The New 'Silk Road' Of Death

Col. Ulbaidulo Ahmadov climbs out of his rickety Soviet-era military vehicle. Ahead, down a long hillside of parched grass and across the shallow river Pandj, is Afghanistan, the source of roughly 75 percent of the world's heroin. Keeping it out of Tajikistan is Ahmadov's job. As commander of the 240-member Second Border Brigade, he's responsible for this 100-kilometer stretch of frontier. Dressed in mismatched camouflage fatigues and shower sandals, he gestures toward the river glittering in the distance. "I'd take you down there," he apologizes, "but I've run out of gas."

The heroin trade has no such problem. Mullah Omar, the patriarch of Afghanistan's state-sponsored brand of Islam, made international headlines a year ago when he outlawed opium farming as "un-Islamic." The trouble is, he didn't say a word about selling it. Raw opium is openly available in shops all over Afghanistan, and its heroin continues to saturate the European market. Massive overproduction in the '90s drove down heroin prices in the West and created huge unsold inventories in Afghanistan. International law enforcers estimate that the big traders are now holding as much as 3,000 tons of raw opium or its equivalent in processed heroin. Capt. Saif Riaz, a veteran of Pakistan's war on drugs, puts it another way: "They have sufficient stock to last at least 10 years."

The constant flood of narcotics is carving a new channel. Bypassing the heavily policed old export routes through Pakistan and Iran, as much as half the Afghan heroin in Europe now arrives via the desperately poor republics of the former Soviet Union. Western authorities call it the Silk Road, after the ancient trade network that once brought spices and luxury textiles across Central Asia to Europe. Poorly trained, primitively equipped and miserably underpaid, local police across the region are overwhelmed by the new plague. The unchecked traffic is subverting governments and releasing a virgin-soil epidemic of addiction. "The most lucrative markets are in Western Europe," says an Interpol spokesman. "But every time a country is used as a transit route, the number of addicts there rises sharply."

This is the underbelly of globalization. A decade ago, capitalism and heroin alike were practically nonexistent here. Now Russia alone is conservatively estimated to have 3 million addicts, a twelvefold increase over a decade ago. The pattern also prevails across Central Asia. AIDS, hepatitis and other needle-borne diseases are spreading unchecked. Russia now has more confirmed HIV cases than any other European country, and 90 percent of them afflict intravenous-drug users. Street crime, once a rarity, is rampant, and police corruption is all but ubiquitous. In some respects Western development aid and communications technology have only added to the problem. "You build nice roads, the drugs move faster," says Wolfgang Meierhofer, coordinator of the European Union's new counternarcotics program for Central Asia. "We are always years behind the smugglers. They always create new ways, especially with globalization."

Recently a team of NEWSWEEK reporters toured the new Silk Road. What they found was a disaster zone stretching thousands of kilometers, all the way from Afghanistan to Western Europe. They filed the following spot reports from a half-dozen way stations on the new highway to hell.

Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Saying Tajikistan's borders are "soft" would be too kind. Foreign diplomats and local journalists say the place is effectively run by a coalition of feudal warlords largely financed, directly or otherwise, by the drug trade. The country derives fully a third of its GDP from the heroin industry, according to U.N. estimates. Even so, Tajikistan's senior narcotics officer must be doing something right. Why else would a gang of gunmen have attacked his apartment in Dushanbe back in March? Maj. Gen. Rustam Nazarov escaped unhurt. "Do we know who the narco barons are?" he asked a NEWSWEEK reporter recently. He answered his own question: "Yes, we know." The United Nations pays his salary. So why doesn't he bust the crime bosses, no matter how high-ranking they may be? "I don't want to talk about that. I don't want to mention any names."

