A rocky road

Drug trafficking and corruption in central Asia

Central Asia lies on the heroin trafficking route connecting supply in Afghanistan with markets in Russia and Europe. Low levels of violence related to the trade point to possible state collusion in the region with traffickers.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, about 90 tonnes of heroin transit the countries of central Asia annually, of which 75 tonnes end up in Russia. Most seizures happen along the main highways connecting Afghanistan with Russia, especially in border areas between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Global Organized Crime Index 2021 finds that more drugs are smuggled through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – countries with a criminality score of 5.62 and 5.33 under the Index; meanwhile, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which score lower on criminality (4.27 and 4.97, respectively), report higher rates of interdictions. Unlike other transit areas for drug trafficking, such as Latin America and eastern Europe, central Asian countries present low levels of violence between drug traffickers and law enforcement.

Criminal dynamics

The Latin American context shows how patterns of violence are an indicator of whether drug trafficking is divided between competing drug cartels and if the police are effective in containing the trade. In Colombia and Mexico, violence is more frequent and visible when drug cartels vie over drug routes, with homicides and violent showdowns between cartels and police occurring in densely populated areas. Levels of violence decline, however, if a single cartel dominates the market or if police are effective in preventing criminal activity.

Low levels of perceived violence in central Asia indicate either strong law enforcement over the heroin trade or lack of competition among the criminal groups controlling it. Lower numbers of civilians who possess firearms (compared to higher numbers in drug-transit countries in Latin America) may also explain why lethal violence is comparatively low in the region. A third reason, specifically in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is that drug trafficking may be performed by powerful state actors without significant competition from non-state groups.

Although countries in the region differ in terms of their levels of corruption, police capabilities and drug seizure rates, they are all consolidated autocracies with politicized security sectors. For example, Tajikistan’s interior ministry and national security agency have become more militarized in the past decades, with special forces within the ministry responsible for fighting organized crime and drug trafficking. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan’s security sector is under political control.

The two countries differ in the level that state agents are presumably involved in drug trafficking operations. In Kyrgyzstan, border guards and police officers allegedly participate in drug trafficking, while in Tajikistan collusion between drug traffickers and the state potentially involves higher-ranking officials. It is also likely that organized criminal syndicates in Kyrgyzstan compete with law enforcement agencies over the trade.

Competition over trafficking routes may be playing out not so much between cartels but among security structures, with different state agencies and political actors reporting on each other’s involvement in drug trafficking.

By the numbers?

Another sign of state collusion in the region is that seizures of opiates and cannabis from Afghanistan have decreased in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, although opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased. The drug control agency in Tajikistan attributed a decline in drug-related crimes to its law enforcement policies. According to official reports, 53 organized criminal groups were disbanded and 115 individuals arrested in less than a decade. Most of these groups are small and handle modest amounts of drugs. On the rare occasions when authorities interdict larger shipments of heroin, details of the criminal structures involved are not made public. This focus on small-scale drug traffickers shows that countries mostly target non-state groups, while powerful political and criminal structures are likely to be able to traffic drugs unimpeded by the strong arm of the law.

Kyrgyzstan’s anti-drug-trafficking agency reported higher annual drug seizures than Tajikistan. In just nine months in 2021, Kyrgyz security structures seized over 3.1 tonnes of drugs. Most drugs in Kyrgyzstan are likely to be in transit from Tajikistan, and a smaller portion from Uzbekistan. In 2021, Kyrgyzstan’s interior ministry reported the seizure of highly camouflaged synthetic drugs passing through the country. Like in Tajikistan, Kyrgyz authorities arrest mostly small-scale dealers. On rare occasions when large shipments are interdicted, experts point to the likely existence of highly organized actors who use trafficking routes for shipments worth millions of dollars.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan report higher levels of seizures and security agencies are mostly effective in both countries, although drug traffickers likely avoid raising the attention of law enforcement agencies. Mafia-like groups have been on the decline in the past years in Kazakhstan, but in Uzbekistan, reportedly two of the country’s alleged top criminals hold government posts. Turkmenistan reports the lowest numbers of seizures in the region although it borders with Badghis province in Afghanistan – an area known for high levels of opiate cultivation.

Looking ahead

Changes in opiate production or increased exports of methamphetamine from Afghanistan may disrupt drug trafficking dynamics in central Asia. Competition among security structures may intensify or more powerful non-state networks may emerge. The international community should focus on increasing the costs of corruption and rewarding good practices on the part of political incumbents and their non-state collaborators.

Firstly, supporting democratic governance procedures to allow fair political competition and representation may increase transparency of political processes and drive out political figures with ties to the criminal underworld. In parts of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, such efforts have led to a reduction in high-level corruption.

Secondly, civil society and journalistic efforts to uncover corrupt and criminal schemes should be supported. Investigations in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have led to greater levels of public awareness of corruption in the upper echelons of power as well as among rank-and-file police officers collaborating with street-level criminals. Public awareness of how the illicit economy works and the main actors involved will further increase the quality of political processes in the region.

Finally, imposing travel sanctions and freezing the foreign assets of high-profile individuals involved in drug trafficking in central Asia would be a particularly potent tool against corruption and organized crime in the region.

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