Azerbaijan and the lost battle against drug smuggling
Azerbaijan remains a significant concern for the Western world as it is situated along major drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan and Iran leading to Russia and Europe and little is done to counter the phenomenon.
Ali Hasanov, Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister, Head of the State Commission for Combating Drug Addiction and Illicit Drug Trafficking, claims: «Iran is used as a transit country for drug smuggling into Azerbaijan. The relevant work is carried out between the two countries to prevent this fact. But, unfortunately, this problem remains unsolved».
During the last few decades the number of reported drug smuggling cases has significantly increased. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in Baku (UNODC, Ed.), seizures of heroin “ready for market” in Azerbaijan rose from 20 kg in 2006 to 59.000 kg in 2009.
Taking a glance at Azerbaijan’s geographic position, it is easy to find the explanation for the increased drug smuggling phenomenon. Azerbaijan shares a 661-km border with Iran, one of the major drugs producing countries and trafficking routes leading from Afghanistan. According to the UN, Afghanistan manufactures about 9.000 tons of opium per year, 93% of all world resources. As U.S. STRATFOR Center states, 40% of Afghanistan drug traffic enters Iran, and then moves on to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan shares borders with Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Turkey, and most of them are poorly guarded. Besides, the Talysh Mountains in southern part of the country make border protection even more complex, and drug traffickers can usually breach the security gaps. The main transportation routes are Afghanistan - Iran - Azerbaijan - Georgia - Western Europe; Afghanistan - Iran - Azerbaijan - Russia; Afghanistan - Central Asia - Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan – Georgia - Western Europe.
To deliver illegal substances from Iran to Azerbaijan drug traffickers use not only ferries and human beings; they have also started to transport drugs using trained donkeys which enter Azerbaijan from Iran with heroin and hashish in their straight intestine. As the police told the Azerbaijani media outlet vesti.az, the cases are not tackled as receivers are jailed while senders remain at large.
A recent capture of drug smugglers perfectly depicts the critical situation in the county. In March, 2011 thirty one people carrying 362 kg of drugs were arrested. In cooperation with the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia, the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry arrested Azerbaijani Ali Halis oglu Barin, Elman Mukhtar oglu Talibov, Vidadi Aziz oglu Azizov and Bahruz Mohabbat oglu Gurbanoy. They were found to have smuggled hashish in a cargo container of glass, which was transferred across the Caspian from Iran to Russia.
However, the increase of drug smuggling through Azerbaijan brings concern not only for the Western countries and Russia; it presents considerable threats to the domestic situation in Azerbaijan as well. If a few years ago the internal consumption of drugs in Azerbaijan was relatively low, now the situation has changed and the use of illegal substances has become immeasurably high.
According to the report “Strategy of drug control 2010” issued by the US State Secretary; there are 23.254 drug users in the country. Non official data are even more dramatic, namely that the number of drug addicts hit 300.000 in 2010. Besides, drug target groups are growing younger: about 30-35% of the drug users are university students. The most widespread drugs in Azerbaijan are heroin, ecstasy, hashish, hemp and cocaine.
The legacy from the Soviet Union times makes the situation even worse. Within the Soviet Union, drug addiction was a taboo topic. Still today, many people believe they would be denounced by the society if they profess and search for the assistance of specialists. Dr. Araz Manuchekhri-Lalei, a senior lecturer on psychiatry at Azerbaijan’s State Medical University explains: «People are afraid of going to drug clinics because of discrimination by society. These people don’t have any social protection».
Besides, the Azerbaijani government spends averagely only 2 USD for the treatment of one addicted person per year, while in developed countries this number is at least 100 USD.
To decrease drug smuggling as well as diminish drug consumption within the country, it is necessary to play hardball with international drug criminals. Azerbaijan has announced a large-scale battle with drug addiction. At the beginning of 2011, Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry and the Russian Drug Enforcement Agency signed an agreement on cooperation in combating drug trafficking. The Russian Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Ivanov said that the agreement envisions exchange of intelligence data about drug traffickers and routes for smuggling narcotics as well as joint search and field operations.
However, these still remain only a few significant initiatives to improve the situation of the country. The number of government-sponsored programs in Azerbaijan for combating the drug consumption is very low. The majority of drug addicts, especially the youth, do not know whom to address. As the Deputy Education Minister Elmar Gasimov told, one of the most effective tools to cope the problem would be educational work among pupils and students living at the border areas: «Attention to out-of-school centers expand their network must be increased to combat drugs. Attracting young people, such centers would alienate them from bad habits».
There is a conviction that the ability of the officials to work out a long-term drug combating programme will determine the further development of the country.