Iran Fighting a Losing Drug War

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  1. By Molly Moore, Washington Post Foreign Service
    Source: Washington Post

    The call to arms wailed over the loudspeakers of the village mosque: "Get ready to fight!" Two dozen men and boys clutching Kalashnikov assault rifles raced out of their baked-mud houses, clambered aboard trucks and headed for battle across an east Iranian desert already seared by the 8 a.m. sun.
    Within two hours, 130 police officers and armed volunteers from surrounding villages converged on the enemy -- suspected Afghan drug smugglers who had stopped to have tea on the side of a narrow mountain road.

    "We circled around them, there were shouts, and the shooting started," said Ibrahim Gholami, 68, chief of the Koohsefid village guards and one of several participants who described the recent confrontation. "We killed four of them." They also rescued a hostage who had been kidnapped from a nearby village by the alleged smugglers.

    Here in the austere badlands along its eastern border with Afghanistan, Iran is waging one of the world's most violent and hard-fought campaigns against drug trafficking. A nation that Washington labels a sponsor of international terrorism, Iran has become the critical bulwark between the globe's largest opium supplier and consumers in Europe, the Middle East and, increasingly, the United States.

    Last year Iran seized 85 percent of all the opium and nearly half of the heroin and morphine captured worldwide -- 278 tons of opiates, according to the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

    Even so, officials here concede they are losing this war.

    "If we built the Great Wall of China, the traffickers would still find a way to get in," said Hossein Ketabdar, the anti-drug chief of Khorasan province, which is jammed against Afghanistan and Turkmenistan on Iran's eastern border. "We shoot one today, and tomorrow there are two."

    More than 3,000 Iranian law enforcement officers have been killed in combat with suspected drug traffickers in the past two decades, most on the border with Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Last year Iranian police and village guards waged more than 1,500 gunfights with narcotics traffickers, an average of about four a day.

    The drug runners regularly outnumber and outgun the police. Iranian authorities have reported drug caravans with dozens of vehicles and pack animals, guarded by men equipped with antiaircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, night-vision goggles and satellite telephones.

    In an effort to stanch the hemorrhage of illegal drugs across its borders, the Iranian government has armed tens of thousands of villagers, constructed hundreds of miles of trenches, berms and fences, and posted 30,000 armed law enforcement officers on its vast borders.

    "No other country has taken the fight to the Afghan drug trade to this extent," the U.S. State Department wrote in its most recent annual report on international drug trafficking.

    Afghanistan's illegal drug trade has escalated dramatically and become vastly more organized, profitable and violent since the Taliban, a radical Islamic militia, took control of most of the country five years ago, according to Iranian and international law enforcement officials.

    Last year, Afghanistan produced 70 percent of the world's opium -- three times the output of Burma, its closest competitor. And, in the past two years, Afghan drug organizations have increased profits by producing their own high-grade heroin rather than exporting opium, heroin's principal ingredient, for processing.

    Several months ago, one of the Taliban's top clerics issued a decree banning the farming of poppies, the raw material in opium and heroin. Although opium seizures have dropped in the past six months, skeptical Iranian officials said they believe the announcement was a ploy to drive up the price of opium, which had fallen to record lows, and to use up huge stockpiles that had collected in Afghan warehouses. International authorities said it will take two or three more harvests to determine whether the decree is being enforced.

    More than two decades of isolation from much of the outside world has left Iran poorly prepared for its escalating drug war. Traffickers have more advanced telecommunications equipment and weapons than do the police. Drug detection techniques are outdated. Antiquated laws that only now are being rewritten have made it virtually impossible to pursue drug-related money laundering cases, conduct undercover drug operations or arrest traffickers for possessing the chemicals used in making morphine and heroin.

    As a result, Khorasan's anti-drug chief, Ketabdar, made the kind of plea to the outside world that a man in his position would not have dared utter even a few years ago: "We need help."

