Data on global drug use show disappointing trends as the UN World Drug Report 2018 recorded gigantic rates of drug trafficking growth worldwide. Experts say this market is comparable to that of hydrocarbons. Amounting to nearly $800 billion, it remains one of the world’s most profitable “businesses”.

The consumption of so-called soft drugs is being sharply reduced, giving way to heavy narcotics. Since 2016, the annual production of cocaine has increased by 60%, to about 2,000 tonnes, heroin — by 65% (some 450 tonnes). The scale of drug use on some continents has already reached an epidemic level: North America and Europe are long-time “addicts,” while Asia and Africa are catching up.

Most injecting drug users live in Russia, the U.S., and China. Traditionally, China and India take up a 15% share (due to the proximity of the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos) and have little to no effect on global-scale drug trafficking. The U.S. remains the main importer and consumer of “coke” (here, stable figures for drug use over the 12 months are comparable to the annual education budget, standing at $60–70 billion). The rapid growth of drug consumption in Russia deserves particular attention as in recent years, the demand for heavy drugs there has grown fourfold(!). In monetary terms, it has reached a record $90 billion, or over 110 tonnes. Russia is also a definite world leader in heroin consumption with a share of 25%.

The specialization of drug-producing countries has long been known. Afghanistan has been in a firm lead in opiates’ production (about 94%), Latin American countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) top the list in cocaine production. The United States and European countries receive cocaine and heroin mainly from Latin America. Colombian cocaine is being transported to Africa — to oil-exporting countries. Afghan heroin via different routes flows across Eurasia, but since Russia has become one of the largest cocaine users in recent years, the Northern route has recently become the most “effective” one.

The report by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs notes that the development of this route is facilitated by an easy procedure for goods’ crossing into Russia through “transparent” borders with countries (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) that are part of Moscow-led Eurasian integration associations and where the highest level corruption is observed. In Russia, many smaller branches of drug trails operate: some of them go to Belarus, the Baltic States and further to Europe (mainly to the Netherlands and Germany), another part goes through the Caspian and Black Seas to Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, and France, while the third part of routes is directed eastwards, toward China. At the same time, alternative routes — “Balkan” (via Iran and Turkey to Europe) and “Southern” (via Pakistan to India) — are gradually losing their significance: Iran and Pakistan are extremely unreliable transit countries as local authorities seize more drugs annually than the rest of the world (180–250 tonnes).

According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, as a result of the tremendous increase in supplies from Afghanistan, heroin and other opioids are rapidly replacing other drugs.

The increasing rates of drug use suggest a well-established trafficking system. Until recently, no significant changes were observed in international drug trafficking: there used to be a tacit agreement between Russian suppliers of heroin and their cocaine “colleagues” from the U.S.: Americans don’t stick their nose into the Central Asian heroin transit, while Russians stay out of cocaine routes. These agreements were respected until 2012–2013, until one of the players denounced the long-standing deals, completely redrawing the world map of drug trafficking.

Currently, more than 90% of Afghan opium enters the consumer countries via Russia, which has firmly taken world leadership in both drug use and transit. But heroin traffic isn’t only “brainchild” of Moscow.

It was the Russian special services that violated the old agreements, redrawing international drug traffic and grabbing the bulk of cocaine supplies, linking with the new routes Latin America to markets in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The evidence of this is the scandal that broke out in Argentina in early 2018 when the police seized a large batch of highest-quality cocaine (400 kg worth EUR 60 million) on the Russian embassy premises in Buenos Aires.

In the embassy’s school building, a cache was set up, monitored 24/7 by CCTV cameras and guarded by Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) officers. The batch was ready to be sent to Russia via diplomatic mail, on board the plane of Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. Obviously, only Russian special services could organize such a reliable channel for delivering large quantities of drugs (by air, bypassing customs), and this couldn’t be done without top government officials being aware of the scheme. Also, it’s only special services who could so promptly eliminate undesirable consequences: several days after the embassy incident, chief advisor with the Latin American Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr P. Polshikov, died of a gunshot wound he had allegedly inflicted on himself. At the same time, the Argentine media published recordings of intercepted communications making it clear that the drug trafficking channel by diplomatic mail to Russia had long been established, while Russia’s highest state officials had been involved in setting it up. Also, media reports said, referring to police sources, that cocaine supplies could have been established through a Russian embassy in Uruguay.

This case is far from unique. In the summer of 2018, in the Belgian city of Ghent, law enforcers revealed a 2-tonne batch of cocaine, estimated at EUR 100 million, in two containers that arrived from Brazil. All packages had… a logo of Russia’s ruling (!) party “United Russia” on them.

In the most recent incident, in February 2019, the authorities of the West African Republic of Cape Verde detained the ESER cargo ship (Panama), on board of which 9.5 tonnes of cocaine was discovered worth $1.5 billion. The ESER was sailing from Panama to Morocco, but it turned out that both the captain and the crew were… Russians.

Three major international headlines telling of the arrest of large batches of drugs within a year, all with Russia’s participation, is more than a serious reason to reflect on what’s going on…

Russia’s activity on the South American continent is not limited to Argentina and Brazil — these channels exist only as a safety net. The main routes originate in Venezuela and Cuba. According to the U.S. Treasury, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his closest ally, Diosdado Cabello, have started exporting large quantities of drugs to Russia through the State Airport of Caracas. Drugs were shipped exclusively by Maduro-controlled military.

