Helmand Heroin Menace Grows

Poppy producing area diversifies into heroin as crop price falls.

By Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand (ARR No. 351, 04-Feb-10)

Men harvest opium poppies in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Photo by Safai.
Helmand, the Afghan province that alone produces more than half of the world’s opium poppy, now presents another menace. As the price of the raw opium from the poppy plant has declined precipitously, local businessmen have branched out by refining it into heroin.

Marjah, a district close to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, is both a Taleban stronghold and the centre of heroin production. The connection is not accidental: the drug trade thrives in areas under insurgency, which protects the trade in return for tribute and taxes.

As the United States gears up for a renewed military effort in Afghanistan, Marjah has become the focus of a major operation to clear out the Taleban and hold the area. It will be a difficult battle: both fighters and those involved in the narcotics industry have much to lose.

“If the Americans come to Marjah, it will be very difficult for us to earn enough to feed our families,” said a 28-year-old worker in a heroin laboratory, who did not want his name to be used. “They have already moved many of the labs up into the mountains, and it is a very long way to go. We are afraid that someone will report us to the Americans. The Taleban say they will fight them, but we do not know what will happen.”

It is difficult to estimate the number of heroin laboratories in Helmand, but in 2007, when the British, American and Afghan forces retook the northern district of Musa Qala from the Taleban, more than 300 were discovered and destroyed, according to government sources.

Drug workers say that Marjah is now much bigger in the heroin trade than Musa Qala ever was. “There are hundreds of labs in Marjah,” said one worker from a heroin processing plant, who did not want to be named.

Heroin laboratories are not technically sophisticated, requiring little more than a heat source and some enamel containers for boiling the raw materials. It demands a steady supply of specific chemicals, mainly acetic anhydride, an acid which is not available in Afghanistan and has to be smuggled.

“It is smuggled in just like heroin is smuggled out,” said one laboratory worker. “Mostly it comes from Iran.”

Those involved in the trade say that Nimroz province, on the border with Iran, is a popular conduit for the substance. Taleban accompany the shipments, say the smugglers, and are well paid for their trouble. Each factory pays between 50,000 and 100,000 Pakistani rupees (590 to 1,180 US dollars) per month to the Taleban, say those involved in the trade.

Pakistan is also a rich source of the acid, says Sher Khan, a laboratory worker from Jalalabad.

“It comes in through Jalalabad,” he said. “If we hit a checkpoint, we say it is common acid. The police don’t know the difference.”

Once processed, the heroin leaves Afghanistan through a well-developed network, say smugglers.

“Most of the heroin goes out through Baramchi and Nimar to Iran,” Sher Khan said. “From there it is taken to Turkey. The heroin routes are very special. No one can smuggle heroin without the Taleban’s permission; if they try, the Taleban will confiscate it. The Taleban get the heroin out through familiar passages, because mines have been planted along other routes.”

For those who work in the heroin laboratories, the money is good.

“They pay me 800 Pakistani rupees (10 dollars) per day,” said one worker, who did not want to be named. “Why would I work anywhere else? I know that I am running a risk – I could be bombed, or attacked, but I have no choice. When the foreigners come to the surrounding villages, we run away and hide. This is the only way we can save ourselves. Now that I am experienced, the owner of the lab will not let me leave. It is very difficult to find good people.”

His friend, who gave his name as Sobhan, was also satisfied with his job.

“The good thing is that we work at night,” he said. “During the day I work on a farm, but I am happy to come here at night. They pay me in cash. And the foreigners cannot find us. We have made very good hideouts. And if the foreigners do come, we will fight them. The Taleban have told us to shoot anyone who comes here during the night when we are working.”

But one young man complained of the difficulties of processing heroin.

“It is harmful,” he insisted. “A lot of people get sick. The weather is hot, and we work close to the fire. I am used to it now, but it was very hard at the beginning. There is no more difficult work than this.”

The owner of a laboratory in Marjah acknowledged that it is difficult to find good help in the heroin trade.

“We openly compete with each other for skilled labour,” he said. “Anyone can do the work, but professionals produce a better product.”

The majority of Marjah residents are involved in the drug trade in one way or another, he added, but still it paid to be careful.

“We have only a few professionals, but not many labourers,” said the owner. “If a smuggler needs a large quantity of heroin he will bring us the labourers. We do not hire people from the street because we do not trust them. They might inform on us to the government.”

He said that the best workers came from Jalalabad – a former centre of opium which has now been declared poppy-free.

To the residents of Marjah, the heroin trade is just business as usual.

“The people here are happy about the heroin labs,” said one man. “The price of opium has declined, and if the price goes down, people’s economic condition deteriorates.”

The price of opium has fallen precipitously, due mostly to overproduction, experts say. Raw opium could fetch as much as 140 dollars per kilogramme in 2007; in 2009, the same quantity went for less than 40 dollars.

The Taleban are not the only ones getting a cut of the action, insisted another resident.

“The government also cooperates with the smugglers,” he said. “The smugglers pay them in order to let the heroin through. The Taleban take money just like the government, but they also let the smugglers rent their vehicles to transport the drugs.”

An official in Helmand’s department of counter-narcotics, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that the government was involved. He also maintained that the heroin trade was not as large as some have made out.

“We discovered and destroyed many factories this year,” he said. “The business is not as good as people say.”

Aziz Ahmad Tassal is an IWPR reporter in Helmand.