ASHGABAT -- Residents of Turkmenistan are praising the government's efforts against illegal drugs, though analysts are warning that the scourge may return.
"I'm not crazy about many things [Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov] does, but I'm very grateful to him for ridding our country of drugs and protecting the nation... from decline and extinction," said Nuryagdy Cherkezov, a resident of Tejen.
Cherkezov's own family experience gave him a firsthand understanding of the havoc caused by drug addiction in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Two of Cherkezov's sons died from drug overdoses before the age of 20. His daughter married a drug addict and gave birth to two children with disabilities.
Tejen, the oasis city in Akhal Province where Cherkezov lives, was once known for drugs in the Soviet era and for growing opium poppy.
"When the Soviet Union fell apart, Tejen and all of Turkmenistan were overrun with Afghan raw opium and then heroin, too. Drugs were sold like sunflower seeds on every street corner," Cherkezov recalled.
"The most frightening thing was that [former Turkmen President Saparmurat] Niyazov prohibited the police from arresting people who had a few grammes of this poison if it was meant to be used to cure their own ailments," he added.
Niyazov was president from 1991 to 2006.
Statistics on present-day addiction and drug crime are not available in the secretive country.
Winning the war on drugs
Merdan N., a former criminal intelligence investigator with the State Illegal Drug Control Service, cited four factors that helped crush the illegal drug trade.
Berdymukhamedov "did much to secure the border with Afghanistan, where a sizable portion of the world's drugs are produced, and with Iran, which is a staging ground in the transit of Afghan heroin. This helped to significantly curtail the flow of drugs into the country," Merdan said.
At the same time, he said, authorities stepped up efforts to eradicate poppy crops inside the country and prosecuted individuals growing outlawed crops.
Raids under the code name "Poppy" destroyed tens of thousands of hemp and opium poppy plants, and hundreds of "drug farmers" went to prison, he said. Tougher penalties for selling, transporting and storing drugs backed up those efforts.
"When everyone understood that this was a zero-tolerance war on drugs and that there would be neither clemency nor parole for selling drugs, nor humanitarian pardons, the volume of illegal trafficking of raw opium, heroin, cannabis and marijuana started to drop," Merdan said.
"And of course, credit in winning the war on drugs goes to the people who worked in the special state agency that the government created in 2008," he added, referring to the State Illegal Drug Control Service.
In 2013, the agency was renamed the State Service for the Protection of Healthy Society. Berdymukhamedov dissolved it in 2016, after deciding that it had accomplished everything it was assigned to do. He transferred its anti-drug mission to other law enforcement agencies.
"During the eight years when our former state agency was active, more than 5,000 major drug dealers were prosecuted, and investigations revealed that many of them had their own protectors in Interior and National Security ministries and in the Prosecutor General's Office," Merdan said.
"Because our agency reported directly to the president, not a single drug dealer who had 'cover' evaded responsibility," he added.
Cause for concern
However, some observers are raising concerns about a resurgence of drug addiction in the country.
"Drugs are again becoming a serious social problem in Turkmenistan," Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an emigre publication based in Austria, reported on March 16.
"The so-called chars [or charas] and atom are the most widely spread substances," said the report, referring to drugs made from cannabis and Afghan heroin, respectively.
A single dose of chars costs 25-40 TMT ($7-$11), while a dose of atom costs 60 TMT ($17), according to the site.
Drugs have now begun to enter Turkmenistan not directly from Afghanistan or Iran but through third countries such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, via the seaport of Turkmenbashi, confirmed Merdan the ex-investigator.
Perpetrators of international terrorism, who derive income from drugs, human trafficking and weapons trafficking, are still trying to flood Turkmenistan with drugs, he said.
"According to my information, in late February a shipping container with a large consignment of drugs was discovered by chance at the Turkmenbashi seaport, but for some reason the information about [this drug seizure] was classified," Merdan said.