Russian opposition’s political scientist S. Belkovsky believes that it’s the export of drugs which is the actual background behind such warm Russian-Venezuelan relations. Russia’s investment in Venezuela’s extraction industry standing at $17 billion and active military cooperation are only a cover for well-established drug trafficking. The expert says the Kremlin’s serious concern about Maduro’s fate is not due some proletarian solidarity… For Russia, Venezuela is the main hub for cocaine transshipment. That is why in the wake of political crisis in the Bolivarian Republic, Moscow is seriously considering restoring military bases in Cuba. The Kremlin also plans to start (practically from scratch) “military cooperation” with Bolivia. The latter, as is known, belongs to the world leaders in coca plantations and is part of the so-called “Golden Crescent” on a par with Colombia and Peru. And why would the country so urgently need Russian fighter jets and helicopters? Incidentally, the terms of the offer are rather favorable, too…

To understand how the drug industry was created, supervised by the Kremlin, it is worth referring to history.

The first Chechen war (1994–1996), launched by Moscow, was not really about maintaining “constitutional order” in the rebellious region, but rather seizing the drug business from the then-leader of the Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev. In 1994, in the suburbs of Grozny, the region’s capital, Dudayev created two ultra-modern (as of that time) drug labs for to process opium. Uninterrupted supply of raw materials from Afghanistan, Thailand, and Vietnam were established to keep the lab running. Chechen warlords would make repeated visits to those countries to “establish business contacts”.

Dudayev had his own squadron, which provided fast and reliable logistics for both the delivery of raw materials and distribution of “processed goods”. “Chechen export” was focused on Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The first Chechen military campaign saw no success. By the beginning of the second war (1999–2009), the “prize fund” had increased significantly: Dudayev’s successor, Shamil Basayev, set up drug industry in Chechnya, which was, among other things, a source of self-financing for separatist gangs. A heroin, hashish and marijuana production factory was operating downtown Grozny (on the premises of School №40). Plantations of Afghan opium poppy and top-grade Indian hemp expanded, so no shortage of raw materials was experienced. Secret runways were laid and an extensive network of delivery routes was established. Drug trafficking has acquired the scale of the continental disaster. It should be noted that the operation to eliminate Basayev in July 2006 was led by the already-mentioned Mr Patrushev (the then-head of the FSB), whose personal plane 12 years later landed in a disgraceful scandal with transportation of heavy drugs in diplomatic mail from Argentina to Moscow. Mr Patrushev is one of the most reliable and loyal friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began his career with the KGB to continue it with the FSB.

Taken under the FSB control, the well-established drug industry in Chechnya had worked safely until 2015, but in 2018 it was practically gone for the following reasons.

First, after Georgia was defeated in the military conflict with Russia in the fall of 2008, the Moscow-controlled Republic of Abkhazia was formed. Through its Black Sea ports, main flows of drugs were set up to Europe and beyond. During this period, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs recorded a sharp increase in the supply of the highest quality Afghan heroin to the U.S. market.

Secondly, another unrecognized “Republic” of Transnistria, controlled by the Kremlin, emerged to become one of the leaders in drug distribution across Eastern Europe.

Thirdly, in May 2018, Moscow put into operation the Kerch Bridge, which connected mainland Russia with Crimea, the peninsula illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. This bridge became the main artery of drug trafficking to the peninsula and the further spread of drugs throughout the world.

In addition, the gradual withdrawal of the ISAF international coalition troops from Afghanistan began in 2011, while in 2014 the U.S. also began to withdraw its contingent, which led to a multiple expansion of opium poppy plantations. Further, factories with a full cycle of distillation, acetylation and purification started working there at full capacity, which allowed setting up exports of first-class heroin via the Northern route.

This led the Chechen “heroin bridgehead” to becoming obsolete — the main channels for delivering drugs to Europe under the FSB control were reoriented to the unrecognized “republics” created by Moscow. For transportation, Russia uses military bases and airfields in all the hot spots created by Putin’s regime: Ossetia, Abkhazia, Serbia, Kosovo, Transnistria, Crimea, Donbas, as well as in countries ruled by dictators friendly to Russia. This allows the Kremlin in case of failure to shift blame and claim, in their usual manner, non-involvement in well-established drug traffic to Europe.

A major political player with a weak economy, Russia strives in every way possible to weaken its stronger partners. Propaganda, corruption, crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism — these are the tools that Russia has been using, with certain success, to destabilize Western democracies and implement own strategic goals. Therefore, Putin’s regime is in dire need of people who couldn’t care less about the observance of some moral principles or involvement in such crimes as looting, violence, murder, etc. It is known that Russian intelligence agencies massively hook up on drugs the militants they supervise. For example, among Russians who are fighting against Ukrainian forces in Donbas, drug addiction scale has led to an actual AIDS epidemic.

Drug trafficking has not only become a huge business, it’s a form of terrorism. After all, those super profits in the field finance all structures involved, as well as organized crime and international terrorism. The Kremlin’s cocaine and opiate business is already having a major impact on global economic and political processes, undermining the basic principles of a civilized society and threatening global security. The lack of decisive action to curb operations in the drug industry set up under Moscow’s patronage leads to a further “contamination” of an increasing number of countries

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Sem Peters