Junk pipeline — Mechanism of largest drug cartel in ex-Soviet countries
Tons of heroin are secretly being transferred across the southern border of Russia, bringing the business owners tens of millions of dollars. The list of heroes, villains, and plot twists in this story makes for a decent HBO show.
GQ correspondent Maxim Solopov conducted an investigation to find out how the largest drug cartel in the post-Soviet countries works.
The water in Dubai is too cold in January, yet the air is warm enough - above +15 ° C. At this time of the year, tourists tend to relax in the pools, which every hotel has in abundance. A 35-year old investigator from the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), Major Renat Kuramshin was staying at one of such hotels in the winter of 2013. White shirt, pants, shoes worth € 50 - the young major was little different from any other graduate of a Law Faculty. He grew up in Tambov, moved to Moscow immediately after graduation, and 15 years later was already questioning couriers with country’s largest heroin consignments in his office in Starosadsky Lane (creaky parquet, photos of foreign colleagues on the walls). In fact, Kuramshin, who was suffering from a terrible cold, was the first FSKN employee, who flew to the United Arab Emirates on a business trip. Until that, no official contacts existed between the law enforcement agencies of Russia and UAE. The most recent notable occasion for cooperation was the assassination of the Hero of Russia in Dubai, Sulim Yamadayev. Local police suspected another decorated Russian citizen of the murder, a State Duma member from Chechnya, Adam Delimkhanov. In the end, the situation was settled within the framework of Islamic law, after the relatives of the deceased had withdrawn their claims.
Kuramshin was lying in the hotel room, trying to recall how he spent the whole month before the New Year to prepare for the most important trip of his career. He was to take Atobek Gulamadov, who had been detained by the Dubai police, to Russia. Tajik citizen, fluent in Russian, had a law degree and a taste for expensive European cloth brands. FSKN expected Gulamadov to become their chief guide into the largest post-Soviet drug cartel, which supplied Afghan heroin into Russia.
"A ton," smiling mouth full of gold teeth, a stocky 40-year-old Tajik Abdullokh says. Wearing sports pants, a faded T-shirt, and rubber shoes, he looks more like a decent migrant worker in the eyes of an average Muscovite, than a delivery guys, who is transferring goods worth $ 50 thousand in a backpack. Weight measures are those few words in his speech in Farsi, which the Russian people can understand without translation. We met up with him on the bridge through a mountain river near the village in the vicinity of Dushanbe. There is nobody else in Tajikistan willing to speak about drug trafficking, not even local journalists and law enforcement officials. The Agency for Drug Control under the President of Tajikistan, too, refused to communicate, handing with apologies a departmental magazine about the results of the year 2015. Abdullokh, who also does not mention his real name, is one of the few who agreed to talk.
Sometimes, a tranche of 100 kilograms of Afghan heroin comes with a small bag of amphetamine; law enforcers left it for Foreign Ministry to solve the riddle of how Atobek Gulmamadov had obtained valid passports in different names.
From 1993 to the early 2000s, until he was arrested, Abdullo had been making his bread by carrying 20 kilos of heroin in his backpack through a snowy mountain pass. Following the mountain trails, he bypassed security forces posts, receiving a thousand dollars for each delivered batch of heroin. Routes were not always easy: once he even had to spend the night in the snow under the open sky, for security reasons. To hold out until the morning and to avoid being frozen in a glacier along with all the heroin, he had to dig a hole in the snow and set a fire, including from his own clothes. The ton Abdullokh was speaking of is the approximate weight of all heroin he had transferred through the border areas between Afghanistan and Kirgizstan in seven years. In the 90s, drug trafficking became almost the only way to feed their families for a lot of men in the villages. Abdullokh’s earning were considered huge for village residents.
But something went wrong: a roundup, then ten years in a penal colony of strict regime. It was pointless to ask the employers for help — Abdullokh would have had to work not only to cover the expense for bribes to law enforcement officers, but also the cost of the lost package. Instead, he chose to serve his sentence.
The former delivery guys is confident that he was put under the bus by his employers' competitors.
Abdullok smiles upon hearing the name Boym and nods his head. "I have worked with Boym, too," he says. Anyone who is familiar with the topic of Afghan heroin traffic in the post-Soviet territories knows about Boym.
This moniker in Tajikistan is for Ibragim Safarov, a legendary personality, like the local Pablo Escobar.
Buzzcut, strong shoulders, chin held up high, and confident look — Safarova was referred to as the Night President of Tajikistan. In the 90s, he gave up the career of internal troops officer for drug trafficking. By the early 2000s, Safarov was already gifting cars to Tajik Interior Ministry leadership, and building restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, and private residences in his homeland.
He is now serving a 19-year term in the Krasnoyarsk region. His business could not remain without a master. A new cartel came to replace Boym, and Major Kurmashin arrived in Dubai for its member, Atobek Gulmamadov.