Ravaged by a free-for-all civil war that ended just four years ago, Tajikistan remains an untamed land, much as it was a century or more ago. On the Afghan border especially, narcotics are the only steady source of income. For carrying a load of heroin or raw opium to the capital, typically a 600-kilometer drive from the Afghan border, local residents can earn $10 or more. That's good money in a country where 65 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Bulk shipments leave Dushanbe by train, plane and highway--and, in at least one case, via diplomatic pouch. Western narcotics specialists say most people here are far too poor to buy any of the stuff they transport. But some young members of the privileged classes are sure to try it and want more. That's how it starts. The millions of addicts in Iran and Pakistan are living proof of what harm heroin can cause on its way through a country to the West.

Too late, those two countries are now fighting to stop the traffickers. Colonel Ahmadov throws up his hands. "These hills are full of paths and hiding places that only the local people know," he says. "It's more or less impossible to stop the drugs coming over the river. There are a million places to cross." He arrived at his post on the Afghan border last October. Since then his troops have bagged just one alleged drug smuggler, an Afghan who had a falling-out with local villagers. No one here seems able to resist the lure of easy money. Who's involved in Tajikistan's heroin trade? Ahmadov answers with one word: "Everyone."

Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Townspeople insist there's no reason to fear the grim-faced guards at the Uzbek border on the western edge of town. "Just pay them some money, and you can take across whatever you want," says one resident. A friendly tip: don't count on it. The well-paved highway from here to Tajikistan makes smuggling an important occupation in Osh. Everyone talks about it and dreams of getting rich from it. But pay a call at the house on Furmanova Street, the one with all the windows shrouded in black plastic.

The woman who answers the door won't give her first name, but she lets a visitor in to show how the cops wrecked the place during a raid a few months ago. The man of the house recently began serving an 18-year sentence at hard labor for narcotics trafficking. "Yes, there were drugs here," the woman says. "But we didn't know about them. A visitor left them here." The cops confiscated 869 kilos of opiates, including three kilos of straight heroin, with a total street value of $800,000. That's at local prices, which are only a fraction of what you could get in Moscow or Berlin. But it's a fortune in Kyrgyzstan, where most people subsist on less than $1 a day.

All the same, a smuggler has to be stupid or unlucky or bothto get caught in this country. Fourteen narcotics officers are responsible for the entire city of Bishkek, the capital, where a quarter of Kyrgyzstan's 4 million people live. The squad has two cars and a single computer. "It's on the level of the Stone Age," complains Kamchybek Tentimishev, who earns $38 a month as a member of the drug squad. He and his fellow cops take their work seriously, though. In 1999 they captured 20 kilos of heroin. Last year they confiscated 10 times that much, a record they matched in just the first five months of 2001. The busts prove they're trying, but law enforcers admit they are intercepting at most 5 percent of the traffic through Kyrgyzstan.

Volgograd, Russia.

Except for the Russian-language graffiti by the entrance, the apartment building at No. 1 Hiroshima Street could fit right into the drug-blasted landscape of a U.S. inner city. Two boys play outside by a faucet. On a wall nearby, someone has chalked a drawing of a young girl holding an enormous syringe. The weed-choked empty lots around them are littered with discarded hypodermics. "Our parents tell us not to touch the needles," says Dmitri, 11. "They say we might get infected." At night, the boys say, the addicts in the building gather for "parties" in the stairwells. "They don't care about anything," says Sergei, 12. "Nothing touches them." When the Soviet system collapsed 10 years ago, millions of Russians dared to dream of living like Americans. This is not what they had in mind.

Volgograd's authorities like to pretend they're winning the war on drugs. "Most of [the drug trade] is passing us by," says Yuri Stepanenko, a senior police official. "There's not so much of it that stays here." The city used to be called Stalingrad, and the inhabitants have never believed in surrendering. But the cops themselves say the metropolitan area (population: 2.7 million) has an estimated 35,000 addicts. Independent experts say the true figure may be three times that. Narcotics pour in through the porous Kazakhstan border nearby and up the river Volga from the Caspian Sea. It's a command economy. Roman, 21, says he has been an addict since he was 16. He started out on opium, but two years ago his suppliers informed him that from then on, heroin would be the only drug in town. His arms are covered with tracks, and he walks like an old man. He says he wants to quit but doesn't know how. "I'm not living," he says. "I'm just existing."


