The drug routes from central Asia to Europe

Background to the Drug Routes from Central Asia to Europe

Ministerial Conference on the drug routes from central Asia to Europe held during the G8 Special Meeting convened in Paris, France, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 21-22 May 2003

This paper was drafted by three independent non-governmental experts, Mr Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy [1], Mr Michel Koutouzis [2] and Mr Alain Labrousse [3], and is entirely their own work. It is based on sources provided by international organisations or by the States attending this Conference.


“Opium was probably one of the many products transported along the so-called “silk roads”, which had numerous branches that separated and then joined together again, skirting around mountains and deserts, and linking oases and market towns [4] . The term “silk road” itself, however, dates only from the 19th century. This is long after the caravan trails were interrupted by the Mongolian invasions of the 13th century and the Eurasian trade route was abandoned in favour of maritime trade in the 15th century.

The development of the production of and international trade in opium in Asia dates principally from the 18th century, and more particularly from the 19th century, when the European colonial empires shared a large part of the Asian continent between them. However, the opium trade could not use the Central Asian routes, apart from those in Chinese Turkestan, as Lower Central Asia was suddenly closed off after Russia took over the khanate of Khiva in 1873. Central Asia’s loss of secular links with the south became even more pronounced in 1894 when a Customs Union between Russia and Bukhara was established and Russian border guards were deployed in the southernmost areas of the emirate. This was how the southern border of the Russian sphere of influence closed off and isolated Central Asia from southern and south-western Asia [5] . Opium production and trade then became concentrated south of both the Russian sphere of influence and the Himalayas, extending from Turkey and Persia to British India, the Indo-Chinese peninsula and, of course, China . Most illicit opium trading was done by sea, in particular by the renowned clippers. The movement of illicit opiates along Central Asian transport routes is thus a new phenomenon rather than history repeating itself.” Excerpt from Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, Les territoires de l’opium, Geneva, Olizane, 2002.

0.1 The routes used for illicit drugs produced today in Central Asia, mainly in Afghanistan , are for a large part the result of recent upheavals in the vast area stretching between this part of the world and Western Europe. Since the Berlin Wall came down, the frontiers between East and West have opened up and trafficking of all types has sprung up in a world governed by market forces which often make no distinction between legal and illegal goods [6] . This trafficking is all the more difficult to control because it nurtures the conflicts provoked by ethnic, religious or border-related antagonisms. This is why such a large number of nations have gathered here to discuss a problem that originates chiefly in one country.

0.2 However, this problem has another cause, and that is the demand for these products. The economic, moral or cultural factors that have led to the development of drug use firstly in Western Europe have extended to Eastern European countries due to the difficulties arising from the very rapid transition between two radically opposed economic and political systems, and the appearance of types of behaviour derived from the West. In the Caucasus and in Central Asia, the various wars, political, economic and social upheavals experienced by several countries have also been the cause of the explosion in illicit drugs consumption addiction. This is why, if the upheavals experienced by Afghanistan for more than twenty years had not occurred, it is likely that another country – or group of countries – would have become the source of the opiates consumed in Europe.

0.3 Before 1979, Iran and Pakistan were the two main producers of illicit opiates in the Golden Crescent [7] . After this, the major political changes that took place in Iran put an end to production. The prohibition policy introduced in Pakistan led to a substantial reduction in opium production there. However it did not anticipate the consequences of the war in Afghanistan : the transit of drugs and the manufacture of heroin in the border regions.

0.4 In fact, in Afghanistan , production, which before the conflict had not exceeded 200 tonnes, increased tenfold during the war. The reasons for this increase were less the need for the mujaheddin to finance their arms purchases (they were already receiving weapons in large quantities), than the lack of State control over the rural areas and the vital needs of peasants and refugees in a country devastated by war. After 1989, the situation was aggravated by the conflicts between various factions. According to the first UNDCP field survey, production was around 3200 t. in 1994 [8] . The Taliban were then content to manage the situation by taxing the peasants and traffickers, which resulted in record harvest in 1999 (4600 t.). The ban announced by Mullah Omar on 27 July 2000, although there were very high stock levels in the country, led to the almost total disappearance of production in the areas controlled by the Taliban [9] . The situation that existed in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 meant that the peasants again planted poppies on a large scale. According to UNDCP, at about 3400 t. of opium, the 2002 harvest pushed Afghanistan back into the lead as the main world producer [10] .

0.5 An increasing proportion of the harvest is now processed into morphine base or heroin in laboratories within Afghanistan . The remaining processing is done outside the country, along the routes, in particular in Turkey where the chief of police stated in August 2001 [11] that, despite substantial destruction, a great many laboratories remained under organised crime control.

0.6 The routes used by illicit drugs and chemical precursors are not important simply as transport routes for illicit goods, they also carry with them a whole series of severe nuisances which will be discussed later. The illicit drugs trade does in fact have economic repercussions and cause serious public health problems. All of the problems they cause prompt, or should prompt, responses from the authorities adequate to the situations they cause.


A. The function of the route

1.1 Drug traffickers “do not invent the routes”, as they often use the main traditional axes for commerce and trade. These axes are sometimes determined by geographical conditions, passes in mountainous areas, oases in desert areas, shipping channels, etc. When the safety of the route and of the traffickers is threatened, an itinerary can be momentarily abandoned for alternative routes, because the minimisation of risks is more important than the length of the route. Generally speaking, over the whole of the Eurasian continent, the marked increase in movements of goods by land or by sea, between countries formerly surrounded by more or less closed borders, makes it easy to hide illicit goods amongst licit cargo. The abolition of frontiers inside Europe has had the same results. Even with very sophisticated methods, it seems impossible to control millions of tonnes of freight when every country is being encouraged to facilitate international trade and to limit obstacles to the free movement of goods.

1.2 On an east-west axis that starts in Afghanistan and ends in the heart of Europe, the commercial routes vary greatly. They are numerous at the start of the axis, most often camel trails or mountain paths, frequently blocked by obstructions which are physical (passes, deep valleys), political (frontiers) and geopolitical (internal and external conflicts). Further west along the routes occur two changes. Firstly, the roads become more visible and more substantial. Secondly, from Turkmenistan to southern Russia, they cross a series of political-administrative and military no-man’s lands (Karabakh, Turkish-Armenian and North Caucasus frontiers, etc.), where the state of emergency transforms them into obstacles that have to be avoided. Only a few passing points vital to the economic survival of the surrounding regions and transnational trade remain operational, (the Meghri frontier (Iran-Armenia), the “military route” (northern and southern Ossetia), Nakhichevan ( Armenia – Azerbaijan – Turkey ), Sarp, or Sarpi, ( Georgia – Ajarian Autonomous Republic – Turkey ), etc. Yet the fact that obstacles help to make goods costlier is obviously in the interest of traffickers despite the risks they run, all the more so since they alternate legal goods, often desperately needed, and illegal goods in their freight. The border crossing formalities are carried out by officers who often simply levy “informal taxes” at low rates, in return for which they allow the passage of large volumes of freight without completing many checks, which avoids paralysing the border posts and prevents long queues. The freight, whether licit or illicit, therefore passes through without difficulty. Incidences of corruption must be added to these common practices and these may go up as far as the higher levels of administrations, which explains the current mobilisation of international organisations like the UN, OECD, Council of Europe, World Bank, etc.

1.3 What is most important for the organised crime attracted by these outlawed areas outside, is the fact that the route is negotiable [12] : informal tolls, negotiation and corruption determine movements. Thus, thousands of kilometres of roads, intersected by hundreds of checkpoints, give the trafficker absolute securi