Once a year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publishes a broad, data-rich assessment of what is commonly called the international drug problem. This World Drug Report represents the single most comprehensive inquiry into trends in drug production, sale and trafficking worldwide; the very best analysis the United Nations, the global community de facto, can make on the operational state of illegal drugs.
Diacetylmorphine, or heroin, holds one of the richest histories of human substances. First cultivated in lower Mesopotamia as far back as 3400 BCE, the opium poppy became the subject of two violent wars over diplomatic relations and trade—so-named the First and Second Opium Wars of the 19th century—by the time synthesis of modern heroin took off at the turn of the 20th. In its early years, “Heroin” was marketed and sold by pharmaceutical giant Bayer as a choice non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. Today, its legendary addictive potential and drastic degenerative effects on health make heroin one of the most notorious – but most profitable – of the illicit drugs.
The biggest problem with tackling the multi-national heroin trade is the utter wealth and power surrounding it. For every multi-million dollar drug seizure that makes papers, billions of dollars of product quietly slips across borders by air, land and sea. The broader trade, and the people behind it, remain safeguarded in highly covert, densely bureaucratic and law-savvy operations whose constituent parts—each of those discrete deals, sales and shipments—are mostly expendable within the greater operation. The power, protections and pervasiveness of the heroin empire are vast, and its survival depends largely on our inability to obtain a true sense of its scope.
One way the UN tries to make headway lies buried in the annex of UNODC’s 2013 World Drug Report. In an attempt to map the lines of the global market, the report tables the most frequently mentioned countries of provenance in individual drug seizures; that is, where the drugs that are seized most commonly come from. The measure is far from perfect—the place of manufacture or departure of any given shipment may easily go unreported when seized, and a great many become excluded altogether from unavailable or unreliable information. But this ranking of the top 10 hottest heroin-trafficking countries represents the global community’s success, however small it may be, in shedding light on the illicit trade.
This central Asian republic has long been flagged as a key hub in heroin shipping lines from south Asia to Europe. Estimates say a whole quarter of the world supply of heroin passes through the area, and a significant portion of that finds sanctum in the country’s second-largest city, Osh. The ubiquity of the trade and sheer prevalence of users in this politically fragile country led one local journalist to comment in 2010: “There is no other business here.” A seizure by the Kyrgyzstan Drug Control Agency in 2009 topped 200 kilograms—over $8.2 million USD street value.
Invisible lines overlapping the mountain ranges of three Southeast Asian countries—Myanmar, Laos and Thailand—form the infamous Golden Triangle of poppy cultivation. For the greater part of the 20th century, the Golden Triangle served as the world’s chief grower and supplier of opium; today, Thailand is the only country in the region breaking the top 10 in term of trafficking. The Golden Triangle’s dethroning reflects broad changes in the trade but the area is no less active in growing than it was at its zenith. UNODC reports production in the region rose for the seventh consecutive year in 2013 to 870 tonnes of opium—a whole 22% increase from 2012.
India’s substantial geography lies smack in the middle of traditional heroin transport lines from the Golden Triangle to Europe. But India isn’t just a key strategic locale for shipping—the UN’s 2011 drug and crime report found India to be the largest consumer of heroin in the whole south Asian region. Nearly 17 of the 40 tonnes of pure south Asian heroin produced in 2011 went to Indian dealers to feed the country’s rising demand for designer drugs.
Recent reports even show illegal domestic cultivation on the rise. In 2010, Indian anti-narcotic agencies seized and destroyed about 2,500 acres of poppy; an estimated 18,500 acres remain.
While India has the greatest number of heroin users in south Asia, Iran has the highest level of users per capita in the entire world. On the Iranian streets, heroin costs less than beer. A single US dollar can buy 3 grams of opium; $330 buys a whole kilo. By all accounts the Iranian government fights a losing war against the local trade, with Western sanctions sparing barely $13 million to the government over the last four years to help with combating drug operations (the Colombian government has received over $5 billion since 2000). En route to Europe, the south Asian line smuggles an estimated 2,268 tonnes of heroin into Iranian territory every year, and the government claims to have lost 3,700 Iranian soldiers fighting it over the last three decades. Despite the country’s highest seizure rate of opiates in the world, the vast majority of product finds its way to customers.
