ZAHEDAN, 7 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - Iran's border with Afghanistan is mountainous and rugged - a dry barren land that stretches as far as the eye can see. The only signs of life are the silhouettes of soldiers that dot the landscape, perched high on the mountain peaks. Machine guns slung across their shoulders, they are a chilling reminder of the danger edging westward towards them from across the border. More than 3,600 Iranians have been killed in gun battles with smugglers in the last 25 years and every year thousands of kilograms of heroin, opium and hashish stream through these porous mountain passes.
Iran is the westernmost point of what is fast becoming the new golden triangle, with Afghanistan and Pakistan pumping the world's heroin through its highways towards the west. Most heroin sold in Europe comes from poppies in Afghanistan, and the shortest route is through Iran.
Last year, 124,670 kg of drugs were seized by the Iranian authorities. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that this is only 15 per cent of the total amount pouring across the border.
In a police anti-narcotics training academy in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan, millions of dollars worth of drugs are proudly displayed on long tables - proof of the latest drugs hauls. Beside this, exhibited in neat rows, is equipment seized from smugglers - night-vision goggles, satellite phones, Kalashnikov assault rifles, bullet-proof vests - testaments to the sophistication of the traffickers. Some of the officers here have even seen smugglers with rocket launchers and US-sourced Stinger missiles.
"This really is a war," Antonio Maria Costa, head of UNODC, told IRIN during a recent visit to Iran.
In the academy, two drugs officers stand to attention, each with a colossal German Shepherd sniffer dog sitting obediently by his side. Although the dogs were donated and trained by France, international aid is limited. Britain has supplied bullet-proof vests, but even then the British parliament had to pass a special law to allow them to be exported.
Keeping the smugglers out of Iran is an expensive business and the Iranian government is finding it hard to bear the financial burden. At a press conference with Antoinio Maria Costa, the governor of Sistan-Baluchistan requested more help from Europe.
"We need help from the international community to help us fight drugs. We're doing your job here in Sistan-Baluchistan. What I'd really like to emphasise is that the drugs are being trafficked from Iran to Europe," he said.
"This is the responsibility of the whole international community - countries should cooperate to tackle this menace. European countries are investing, but the Iranian government believes this assistance is not sufficient and the West should invest more. A more balanced cooperation mechanism is needed," Mehrdad Rezaeian, UNODC national technical officer, told IRIN.
With outdated equipment and scarce resources, the Iranians are fighting a losing battle - the smugglers are using ever more cunning and sophisticated methods. In a bid to reduce the deluge of drugs transiting through Iran, authorities have dug deep trenches stretching for kilometres so as to slow down the smugglers. But the traffickers have simply reverted to old technology, four-by-fours cannot traverse the ditches, so they have switched to camels - an ancient, tried and tested method of smuggling, used along these routes for centuries. Each camel train of 40 animals can carry up to seven mt of drugs and there are even stories of caravans of camels that know the route so well they smuggle the drugs without a guide.
TRAFFICKING - THE EXPERIENCE OF ONE CITY
In the hot, bustling eastern border city of Zahedan, evidence of the drugs trade is all-pervasive. Horrific photos of "martyrs" - the soldiers and officers killed by the traffickers - are displayed in local police stations. Fifty percent of arrests here are on drugs charges. Sometimes the violence on the border spills into the dusty streets of the city, with kidnappings and executions.
"A few years ago there were a series of kidnappings in Kerman, Zahedan and Khorassan. These activities were mainly instigated after the government intensified border control with new army units, so this network began to harass government with kidnappings," Rezaeian said.
"A colleague of mine was assassinated a few months ago in a revenge killing for the death of a smuggler - there was a bomb under his car," a police chief told IRIN, holding up gruesome photos of the charred remains of his friend.
Even a local taxi driver has had a brush with the smugglers. "They're everywhere. Lots of people I know have had run-ins with them," Hamid Gorbani told IRIN. "A few years ago five men in uniform stopped my car. When they came close, I realised the uniforms didn't look quite right. I asked them 'who are you?' and they then put a gun to my head and ordered me out of my car. They were coming from the road to Pakistan," he said.
In the desolate border town of Mir Javeh, locals wearing brightly coloured Baluchi clothes squat on their doorsteps in the scorching heat. Mir Javeh exemplifies why this province scores the lowest for Iran in the UN human development index and the highest in the human poverty index. There has been a drought for years, and the only jobs on offer are to be human mules to the smugglers. It is mostly the individual couriers who get caught.
