We traveled along the heroin trafficking route from Afghanistan into Iran, Turkey, and Eastern Europe, meeting growers, addicts, and experts along the way.
A young boy stands by as members of the Afghan Counter Narcotics Police eradicate his family's poppy field in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. All photos by Jim Huylebroek
In densely populated Brent, one of the four poorest boroughs in London, it's not difficult to find heroin. It might have fallen out of favor with the younger generation of drug users, for whom the 1990s was enough warning of the drug's many downsides, but a large number of addicts who started using in the 1970s and 80s are still around.
Mike*, a tall and well-presented man in his 50s, has been injecting heroin for more than 25 years. The first time was with his former girlfriend Larissa, who was a drug dealer.
"One day she was sent heroin instead of the cocaine she was expecting," Mike explains. "We didn't know what to do with it, so we began using it ourselves. Though it made me feel sick, I continued taking it. Shortly after that first time, I got locked up in prison, where my cellmate happened to be a long-term heroin user. I picked up his habit of using crack cocaine and taking the heroin to bring the high down.
"The first time I overdosed, my drug-taking friends looked up to me like I was now one of them. After every overdose, I swore I would change, but as soon as I was discharged from hospital, I went straight back to heroin."
Although Mike seems calm enough about his drug use, there's a palpable sense of regret in his voice. "I messed up all my relationships because of the drugs—from family ties to the number of very destructive relationships I had with women, many of them addicts themselves, with whom I have various children," he says.
Three weeks ago, Mike, who is now a full-time carer for his 87-year-old mother, decided enough was enough and managed to wean himself off heroin—for now, at least—with the help of a methadone program.
In 2013, when the last relevant study was conducted, there were an estimated 300,000 heroin and crack cocaine users in the UK. In 2015, a study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that the UK has the highest rate of heroin use in Europe. Many additional opiate users don't even make it into these figures—for instance, Eastern European heroin addicts who've recently moved to the UK, or opium users who've moved here from Iraq and Iran and who are often suffering from PTSD, according to Dr. Alexandra Moore, a psychiatrist at Brent's Addiction Recovery and Clinical Centre.
In the UK, heroin use tends to be a very private affair: Dealers are covert, and users take it at home or away from prying eyes. Elsewhere, it's not so invisible.
On a busy intersection in the heart of Kabul, hundreds of heroin addicts have gathered. "Take them to the desert," a police officer shouts, trying desperately to move the crowd along. Ignoring him completely, the men and women squat in nearby bushes, lighting their pipes. Yesterday, local police burnt many of their belongings, which were stored under a bridge not far from here.
Before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had enforced a successful ban on poppy cultivation, and there were few opium or heroin addicts to be found in Kabul. Now, following years of war, the collapse of the national economy and a "40-fold increase" of opium production, there are up to 4.6 million drug users throughout Afghanistan, according to United Nations estimates.
Opium production in Afghanistan was down 19 percent in 2015 because of a fungus and weevils problem, but according to the latest UN report, farmers still produced a total of about 3,300 tons of raw opium—much of which would have been grown in Helmand, a southern province that's almost three times the size of Wales and home to around half of the country's poppy fields. A large chunk of that raw opium would have passed through the labs housed in small mud huts along the border with Pakistan, where the plant matter is processed into heroin.
As our convoy of armored Humvees moves along the dirt roads of Helmand, we see barren fields where poppies once grew. A couple of months ago, the counter-narcotics police eradicated almost all the poppy fields in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand, including those of Haji Abdul, a farmer who's switched from growing poppies to green beans.
"In the bazaar, I get one dollar for one kilogram of beans, and I have sixteen mouths to feed," he says. "I don't care what the government says; next season I'll be selling opium again! That will make me $200 per kilogram."
Abdul and other farmers in Nad-e Ali may have been affected, but generally, police action to thwart poppy cultivation seems to prove mostly futile. With poverty rates escalating, and, according to farmers, the government spending most of its funds on fighting the Taliban rather than helping local people, the allure of growing poppies is only growing stronger. Helmand Police Commander Mahmood Noorzai says that, despite their previous crops being destroyed, many farmers in Nad-e Ali are once again growing poppies.
Since 2008, the Taliban has been supporting the growing of opium, taking a share of each harvest to fund its insurgency. "For each good harvest, the Taliban demands 5 kilograms [11 pounds] of opium," says Matin Khan, a tribal elder in Nawzad, a district in northern Helmand and a Taliban stronghold. "They also levy tolls at the checkpoints where drug smugglers pass with their packed Toyota Land Cruisers, and then escort them for money through the toxic triangle, the lawless border region between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran."
