February 16, 2006

Russia illegal trade worth $15 billion a year

By Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's illegal drugs trade has topped
$15 billion a year as criminal groups flood the country with
heroin from Afghanistan, a senior official from the national
drugs control agency said on Thursday.

Drug use has soared since the fall of the Soviet Union,
with Russians becoming major consumers of illegal drugs
trafficked by well-organized gangs, including synthetic drugs
from Europe as well as heroin from Afghanistan.

"In Russia the narcotics business is estimated to be worth
$15 billion a year: some say more, some say less, but it is
actually likely to be bigger," Vladimir Zubrin, deputy director
of the Federal Drugs Control Service, told a news conference.

The estimate, one of the highest yet from a Russian drugs
official, means the illicit drug trade is probably bigger than
the profit made by the country's biggest company, Gazprom,
whose 9-month profit was about $8 billion.

Criminal groups launder the drug money through banks and
financial instruments and then invest in a variety of assets at
home and abroad, Zubrin said.

Opium from the poppy fields of Afghanistan is refined into
heroin and then smuggled through Central Asia to Russia, using
the "northern route" through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and

"The biggest problem for us is the heroin coming from
Afghanistan to Russia," Zubrin said.

"Last year there was another good harvest of opium in
Afghanistan ... and a significant part of that heroin came to
Russia via the northern route."


He said the heroin flows had increased since Russian troops
last year stopped patrolling the 1,340 km (835 mile) border
between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which asked Russia in 2004
to pull out its troops.

Russia started patrolling the border more than 100 years
ago when Tajikistan was a colony of the Russian empire, and
continued doing so after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia's drug agency will also open an office in Kabul this
year, Zubrin said.

Widespread intravenous drug use in Russia has helped the
spread of illnesses like HIV/AIDS and boosted crime rates,
according to drug officials.

The number of drug-related deaths is rising, with about
100,000 deaths from drugs last year, up from 70,000 the year
before, he said.

"This is a scary figure," he said. "Over recent years the
number of deaths from overdoses has sharply increased."

Russia probably has 5-6 million drug users out of a
population of 143.5 million, he said, though the figure could
be larger.

In Afghanistan, one kg of raw opium could fetch $180 last
year, while one kg of heroin costs about $60,000 on the streets
of Moscow. Last year, the drugs agency seized about 1,600
tonnes of heroin, he said.