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Kyrgyzstan Is the Latest Victim of the Global Heroin Trade

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been a preferred route for drug traffickers sending heroin from Afghanistan to Russia. This has led to widespread addiction and an epidemic of organized crime.
October 28, 2013, 3:00pm

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 quantity of heroin confiscated from these four officers was larger than the entire amount of heroin seized in all of Kyrgyzstan that year. The country's cops and government have long been suspected of involvement in the drug trade, but this was beyond expectation.


Thanks to its location between Afghanistan and Russia, Kyrgyzstan has quietly become a center of the global heroin trade. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Russia is the largest single market for Afghan heroin—the UNODC estimates there are approximately 1.7 million opiate users in Russia. Because of this growing market, drug trafficking routes have adjusted to meet demand, and now 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 neighboring Tajikistan, they often converge in Osh—Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and the regional capital of the south—where they are repackaged and sent further north to Russia. Tajikistan is Afghanistan’s biggest export partner in Central Asia, which creates for many opportunities for smugglers to sneak drugs across the border.

The Kyrgyzstan border with Kazakhstan.

The most popular methods involve concealing drug shipments in fruit, vegetable, and cement trucks, which all help to hide the smell of opium from guard dogs at the border. Those who can afford a slightly more sophisticated operation often bribe border officials to let shipments through—in some cases, it's the officials themselves who are doing the trafficking. Those without the money to grease the necessary palms 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, old clothing, and rope to tie it all together.


In many ways, the smuggling trade is a result of Kyrgyzstan’s recent history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many newly independent Central Asian countries were underprepared to meet the challenges that lay ahead. The new borders were often poorly guarded, opium was cheap and people were poor—perfect conditions for an expansion of the drug trade.

Kyrgyzstan’s transition to independence was not smooth, and thanks to widespread poverty and corruption, organized crime gained a foothold in the country. One notable figure was crime boss Aziz Batukaev, an ethnic Chechen who made his name in the early 90s as a heroin kingpin. 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, as are the lines that separate many of the players involved. In 2005, Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution, a relatively peaceful transfer of power that ended with a new president running the country. The difficulty was that 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. That summer, clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Osh escalated into a major humanitarian crisis. The end result was a weakened government and a police force that had its attention diverted away from monitoring organized crime.

Today, only rumors and gossip point to the identities of Kyrgyzstan's crime kingpins. Some suggest various parliamentarians and security officials, while others implicate more familiar faces—in particular, Kamchybek Kolbayev.

Kolbayev is widely suspected of having been behind demonstrations in Kyrgyz prisons in January 2012, during which thousands of inmates 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 multinational drug trafficking and organized crime network known as the Brothers’ Circle. Kolbayev is currently behind bars, but is suspected to still wield power on the outside.

Kyrgyzstan's heroin problem goes beyond crime—the country is also dealing with a population that's increasingly addicted to the drugs that get smuggled through its borders.

"If you begin as a transit country, over time you will transition to a user market," said Dr. Alexander Zelichenko, Director of the Central Asian Center on Drug Policy. A retired police colonel who served on the force for 38 years both before and after the fall of the USSR, Dr. Zelichenko has been at the forefront of drug policy in Kyrgyzstan, having worked for the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and now his own think tank based in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.


"I remember in the 1990s we observed a very interesting phenomenon: criminal gangs were handing out opium and heroin for free," he said. "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. The problem is that it's very difficult to get reliable data on how many people are shooting up—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, things are much worse than the official statistics indicated. "In my opinion, it is at least ten times higher than this—more than 100,000." he said. In a country of only 5.5 million, that number indicates a serious addiction epidemic.

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 9 percent.

Kyrgyzstan has been slow to adopt harm-reduction strategies when it comes to heroin addiction, but in 1997 a pilot program was started, and a full program that included needle exchanges was launched in 2000. Not long after, methadone treatment became legal and methadone treatment has been available in prisons since 2008. 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 toward harm reduction had not happened," said Dr. Zelichenko.

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

Next year, NATO troops in Afghanistan are set to withdraw from Afghanistan, after which the drug trafficking industry in the region might grow even larger. In leaked emails obtained by Wikileaks, an analyst for the private intelligence company Stratfor wrote, "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," remarked Dr. Zelichenko. "We are talking about it and trying to solve the issue."

But any real fight against the drug trade requires international funding and training. Currently, counternarcotic programs under the direction of the UN, the OSCE, the EU, the US, and Russia are underway in Kyrgyzstan, but many of them have been limited due to a lack of trust and coordination among those involved.

"Russia was too [concerned with] getting rid of the American presence instead of seeking out joint cooperation," said Dr. Anar Valiyev, an independent analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The failure of cooperation between the US and Russia in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a symptom of a wider political fallout between the two countries, but it's an aspect of geopolitics that's trickled down to communities in Kyrgyzstan in a big way.


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 organizations in the region; although many traffickers are motivated by profits alone, the supply chain starts in Afghanistan and ultimately leads to the pockets of Islamist radicals, which of course has many governments worried about what the future holds.

Follow Reid on Twitter: @ReidStan

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