters — They use any kind of vehicle they can, andvery often, they use mail. Sometimes the functions of the secondand the third groups are combined. Drugs are delivered from CentralAsia to Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, the Volga region, the Urals,the Baltic states and Ukraine.

4. Wholesalers — These people are the organizers. In contrastto other members of the organization, they don’t, as a rule, usedrugs. They reside in big cities. Their legitimate professionsare usually the so-called "free economic professions":dealers, heads of cooperatives and so on. Wholesalers’ take upto 40-60 percent of the final price of the drugs.

The drugs are delivered to users in four forms:

1. Raw opium — A pastille-type mass of the condensed, milkyjuice of unripe heads of poppy. It is sold by weight. Wholesalersput it in plastic in the form of half-gram balls.

2. Poppy straw. This is transported in bags by airplanes, mailand trains.

3. Hashish — pressed hemp pollen, like small tablets, is madeby producers or buyers themselves. One of the popular ways togather it is to run naked in hemp when it is damp and get as muchhemp pollen as possible stuck to one’s body. After that, the hempis carefully scraped off the body and hemp tablets are made.

4. Marijuana — leaves and green sprouts of hemp, dried and reducedto fragments. It is sold by weight. (Central Asia Today Bulletin#1, Moscow, 1994.)

Not all of the drugs are natural. Underground laboratories areused for the production of synthetic narcotics which are strongerthan heroin and cheaper than anything grown naturally. In fact,one of the deadliest narcotics — methilfentanil– was producedfor the first time in Russia. Thirty-six underground laboratoriesused for narcotics production have been discovered–and destroyed–inBishkek alone over the past few years.

A number of factors have converged to make Central Asia an environmentconducive to the "narcomafia." Narcotics have traditionallybeen used to treat disease in Central Asia. So much of the populationhas grown narcotic herbs for medicinal use on their own personalplots. In the 1980’s, however, the central and local authoritiesmade it illegal to do so, punishable by up to eight years in prison.This destroyed the traditional uses of drugs and paved the wayfor a growth in illegal activity.

The first of what were to become annual large-scale anti-drugoperation, "Mak" (Poppy), was conducted in 1986. These "Mak" operations forced the drugproducers to become professionals to avoid detection. The personal herb gardens have been replaced

by large planting areas in nearly inaccessible regions–includingdeserts, where water trucks have to be sent in to irrigate the"crops."

Another factor contributing to the growth of the drug trade inCentral Asia is the fact that it is very profitable. Accordingto specialists, every single dollar is returned a thousand-foldin pure profit. Because economic reform in Central Asia has causeda dramatic decline in the standard of living there, this is critical.Economic security has been swept away in a region with expensivelocal traditions: the "kalym" (the price of thebride) is more than ten thousand sums in Uzbekistan, andin Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, the traditional rite of circumcisionis even more expensive.

A third reason for the increase in drug production is the ever-expandingdomestic market for illegal drugs in the CIS countries. In Moscow,there are half a million known drug addicts, in St. Petersburg,there are close to 250,000. Researchers say, that taking hiddendrug addiction into account, more than 160,000 people in Belarus,and more than half a million in Ukraine are afflicted with thisdangerous disease. (Izvestiya, April 21, 1995.)

Specialists estimate that each drug addict introduces approximatelyfive new people to drugs per year. According to these specialists,there are 10-12 times more addicts than the government has recorded(those on record being the addicts who have sought treatment orhave been arrested).

According to the World Health Organization’s very cautious calculations,there are more than a million drug addicts in Russia alone. Butother sources say that out of the 52 million drug addicts in theworld, 2.8 to 11.54 percent of them reside in the CIS countries–inother words, up to six million people. The majority (80 percent)of drug addicts are young people under the age of 30. For thelast two decades, the ratio of male to female drug users has changedfrom 30:1 to 3:1. Today many female drug addicts are sent to CentralAsia as "slaves" to pick up raw materials as compensationfor some unpaid drugs. (Novoye Russkoye Slovo, August 31,1995.)

Drug addiction occurs in all sectors of society. According tothe Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan in 1990, out of11,000 registered drug addicts (now it may be five to ten timesmore) 4,600 of them were urban citizens, 500 were female, 2,000were industrial workers, 2,500 were collective farmers, 330 werewhite-collar workers, 160 were high school students, and 303 wereuniversity and college students. These figures date to 1990; bynow, these figures have no doubt increased several times. Thesituation in other states of the former Soviet Union is similar.(Pravda vostoka, January 12, 1995.)

The war in Afghanistan also had a substantial impact on thegrowth of Central Asia’s narcotics business. It helped to establishan international market for Central Asian drugs. Eventually theborder controls between Iran and Afghanistan were strengthened,forcing the international "narcomafia’s" activity tobe redirected to the former Soviet Union. At the same time, thedissolution of the USSR and the resultant disarray of its policeforces made it possible to move narcotics through the CIS countries.The civil war in Tajikistan has been particularly helpful to themafia: border restrictions have broken down, making it easy tosmuggle drugs through. People from the bordering areas smuggleweapons into Tajikistan and exchange them for drugs grown in Tajikistanand Afghanistan.

The international narcomafia uses several routes for transit,but the main ones are:

1. Kabul-Termez-Tashkent-Moscow-Tallinn-Western countries

2. Gerat-Kushka-Ashgabat-Moscow-Western countries

3. Afghanistan-Dushanbe-Bishkek-Almaty-Saint-Petersburg

Finally, the drug trade has flourished in part becauseof cooperation from corrupt government officials. For example,the chief of police in the Takhtabazar region of Turkmenistan,Kakabaev, was at the same time the "boss" of a criminaldrug ring which traded Turkmen national jewelry for narcoticsin Afghanistan, and sold them in Turkmenistan and other CIS countries.In Kazakhstan, the same type of criminal activity was revealedin the republican government. The deputy chief of the departmentto fight the "narcomafia" in the Ministry of InternalAffairs of Kazakhstan, Mukhamedov, was found to have organizeda criminal band which transported narcotics from Afghanistan toMoscow and Western countries. (Srednaya Aziya: Islamskii faktor?Postfaktum: April, 1991.)

As a result of government corruption, producers are now informedabout anti-drug law enforcement operations well in advance sothat they are able to conceal their raw materials beforehand andwait for "racers" after the operation.

Clearly Moscow has become one of the most important centersof the world drug trade. It is easy enough to move illegal narcoticsfrom there to Scandinavia and other Western countries, becausecustoms restrictions are not very effective–it is estimated thatonly ten percent of the narcotics which pass through Russia aredetected.

Although some among Central Asia’s politicians would like tohalt the drug problem, they are frustrated at every turn. Thedrug mafia is too powerful, too rich, and too smart. Borders aretoo porous, and there is too little cooperation between policeof the various states in the region, or with Interpol. Thus the"narcomafia." in Central Asia is here to stay.

Dr. Kadir Alimov is president of the Association of PoliticalScience and a professor at the University of World Economics andDiplomacy in Tashkent. He is currently a visiting professor atthe University of Maryland, College Park, Md.