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IWPR, February 10, 2012

Afghan Children Ensnared in Heroin Trade With Iran

Smuggling endemic in western district, and children used as mules despite risk of poisoning and arrest

By Zalmay Barakzai

Two years ago, Mohammad Reza was a 17-year-old student in Ghoryan, a district in the Herat province of western Afghanistan, spending half his days at school and the other half playing football with friends.

Among those friends, he noticed, some were making huge amounts of money. Reza was fascinated to see them growing richer, igniting in him a desire to have what they had – to own a Shehab motorcycle, to have bracelets and rings and an iPhone.

And so he found himself at the home of a smuggler named Arbab Qoudus, listening closely as the man told him the secret to becoming rich: “The more capsules you swallow, the more money you earn.”

The capsules contained heroin bound for Iran.

Reza agreed to try, and in doing so become one of a growing number of young men recruited by smugglers in a dangerous, sometimes deadly, practice.

An investigation by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in four villages of Ghoryan district found a high number of children who have become entangled in smuggling rings. Some of them never return.

By midnight, Reza had swallowed ten capsules. In an interview with IWPR, he said he wasn’t sure if he could swallow more, but he knew if he could manage another three capsules, he would earn Iranian cash worth 20,500 afghanis, or about 400 US dollars, twice the amount he’d be paid if he only swallowed ten. He swallowed the last three with the help of boiled milk. Thirteen plastic-coated capsules of Afghan heroin were now sitting in his stomach.

The next day, he set out with a group of children and a handler. With fake travel documents, they were waved through the border checkpoint into Iran. There, at a smuggler’s home, he was given laxatives to pass the plastic capsules. The smugglers were only able to retrieve six, however. They paid him for those and sent him back to Ghoryan with seven capsules still in his stomach.

Reza felt the pain in his stomach before he had a chance to shop for an iPhone. He called his family and told them what had happened. His parents took him to an illicit doctor to have the capsules removed by surgery. He survived. But other children have not been so lucky.

Afghan child opium addict
Zaher, 14, (R) sits 'stoned' after smoking heroin alongside his mother Sabera (C) and sister Gulparai, 12, (L) August 27, 2007 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zaher's mother, Sabera, a widow, has been smoking for four years since she lost her husband. Her children, Gulparai and Zaher began smoking two years ago after watching their mother. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

According to more than 50 interviews with smugglers, parents and police officials, an estimated 60 children in four Ghoryan villages have died in the past decade after swallowing capsules of heroin, a refined substance that has increased in popularity since the ouster of the Taleban. According to these interviews, conducted over a period of several months, as many as 1,000 children have disappeared from Ghoryan province since 2002 after they were persuaded to smuggle heroin across the Iranian border.

In the villages of Mangwan, Kariz, Barnabad and Sabol-e Haft Chah, parents fear for their children as long as the smugglers remain active. Some children are killed, while others have been thrown in prison. In fact, children are attractive to the smugglers because they are not executed in Iran, where drug trafficking is a serious offence that carries capital punishment.

Yaka Khan, who is now a butcher at the Ghoryan district center bazaar, said he was arrested two years ago in Iran, along with two other smugglers. One of them, a Ghoryan man named Azizullah, was hanged. The other remains in prison. Yaka Khan said he was returned to Afghanistan because he was only 16 when he was caught.

Cautionary stories like those of Yaka Khan and Mohammad Reza may do little to curb the practice of heroin smuggling. Crystallised heroin, often smoked by addicts through improvised water pipes, sells for 1,200 dollars per kilogram in Afghanistan, according to smugglers. Its value doubles in Iran.

In the four villages, there are at least eight major smuggling ringleaders. Two of them agreed to be interviewed by IWPR on condition of anonymity.

The first, a smuggler from Mangwan, said the heroin originates in Helmand province. It is secreted in trucks coming into Herat, in loads of perhaps hundreds of kilograms hidden under other, legal goods.

Children are easy to recruit for smuggling operations, he said, adding that if they are jailed, they will eventually be released.

A child can smuggle five, eight or ten grams of crystal heroin, depending on his size. He swallows the capsules and within a 24-hour period, he will be transported to Iran and will pass the capsules. “We pay them 300,000 tomans [about 260 dollars] for five capsules.”

The second smuggler, who is 53 and operates out of Mangwan as well, said he has used children to smuggle heroin, but says they were all warned of the potential dangers.

Sometimes, he said, parents will rent out their children to smugglers. Other times, children are paid directly for capsules, as Reza was.

Contrary to these claims, child smugglers say they are seldom warned of the dangers.

“The smugglers exploit our poverty and obligations,” said one child, Aarash. He has trafficked crystal heroin many times, he said, but was never told he could be killed.

Ghulam Haidar, a resident of Mangwan village, lost his son Sebghatullah to smuggling. Sebghatullah disappeared for days, Haidar said, and no one in the village knew his whereabouts. A friend learned that Sebghatullah had been arrested in the Iranian border town of Islam Qala. When the friend went to the border, Haider said, “The police handed over his corpse.”

Heroin smuggling has been on the rise in Ghoryan for the last decade. It has become systematised, with strong links and networks. The province is less than 50 kilometers from Herat city and shares more than 170 kilometers of border with Iran. Local smugglers are armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, and they drive the latest-model Toyota HiLux trucks or Land Cruisers. They are not afraid of clashing with police.

Border police can do little to stop the trade. They are often outgunned, and some of them take bribes from smugglers to let them pass.

Last year, Mulhim Khan, the general in charge of the Herat border police, was arrested by the Iranian authorities in Islam Qala on charges related to drug smuggling. He has since been remanded to Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul, according to Nazir Haidar Zadah, a provincial councillor in Herat.

Khan had allegedly taken some 70,000 dollars from subordinate officers who abetted the drug smuggling, Haidar Zadah said. The case was widely publicised in the Herat media. One colonel recorded a transaction with the general on his mobile phone. Khan did not fight the charges in court and was put in prison.

Still, counternarcotics police in Herat say they are making some headway. Over the last four years, the police have arrested nearly 500 smugglers in Ghoryan. Five of the suspects were children trying to traffic swallowed heroin capsules, said Ahmad Zia Hafezi, head of the provincial counter-narcotics police.

But there is much more to be done. There are still many parents in the province who are missing their children, and there is no shortage of children willing to take the risk.

These days, Mohammad Reza has given up his dreams of easy money, and is studying at the Yar Mohammad Alkozay School in Ghoryan. He can still feel the pain in his stomach, from surgery that cost his family 800 dollars – double what he earned on his smuggling adventure.

Zalmay Barakzai is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.

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