Despite the continuous efforts of governments around the globe to stop the illicit heroin trade, this dirty business remains as profitable as ever. Interestingly enough, most of the narcotics originate from just a handful of countries where cultivation is endemic.
Refined heroin sold to addicts in cities from Moscow to Los Angeles is the final product in the long supply line that starts in the remote areas of third-world countries and goes through well-defined international routes. Opium poppy farmers, whose efforts make the entire operation possible, usually get paid only a tiny fraction of the total proceeds, with most of the profits going into the pockets of high-level traffickers and intermediaries. The entire chain is extremely criminalized and violence is used routinely by the gangsters and law enforcement agencies alike.
A vast majority of street heroin comes in one of the few countries that feature large-scale production capacities. Each of them faces a unique set of challenges that deserves some closer attention:
This part of the world was well-known for opium production for centuries, but political and economic conditions recently conspired to push this trade to unprecedented levels. For the past 15 years, the conflict ridden country has absolutely dominated global manufacturing of heroin base, accounting for 75-90% of total supply of drugs to the rest of the planet. Absence of strong central government and abject poverty of a good chunk of the rural population provide plenty of motivation to engage in this activity, while there is no shortage of gangs and armed groups willing to purchase raw opium paste and transport it to neighbouring countries.
U.S. presence in the country did nothing to reverse the trend and may have even unintentionally contributed to the significant increase of production capacities by complicating the relations between the government in Kabul and people in the distant provinces where the Taliban and other extremist groups still hold a lot of sway and use heroin money to fund their military readiness.
Laos, Thailand and Burma are all located within the so called ‘Golden Triangle’, a region of Southeastern Asia infamous as a source of heroin, and all have a history of drug production. In recent years, Myanmar has overtaken its neighbors and claimed the number two spot in the world, although total output of the entire region doesn’t come anywhere near the recent Afghan levels. Burmese smack still finds its way around the world and feeds the supply networks from North America to Australia – in 2012 the value of locally produced drugs was estimated at more than $US350 million.
With a military junta in control of the government for more than 50 years, corruption became the rule rather than an exception, creating ideal conditions for flourishing of the profitable trade in opium and heroin. While Myanmar is currently undergoing a period of democratic transition, it might take some time before institutions are able to bring this crisis under control. Major production areas are typically very poor and it would be hard to expect farmers to drop their only source of income without receiving some form of assistance.
Aside from the fact that it is a major transit station for smuggling of heroin from Afghanistan and Iran into Europe, Turkey also has its own areas under opium poppy. The continuity of this business is rather long-standing, while poppy seeds have traditionally been used as food and animal fodder. Turkish opium is refined into heroin in numerous facilities that serve to process the incoming Afghan goods, before being sold locally or smuggled westward.
Despite very stringent anti-drug laws and strategic police activities, financial incentives seem to be too great for this practice to die out. Rumors of indirect (or even direct) state involvement in the trafficking business are persistent over the past few decades, with several high-profile scandals supporting this theory. Kurdistan Worker Party, an insurgent group fighting against the government for independence of the Kurdish minority, is also believed to draw much of its funding through the drug trade.
While Mexican drug cartels are infamous around the world for their brutality and wealth, they are most typically associated with trafficking of marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines. That view might be outdated, as the channels used for inserting huge amounts of other drugs into the United States are now repurposed to allow exportation of heroin made from locally grown natural precursors. As the result of this development, the price of heroin in large American cites is going down, while the number of addicts is growing rapidly.
The reason why the production could be ramped up so quickly is that many farmers already have a lot of experience with marijuana growing, so they were able to make the switch relatively effortlessly. Vast funding available from drug barons also plays a role, helping to bribe local authorities and protect the merchandise from theft or confiscation. The efforts of the central government and the DEA to keep the cartels in check have not been very successful so far, and have resulted in a massive wave of violence that ravaged several provinces.
When you look at the map of Asia, you’ll notice that India is located right in between the two largest poppy-growing regions, so it is to be expected that opium is abundant and popular there. In fact, the subcontinent has been a source of opium for the neighboring China in the 19th century (and much before), when Britain went to war to force the Chinese to continue importing it. Opiates are deeply ingrained into the local culture and can be obtained with ease at prices even lower than in the surrounding South-East Asian countries.
It is a little known fact that India is the top global producer of natural opiates for use in the medical industry. Some of the legal poppy fields are leaking a part of their harvest into the underground channels, helping to supply a large number of domestic addicts. According to some reports, Indian-made heroin is also occasionally sold to foreign markets, transported through land routes or smuggled on commercial flights.
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