Drugs: No Way Out

What are drug precursors? And why are they illicit? Why do they end up in Iran? And what is their ultimate destination? The answers to those questions lie elsewhere: in Afghanistan, the world’s biggest producer of opium. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has estimated the drug money in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 was around 68 billion dollars. The income from opium production is shared between different groups. Three different groups catch fish from this murky water: the powerful drug mafia outside Afghanistan, the Taliban and armed insurgents, and Afghan drug traffickers and farmers. In “Drugs: No Way Out,” we come to see that Iran, the frontline of the war against drug traffickers who transit drug from Afghanistan to Europe, has taken a lot of efficient measures to fight against illegal drug trade: on the length of Iran’s Eastern borders, long trenches that run many kilometers, multi-layered barbed wire fences, massive concrete walls, hundreds of security cameras, advanced tracking systems, and trained guards standing watch all the time. Checkpoints such as Lotfabad Customs Office located at the Iran-Turkmenistan border are presented as exemplars of such measures.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Qorban Karimi, Lotfabad Customs Director General: The Lotfabad Customs Office was inaugurated in 1993 by Iran’s and Turkmenistan’s presidents at the time, and started its operations in the foreign transit and export sector.

- In terms of foreign transit and in the “Current ranking” we are one of the top three customs offices in Iran and in terms of “passage”, we are number five in the country at the moment.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Head of Customs: “It reads Hydrochloric acid.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver: “I don’t know really. I just took it.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Security Force at Customs: “Here it says ‘hydrochloric acid’. 390 cartons.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver: “I had no idea. I just saw the cartons and thought they were detergents. It’s for a Turk.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Security Force at Customs: “We got suspicious of this truck because it was lighter than it had to be. We opened it and we found narcotics.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Qorban Karimi, Lotfabad Customs Director General: We randomly pick out the trucks to be scanned by means of an X-ray inspection system, which is a sub-system of the Comprehensive Customs System, and as a risk management measure. When the driver declares his freight, his transit cargo, when the information enters the system, the system itself decides if his truck should be scanned.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver: “In Turkmenistan, they check cars. Without a bill of lading, they don’t let them cross.

The company’s name is Seba. That’s the very company.

I don’t know.”

CONVERSATION [Turkish] Custom’s forces and Driver: “- What do you know about the car?

- I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. I think they are detergents.

- In Turkey, we use them as detergents.

- 50 cartons of detergents?!”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Customs Expert: “The paper reads ‘hydrochloric acid’. And the stamp of the country of origin says ‘Uzbekistan’. And two stamps from the transit country which is Turkmenistan. After passing through Turkmenistan, it has arrived at Lotfabad Customs. According to the results we received from the lab, it is hydrochloric acid red-listed by the Geneva Convention, and is a precursor chemical used in many different industrial narcotics.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver: “I was told to load them up and that there wouldn’t be any problems. They are for SebaKimya Company.I talked to the owner of the cartons. He said they belonged to him and that he was going to Turkey.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Customs Expert: “It is strange how this cargo has crossed the Turkmenistan Customs. They never let even the smallest thing pass.”

Narration: What are drug precursors? And why are they illicit? Why dothey end up in Iran? And what’s their ultimate destination? The answers to those questions lie elsewhere; in Afghanistan: the world’s biggest producer of opium.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Narration: The UNODC has estimated the drug money in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 to be around 68 billion dollars. The income from opium production is shared between different groups. Again, according to the UNODC, two billion dollars in opium profits goes into the pockets of the groups inside Afghanistan, 66 billion goes to the drug mafia outside the country and around 200 million to the armed insurgents. Three different groups catch fish from this murky water: The powerful drug mafia outside Afghanistan; the Taliban and armed insurgents; and Afghan drug traffickers and farmers.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Ali Salehi, Afghan Drug Dealer: “I know it (poppy) is cultivated in Herat, I know it’s farmed in Badghis, I know it’s grown in Mazar-e-Sharif. Should they grow it in Afghanistan’s capital city, in the ministerial building for us to acknowledge?”

Narration: The drugs produced in Afghanistan are transited to Europe via different routes. One route used for transiting heroin traverses Iran and Turkey before reaching the shores of Europe. Another, spans countries in central Asia and the Russian Federation and a third starts in Pakistan, continues into the sea leading to Arab countries, China and Africa and eventually Europe. But the shortest of these corridors is the so-called Balkan Route with Iran at its very mouth, the frontline of the war against the traffickers.

On the length of Iran’s eastern borders, large embankments that run many kilometers. Multi-layered barbed wire fences, Massive concrete walls, Hundreds of security cameras, advanced tracking systems, And Trained guards standing watch all the time.

