Heroin's trail from poppy fields to the West
Landi Kotal, Pakistan — Here, where the fierce Afghan tribes once armed themselves against Her Majesty's legions and where today they prepare themselves against Soviet tanks, guns are no longer the only business in town. Recently, this enduring smuggler's marketplace has also become the world's hottest boom-town of the heroin trade, and a major nemesis of government drug agents throughout the Western world.
Ravi Hazim (not his real name) is an Afridi Pathan tribesman and a local heroin entrepreneur. A heavy-set man, Ravi Hazim speaks in the way of most of his brethren: vociferously, and with much arm waving. He wonders what all the fuss is about. ''People want the heroin and they pay well, my friend,'' he notes with a shrug of his shoulders and a toss of his open palms. ''So I provide it.''
Scratching his unshaven face, Ravi Hazim continues: ''I must take care of my family, which is very large. This is accepted by my people.'' He is only dimly aware that others, outsiders not from the tribal areas, regard his trade as not only illegal, but also immoral. Indeed, he even expresses some pride in his work.
''Only the very best heroin is what I make,'' he adds. ''I would never cheat a man. I am Pathan.''
This reporter first encountered Ravi Hazim at his ''bathtub'' heroin laboratory on the outskirts of town. Concealed inside a 12-foot-high mud-walled compound, the laboratory was approached through a heavy iron door that guarded the open-air courtyard facility. There, as Ravi Hazim reluctantly agreed to an impromptu tour, the scope of the operation was revealed: Laid out neatly upon the bare earthen floor were three rows of buckets, each containing a heated 30 -kilogram solution of opium and water mixed with lime.
Half a dozen young men and boys, most of them relatives of Ravi Hazim, were working in the stifling heat. Pouring the opium liquid into a dozen buckets here , filtering the leached morphine base-residue out of a dozen others there, the boys appeared tired. It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, so the religiously inclined were fasting during the day despite the terrible heat.
The manufacturing process follows a predictable cycle. Every three days or so , Ravi Hazim and his employees drain off the morphine sulfate residue from each bucket. When mixed with a hydrochloride compound, the morphine base from each bucket will produce approximately 21/2 kilos of pure heroin. Incredibly, the youths were observed mixing the morphine base with the hydrochloride in wheelbarrows, using shovels, such are the quantities involved.
Ravi Hazim's makeshift laboratory contained 28 buckets of opium, and therefore, he explained, he could produce 140 kilos of pure heroin a week - or about 7 metric tons (7,000 kilos) of heroin annually. This is roughly twice the entire annual heroin consumption of the United States or of Europe. And, according to knowledgeable local sources, this laboratory was only one of two dozen or so major operations in the tribal areas, and not the biggest one at that.
The scene presented an incongruity as immense as the jagged mountains that rose in the distance behind the laboratory compound. On a rug in the corner of the compound sat a wizened old man, supposedly a mullah, pressing his forehead to the ground and praying to his God. Beside him, not three feet away, lay seven straw mats, each containing approximately five kilos of pure injectable heroin.
As the mullah finished with his prayers, he noticed this reporter taking photographs. Shouting in rage, he ordered the youthful lab employees to confiscate the film, and this they did - except, that is, for one small roll hastily palmed during a brief scuffle.
''We cannot allow this,'' the mullah screamed. ''We cannot allow pictures here, or else Muslims will get a bad name.''
Obviously, neither Ravi Hazim nor the mullah are completely unaware of how outsiders regard their trade. But for both of them, trying to survive in a tribal milieu where the average life expectancy is 39 years and per capita annual income hovers around $185, the brownish-white heroin powder is principally seen as a means to a better life. They seemed unable to follow their enterprise in its twisted but discernable path all the way to some tenement basement in New York or Detroit, where a teen-ager lies crumpled, addicted, and perhaps dying on a heap of rags. (The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimates there are between 450,000 and 600,000 heroin addicts in the US.) Humanity in Ravi Hazim's harsh environment is entirely a tribal affair.
Even those traffickers with some sense that their handiwork supplies whole armies of the walking wounded in the West weigh that realization against the overwhelming profits involved. Indeed, some of these tribal operators have become absurdly wealthy, although this is not always apparent from their dress or their living conditions. After all, as one veteran Western reporter familiar with the local drug scene put it, how many video cassette recorders and color TVs can one put in a mud hut in the mountains?
In Ravi Hazim's case, one doesn't need a college education to handle the financial arithmetic. He pays $40 to $50 per kilogram to the grower of raw opium , and out of 12 kilos or so he nets one kilo of pure heroin at a production cost of perhaps $500. If it is the high quality heroin taken by injection rather than simply smoking grade quality, he will sell it for about $7,000 per kilo, or maybe a little less in multiple-kilo lots. (The smoking grade heroin may sell for as little as $2,000 per kilo, according to a US drug enforcement agent.)
Ravi Hazim thus makes money - he certainly could not earn this much in any other endeavor - the really large profits are realized in geometric increments further down the Khyber trail to the West. That same kilo of pure heroin that Ravi Hazim sells for about $7,000 will wholesale a week or so later in Europe for $40,000 to $60,000; in the United States, again wholesale, it will fetch between $200,000 and $250,000.
At that point, the really serious profit-taking is only just getting started. Distributors in the West often dilute the pure heroin to a powder barely 3 to 5 percent pure and sell that in half gram packets for $30 or $40 each. In the end, therefore, Ravi Hazim's $7,000 kilo of heroin may gross somewhere between $2 million and $4 million on the street.
Personal profit, oddly enough, is not the sole motivation for everyone engaged in the narcotics trafficking. For more than a year, unconfirmed reports have circulated suggesting that some factions of the guerrilla mujahideen battling Soviet occupation forces next door in Afghanistan are themselves involved in heroin smuggling. While this reporter found no direct evidence of rebel involvement, local townspeople insisted that this was, in fact, the case.
''Some mujahideen take the heroin to India and sell it; some sell it here in Pakistan,'' stated the owner of a Toyota auto parts shop in Landi Kotal. ''They need the money to buy guns so they can fight the Russians.''
Ravi Hazim conceded that, ''Perhaps a few mujahideen will buy the heroin, but not often. It is not a good idea to talk about this.''
As for guerrilla spokesmen themselves, most denied any mujahideen involvement in heroin production or smuggling. A few key officials, however, did admit that some rebel parties - not their own, of course - occasionally trafficked in the narcotic for political reasons.
''They try to poison the Russians with it,'' observed a key figure in one of the better-known rebel groups, who insisted on anonymity. ''They sell hashish and opium mostly, but now also heroin to the Russian soldiers in exchange for guns and to poison their spirit.''
This is not as far-fetched as it might at first sound. There have been consistent reports of hashish and even narcotics use by Soviet troops from a variety of Western and Eastern sources. And this reporter was told personally by Russian prisoners of war interviewed earlier this year that a drug abuse problem does, in fact, exist in the Red Army and that it is growing.
Whatever the reasons, the evidence seems to suggest that rebel involvement in heroin trafficking is peripheral. The principal operators are a network of Pathan tribal entrepreneurs, who sell to sometimes socially powerful Pakistanis, who in turn smuggle the narcotic to Europe, where organized crime picks it up for distribution throughout the major cities of Europe and the United States.
Where a decade ago there was only the French Connection, today there are the French, Italian, German, and American connections all feeding off the unsophisticated - but suddenly influential - Khyber Connection.
Next: What happens when drug agents move in to close down the Khyber heroin trail to the West at its source? Sometimes it nearly leads to war.