Drug trafficking continues to grow in Central Asia. Home to some 60 million people, the five-nation region, comprising Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is also the site of a major international drug-trafficking route.
"The amount of drugs is continuously increasing," the regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonella Deledda Titchener, told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, noting that over the last three years, the number of seizures had increased by 90 percent, while decreasing in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
"In general, we have seen that Central Asia keeps growing in importance as a traffic route of Afghan drugs," she said, adding that recent developments indicated that traffickers were now using the so-called "northern route" as the preferred method of moving heroin to Western markets. Of particular concern was the fact that much more heroin than opium had been seized, whereas in the past it had been vice versa, she noted.
Tofik Murshudlu, the regional law-enforcement adviser to UNODC, told IRIN that seizures of heroin and opium had increased significantly over the past three years, with heroin now constituting 70 percent of the seizures. Two or three years earlier that ratio stood at 30 to 40 percent.
Although heroin only began appearing in Central Asia in 1996, in 2002 more than four mt of it were seized in Tajikistan alone, indicating the existence of a massive processing network in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the situation looks set to worsen. According to some experts, the northern regions of Afghanistan are now heavily under opium poppy cultivation as more and more growers shift their operations to the north, making the route through Central Asia increasingly popular and a mounting source of concern to local and international law-enforcement agencies alike.
While some Central Asian countries like Tajikistan have made noble efforts to thwart drug smuggling through their territories, much more needs to be done - not just on the issue of trafficking but also on the alarming rate of addiction levels increasingly taking its toll in the region. Despite millions of dollars of both international and local assistance, resources remain limited.
Earlier this week, the US embassy in Tajikistan announced in a statement that "a comprehensive drug demand reduction programme for Central Asia is critical, especially now, because illegal drug use is having a devastating social and economic impact on the region".
In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous impoverished nation to Tajikistan's north, trafficking through it is taking its toll. Bahtiar Mambetov, the UNODC national programme officer, told IRIN from the capital, Bishkek, that during the first three months of 2003, drug seizures had increased by 20 percent over the same period last year. This in turn had had a parallel effect on the level of drug abuse in the country, the UN official explained.
"Today, there are 5,863 officially registered drug addicts, according to the Ministry of Health," he said, but noted that a more recent evaluation had revealed a drug-abuse level 10 to 15 times as great.
Tynchtykbek Asanov, the director at the Republican Centre for Narcotics at the Kyrgyz health ministry in Bishkek, also told IRIN that addiction levels were rising, particularly in the south.
Fuelled by poverty, high unemployment and falling living standards, illicit drug trafficking has thrived in the southern city of Osh. Mamasabyr Burkhanov, the city's chief narcologist, told IRIN that the 1,120 drug users officially registered in the province were only the tip of the iceberg, and that the real number was likely to be closer to 15,000.
Meanwhile, Sumru Noyan, the director of the UNODC operations division, and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev signed a project under which the country's Drugs Control Agency (DCA) would receive US $6 million worth of assistance. Kyrgyz President Akayev subsequently signed a decree establishing the DCA and appointing Kurmanbek Kubatbekov as its head.
"This will be a specialised armoured agency to deal with the issues and crimes related to illicit drug trafficking and precursors - chemical substances used in drug production, for example in producing heroin from opium," Mambetov explained, noting that the DCA would recruit a staff of about 200. He said the government would pay their basic salaries, while Washington, as the primary donor, would provide the DCA with $6 million through the UNODC.
According to Murshudlu, the selection of the DCA's staff will be a very serious and complex procedure. "There will be a commission comprising the representatives of national authorities, UNODC and the donor country," Murshudlu said, adding that all the applicants would be required to undergo a tough selection process, including physical, psychological and medical checkups.
After Iran tightened control over its border with Afghanistan, thereby curbing the so-called Balkan route, a new one emerged, passing through northern Afghanistan into the Central Asian countries, Mambetov said. "Even three or four years ago, we estimated that only 30 percent of drugs were passing via [Afghanistan's] northern region; however, between 40 percent and 50 percent are passing through it today," he noted.
Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, drug trafficking remains equally problematic. While seizures were not yet reflecting such a trend, Titchener said perhaps Uzbekistan's figures were not as updated as Tajikistan's. "But we can assume that consequently the availability of drugs and their transit to Uzbekistan is also on a rise," she said. At present, there were close to 26,000 registered addicts in the country.
UNODC was closely cooperating with Uzbekistan to address the issue and, according to Titchener, had in the last few weeks signed two projects with the government, one for the rehabilitation of the Termez border crossing point, and the other on establishing a computer network linking all the offices of the prosecutor-general country-wide, she said. The Termez project is set to be launched on Thursday to coincide with the International Day Against Drug and Illicit Trafficking.
According to Murshudlu, the Hayraton border crossing in the southeastern city of Termez has been closed since 1998, despite the fact it was once a major gateway between Afghanistan and Central Asia. All large-scale seizures of drugs from Afghanistan had been effected there. From 1992 until its closure, some 80 mt of precursors and more than 15 mt of drugs had been seized at the gate.
Computerisation of the prosecutor-general's offices was to facilitate the rapid transmission of the country's most recent legislative changes, Murshudlu explained. The new system would enable the offices to receive such documents immediately after their promulgation as well as facilitating information exchanges between the offices, particularly information from the more problematic southern and southeastern provinces bordering on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and those bordering on Turkmenistan.
Murshudlu said the scope of UNODC's activities comprised not only support for law-enforcement bodies, but also preventive measures on raising public awareness of the drugs problem by strengthening the mass media on anti-drugs propaganda.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions