Russian authorities struggle to hold back a rising tide of drugs
By Yahoo News – Monday October 28, 2002
Copyright: Yahoo News
MOSCOW – Hidden inside cabbages, hollowed walnuts, even the bellies of desperately poor pregnant women, Afghan heroin steadily flows into Russia, joining a stream of illegal drugs that officials warn is a growing threat to the nation’s stability.
Over the past half decade, Russia has become a major way station on the trafficking route from Afghanistan ( news – web sites) to European markets.
After a monthlong lull at the start of the war in Afghanistan last fall, the trade has picked up again, Russian police say. They report seizing a half ton of heroin so far this year, along with more than 940 kilograms (2,068 pounds) stopped on the border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.
“We expect a flood of drugs, which are now growing in Afghanistan, in the second half of the year,” said Oleg Kharichkin, deputy director of the Russian Interior Ministry’s narcotics division.
Afghanistan isn’t the only culprit. Traffickers use organized crime channels to ship cocaine from Latin America through Russian seaports to Europe and the United States. Peddlers bring in ephedrine from China. Amphetamines and other synthetic drugs come from Europe, especially Poland. Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians smuggle in poppy straw.
But it is Afghan heroin that has become the narcotic of choice for addicts in Russia, where more than 3 million people are estimated to be hooked on drugs. That is nearly 2.1 percent of the population, which compares to 1.6 percent in the United States, as estimated by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Just as worrisome, the heroin trade finances numerous militant groups along Russia’s restive southern flank, threatening security within Russia and its neighbors.
“Extremists need a lot of cash. For them, drugs are fast, easy, good money,” said Lt. Gen. Konstantin Totsky, chief of Russia’s border guards.
Carried by donkeys and human couriers across the Pyandzh River and the rugged Pamir Mountains, which form Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan, heroin is then smuggled over the mountains of Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, and from there across the sparsely patrolled, 7,000-kilometer (4,435-mile) frontier with Russia. The U.S.-Mexican border is half as long and “10 times less rugged,” an American embassy official says.
Russia has 10,700 border guards monitoring the Tajik-Afghan border, along with 10,000 Russian soldiers. Hardly a day goes by without a skirmish. Some drug couriers are killed, while others escape back into Afghanistan, abandoning their precious cargos for the troops to burn.
“At present, on the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there are about seven tons of opium and almost two tons of heroin already warehoused and ready for transport to Russia and Europe,” said Kharichkin, the Interior Ministry official.
Russia is seeking money from the United Nations ( news – web sites) and Western nations to beef up security on the drug routes. Negotiations also are under way to provide satellite imaging information on poppy cultivation to the Afghan government, said Lt. Gen. Alexander Sergeyev, chief of the Interior Ministry’s anti-trafficking department.
In the meantime, smugglers are spreading drugs across Russia. Besides selling in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large transport hubs, heroin gangs concentrate on cities in the oil and gas regions of Siberia and the Far North, where salaries are higher and potential markets richer.
One major crossroads in the trade is the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, about 220 kilometers (135 miles) north of the Kazakh border and a gateway between Asia and the more densely populated European part of Russia. The city is a magnet for seasonal workers from Central Asia, and police say they run drug-smuggling businesses out of the city’s wholesale produce market. Men, women and children take part.
“More and more we’re seeing women in early stages of pregnancy carrying drugs. For 500 dollars they’re prepared to carry heroin in their abdominal cavities,” said Fyodor Anikeyev, an officer in the Yekaterinburg narcotics squad. “Seeing their pale, unhealthy look, agents (at the airport) naturally pick them out, but doctors refuse to X-ray them so the babies won’t be harmed.”
Official corruption also plays a role. Nazir Salimov, head of the Yekaterinburg squad, said two top Tajik police officials were arrested in the city in June for trying to sell a large consignment of heroin.
The same month, in Tajikistan, a former deputy defense minister was charged with drug trafficking after allegedly ordering use of a military helicopter to drop off 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of opium and 0.5 kilograms (1 pound) of heroin.
Activists working with addicts allege Russian officials are deeply involved, too.
“There’s a huge level of corruption in law enforcement agencies at all levels in Russia,” said Father Anatoly Berestov, a neuropathologist and Russian Orthodox monk who runs a drug treatment center at the 17th century Krutitskoye church in central Moscow.
Interior Ministry officials deny the charge.
Berestov and others also complain that the main police effort appears aimed at punishing drug addicts, not traffickers.
People charged with possessing even a small amount of marijuana face up to the three years in prison. If they help a friend get the drug, they can be sentenced to seven to 15 years for distribution.
“Why is there enough money to maintain these prisoners but not enough for real anti-drug campaigning?” said Anna, a 23-year-old former heroin addict who works at the Krutitskoye center.
Prevention programs are nearly nonexistent, and the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union has seen the steady closure of government-funded youth clubs and recreation centers that kept many children and teenagers out of trouble.
Seventy percent of Russia’s 450,000 officially registered addicts are 25 and younger, and most start using drugs at age 14 or 15.
Experts and addicts alike say the spiritual crisis and particularly the permissiveness that gripped the country after the Soviet collapse — including an explosion of pornography, movie and TV violence, and unfettered teenage drinking — have fueled the problem.
“This atmosphere of ‘everything is permitted’ has overwhelmed everyone,” said Anna, who declined to give her last name. “Plus there’s the situation at home, where parents are running around trying to figure out how to make enough money to feed their children.”
Rehabilitation programs are few, and patients must pay for treatment in almost all of them, in contrast to the Soviet era, when alcohol and drug treatment were not only free but also mandatory.
The program at Berestov’s 4-year-old center, which is financed entirely by donations, includes psychological and medical counseling, work at the center or a nearby monastery, and a heavy regimen of prayer. He claims an 80 percent cure rate for the 3,000 addicts treated.
Traveling widely throughout Russia, Berestov appears often on television and radio, prompting a stream of tearful mothers dragging hollow-eyed children to the Krutitskoye center.
“They’re all former criminals, even murders,” the monk said matter-of-factly. “But I’m not a police officer. I’m a priest, and my role is to repair.”
The police say their interdiction efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Heroin is becoming harder to get, and its price is rising — reaching about 935 rubles (dlrs 30) per gram (0.04 ounces) in Moscow, three times the price in 1999.
Doctors say that the number of newly registered drug users 18 and under fell by about a third last year and that deaths by overdose, arrests of suspects in a drug-induced state and drug-provoked psychoses are also down.
But Berestov, who gets new patients every day, says he hasn’t seen any letup. If anything, he and other experts say, young people are just turning to different substances, including strong over-the-counter medicines as well as Russia’s traditional addiction — alcohol.