The prices of illicit drugs on Iran’s western border are forty times more than on its eastern edge. The reason is the Iranian government’s ongoing combat against smugglers. But that hasn’t stopped the drug trade. As long as there’s demand in Europe, the smugglers won’t fail to supply. Iran boasts an efficient transit network; it’s safe and it’s fast; Perfect for smuggling drugs….

Every day, more than a thousand vehicles cross this border. The Bazargan Customs Office is one of Iran’s busiest; and the only crossing from Iran to Turkey and to Europe. On their way to Europe, the drugs will have to clear this hurdle

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Nadeem Rehman, UNODC Regional Coordinator: That is a good thing that Iranian government supports that. To search in their offices and to share their information. Because no individual country can handle this. Because whatever the authority and the power the government has the drug balance have more money, have more sophisticated equipment, more intelligence. So we have to encounter them jointly.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs employee: “This is tramadol sent from Turkey to Turkmenistan, hidden inside tankers and busted in Mashhad.”

SOUNDBITE [English] Nadeem Rehman, UNODC Regional Coordinator: There is one opium, poppy, heroin and other thing which we call plant precursors. Kind of this hashish and things like that but there is non-plant precursor which is called methamphetamine, ecstasy, crystals things like that which are not produced , but in the labs.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Drug Trafficker: “My first name is Adam Sokhan and my last name is Dordoliof. I’m from Turkmenistan. It was my idea to stash the pills here. I insisted on it. We put them here and painted the opening. Then we went to Turkmenistan via Turkey.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs Employee: “They put the pills in plastic bags to prevent them from catching fire. Then they put them in the five openings below the tank.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Drug Trafficker: “One, two, three, four, five.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs employee: “25 packs of 5,000 makes 125,000 pills.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Drug Trafficker: “In Istanbul, a man met us and gave us this. We hid it and headed for Turkmenistan. We were arrested there.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs employee: “They’d sell each pack for 3,500 to 4,000 dollars in Turkmenistan.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Drug Trafficker: “I didn’t buy even one of them so I don’t know how much they are worth. In fact, they belong to someone else. He knows their value better.”

Narration: If drug traffickers cannot find the needed ephedrine directly, they try to extract it from medicines that contain the substance. Lax control over the sale and use of medicines in some countries provides drug traffickers with access to the needed substances.

SOUNDBITE [English] Nadeem Rehman, UNODC Regional Coordinator: In the countries were pharmacies are not that powerful were you can get diazepam or valium without prescription. Here it is restricted but in certain case like Pakistan you can get diazepam or valium without the prescription of a doctor. So when you are getting those medicine people are more addicted to those. So we have to jointly count on those efforts.”

Narration: Negligence on the part of certain countries has led to an increase in the smuggling of raw materials for crystal meth. These pills and ephedrine have arrived in Iran from western countries. With these, you can make 120 kilos of methamphetamine.

SOUNDBITE [English] Hussein Rahimi Soltanabadi, Food and Drug Organization: “Precursors and chemicals are being used regularly in pharmaceutical and industrial companies and at the same time they may be used in the illicit production and manufacture and preparation of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.”

Narration: Precursors have dual purposes. Precursor chemicals controlled by the 1988 Convention are listed in two tables.

Table 1 includes those precursors that can be used both in the pharmaceutical industry and in making psychedelic drugs.

Table 2 contains those chemicals that have many applications in industries but can also be used as solvents or re-agents in the manufacturing of narcotic drugs. But they can be replaced by other substances.

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [English] Nadeem Rehman, UNODC Regional Coordinator: These substances are used in medicine. They are very legitimate drugs but when they are imported in a bulk then we have suspicious because we have INCP who is monitoring the movement of these sort of activities. If it is moving for example 10 kilograms to Pakistan every year then we say ok it is a requirement but when it goes up to 200 kilograms a year then we say oh hold on why it is suddenly becomes 200 from 10. That means illegal things are coming into it.””

Narration: While the price for each liter of acetic anhydride is ONE dollar in India and China, and between 1 and 3 dollars in Europe, it goes for about three-HUNDRED dollars in Afghanistan. What this means is astronomical profits for the traffickers. Take Afghanistan’s consumption of this acid last year- which was around 1500 tons, multiply it by 300 dollars, and you will get a 450,000,000 dollar turnover.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs Force: “This cargo is of an unknown chemical. Using the equipment we have here, we took a sample and ran a preliminary test which found it to be acetic acid. For more accurate tests, we sent the sample to a high-tech lab whose test results corroborated ours.”

Narration: 18 tons of a precursor have been intercepted. The bill of lading however, says it’s all polyethylene. A smuggling scheme all devised in a country in East Asia. The Iranian customs office can’t even trust official BoLs anymore. If this load made it to Afghanistan, it would be used to manufacture 7.5 million tons of heroin.

