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‘Raw Opium’ Explores Mixed Results of Global Efforts to Stem Trafficking

September 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "Raw Opium," filmmakers Robert Lang and Peter Findlay travel to the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan to document the illicit global trade of heroin's raw material. This excerpt is part of The Economist Film Project series of independently produced films aired in partnership between The Economist and the NewsHour.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we go now to another story from our Economist Film Project series.

The film is titled “Raw Opium,” about a substance with the power to both ease pain and destroy lives. Much of the world’s poppy crop used to make heroin is smuggled out of Afghanistan. And in Helmand Province earlier this week, Afghan and coalition troops destroyed more than $350 million worth of opium and heroin.

Filmmakers Robert Lang and Peter Findlay traveled to the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where they followed the difficult job of a United Nations drug enforcement agent.

Here’s an excerpt narrated by John Ralston.

JOHN RALSTON, narrator: It’s a familiar scene on city streets the world over, in London, Moscow, or here in Vancouver’s downtown East Side. This is where you hit rock-bottom. When it comes to opium and the heroin that’s made from it, nothing is exactly what it seems.

The story begins halfway around the world with a plant that has been both a curse and a blessing. The growing network of smuggling routes out of Afghanistan have thwarted efforts to put a lid on the opium trade.

LARRY MENDOSA, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: Well, we focus on high-value targets. We focus on the biggest, the baddest, the largest drug trafficking organizations in Afghanistan and the region.

JOHN RALSTON: The mission for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Larry Mendosa is two-fold: to keep drugs from reaching America’s shores and to stop the Taliban from using opium money to fund their anti-U.S. war. Despite the Americans’ best efforts, 90 percent of Afghan opium and heroin is still smuggled out of the country.

So now the United States has enlisted the support of its allies on the borders of Afghanistan to help supply the manpower for anti-drug operations. In Tajikistan, one of the principal agencies working with the U.S. is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the UNODC.

Career cop Christer Brannerud is the U.N. point man charged with the near-impossible task of helping the Tajiks plug the opium pipeline.

CHRISTER BRANNERUD, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: We have a part of this border which is UNODC-controlled, so to say. Then we have bilateral assistance from the U.S. Another, we have a European commission who also have a border project here, who take a third part of the border.

So the border line has been divided between these three places. And we are trying to support the border guards and reinforce this border outpost as good as we can with the funding we have available.

JOHN RALSTON: Today, Brannerud’s heading out on one of his periodic visits to a U.N.-supported checkpoint.

CHRISTER BRANNERUD: So this task force consists of 45 officers in three groups. And they are reacting on intelligence.

What we are looking for is Afghan visitors, so to say. So, that could be any indicator that this village has been approached by traffickers. We cannot control all the border line, because it’s 1,344 kilometers.

You see young boys there. And they are these guys here, apart from their salary they get, which is everything between $5 up to $20 per month, and, of course, lodgement. They get food and so on. But — so these guys, what you see here, they’re risking their lives for $20. And this is also what I used to ask people in Europe. How many people will change tasks with these boys?

JOHN RALSTON: After 70 years as a remote outpost of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan is now connected through Moscow to a giant network of opium dealing, with spokes radiating out to the drug markets of Europe and the rest of the world.

From the corrupt local cop to the petty bureaucrat on the take, from Afghan smugglers to double-dealing government officials, the money from trafficking pervades life here. Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency has seized $275 million worth of heroin since it was created in 2000, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the drugs flowing through to Moscow and the rest of the world.

It’s all part of the delicate dance of drug enforcement in Tajikistan, just enough to show results, but not too much to rattle the powerful interests.

According to U.N. statistics, about 40 percent of Tajikistan’s economy is drug-related.

GEN. RUSTAM NAZAROV, Tajikistan Drug Control Agency (through translator): I wouldn’t say 40 percent of the Tajik economy is made with drugs. I have not seen that statistic anywhere. Concerning the level of corruption in our agency, I must say that seven former employees have been tried and sentenced for corruption over the course of the 10 years that I have worked here. I think this is a lot. I think the reason these people committed crimes is because of poverty.

CHRISTER BRANNERUD: I’m really sick and tired when I go, for example, to Europe. Going to meetings and so on, and they’re sitting there, pointing fingers, they are blaming, they are shouting, and: What’s going on here?

They sit in a very, very nice environment. They have good salaries. They have infrastructure. They have schools. They have everything. And then they’re just blaming those people here, who are nothing. And the only income for hundreds of thousands of people here are the opium and also this trafficking business.

So, as long as we cannot deal with our own abuse problems in our part of the world, then I think we should be a little bit more humbler before criticizing. As long as we have this huge demand for heroin, not only in the West — we have in China, in Southeast Asia, in the Pacific, Japan, wherever — and as long we cannot deal with it ourselves, then we should be a little bit more balanced in the criticism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Raw Opium” is being screened at film festivals here in the U.S. and abroad. Find a link on our website for a list of dates and cities.

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