Ironically, the country that brought “drug tourism” to Europe has among the lowest drug-related deaths on the continent. But production and trafficking is rampant in the Netherlands for obvious reasons – its location, lax criminal policy and open drug culture makes the country an attractive nucleus for the European heroin market. The population remains a “medium” consumer of illicit drugs, and the imprisonment rate for drug crimes roughly matches that of zero-tolerance Sweden. While the government staunchly opposes the international export or import of drugs, the domestic policies of tolerance lubricate the international trade.
In the 60s and 70s, a French-Italian crime operation headed by notorious Godfather Paul Carbone established the so-called “French Connection”, which supplied most of North America’s illegal heroin. The scheme began with traditional poppy crops in Turkey; opium travelled to France for processing, then overseas to North American crime families for distribution from Montreal to New York City.
Today, from the heart of production in Southeast Asia, over a third of the world’s designer opiates travels west through what UNODC calls the “Balkan Route” of narcotics (and human) smuggling. The route begins with Iran before intersecting historically opium-friendly Turkey — the ideal entry point to the largest heroin market in the world, Europe. In 2008, more than half of all heroin seized worldwide occurred within the borders of these two countries, suggesting while Turkey’s role in the global trade has changed, its territory remains no less vital.
A peculiar thing happens once heroin moves out of Turkey and into the Balkans: it disappears. While 70-80% of European-seized heroin is Albanian, seizures within the country itself are rare. The region represents the biggest challenge facing global drug enforcement today: unravelling a highly integrated, cross-national network of organized crime—including the Albanian mafia which, according to Wikileaks reports, maintains strong diplomatic connections, not limited to “legitimate” politicians, everywhere from Israel to South America.
We’ve seen how heroin travels west, but what about markets to the north? How does the former Soviet Republic get its fix?
Researchers estimate Tajikistan’s piece of the heroin superhighway rivals up to half of the country’s official GDP. It’s the poorest post-Soviet country with a roughly 50% poverty rate, but its capital flourishes with excess wealth from near-institutionalized drug trafficking. Here it seems that law-makers look the other way as smugglers—and the payrolled state officials and diplomats—capitalize on the 800-mile, multi-billion-dollar border to the south. From 2001-2012, opiate seizures from Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency dropped 80% while production south of the border doubled, leaving very few disputing the economy’s reliance on the drug.
If there’s anything more ubiquitous than trafficking networks in Pakistan, it’s the consumption of the heroin itself—estimates of more than half-a-million users go through $1.2 billion of product a year. Locals of Pakistan’s largest metropolitan city Karachi say the drug is cheaper than food.
At $4/gram, the risk of shipping Pakistani heroin via the Balkan Route pays off when, or if, it lands on European streets at $100/gram. The danger of taking it further overseas to the US pays off further with $200/gram. Despite the rock-bottom price, local Pakistan markets proliferate from the sheer abundance of users. According to the national media, customs officials seized a grand total of 1 tonne of product in 2011, despite 260 tonnes entering through the north-west border alone.
This is the main source of the world-famous south Asian opium, and is also where the Balkan Route begins; where 90% of the world’s product, $4 billion worth annually, originates, and where production itself has been rising unstoppably over the last decade.
Afghan heroin pours out of the country through every shared-border: West through Iran, or southwest detouring through Pakistan en route to Europe and North America; and north through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, bound for Russia and her two-and-a-half million addicts.
The economy of Afghanistan, opium capital of the world, depends on the stuff unequivocally. Farmers collect about a fourth of the yearly revenue – paying the remainder in taxes to district officials, fees to warlords and insurgents, and profits to global traffickers. With the raw material accounting for over 35% of the country’s legal GDP, and 10% of the population employed by the poppy industry, heroin isn’t just prolific in Afghanistan— it’s a way of life.