Outlaws: Heroin — An Itinerary

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Tracing the path from opium poppy fields in Afghanistan to a port in the UK, this itinerary of sorts tabulates the cost of a kilo of heroin at each stage of manufacture and distribution.

Preparation: $350-400 a liter

Acetic anhydride is purchased at the market in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there is no legitimate use for the precursor chemical, nor are there any laboratories where it can be manufactured. It must be smuggled in, often from Western Europe through Turkey.

In farmland in the Nad Ali District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, farmers — often paid in advance by traffickers — cultivate their opium.

The opium is then brought to a heroin processing facility in Dishu District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan where it is refined into morphine base. Then, using the acetic anhydride purchased earlier, the morphine base is converted to heroin.

Local transport: $2,000-2,500 a kilo

Depart: Helmand Province, Afghanistan (overland)
Arrive: Nimroz Province, Afghanistan

After its packaging in large quantities for ease of transport, the heroin travels by truck to the neighboring province of Nimroz with ease, as air and sea transport at this stage are not an option. Local criminal authorities also ease the passage of product at this stage, and provincial governors and provincial governments are easily negotiated, the bribes a pittance compared to the profit resulting from the volume of traffic at this stage.

Border crossing: $3,000 a kilo

Depart: Nimroz Province, Afghanistan (overland)
Arrive: Balochistan Province, Pakistan

Because the high mountainous terrain on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border renders the territory, for all intents and purposes, ungovernable, traveling overland, by truck or smaller vehicle, is preferred at this stage.

Division: $5,000 a kilo

Depart: Balochistan Province, Pakistan (overland)
Arrive: Azarbaycan-e-Khavari Province, Eastern Islamic Republic of Iran

In Iran, the heroin is divided into smaller quantities, majority of consignment sent westward through a variety of smaller criminal organizations, many of them ethnically homogenous. The fragmentation of the shipments compensates for the smallness of the border in rendering opportunities for seizures by Turkish border authorities difficult.

Transfer to Europe: $8,000 a kilo

Depart: Azarbaycan-e-Khavari Province, Eastern Islamic Republic of Iran (overland)
Arrive: Hakkari District, Turkey

The markup between the price of wholesale heroin here and wholesale heroin at the next stop due to the increased security of the border, Turkey serving as the primary gateway to Western Europe. The Iranian criminal groups moving the heroin from the Iran-Pakistan border to the Iran-Turkey border generally stand to pocket US$450-600 per year.

Transport to destination markets: $10,300-11,800 a kilo

Depart: Hakkari District, Turkey (overland)
Arrive: Istanbul, Turkey

As the drugs reach their destination market, the wholesale price increases exponentially. Some of the heroin travels to Greece and, from there, is ferried to Italy, but much of it travels via regular motorways through Istanbul and central Anatolian cities.

Depart: Istanbul, Turkey (overland)
Arrive: Edirne, Turkey

The drugs reach the Turkey-Bulgaria border town sometimes by way of empty passenger bus. Royal Tours Company passenger buses, traveling under guise of tourist pickup, pass through the Kapikule border gate laden with illicit cargo.

Shipment: $20,700 a kilo

Depart: Edirne, Turkey (overland)
Arrive: Sofia, Bulgaria

A single truck shipment of heroin at this stage will consist of 1,400 packages stuffed alongside other cargo such as electronic appliances. Albanian groups generally purchase from Turkish wholesalers and, then, handle the large consignments along the Balkan route to their destination markets. Other local groups indigenous to South-Eastern Europe may be contacted as transportation professionals contracted for specific jobs but do not necessarily make up a part of the group who owns the drugs. Traditionally, lorries have been the transport method of choice, but traffickers have increasingly turned to private vehicles.

Balkan route transfer: $28,600 a kilo

Depart: Sofia, Bulgaria (overland)
Arrive: Belgrade, Serbia

The traditional ‘Balkan route’ that has, for decades, been the primary route of heroin traffic, a route made more attractive by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, which rendered the borders almost non-existent. Now, the converse is happening where the Balkan nations seek to establish a EU-style mini-Schengen dynamic easing official traffic across their own borders. Once parceled into smaller shipments, heroin enters Serbia by way of the Kalotina/Gradinje crossing, one of the main trade arteries to and from Serbia, sometimes as little as 22 kilos in a single car.

Storage and repackaging: $21,000 a kilo

Depart: Belgrade, Serbia (overland)
Arrive: Bajakovo Border Crossing, Croatia

Croatia, along with Kosovo and other Balkan countries is a storage point for the heroin. The consignments are held here in warehouses where the smaller shipments of heroin are adulterated, reconsolidated and repackaged.

TIR lorry: $35,600 a kilo

Depart: Zagreb, Croatia (overland)
Arrive: Leipzig, Germany

In a single year, as many as five million vehicles travel the Balkan route, making it difficult for German border authorities to effectively target and suppress trafficking efforts. Transport Routier International (TIR) lorries operate according to an international customs system and, for tax purposes, are exempt from normal custom controls, an obvious choice of transport for heroin traffickers.

Redistribution in Europe: $24,700

Depart: Leipzig, Germany (overland)
Arrive: Port of Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The Netherlands serves as the primary redistribution center for Western Europe, from which heroin makes its way to Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Here, it is stockpiled, then prepared for redistribution.

Overseas distribution: $45,500 a kilo

Depart: Port of Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (commercial shipping)
Arrive: Port of Tilbury, Essex, UK

Alongside foodstuffs or appliances, in containers that may be mislabeled or erroneously catalogued when they enter the port, the heroin arrives in the UK.

Featured photo from the UK Ministry of Defence.

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