    The traffickers' success stems in part from Iran's rugged geography. For hundreds of years, invading forces have swarmed through the nearby passes of the 1000 Mosque Mountains and marauded across the sepia desert flatlands that do not separate Iran and Afghanistan so much as blur the boundary between them.

    That makes the border all the more appealing to modern invaders like Hassan Ayoub, 38, an Afghan whose thick, black mustache dominates his freckled face. Ayoub said he used to make the clandestine trip across the border at least twice a year, packing 30 to 80 pounds of opium in a knapsack or on the back of a donkey. Today he is among the 55 percent of the inmate population in Mashhad Central Prison in the capital of Khorasan province who are serving time on drug charges.

    Although Ayoub's story was impossible to verify independently, it was typical of the accounts repeated by many Afghan traffickers: He worked another man's land, taking home one-tenth of the earnings from each season's harvest of wheat and barley. Then came the droughts, and he was earning one-tenth of next to nothing.

    For Ayoub, becoming a drug courier was as easy as walking into one of the many opium storehouses in his west Afghanistan city of Herat, barely 70 miles from the Iranian border.

    "They'd leave it open like a shop," Ayoub said. "Anyone could come in. You take something and agree to bring it to Iran." Runners are required to return 60 percent of their proceeds to the warehouse. Some gangs reportedly also rent weapons to couriers.

    Last year, Ayoub decided to stay in Iran, working the distribution networks from this side of the border. When he didn't return to Herat with his last payment, his brother-in-law was taken hostage. Although he was released after two months under orders that he report Ayoub's whereabouts, Ayoub said he has sent his wife and two young children into hiding for fear they will be abducted.

    That brutal enforcement tactic has prompted many smugglers who lose their drugs in police ambushes to, in turn, kidnap Iranian villagers for ransom to make their payments, according to Iranian police.

    This cycle of violence has taken a heavy toll among the people of eastern Iran. In Koohsefid, a mud village molded from the desert floor of northeastern Khorasan province, Gholami, a farmer, husband to three wives and father of 22 children, commands the 30-member volunteer guard force.

    About 30 miles from Turkmenistan, just over 60 miles from the Afghan border and 500 miles from the Iranian capital, Tehran, there are few signs of the 21st century. Houses are constructed of baked mud. Village women take turns baking flat bread each day in a communal mud oven. The hamlet of 300 inhabitants has one telephone and no satellite dish.

    No place in all of Iran has been hit harder by the drug war than Khorasan province. Iranian officials have identified 90 smuggling routes into the province, and last year law enforcement authorities seized 44 tons of drugs here, more than in any other location in the country. Sixty-two law enforcement officers and 840 suspected drug traffickers died in gunfights.

    "Drugs have always been smuggled around here," said Gholami, a fur cap perched over his sun-creased face even in the 100-degree heat. "But in the last four years, the activity has intensified. Now they kidnap ordinary people and hold them hostage in the mountains."

    Last year, Gholami said one of his sons-in-law was kidnapped as he was guarding his sheep. During one 10-day period last December, Iranian law enforcement authorities in Khorasan said they shot dead 82 suspected Afghan drug traffickers and freed 64 hostages the traffickers had reportedly held captive.

    "We're always afraid," said 13-year-old Maryam Bahonar as she washed tea glasses in a muddy stream that trickled through Qalepokhtook, a border village about a 40-minute drive from Koohsefid. "We're worried they might come and attack us." Kidnappings and raids against villagers for food and shelter have become so common that the government has armed civilians in 1,000 Khorasan villages with "tens of thousands" of AK-47s and machine guns, according to law enforcement authorities.

    "Whoever's capable of holding a gun can be a volunteer," said Mohammad Gholami, 62, who leads the Qalepokhtook guards and is the brother of Koohsefid's commander. "If it's necessary, we'll arm the women as well."

    Note: Armed Villagers Struggle to Seal Afghanistan Border

    Koohsefid, Iran

    Source: Washington Post (DC)
    Author: Molly Moore, Washington Post Foreign Service
    Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2001; Page A01
    Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company

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