In this stretch of no man's land, cars have no license plates, and heroin can be found at the local bazaar.
Just a stone's throw away from the Iranian border, in Nimroz Province, is the Afghani town of Zaranj, which has been dubbed "Little Colombia" by locals.
In the cemetery of this dusty town, a boy no older than 12 approaches us, gazing nowhere. His friend, Ibrahim, is in a better condition to talk: "I've been using heroin for the past six years now, since I was about fourteen," he says. "I work at a brick factory in Iran. The work is so tough that everyone is using drugs to ease the pain."
We notice a bloodstained bandage covering Ibrahim's leg. "A work accident," he says. "That's why I'm back in Afghanistan. As soon as my leg gets better, I'll flee back to Iran. Over here there is nothing but misery."
A man dressed in rags comes running up and hits the young boy square in his face. "Not good—not good these drugs!" he exclaims. "The smugglers are selling us junk for 20 afghani [less than a $.25] per shot."
Some addicts in the region do find their way into proper healthcare, but the relapse rate is high. A few miles outside of Zaranj is a police station surrounded by golden sand dunes that serves as a rehab center for heroin addicts. It was built with the financial support of a local businessman.
In government-run centers, which provide care for about 10 percent of Afghanistan's addicts, there are beds and doctors. Here, those luxuries are few and far between; there's no running water, and the stench of a busted cesspit permeates the entire building. Police guard the addicts, who aren't allowed to leave the facility for 45 days.
Around 50 young men salute us as we walk up to the patio. A man named Abdul Jameh shows us a massive scar across his chest. Taliban attacked his convoy when he was still a police officer, he says, before telling us his family had him locked up here because of aggressive behavior.
"Nonsense," says the police officer standing next him. "Ever since that attack, [he's been] heavily addicted to heroin. His family didn't know what to do with him any longer."
A ruby red Persian rug covers Ali's* entire apartment floor. We've arrived in Zahedan, the first major Iranian city after crossing the Afghan border. For the next four nights, we'll be eating, sleeping, and having long conversations on this rug, discussing the Iranian clerics who wander the streets, praying and weeping to honor dead saints. The authorities occasionally harass Ali, he says, because he has tourists stay every now and then.
Ali moved to Zahedan from Mirjaveh, a poor village near the Pakistani border. "If I was still living there, I would be smuggling dope for sure," he says. Instead, he now studies genetics at the city's university. When he went back to Mirjaveh last winter, he was immediately offered a job smuggling opium and heroin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, being the first country along the trafficking route from Afghanistan toward the West, Iran has one of the highest rates of opiate addiction in the world.
"I've smuggled shoes and oil before, but never drugs," says Ali. "I've seen too many people die because of it. My friends smuggle drugs because they haven't studied, and they don't think about the consequences. They just want to make money to provide for their families."
According to a 2012 report by the US State Department, since 2007, Iran has intercepted around a third of all heroin seized globally. The death penalty is still used for drug trafficking offenses, and it's used astonishingly often. In February of this year, the entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran was executed for drug offenses. In the first half of 2015, the country executed 694 people, the majority for drug offenses.
In 2007, Iran started building a wall along its border with Pakistan, which—according to authorities—is to prevent drug smuggling and insurgencies by terror groups. But beyond that wall, a largely uncontrollable wilderness stretches out.
Ali explains how smugglers head to Pakistan through the mountains using back roads, to pick up morphine, heroin, or opium. "Or they pay a [bribe] to a high-ranking officer to get past the checkpoint," he adds. "One kilo of raw opium costs them £215 [$313], which they sell in Tehran for £700 [$1,018]."
A few months ago, Mehrooz, one of Ali's best friends, was sentenced to death by hanging at the age of 26 after he was caught transporting heroin. I cautiously ask the authorities in Tehran if these severe punishments actually work when it comes to dissuading would-be traffickers, because while the Iranian government keeps killing, the smugglers keep coming.
"The UK would certainly treat drug smugglers differently if it had Afghanistan as a neighbor!" says General Moayedi, head of the Iranian police's anti-narcotics squad. "Yesterday, a colleague stepped on a land mine and lost both legs. For you, drug smuggling is an illicit business. For us, it is war. A war in which we protect Europe, the destination of all that rubbish. How does the West want to fight terrorism when it doesn't target drug smugglers? The Taliban is growing in strength. And what if ISIS hijacks the opium and heroin trade?"
The bus ride from Tehran to the Turkish border takes us an entire night and a day. Here, in a provincial town in Turkey's Van Province, we meet Afran*, who has a short mustache and warm blue eyes.
