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Kyrgyzstan Is the Latest Victim of the Global Heroin Trade

Here's a brief history of how that came to be.

This is where Kyrgzstan is on a map.

In 2011, four security officers from Kyrgyzstan were arrested and charged with possession of heroin. According to an interdepartmental report that investigated the Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior, the amount of heroin confiscated from these four officers was more than the entire amount of heroin seized in all of Kyrgyzstan that year. Kyrgyz police and government have long been suspected of involvement in the drug trade, but this was beyond expectation.


Sandwiched in the middle of one of the heroin trade's main trafficking routes between Afghanistan and Russia, Kyrgyzstan has quickly become a microcosm of the effects of the global heroin trade. This is made all the more concerning as the 2014 pull-out of NATO troops from Afghanistan hangs over the region, with governments and experts holding their breath for what may come next.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Russia is the largest single market for Afghan heroin, with the UNODC estimating that there are approximately 1.7 million opiate users in Russia. Because of this growing market, drug trafficking routes have adjusted and solidified to meet demand. The consequence has been that approximately 25 percent of all Afghan opium and heroin travel through Central Asia on the way north to Russia. Considering that over 90 percent of the global supply is produced in Afghanistan, that's a lot of drugs.

As raw opium and heroin shipments are brought north from Afghanistan through neighbouring Tajikistan, they often converge in Osh – Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and regional capital of the south – where they are repackaged and sent further north towards Russia. Tajikistan is Afghanistan’s biggest export partner in Central Asia, which allows for many opportunities to smuggle drugs across the border.

The Kyrgyzstan border with Kazakhstan. 

The most popular methods involve smuggling shipments in fruit, vegetable and cement trucks, which all help to hide the smell of opium from guard dogs at the border. For those who can afford a slightly more sophisticated smuggling operation, border officials are bribed to let shipments through and, in some cases, the officials themselves do the trafficking. Those without the money to grease the necessary palms at border control have to be much more creative. One popular tactic is to use makeshift dinghies to cross the Panj River into Tajikistan. These are usually made of whatever materials can be found: empty gas cans, logs and old clothing and rope to tie it all together.


War and political events have played a major role in shaping the heroin trade. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow had left the scene and the newly independent Central Asian countries were underprepared to meet the challenges that lay ahead. Borders were new and poorly guarded, opium was cheap and people were poor – it was the perfect conditions for the drug trade to expand.

Kyrgyzstan’s transition to independence was not smooth. And with poverty and corruption rampant, organised crime gained a strong foothold in the country. One notable figure was crime boss, Aziz Batukaev. An ethnic Chechen, Batukaev made his name in the early 1990s as a kingpin of the heroin trade. After living with impunity, he was eventually arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 16 years for racketeering, as well as the high-profile murders of a parliamentary deputy and a state prison official. However, in April of 2013, Batukaev reportedly walked out of prison and was escorted to a chartered plane that brought him to Chechnya, where he lives today.

In Kyrgyzstan, the lines that separate the legal and illegal are often blurry, and because of this, so too are the lines that separate many of the players involved. In 2005, Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution, a relatively peaceful change of power that ended with a new president running the country. But with a new leader at the helm, many political and criminal loyalties were up in the air. As stated in a 2012 UNODC report:


"Following the 2005 Tulip revolution and lasting until 2009, a number of criminal bosses were assassinated in Kyrgyzstan. This violence – of the kind generally associated with Latin American drug markets – was not a classic turf war between rival gangs. It appears rather to have been a takeover orchestrated at the highest political levels, whereby criminal networks gradually came under the control of high-ranking officials."

Kyrgyz protesters entering the grounds of the capitol building during the 2010 revolution. (Photo via)

This period was followed by another revolution in April 2010. Then, that same summer, ethnic fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Osh – the country's second largest city – erupted into a major humanitarian crisis. The end result has been a weakened government and attention diverted away from monitoring organised crime.

Today, only rumours and gossip point to who Kyrgyzstan's crime kingpins actually are. Some suggest various parliamentarians and security officials, while others implicate more familiar faces. One in particular is Kamchybek Kolbayev.