Every year, police arrest thousands of first-time "mules" hiding drugs in the soles of their shoes, in toothpaste tubes, cassettes and in their stomachs. They risk the death penalty if they are caught carrying more than 30 grammes of heroin or five kilos of opium. Three years ago, five smugglers, including a woman, were hanged from a crane in Tehran.
GROWING NUMBER OF DOMESTIC DRUG USERS
The Iranian authorities say the drugs barons are from powerful Baluchi families who have been smuggling across the region for centuries. Baluchistan is a vast area, stretching into three countries and many smugglers have triple nationality, which allows them to slip easily through borders. This, coupled with strong tribal loyalties and huge profits, makes it easy for the large clans to operate.
The incessant flow of heroin through the country has meant that Iran's own drug problem is now rocketing. The demand for drugs within the country is at an all-time high, ensuring a thriving market. But drug abuse figures are often misleading and conflicting.
"In order to know how much drugs are distributed and consumed in Iran we have to know the number of drug users - but there is a big difference between official figures and unofficial figures," Mehrdad Rezaeian said. "The government says that there are two million drug users in Iran of which 1.2 million are regular users and 800,000 are recreational drug users, but unofficial figures by experts are quoted as up to 5-6 million - 10 percent of the population," he said.
Deaths among drug users have increased dramatically - in 2001 there were 2,345 recorded cases - a year-on-year rise of 70 percent. The increase has largely been attributed to the 2000 ban on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. As opium supplies dried up, users turned to poor-quality heroin - with purity levels of only 2 to 5 percent.
"Heroin use began to soar when the Taliban banned poppy cultivation. People couldn't get hold of good opium so they resorted to taking heroin," Emran Razzaghi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Tehran University, told IRIN. Rezaeian estimates that Iranians could consume up to 1,000 mt of drugs a year.
Government officials are starting to speak out about the drugs issue. Recently, Mohammad Fallah, secretary-general of the Drug Control Headquarters, the government's main anti-drugs organisation, said that there were no reliable statistics on drug abuse in Iran. While not very encouraging, this was at least an official acknowledgement of a growing problem in this conservative country.
LINK BETWEEN DRUG ABUSE AND HIV/AIDS
Opium - which costs as little as two dollars a gramme in Iran - is the main drug abused, followed by heroin and most recently hashish, which is particularly popular among the young. Opium and heroin are mostly smoked but this habit is progressively being replaced by injecting, which is considered to be responsible for some 70 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases recorded in the country.
To celebrate his third anniversary of being clean, Mohammad is attending an HIV/AIDS benefit concert in downtown Tehran. It is hard to reconcile his tanned and healthy appearance with the fact that he was a heroin addict for over 10 years and is HIV positive. "I contracted the virus in prison, using shared needles. In prison it was pretty bad - nearly everyone I knew was injecting heroin, "Mohammed told IRIN.
There are 6,000 registered HIV cases in Iran, but some non-governmental organisations estimate the real figure is more like 300,000. Out of Iran's prison population of about 170,000, nearly half are held on drugs-related charges. The prison service is suffering from what is fast becoming an epidemic - the UN reports that HIV prevalence among injecting drug users in 10 Iranian prisons has reached 63 percent and it has been estimated that Iran could be home to as many as 200,000 injecting drug users, most of them men.
The Iranian government is showing signs of tackling the problem - there are now 100 out-patient treatment centres in Iran and a growing number of NGOs offer drug treatment. Along the lengthy border, the government is in the process of establishing 25 new patrol stations. It is also setting up a new scheme to train Afghan soldiers to patrol the border - the first of its kind.
UNODC head, Antonio Maria Costa, says that the drugs problem in Iran will only be solved when there is stability in the surrounding countries. "We want to address and solve the problem of terrorism in Afghanistan and terrorism is linked to drugs," he said. With the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, this could take a while.
There are signs that some of the anti-drugs smuggling initiatives are taking effect. "The drug traffickers are now using new routes, although Iran is the shortest land route from Afghanistan to Western Europe. Border control has made it more difficult, so they [the smugglers] are using more routes through the four CIS [Commonwealth of Independent states] countries. This shows that the Iranian route is not as easy as it used to be," Rezaeian said.
But Rezaeian believes that if Iran really wants to tackle the drugs problem it must start with new legislation. "If the Iranian government wants to be more effective it has to introduce money laundering into legislation - by this kind of legislation the government will be able to take the proceeds of drug trafficking out of traffickers' hands," he said.
"Iran does not currently have legislation to find suspicious dirty money - this is one of the priorities we have set for ourselves." After much lobbying, there is now a bill on money laundering, and UNODC is waiting expectantly for its ratification.
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