The risks and rewards of smuggling drugs

A story told by Aziz Khan

I was born in Ab Kamari district in the west of Badghis province. When I was ten years old there was a coup d’état that became known as the ‘Saur Revolution’ and my family was forced to leave Afghanistan. We crossed the border into Iran and settled in Zahedan province, living there for four years.

In the mid-1980s, when I was 14 years old, my family returned to Afghanistan. Instead of going back to our ancestral home in Badghis, they settled in the district of Lash Wa Juwayn in Farah province, because it’s a border town and it was close to where we used to live. When we arrived my parents bought livestock and started farming other people’s land.

Most of the residents of this district belonged to the Tajik ethnic group and there were only about 15 to 20 Pashtun families like ours. We were discriminated against, and the Tajiks did not treat us well. Despite all of this, we lived there for 12 years.

Then one day, a member of my extended family invited me to visit him. He had just bought some land and built a home in the Kang district of Nimruz province. His newly built house was in a village located on the border with Iran. I stayed with him for one night, and I noticed that people could cross the border between Afghanistan and Iran freely. They brought fuel from Iran and sold it in Afghanistan.

I returned to Lash Wa Juwayn and convinced my brothers and other relatives that we too should move to Kang district. Fifteen households agreed and we all moved together. In the first few years in our new home, I rented a house and paid 2,000 Toman [50 US cents] per month. As soon as I arrived, I bought 100 sheep, which I later sold at a profit. With that money, which came to about ten million Toman [US$2,380] at the time, I started importing fuel. In return I took rice, glasses, sewing machines and irons to Iran.

My life was set. I earned a lot of money from the fuel trade. I bought myself two jeribs of land [one acre]. The price per jareb was five million Toman [US$1,190]. I built a house on this land that cost me 100,000 Toman [US$24].

Life under the mujahideen

In the 1980s, life under the communist regime and the mujahideen was not easy. The mujahideen [an alliance of more than seven Islamist political parties] were fighting against the central government in Kabul.

We couldn’t go to government-controlled areas because they were forcing young men to join the army. There were also restrictions on travel by the mujahideen. It was very difficult to transport commercial goods on the roads because there were so many checkpoints and all of them were asking for money. They called it ‘tax.’ No one helped our areas during the resistance.

People were left to fend for themselves. That’s why I had to join one of the mujahideen groups. I was a mujahid for eight years, working with the Hezb-i-Islami party

Taliban rule

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, I was in our village, in Kang district. All mujahideen commanders and foot soldiers escaped to Iran [or chose civilian lives] because the Taliban outlawed all political parties.

The Taliban did little to help ordinary people. Instead they were collecting money from locals in the name of ‘Ushr’ [a 10{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} tax on the harvests of irrigated and rain-watered land and 5{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} on land dependent on well water]. There were no non-governmental organisations for people to turn to for help, so we relied on each other [our extended families] for support. But, what the Taliban did do for us was provide security.

Another noticeable change we saw was that the border between Afghanistan and Iran was open for everyone and drugs were freely traded in the bazaars in Afghanistan.

It was very easy to take them to Iran because there were no restrictions. Life for ordinary people that I knew in Kang district – including women – was good because they were all engaged in a business of some sort such as the import and export of machinery, textile, food supplies, fuel and much more.

We had choices. Some people chose to trade commercial goods across the border, some were busy harvesting their land and keeping livestock, while others started buying drugs in Afghanistan and selling them across the border in Iran. Smuggling drugs to Iran was the work of a very limited number of people.

For me personally, agricultural work was not lucrative. It did not make much profit. I didn’t trade drugs either because I was actually earning more money from importing and distributing fuel.

During the last years of the Taliban regime (1995–2001), the only people who were involved in the drug trade in Kang district were from Helmand. Those men rented some properties with big yards to store the drugs while waiting to make the journey across the border to Iran. They used donkeys to transport large quantities at night. In those days the Iranian border guards were not very strict – who would bother to search thousands of donkeys every night?


After the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, our lives genuinely started to change.