Kolbayev is widely suspected of having been behind demonstrations in Kyrgyz prisons from abroad in January 2012, where thousands of inmates across the country stitched their mouths shut as a form of protest for better living conditions. Later that year, the US Treasury Department sanctioned him for his alleged connections to a multi-national drug trafficking and organised crime network known as the "Brothers’ Circle". Kolbayev is currently behind bars, but is suspected to still wield power on the outside.


"If you begin as a transit country, over time you will transition to a user market," says Dr Alexander Zelichenko, Director of the Central Asian Centre on Drug Policy. A retired police colonel boasting 38 years of service for both the Soviet Union and Kyrgyzstan, Dr Zelichenko has been at the forefront of drug policy in Kyrgyzstan, having worked for the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and now through his own think-tank based in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

"I remember in the 1990s, we observed a very interesting phenomenon: criminal gangs were handing out opium and heroin for free," he says. "It was so they could grow their market.”

Since then, the amount of drug users has grown significantly. According to official data from the Kyrgyz government, the number of injecting drug users is around 10,000. However, the problem is that there is a lack of reliable data, leaving the exact number unknown. (A UNODC report put the number at 26,000, but that study was conducted in 2006 and no update has been released since.)

According to Dr Zelichenko, the real figure is much higher: "In my opinion, it is at least ten times higher than this – more than 100,000," he says. For a country of only 5.5 million, that number is even larger than it sounds.

The amount of drug users continuing to rise poses a major demographic problem for Kyrgyzstan, especially given the rate of HIV infections; among those who received HIV treatment in the country in 2008, 72.3 percent were injecting drug users. To put that in perspective, in the United States, the rate of HIV among injecting drug users is nine percent, whereas in the UK it's only 2.3 percent.


The shift towards strategies of harm reduction was not quick, but in 1997 a pilot programme was launched in Kyrgyzstan and a full programme, including needle exchanges, was launched in 2000. Not long after, methadone treatment became legal and, since 2008, methadone treatment in prison has been available. Still, despite this progress, these services don't reach everyone, and HIV infection rates continue to rise.

"It is a frightening thought to think what would have happened if the changes towards harm reduction had not happened," says Dr Zelichenko, acknowledging the difficult path forward

An Afghan police officer uncovers a stash of opium during a raid in Helmand province. (Photo via)

And looking forward to the 2014 pull-out date for NATO troops in Afghanistan, drug trafficking in the region is only set to grow. According to recently leaked emails by Wikileaks from an analyst for the private intelligence company, Stratfor, "My main concern at this time is not fundamentalism spilling out of Afghanistan, it continues to be the drug trafficking routes."

"In Kyrgyzstan, at least we have acknowledged the dangers associated with drug trafficking and corruption," remarks Dr Zelichenko. "We are talking about it and trying to solve the issue."

But any type of real fight against the drug trade requires international funding and training. Currently, counternarcotic programmes from the UN, OSCE, EU, US and Russia are underway in Kyrgyzstan. However, many of them have been limited due to a lack of trust and coordination among the donors.


"Russia was too [concerned with] getting rid of the American presence instead of seeking out joint cooperation," says Dr Anar Valiyev, an independent analyst based in Baku, referring to the security situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Indeed, the failure of cooperation between the US and Russia in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a symptom of a wider political fallout between President Obama and President Putin. And while the two countries have failed to see eye to eye on this issue, the drug trade has only grown and continued to be an important part of the everyday economy of many locals.

“Everything depends on Afghanistan,” says Dr Valiyev, commenting on the complex dynamics underway in the region.

Part of the reason why drug trafficking poses such a threat is that it is impossible to divide the issue of drugs and terrorism. The drug trade represents the most reliable source of income for the Taliban and other extremist organisations in the region. And although many traffickers are motivated by profits alone, the supply chain starts in Afghanistan and ultimately leads to the pockets of Islamic radicals, which of course has many governments worried about what the future holds.

Over the span of 22 years, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to now, the old Silk Road of Central Asia has been revived and modified into a 21st century heroin highway. For Kyrgyzstan, this road is long, and continues well beyond the horizon.

Follow Reid on Twitter: @ReidStan

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