DUSHANBE, Tajikistan—On the nightly news from Moscow a few days ago, there was a brief story about a passenger aboard a Tajikistan Air plane, who, according to Moscow police, had swallowed 60 packets of heroin. He was snared by an X-ray ordered by police.
But the television pictures of the drug courier being led away barely drew any attention in a Dushanbe restaurant, where the evening news was blaring.
"Constant instability adds to the problem. It is like cocaine in Latin America. There is no other crop that gives as much return to the farmer," said Matthew Kahane, the UN representative in Tajikistan.
As Afghanistan reels from war and chaos, experts think financially desperate Afghan farmers will step up their opium production and sales to Tajik drug dealers.
A year after a Taliban edict virtually wiped out opium production in Afghanistan, farmers are defying the order and preparing their fields for planting poppies, a UN official said Wednesday.
Bernard Frahi, the UN Drug Control Program representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said reports from major poppy-growing areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan indicate fields have been tilled in a manner that suggests farmers will be planting poppies.
Last year, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, banned poppy production as "un-Islamic." Before that order, which the UN said was rigorously enforced, Afghanistan had been the world's largest producer of opium poppies.
As a result of the ban, Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan produced a few hundred tons of opium, compared with 3,200 tons produced last year and 4,500 tons the year before.
"This was the one success story in Afghanistan," Frahi said. "For us it was very important and came after three years of dialogue with the Taliban."
The planting season begins this month and continues for the next two months, Frahi said. Harvest time is in April, when it will be evident to what extent Afghanistan has returned to opium production. Most estimates now rank Afghanistan as the source of three-quarters of the world's illicit sales of opium.
For Tajikistan the growth of the drug trade has been a domestic disaster. Drug-related crimes jumped eightfold between 1992 and 1999, according to the most recent government figures. Since 1997, the number of registered addicts has nearly doubled yearly, the government's reports also show.
Most of the drugs enter Tajikistan across its long, flat southern border with Afghanistan. The rest, UN officials say, is smuggled across the high mountains that separate Tajikistan on the southeast from Afghanistan. From Tajikistan, the drugs travel to other parts of the former Soviet Union and on to the rest of the world.
When the newly created drug networks began shipping their wares from Tajikistan, they relied heavily on women couriers from Tajikistan and nearby countries. That led police at Dushanbe airport to search many female passengers, assisted by doctors, said Tatiana Abdushukurova, a political scientist who directs a program for improving health care in Tajikistan that is funded by American millionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundation. "It was really humiliating," she said.
One of her program's efforts is to get drug addicts to swap dirty syringes for clean ones to prevent the transmission of HIV. Another aim is to get Tajik families and officials to recognize that drug addiction is treatable, even though Tajikistan is the poorest nation in Central Asia and it can barely supply even basic public services.
Tajikistan has stepped up drug surveillance, and the result is the increased reliance by drug dealers on innocent-seeming couriers, such as the middle-aged Tajik who was caught this week in Moscow.
"That happens every day," Abdushukurova said.
Tribune news services contributed to this report.