Turning Afghan Heroin Into Kalashnikovs
Remote Afghan province is home to major trading post for heroin destined for Europe and arms for Taleban and other militants.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Badakhshan (ARR No. 295, 30-Jun-08)
The bazaar sits on a small island in the river Panj, a narrow expanse of shallow but fast-flowing water that is all that separates the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan from the Afghan province of the same name. On either side loom the Pamir mountains, a range of high peaks that cuts the region off from the rest of the world.
When the bazaar opened about five years ago, the hardy Pamiri people of Tajikistan rejoiced that they would now have contact with people on the Afghan side of the river from whom they had been cut off for decades – by the Soviets, by war, and by ruined economies.
Some boasted happily that Tajikistan would soon be able to share its technical know-how with its Afghan brothers.
That know-how has since flowed both ways, although not as the optimists hoped.
The unprepossessing frontier bazaar squatting on the river Panj has become one of the largest arms-for-drugs trading centres in the world.
In the middle of the river, local mafiosi cut deals that will arm Taleban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda and other militant groups in the wider region. In return for Russian-made weapons, they trade Afghan heroin that will eventually be sold on the streets of European cities.
The Joint Bazaar, as it is called, covers approximately 2,000 square metres surrounded by concrete walls.
Border police control access to the site, Tajik officers on one side, Afghans on the other.
Inside, local merchants display their wares on hand-woven carpets. Foodstuffs from Tajikistan such as dried mulberries, apples, and almonds compete with offerings from the Afghan side, mostly exotic fruit brought from Pakistan, like mangoes and tangerines.
Colourful Pamir “jurabi”, the thick knitted socks that locals wear in winter, alternate with piles of cheap clothing as the customers haggle over prices.
But the real business here is conducted behind the scenes. From the northern side of the border, smugglers bring in gemstones and weapons to exchange for high-quality Afghan heroin.
Business is booming, according to Mohammad Aslam (not his real name), a trader from Afghanistan.
“My income has doubled these days,” he told IWPR. “On the one hand, we are making money from heroin; on the other, we can take weapons into Afghanistan and make even more money selling them to arms smugglers from the south.”
The bazaar provides the meeting place where contacts are made and deals are struck. But the goods are not stored here – Mohammad Aslam explained that smugglers bring samples of their wares, and then discuss quantity and price.
“After we agree on a deal, we pay some money in advance and meet at a specified time to exchange the rest of the goods,” he said.
The price list is fairly standard, according to the smuggler.
“The automatic weapons that are brought in by the Russians are mostly Kalakovs, which are more expensive than Kalashnikovs,” he said.
“Kalakov” is local parlance for late-model Kalashnikov rifles such as the AK-74, which are more prized than the old AK-47.
“We trade a kilogram of heroin for ten Kalakovs or 15 [old-model] Kalashnikovs,” he said. “After that, we sell them to smugglers from Helmand and Kandahar either for cash or for more heroin.”
The traders do a good business, since the insurgents are willing to pay top dollar for firearms.
“While we exchange a kilo of heroin for ten Kalakovs, the Taleban will give us a kilo for just five or six [guns],” he continued. “Everybody benefits.”
The guns come disassembled for ease of shipping.
“They come in small parts, and that is how we take them into Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Aslam. “When we manage to get one Kalashnikov to the centre of Badakhshan we can sell it for 200 US dollars, but the same gun will fetch 50 per cent more in Jalalabad.”
The arms-for-heroin trade is of course a risky business.
“The location for exchanging large amounts of heroin and weapons is always kept secret,” he said. “If it’s a major deal, we take a lot of armed men with us to guarantee our security. Then we load the merchandise onto donkeys or mules.”
The terrain is so rugged that only the smaller, more nimble animals can negotiate some pathways, which seem to extend directly up the mountainside.
The smugglers do not seem overly worried about police or other law enforcement officials.
Mohammad Aslam’s past includes a stint as a “warlord” in one of Afghanistan’s many armed militias, and he has retained some useful contacts.
“We have armed supporters in the area who are in turn supported by some people in the authorities,” he said. “We also have old friends in the government, and everybody gets a cut of the deal.”
The arms make their way south, and not only to the Taleban.
Standing beside Mohammad Aslam was Mir Alam, all the way from Sorkh Rod district in the southeast Afghan province of Nangarhar. He had just picked up a consignment of weapons and was about to head south in his Russian-made jeep.
“I am just looking for a good customer,” he said. “It isn’t important to us who it is. Most of the Taleban are good customers, but we also take these guns further into Pakistan, to the Landi Kotal market, where we sell them to international arms smugglers.”
From Landi Kotal – located high in the Khyber Pass – the weapons make their way to radical groups all over the world, Mir Alam said, explaining, “Landi Kotal is one of the largest arms markets in the region. The mujaheddin and al-Qaeda purchase weapons for Palestine, Kashmir and other battle fronts.”
As in most businesses, demand drives prices.
“When Arabs come to Pakistan, the price goes up,” said Mir Alam.
