PANJI POYON, Tajikistan (Reuters) - Tajik soldiers squint through the sun and dust at the slowly approaching silhouette of an Afghan truck rumbling across a river bridge.
“Documents! What’s your cargo?” barks one as the heavily loaded truck pulls over at a control point on the river Panj which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
In a trailer nearby, a customs official leafs through papers as Afghan drivers wait outside in the shadow of their trucks. A swallow swoops in and settles in a nest above his head.
This desolate outpost, where Russian troops once guarded the Soviet empire’s southern frontier, is now on the front line of the global fight against drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the world’s biggest heroin producer.
Almost two decades after Tajikistan’s independence from Soviet rule in 1991, diplomats and drugs experts say the poor Muslim country may be fighting a battle it cannot win as corruption seeps deeper into society.
Western powers worry that drugs-related corruption may undermine stability in this tiny but strategic country whose calm is key to Western efforts to build law and order in Afghanistan.
“It’s something that’s definitely frightening,” said a senior Western diplomat in Tajikistan who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The system itself has become incompetent, alarmingly so. That money is funding further corruption. Laws have no power here.”
With treacherous terrain, leaky borders and lawlessness inherited from the 1992-1997 civil war, Tajikistan is a haven for drug smuggling from Afghanistan, which produced a record 8,200 tonnes of opium last year.
With an increase in illicit poppy cultivation of 17 percent in 2007, Afghanistan accounts for 93 percent of the total illegal global market in opiates, the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board said in its annual report in March.
Tajikistan says it seizes 60 percent of drugs passing through its territory. Diplomats say the figure is closer to 10 percent.
From checkpoints such as Panji Poyon in Tajikistan’s blazing deserts to the gorges of the Pamir mountains, heroin is spirited across the 1,340-km (835-mile) border with Afghanistan and shipped to Europe along the ancient silk routes of Central Asia.
The government says it is doing everything it can to prevent officials from taking their own cut from the lucrative trade.
“We are not hiding this. It’s a disgrace. But we are working on it,” said Rustam Nazarov, head of Tajikistan’s state Drug Control Agency, adding that two of his subordinates were arrested in connection with illicit narcotics trade in 2007.
Tajikistan says it needs more Western help.
“We would like to see more attention,” said Nazarov, adding that assistance with equipment supplies and law enforcement training were the priorities.
Although Tajikistan has been calm since the end of the war, in which about 100,000 people were killed, its economy is shattered and its utilities are crumbling. Now, high food prices have increased the misery for its 7 million people.
Gross domestic product grew by 3.2 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2008, compared with 7.8 percent growth in 2007. Consumer prices rose nearly 20 percent last year.
At the main Panji Poyon border post between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, one border guard said it was impossible to check every passing car for drugs without proper screening equipment.
“Just look where we work. It’s a shame to show this to anyone,” he said pointing at the dilapidated facilities.
Tajikistan is already working with the European Union, the United States and the United Nations on border management. The Panji Poyon unit is due to move to a U.S.-built customs facility nearby this month as part of this cooperation.
Despite some improvements, many parts of the frontier are still largely unmanned or patrolled by soldiers who earn a meager $10 to $30 a month, said Christer Brannerud, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Tajikistan.
“Let’s say, he (a soldier) suddenly comes across an Afghan drug courier with 50 kilos (110 lb) of drugs. And the Afghan guy pushes over $200. How can this boy resist it?” he said.
“Corruption is never acceptable. But it’s understandable.”
Tajikistan is ranked 150th out of 180 countries in corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2007 index — sandwiched between Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.
A kilogram of heroin sells for about $800 on the black market in Afghanistan, while the price is $50,000 in Russia and as much as $300,000 in Western Europe, according to Tajik police. The average monthly wage in Tajikistan is about $50.
Drug runners employ all means available. Some stash drugs in trucks carrying vegetables, some risk their lives by swallowing heroin packaged in condoms. Others use inflatable dinghies to cross the Panj river at the dead of night.
Western powers, while pledging more help, say it is up to the Tajiks to use loans and donor funds more efficiently. Some cited a dispute with the International Monetary Fund in April when the global lender ordered Tajikistan to repay about $48 million for “misreporting” its loans data.
“We’ve all got an interest in ... making sure it doesn’t become a failed state,” said another Western ambassador in Tajikistan. “But you are hard pushed to see policies being actually implemented.”
Drug money in Afghanistan, devastated by a decade of Soviet occupation and civil war, feeds both the Taliban insurgency and official corruption.
The drugs trade is financing a violent shadow economy in Tajikistan, which has otherwise failed to lure foreign investment.
In the capital Dushanbe, mud-brick huts and crumbling Soviet-era buildings stand side-by-side with extravagant mansions, while luxury cars cruise down potholed streets.
“There are not many other ways you can make corrupt earnings in this country. And drugs would appear to be an easy one,” said the Western ambassador who asked not to be identified.
In late May, the government sent a police unit to besiege the house of a suspected drugs lord in Kulyab, south of Dushanbe. Three people were killed after a 12-hour siege.
Some suspect heroin flows through Tajikistan have increased since 2005 when thousands of Russian troops withdrew from the frontier at Tajikistan’s request, part of its efforts to break free from its former Soviet overlord.
Showcasing their efforts, police burnt about $20 million worth of seized drugs in a huge bonfire in Dushanbe in May.
“Of course there are rogue officials,” said Jumabai Malikov, a senior officer, as the flames of the fire lit up his face. “But we have to clean it up. And that will bring honesty.”
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile