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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 15:43 GMT
Central Asia's deadly cargo
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

A Kyrgyz drug addict makes a heroin injection to another drug addict in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, Friday, March 25, 2005.
Drug abuse in Central Asia has reached 'alarming' proportions, the UN says
For more than a decade Central Asia has been a key conduit for the world's heroin, smuggled from Afghanistan to markets in Europe and Russia.

But now Central Asian governments face a new challenge - a rapid rise in heroin use by their own people.

According to the UN, drug abuse in the region has reached "alarming" levels.

Figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) point to a 17-fold increase in opiate abuse between 1990 and 2002, as countries endured the upheavals of independence following the end of Soviet rule.

Drug users - mainly taking heroin - are now estimated to make up almost 1% of Central Asia's population, three times the rate in the rest of Asia.

And users are not only at risk from the drug.

"Seventy to 80% of new HIV cases are injecting drug users. It is the biggest threat for most governments, in terms of what this is doing to Central Asia," according to James Callahan, the UNODC representative in the region.

"Most experts feel if Central Asia doesn't get a handle on this, it can jump into the general population through sexual transmission," he said.

Tackling traffickers

The most effective way to reduce heroin consumption in Central Asia would, of course, be to reduce the amount trafficked through the region.

But this is not easy given the region's location, its poverty, corruption and erratic relations between governments.

Tajikistan - 5,600kg
Uzbekistan - 336kg
Kazakhstan - 707kg
Turkmenistan - 81kg
Kyrgyzstan - 105kg

Of the five Central Asian states, Tajikistan is seen by analysts as having the worst trafficking problem.

Measuring the trade is obviously difficult, and most of the available statistics are supplied by governments, which can have their own agendas.

But according to UN figures, Tajikistan - a country of 6.3m people, seized almost as much heroin in 2003 as Pakistan, home to 161m.

"If you see a nice car in Tajikistan, some say: 'I wonder how many kilos it cost?,'" said Svante Cornell at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

Tajikistan's drug trafficking problem partly stems from its poverty - exacerbated by civil war between 1992 and 1997 - and partly due to its topography. More than 90% of its land is mountainous and difficult to farm.

It also has a 1,344-km long, and inaccessible, border with Afghanistan, which is currently proving difficult to police.

Checkpoint on road in Ishkashim
The Tajik-Afghan border is poorly policed

Analysts say the Tajik guards, who took over full control of the border from Russia in August, are poorly trained and lack proper equipment, "all the way to socks and boots", said Michael Hall, director of the Central Asia programme at the International Crisis Group.

In some countries in the region, the trafficking problem is exacerbated - according to Mr Cornell and others - by high-level collusion.

"The circumstantial evidence [of this] is simply overwhelming," Mr Cornell said.

In Turkmenistan, a very secretive country which has refused to give any information on drugs to the UN in the last five years, the situation is unclear. But there is anecdotal evidence that it is involved in trafficking at the highest levels, Mr Cornell said.

Specialist success

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rakhmonov has said that trafficking should be stopped at its source, in Afghanistan, and has also complained that the international community has been slow to provide money and equipment to man the border.

Analysts say he has also shown some commitment to tackling trafficking, creating a dedicated central drugs control agency.

Gerald Moebius, the UNODC's field officer in Bishkek, said that having specialised drug enforcement structures had proved effective.

As long as there is demand for heroin in Europe and Russia, people will find a way to get it across
Michael Hall

He said Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both employed a central drugs control agency, while the other countries relied on police and security services.

Last year, Kyrgyzstan's agency was responsible for 60-70% of seizures, even though it only numbers 200 people, compared to 30,000 staff in other law enforcement agencies, he said.

So what else can be done?

Mr Hall believes the focus needs to be on poverty alleviation programmes.

Tajikistan needs micro credit schemes, agricultural reform, and a banking system that can process remittances from relatives working in Russia and Kazakhstan, he said.

Mr Callahan said the UN was trying to promote the use of intelligence, so that it could target traffickers above the level of the mule.

He said that police forces in the region were "fairly militarised" and focus on a direct approach of stopping suspects and interrogating them. But the UN is pushing a system of gathering information on those intercepted - and putting information such as their phone records in a database for cross-referencing.

But in the long run, all these solutions are "band-aid approaches", according to Mr Hall.

"As long as there is demand for heroin in Europe and Russia, people will find a way to get it across," he said.

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