We felt secure. We saw significant improvements in health, education, reconstruction, freedoms, the lives of women and people’s personal wealth.

There were a lot of different development projects. For the first time, solar panels were installed to provide electricity.

Solar panel system in village in Kang district
Solar panel system in a village in Kang district

We began to have clean drinking water through the pipe system [instead of rivers, streams, wells, boreholes and traditional ponds that we previously used]. There was a big push to clean the canals. Roads and streets in villages were covered with gravel. Livestock vaccination campaigns arrived to remote areas. Farmers were given improved seeds and fertilisers [that were adapted to Afghan conditions]. Village halls were constructed so that communities could gather for shuras [assemblies].

We witnessed positive change in local and national politics. Elections were held at the local and national levels. Both men and women nominated themselves for seats at the provincial councils and parliament. Everyone, including women, voted in the presidential elections.

The lives of women were transformed. They went back to school to finish their education. They started to have jobs as teachers, doctors, midwives and so on. People’s incomes increased and so they moved from the villages and districts to the provincial capitals. There, they had better employment opportunities. Some worked as shopkeepers, others were traders, and some had jobs in the government.

‘Iranian wall’

Our good days were short lived. In 2009, Iran confirmed that it would build a wall on the border with Afghanistan. As a result, by the last years of Hamid Karzai’s administration, our lives had started to deteriorate. The people who were once busy in cross-border trade were now jobless.

More than half of the people in my district, Kang, were forced to emigrate to Iran or had to move to the city of Zaranj. I would guess that 90{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of those who stayed behind in the district and villages started trading drugs because all other work stopped and it was the only thing that people could still do.

Like many others, I was out of work. It was hard, as I’m the head of a family with 13 members. So, I began to smuggle opium.

I had 500,000 Pakistani rupees [US$3,000] saved up. I took that money and went to the Bakwa district in Farah province, where there were open opium bazaars/markets on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On my first trip there, I bought ten kilograms of opium and asked a neighbour of mine to take it to my house.

When Iran built the border wall, it was not just us on the Afghan side who suffered the loss of income and livelihood. The people I previously traded with, in the fuel business, on the Iranian side were also out of work. So, I got in touch with a Baluch colleague from my previous work and asked him if he’d be willing to join me in the drug trade. He agreed. I would send him drugs four times a month and he would sell them. I made 30–40,000 Iranian tomans a month [US$7–10]. Over time I increased the amount of opium I was buying, going from 10 kilograms to 60 kilograms. The Iranian toman was valuable then so I was making a good profit. My capital reached 40 lakhs Pakistani rupees [US$25,000]. I had a very happy life.

Because the border wall was still being constructed and there were intense controls, I didn’t use people to transport my supplies to my partner in Iran. Instead, the wall had holes in various places and I would place the drugs in those holes at night and my partner on the other side would collect it. Then he would place my share of the profit for collection the next evening. Only when the wall was fully built, did I hire people from the village whom I trusted to transport the drugs to my partner in Iran.

There are three ways to smuggle drugs to Iran. First, you find Iranian border guards and convince them to go into business with you – you pay them bribes and they turn a blind eye to your activities. Second, you and your partner agree to use the wall – you put up a ladder, place the drugs on the barbed wire on the wall and your partner, on the other side, collects it. Third, you use a catapult.

This business is not as simple as it sounds, though. In 2015, one of my transporters was arrested by Iranian border police. The price of one kilogram of opium back then was 20,000 Pakistani rupees [US$122], so when he was arrested with all the supplies, I suffered a huge loss.

Border wall at Kang district
Border wall at Kang district, and Iranian border police check point. Photo by OSDR

A group of transporters, made up of two to five people, has to pay officials at the National Directorate of Security, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the district governor and security commander up to 80,000 toman [US$20] per month each [Transporting drugs across the border is not possible without the cooperation of local officials]. If you use the catapult then you need to pay the person from whose yard you launch the drugs, the person who receives it and the person who stores it for you until it’s reached its destination. The landowner’s rate is between 2–3,000 tomans [US$0.5–0.7] per kilogram and the person who stores it charges 5,000 toman [US$1.25] per kilogram.