Along with two of his brothers and four of his uncles, he has just been released from a seven-year spell in prison. Caught carrying 155 pounds of heroin on his way to Istanbul, Afran will now spend the next four years under house arrest. He grew up in a Kurdish border town in Hakkari Province, where—like in Mirjaveh—drug smuggling is a common means of income. The villagers used to believe that there were only two ways to get to heaven: either by killing Armenians, or by selling drugs to non-believing Europeans. "When we stopped believing that, a new religion emerged: money," says Afran.
"My father and grandfather used to cross the Iranian border on horses to get the heroin," he says. "I traded the horse for a jeep with a secret compartment, in which I got [the drugs] past border crossings."
"Hidden compartments are getting old fashioned," says a member of the border police when I ask. Instead, he adds, smugglers now hide the heroin in goods such as fire extinguishers, cases of baklava, or even marble statues. He doesn't mention bribery as an alternative method of transporting heroin across the border.
Afran swears he never bribed a police officer. "But I know cops and soldiers who are involved," he says. "Even today, governors and members of parliament smuggle heroin to Istanbul in their own vehicles."
Smuggling, by all accounts, isn't as easy as it once was. The turning point came ten years ago, when Turkey started offering huge amounts of money for tips and rival gangs began calling the police when their competition left for Istanbul with a new shipment. Afran joins a list of narco-smugglers who got caught and survived to tell the story. He was pulled over in the central region of Turkey, after the police had tapped his phone. Whether or not the police arrested Arfan based on a tip-off given by a rival gang is still unclear.
Still, for years, the real bosses of the heroin trade—those who make the most profit along the supply chain—were Turkish nationals living throughout Europe. "The money they earned through heroin is now invested in legal businesses, like casinos," says a former Turkish police chief who wishes to remain anonymous. More recently, Albanian crime syndicates have taken over large parts of the Turkish heroin business.
After entering Turkey, any heroin that isn't intercepted and seized makes its way out along various smuggling routes into Western Europe, through Greece, Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia. In Sofia, Bulgaria's capital, the Roma community is worst affected by the importation of heroin, diluted with other chemicals and cheapened. In the streets of Pristina, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and other former Yugoslavian cities, most addicts have been using heroin since the wars in the 1990s.
Addiction is fanned by extreme poverty, but it's maintained by local dealers, who, we're told, are often protected by moles within law enforcement agencies. In Lazarevac, a Serbian city containing a high number of addicts, we meet Zlatan*, a former police commissioner who is talking to us anonymously, fearing a threat to his life. We're invited to his house, where we are welcomed with Turkish coffee, the fruit brandy rakia, and some traditional appetizers.
Politicians removed Zlatan from his position a year and a half ago, he claims, because he took his work too seriously. In one year, he raided more than 40 apartments, clubs, and cafés to arrest dealers. "I found hard evidence that dirty police inspectors were selling drugs themselves," he says.
Zlatan takes us to a bar popular with members of Sveti Sava, a civilian organization that, in March of 2013, started out by publishing the names and addresses of eight drug dealers working in Lazarevac. Since then, they have released the details of many more. Their leader, a giant former kickboxer and member of a paramilitary group, says heroin usage has become rampant in the last five years.
"Youngsters were walking around like zombies," he says. "They disappeared, succumbed to overdoses. Dealers were rich people who commanded respect from businessmen or children of politicians. They were affiliated to Serbian, Kosovar, or Turkish gangs that were protected by police. By spreading their photos in newspapers and social media, we punctured that image. But unmasking these corrupt dirty inspectors, forget it! You can't beat the police."
Zlatan praises Sveti Sava's attempts to counter heroin trafficking, but admits that the number of addicts keeps on rising. "I can't make a difference here any longer, and each day, I fear for my family's safety," he says, before asking about the procedures one must go through to apply for asylum.
Thirty miles north of Lazarevac, we hit the Belgrade-Zagreb highway. This is where heroin enters the European Union, toward Western Europe.
Back in Brent, Mike is taking it one day at a time, making steady progress in combating his addiction.
"I've seen enough madness," he sighs, recalling the harm his drug taking has caused to others, adding that he wants to make amends now that he's clean. It's routine—doing simple things like exercising, reading, and reaching out to help others in an early stage of recovery—that he says helps him stay clean.
Meanwhile, the heroin keeps on flowing through the world from its birthplace in Afghanistan, claiming hundreds of new victims in its wake.
*To guarantee their safety, some names have been changed.
The fieldwork for this article was carried out with the help of the Pascal Decroos Fund.