SOUNDBITE [English] Nadeem Rehman, UNODC Regional Coordinator: It will be a difficult situation, I must say it is a very difficult situation not only for Iran but for going to the Europe and Africa. But my concern is more of Iran itself not controlling the drug pouring in from Iran, then Iranian people will get addicted. It will be a huge burden for the society.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Qorban Karimi, Lotfabad Customs Director General: When it comes to export cargo trucks, or transit trucks, we often select them to be scanned based on the types of the cargos, or the customs entry duties, and also the owners of the cargos. After scanning them, we analyze the results.

We need two things when it comes to combating the smuggling of currencies and goods. One is an incorruptible, trustworthy, and honest workforce and the other is the necessary equipment and facilities.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Custom Expert: “A truck from Kyrgyzstan, was sent to the X-ray unit to be scanned. I looked at the scan and noticed something suspicious and unusual inside the trailer. It had a different color than everything else in the trailer, something I hadn’t seen in other trailers prior to that.

I see a secret compartment. Send that truck to the parking lot for a closer look.

Send that truck to the parking. Hurry. The driver said it was a secret compartment that used to be used for smuggling cigarettes to Turkmenistan, and that there was nothing in it now. To which I said, “I’m sure there’s something in it.” So I started asking the driver about the things I was thinking of at that moment. And the driver said, “Yes, I have stashed away 500 packs of cigarettes in that compartment. But then he said, “I’ll give you a 1,000 dollars if you look the other way.” Then he raised it to 2,000 dollars. I asked him again what he was carrying and he said, 500 packs of cigarettes, this time offering 4,000 dollars.”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver, Heroin Smuggler: “They did an X-ray scan. The operator asked me what they were and I said, “Cigarettes”.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Custom Expert: “Then he offered 10,000 dollars and pleaded me to turn a blind eye. He said, “Don’t worry! The X-ray unit in Turkmenistan isn’t working today.” “That’s none of your concern. Take your 10,000 dollars, look away and let me go.””

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver, Heroin Smuggler: “There’s a terminal in Ashgabat. I’d been there once before. They told me someone would meet me at the terminal and take me to the place where I’d have to deliver the consignment .”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Qorban Karimi, Lotfabad Customs Director General: When I was informed, I ordered that the seal on that truck’s trailer be removed on a proper location and the hidden compartment to be opened.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Custom Expert: “That’s a lead sheet. They’ve used a lead sheet. The preliminary tests that we ran found it to be morphine. But the tests that our NAJA colleagues in the provincial capital ran showed it was all pure heroin weighing 506 kilos and 795 grams.

Eight kilos and 165 grams….”

SOUNDBITE [Turkish] Driver, Heroin Smuggler: “There’s a secret compartment here. It was there when I bought the truck. I’d hide cigarettes and diesel fuel in it on my trips to Turkey. I’d take nearly 600 liters of diesel fuel and 500 packets of cigarettes with me every time.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khalil Abbasi, Custom Expert: “The driver was a Turkish national hauling household furniture to Kyrgyzstan. The truck was a Kyrgyzstan registered vehicle, and in the words of the driver, the drugs’ ultimate destination was a parking in Ashgabat. He was supposed to take the heroin there, deliver it to an unknown individual who’d meet him in the parking, and then take his consignment (the household furniture) to the destination mentioned on his BoL.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Qorban Karimi, Lotfabad Customs Director General: What would’ve happened if those drugs weren’t discovered and if they went passed Lotfabad Customs?”

Narration: A seized vehicles’ parking lot in Iran lined with hundreds of cars used to smuggle illicit drugs. There are many more such parking lots across the country. There was a time when the drugs were made in Afghanistan and smuggled into Europe. But things are different now. Drug trafficking is taking place in all directions and on all routes. For Iran, that means fighting enemies on multiple fronts all at the same time.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Customs Employee: “They cut this open, hid the drugs in there, welded the exterior back on and made it look like a regular, unhampered diesel tank. We cut it open and found the drugs.

In this one, they hid the drugs under the hood.

In here, the tire that’s missing, and on the other side, two of the tires aren’t there. That’s a total of three tires. He had drugs hidden in three of these tires. We seized those tires with the drugs in them.”

Narration:The production and trafficking of traditional and synthetic drugs is increasingby the year threatening all countries around the world. Because of its geographical location, and as Afghanistan’s neighbor, Iran has become a conduit for the smuggling of narcotics and drug precursors.

In spite of the lack of cooperation on the part of some Western countries and inaction from some regional countries, Iran is doing the best it can to fulfill its legal and humanitarian responsibility against the curse of illicit drugs. 

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