Don't be fooled by the trainloads of greenery for sale at Vykhino Market. Police say the fresh herbs and farm produce are only camouflage for Moscow's heroin-wholesaling center. Drug-sniffing dogs and human inspectors are both helpless when surrounded by aromatic mountains of dill, parsley and green chilies. "You can't sift through tons of greens by hand," says Oleg Filin, a 25-year-old police detective, "and certainly no cop wants to."

Drug use is out of control across Russia. A recent survey in Moscow asked 15- and 16-year-olds about heroin. Six percent said they had tried the stuff, an incidence far higher than in any other industrialized nation. Dr. Alex Gromyko of the World Health Organization says Russia's epidemic of needle-spread AIDS is already "a catastrophe" and warns that it will get worse: "We are sure that within two or three years there could be several million infected."

But Moscow's drug cops-- the honest ones--don't know where to start. The city of 10 million is a bewildering hodgepodge of crime families and tight-knit ethnic groups, and virtually every freight line in the country leads here. Every year 17 million passengers arrive and depart through the city's airports. This is the heroin smugglers' hub. Flight attendants and rail conductors are advised to watch out for passengers from Central Asia who do not eat or drink--a giveaway for glotateli (literally, "swallowers") who are hiding drugs in their stomachs. Instead of balloons or condoms they now use heat-sealed plastic tubes tailor-made for heroin smuggling.

Everyone in Moscow knows where to buy heroin. One favorite spot for junkies is the underpass near the Children's World department store, right next to the old KGB headquarters. "It's a place that has become a tradition," says Igor Papanov, deputy chief of Moscow's narcotics division. How come it hasn't been closed down? Papanov just shakes his head: "We're working on it."


The only trace of light in the addict's eyes is when he talks about the stuff the local Russians sell. "Afghanistan schure [smack]!" exclaims Timo, 29. "That's real quality! I took two tenths of a gram and it blew me away." Ordinarily he feeds his two-gram-a-day habit with crude, brownish heroin that comes by way of Turkey and the Balkans. But these days Germany is receiving a growing supply of pale beige, 90 percent pure "white heroin." Karl Mohr, head of the drug-enforcement division at the BKA, Germany's federal police, suspects it's made at former Soviet chemical factories in Central Asia. "They've got the equipment, the people and the know-how," he says.

Western police can't keep up with the traffickers' chameleon tactics. "We don't have any evidence of a group controlling the Silk Road trade," says an Interpol spokesman. "Any entrepreneurial group can get involved. It's all new for law enforcement. It's one of the most lucrative businesses in the world."

Sangin, Afghanistan. Back at the source, business is terrible. Until Mullah Omar issued his decree, this western Afghan town was a thriving opium bazaar. Now local farmers are jealously holding on to any supplies they have left. "They sell from last year's stock only when they get desperate, when they need to buy food," says Sher Mohammed, a shopkeeper in town. He says his family has been buying opium and reselling it for generations. He has only a little on hand, displayed in plastic bags and open containers in one corner of the shop, but its cloying, honeysuckle scent permeates the air. "Last year the shop was full," he says mournfully.

The wholesalers aren't complaining. At night their truck convoys rumble toward the borders, protected from marauders and drug cops by private armies equipped with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. The stockpiled drugs get more valuable every day. Opium now sells for $500 a kilogram, up from $100 a year ago. According to a member of Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force, the price is expected to hit $1,000 by the end of the year. That's a powerful temptation for poppy growers. Some farmers are already threatening to defy Mullah Omar's decree. "I don't have any choice," says Lal Mohammed. "I can't watch my children die." It's hard to blame him. But children die from heroin, too. It's happening now on the Silk Road.