Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ukraine: At The Center Of The East-West Drug Trade

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) agents this month netted 174 kilograms of heroin in a raid conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Turkish law-enforcement organizations.

Bags of poppy straw, used to make heroin, confiscated along the Ukraine-Russia border.

The haul was the latest sign that Ukraine is increasingly being used as a transit country for illegal drugs -- both for synthetic drugs making their way from Europe, and for Afghan heroin heading west.

The problem recently led the SBU to issue a statement in which it expressed its concern about Ukraine's rising role in the world of drug trafficking, including the production of drugs and "the more intensive involvement of Ukrainian nationals."

Record Hauls

The 174-kilo stash was seized on July 23 in Illichevsk, where it was discovered in the false bottom of a truck that had arrived at a southwestern Ukrainian port by ferry from Georgia.

Investigators believe the heroin was being smuggled from Iran to Western Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Poland.

A Turkish national who was driving the truck was arrested following the seizure, which was described by a spokesman for the SBU as "one of the largest hauls this year," according to RIA Novosti.

That catch came just two months another major heroin shipment was appropriated -- this time 114 kilograms netted in central Kyiv as a Turkish national was loading the drugs into an automobile.

An SBU official said in announcing the action on May 23 that it was the third and final phase of an international operation to destroy a criminal group that was transporting heroin to Europe.

That raid followed the announcement in April by the SBU that an international ring trafficking drugs from Western Europe to Ukraine had been broken up.

Four people from different parts of Ukraine were detained in that operation, which yielded $200,000 worth of ecstasy, cocaine, and amphetamines and led to the interception of a larger haul of 4,000 ecstasy tabs and 1 kilogram of amphetamines in Western Europe, according to Unian.

And in February, SBU, DEA, and Turkish police officials raided a house in a small village in southern Ukraine's Kherson region, where they discovered a laboratory for refining opium into heroin, along with precursor chemicals used in the process.

At the scene they arrested the driver of a minibus carrying 124 kilos of heroin destined for markets in the European Union, as well as a Turkish citizen who was charged with drug smuggling.

All in all, Ukraine's Security Service this year has confiscated more than 460 kilograms of heroin worth $32 million -- more than the total amount of heroin seized in Ukraine in the past 15 years.

By comparison, according to statistics released by the Ukrainian government just 3.7 kilograms of heroin were confiscated by Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies in 1997; in 1999, 6 kilograms were seized; and in 2001, 12 kilograms.

And while the SBU boasts of having closed nine channels for drug smuggling via Ukraine already in 2007, it is widely believed that the amount of heroin captured represents only a fraction of the amount that reaches its final destination.

According to a report prepared for the U.S. Justice Department, for instance, the estimated amount of heroin trafficked via Ukraine in 2001 was 9 to 20 metric tons.

Why Ukraine?

A number of factors appear to dictate why drug smugglers have chosen Ukraine as a popular trafficking route.

One can be found in the vast stretches of unguarded borders between Ukraine and Russia, from which illegal drugs deriving from Central and South Asia and trafficked via the Caucasus can enter the country.

Another is the largely unprotected Black Sea coastline, which provides a safe haven for boats laden with illegal drugs to dock undetected.

And the high level of corruption among Ukraine's Customs Service also plays a vital role in Ukraine's east-west drug-trafficking trade.

Smugglers, taking advantage of border crossings known to be "safe" as a result of lax security, or arrangements with corrupt inspectors, focus on those entry and exit points.

Lastly, increased vigilance by law-enforcement along the traditional "Balkan route" has led traffickers to find new routes -- making Ukraine a natural choice owing to its borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova to the West, and Russia on the east.

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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