Whatever the fluctuations, the trade is immensely lucrative, and is a better earner than simply selling narcotics, because of the high demand for arms.
“The exchange of arms for heroin makes a lot of money – more than we get from heroin smuggling alone,” said Mir Alam. “Each time the weapons are exchanged for heroin, both sides get a profit from both arms and heroin. It’s a good trade. I know people who have luxury palaces in Dubai and other Arab countries thanks to this trade.”
The major profits go to those with the clout to call on adequate protection. “The big smugglers are backed by governments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia,” he said. “These smugglers can pay huge amounts of money. But we don’t do badly.”
On the other side of the border, heroin is smuggled further into Tajikistan, and from there through the Central Asian republics to Russian and European markets. The trade generates large profits along its way, although not so much for those who simply ferry it across the Tajik-Afghan border.
“We really don’t make that much money out of this,” said one Tajik smuggler. “Our job is just to get the sacks of heroin across the border, then the Russian mafia come with their vehicles, many of which have police insignia. They take the heroin and give us the guns. Then they take the drugs to Europe.
“All along the way we bribe the police. The Russians do, too, but they have to give money to high-ranking officials. Failing that, it’s impossible.”
In past years, Badakhshan mostly grew, processed and exported its own opium, the raw material of heroin. Now, given the explosion of cultivation in the south, especially in Helmand, and a largely successful eradication process in Badakhshan itself, the northern province has become a clearing-house for drugs from other provinces.
One resident of Ishkashim district of Afghan Badakhshan, speaking on condition of anonymity, was happy to guide a visitor through the process by which raw opium is turned into heroin.
“I have been running a small heroin-processing lab for three years now,” he said. “My brothers and partners, however, are mostly involved in smuggling, because it gives them a lot of income.”
The lab is located underground, and is not exactly hi-tech. It consists of six barrels, a few basins, a press and bags of opium.
“First you pour between 18 and 36 kilos of opium into each barrel and boil it in water for two or three days,” he explained. “Then you press the paste and dry it in the sun. To obtain the white powder, you pour a certain kind of acid on it.”
According to one drug smuggler, a kilo of opium costs between 200 and 300 US dollars here. It takes five to seven kilos of opium to produce one kilo of heroin, which sells for approximately 2,000 dollars at the Panj River market. Once it is safely across the Tajik border, the price goes up to 5,000 dollars.
On the streets of Europe or the United States, of course, the price increases exponentially.
The provincial government of Afghan Badakhshan freely admits that it has little control over the processing and smuggling drugs in Badakhshan. Many parts of this mountainous region are remote and inaccessible, and coupled with the tangled bureaucracy, it is all but impossible to curb the trade.
“Since the borders are administered directly by the Ministry of the Interior, I do not feel responsible,” said provincial governor Abdul Majid. “Badakhshan is like a fortress, and I do not have control over its gatekeeper.”
The governor was able to reduce poppy cultivation by 72 per cent in 2007, taking Badakhshan from being one of the leading producers of opium in Afghanistan to nearly poppy-free status.
But Abdul Majid has not been able to make a dent in the smuggling trade, and also acknowledges that there are heroin labs in Badakhshan.
According to the governor, unless the administrative system is changed and the border police are brought under his control, he will not be able to patrol the smuggling routes.
The laboratories are located in remote areas which cannot be adequately policed, he added.
“Badakhshan is so mountainous that in some places people have to walk for two days just to reach a road,” he said. “These labs are not permanent fixtures; they just consist of a couple of barrels and basins. If the police find out about them, they can easily be moved to another location, so control is a bit difficult.”
General Abdul Rahman Rahman, commander-in-chief of the Afghan border police, also confirmed that organised crime was rife in the north. But he said the authorities were trying to contain the menace by training and equipping the police force.
“While terrorism is the main challenge in the south, the presence of local and international mafia presents another challenge in the north,” he told reporters at a press conference in Mazar-e-Sharif. “Local [militia] commanders are another kind of problem, and they support this mafia in the north.”
He acknowledged that police were not always up to the task of dealing with the drug problem, but insisted the situation was improving.
“Our police are getting training and equipment,” he said. “We will prevent such situations in the future.”
The Tajik police at the border were not quite so forthcoming.
A young officer, standing at the gate of the market, flatly denied that any smuggling was going on.
“No one can do illegal work here,” he told IWPR. “You can see everybody, and they are not exchanging anything except food, clothes and fruit. We are here to maintain security at the bazaar, so that people can work in a safe environment. We want to cement the brotherhood between Afghans and Tajiks.”
Smugglers say it is unlikely that governments in the region can prevent the trafficking of guns and heroin – the scale, and the profits, are simply too big.
“The weapons find their way to Arab countries and the heroin finds its way to Europe, so the entire world is involved in the trade,” said Mohammad Aslam. “The local governments know they can’t do anything to stop it, so they just take their cut. And so do we.
“The people who buy weapons support poppy cultivation. There’s an agreement there, and things are getting better day by day.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.