There is also the cost of transporters. The fare from Bakwa in Farah province to Kang district, in Nimruz province is 200 Pakistan rupees [US$1.20]. To take opium from Kang in Afghanistan to Zahedan in Iran, transporters charge between 350,000 to 450,000 Iranian toman [US$83–107]. The price for one kilogram of heroin and crystal meth is 1.5 million toman [US$357]. Three years ago, an Iranian trader asked us for supplies. He said he needed to smuggle 2,000 kilograms of opium into Iran. He was able to smuggle this amount through the gates – known as Burjaks – that were built 1 kilometre apart in the wall. He had an insider there. I gave him 30 kilograms of goods but the transporter was stopped at the gate and the Iranian border police confiscated it all. Luckily, all the men involved managed to escape. I believe the insider had played us. I suffered a huge loss.

After that incident, I was left with no capital. I asked my suppliers in Bakwa, Farah (the place with opium bazaars) to allow me to make payments by instalment so I could continue the trade. They agreed and I was able not only to keep myself afloat but make a profit too. Things were going so well that I built four rooms on my land and bought six cars. Three of those cars were for transporting passengers. One of the cars was mainly for my village and community. I was responsible for petrol and maintenance, but the villagers and the community used it whenever needed.


I had a happy life. Then one day, a contact of mine from the fuel trading days who was based in Iran called me. He said I should send drugs so his son could sell them in Iran because he needed to make a living. I accepted the request. We agreed that I would send his son opium six to seven times a month. We went into partnership. I supplied the drugs, his son sold it and sent me my share of the money.

Within a few months of our deal, I sent him 90 million tomans’ [US$18,000] worth of drugs. He sold it but didn’t send me my share of the profit. I went to ask my friend about his son and my share of the profit, only to be told that he had left home and was nowhere to be found.

I invited elders for a gathering to convince his father to pay me back, but his son was unwilling to cooperate or appear before the elders and his father said he had nothing to give me. My problem was that I was dealing with him in a foreign country. I couldn’t put in a formal complaint, with Iranian government officials, because then I would have been arrested too. So, the case is still not solved and I’m yet to recover my money.

Now, I have a debt of 5 lakhs [US$3,000]. I owe this to the suppliers in Bakwa, Farah. When I didn’t pay the money on time, they complained to the Taliban who called me to their court, in Bakwa district. They asked me why I wasn’t paying my suppliers and when I explained the reason, they put me in jail for five days.

I stopped trading opium two years ago because I don’t have any capital and there are restrictions on the border with Iran so it’s difficult to transport it. The Afghan authorities too have stepped up their fight on drugs. In addition, the traders in Bakwa have become stricter about lending goods because they don’t trust people anymore. The other issue is that I am afraid I may get further indebted and suffer further losses. Currency fluctuation was another major problem for many of us to continue the trade. We bought opium in Pakistani rupees, but we sold it in Iranian toman, which is losing its value by the day.

My family knew

My wife, brothers and father all knew that I was trading drugs. I didn’t tell my daughters and sons, though.

I started trading opium because there was nothing else to do. This became common employment for people in my district. When the border with Iran was open, people rarely felt the need to smuggle drugs. It was only when they lost their livelihoods and were pushed to poverty that more and more people started trading.

Since the wall was built, even the people-trafficking business has stopped. Some 300 to 400 young Afghans used to travel through our district every month. So, the end of the people trafficking trade had knock-on effects on other businesses.

People’s lives and livelihoods have been affected by corruption, the stricter Iranian border controls, a growing lack of personal safety and security. Many locals started to turn to the Taliban for solutions.

My life and the lives of most of my fellow villagers depended on cross-border trade but everything came to an end when they built the wall.

At the age of 52, I’m a father to 11 children. I have to support them. Drug smuggling has many risks, such as imprisonment and death, but high rewards too.

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