Most of the heroin crosses the border in sealed packages like these
Dzhurabek Boimurodov became the leader of the new cartel. In the seven years of its existence, the cartel’s turnover reached $ 42 million (this is only what the investigators who delved into economic schemes of his cartel were able to count). A native of Tajikistan with soft features and a large attentive eyes appeared in St. Petersburg in 1997. He explained his departure from the country by some "problems with militants" from his past service in the Special Forces. That is why he claimed to have moved to Russia, where he sold heroin in small batches via his own channels. At the beginning of the 2000s, he met with Ibragim (Boym) Safarov met. Boym, who agreed to help "the guys from St. Petersburg" in establishing distribution channels in Moscow, did not even suspect that he was helping his future successor to become the CIS drug overlord.
In fact, both Boimurodov and Safarov were detained together in Moscow — law enforcers grabbed both drug dealers near the Aeroport metro station, but a day later Boimurodov was released. It seems like it was done in exchange for testimony against Boym. Whether it was true or not, the liberated Boimurodov acted swiftly: he appropriated a 150-kilo batch of heroin, of which only his arrested colleague knew, resold the product to unknown distributors, and then disappeared in Tajikistan. Rumor has it that there he quickly registered some of Safarov’s property on himself and in less than two years acquired all of his precursor’s connections to Afghan suppliers and distributors in major Russian cities for himself.
Investigators know that the name of the chief supplier of the cartel is Tojiddin. "In phone conversations Boimurodov has always addressed him as a superior. When he was talking to this Afghan, he always went into another room or put on headphones and concealed what they were talking about. Boimurodov spoke to him in the Tajik language, from which I concluded that Tojiddin should be an ethnic Tajik (there are almost more of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan - GQ)," one of the gang members close to the leader told at the interrogation. Tojiddin is known to be capable of organizing the delivery of high quality heroin from the Afghanistan to Tajikistan in batches of up to one ton, priced at $ 4 500-5 000 per kilo.
In Afghanistan, the purchase of the drug from manufacturers is two or even three times cheaper, ranging from $ 1 500 to $ 2 000. By trusting Boimurodov, his suppliers give him hundreds of kilograms of heroin on trust for marketing.
Boimurodov built his drug cartel as a corporation. It had quality control, logistics, even accounting department. In Dushanbe, he had trained heroin users who tested the drug on themselves. If they were satisfied with the quality, the heroin was transferred for analysis to the chemist, who taught at one of the local universities.
Boimurodov even developed new rules of work for drug traffickers. Various small groups were engaged in smuggling in areas assigned to them, or wholesale trade in a particular region. The less they knew about the others, the better. For example, a delivery guy once transported 30 kilos of heroin just to pass them to another intermediary on the St. Petersburg-Moscow interstate, but for that he received 600 thousand rubles. He knew nothing about the final point of delivery. At one time, drugs were transported on expensive cars like Infiniti M37h, BMW X5, Mazda6 or Chrysler Grand Voyager, the other — on cheap Volkswagen Passat, Citroën C4 and old Audi 100, Chevrolet Lacetti, or VAZ-2114.
Drug couriers know every crack of the car where they can hide the goods
But when it came really large batches, nothing could beat off-road vehicles like BMW X5: vacuum packages with heroin can be hidden in the gas tank or put in the cavity of the rear axle of the machine. When border patrol officers install modern X-ray equipment, the smugglers do the same and compress heroin down to the desired density, so that it merged with parts of the vehicle body. The boxes with onion can include small bags that look just like onion bulbs. There may even be a tiny bag hidden inside every dried fruit, since the drug dealers are not shy to purchase special equipment for such purposes. No dog can find a well-hidden heroin, but sometimes, having bribed some people at the border, couriers are testing the batches with these service dogs.
Rail transport is considered more safe and reliable, but also often requires additional coordination with officials of local railways. In such cases, drugs are carried by train conductors coming from Tajikistan through Uzbekistan to Russia. Sometimes the drugs travel hidden in freight cars, including with fruit and vegetables, and sometimes — in technical cavities of passenger trains formed in Central Asia. Heroin batches can be packaged in thin compressed briquettes, which are sealed in cavities of boxes made specifically for transporting melons. For this technology, the drug dealers can afford to buy an industrial line for their production. Another way to hide the drugs in the train is to place sealed plastic bottles into tanks with drinking water, and then, before the train reaches its destination, drain the water with the bottles at the agreed point in the route.
Taking into account the transportation expenses, a kilogram of heroin imported in Russia could increase in price up to $ 7 000-8 000. Members of Boimurodov’s gang responsible for the logistics have always decided what transport will deliver heroin faster and easier, depending on the situation.
Sometimes a car has to be taken apart for law enforcers to find all batches of heroin
In Russia, the smugglers unload batches of 100 to 300 kilos in logistic nodes, which can be apartments, garages, registered on straw men, hiding places in the gardens or even on the paid parking lots. From there the heroin flows on to wholesalers for $ 13 000 per kilo.
If some of the links has a shortage, the cartel can arrange transfer of heroin from one warehouse to another. For these purposes there are special proxies, which Tajik call chovandoz (meaning, "racers"). When some difficulties emerge, they head to any point of Russia and transfer a batch of heroin from one wholesaler to another in a day or two.
Boimurodov had also introduced a system of liability for each consignment of drugs, the one Abdullokh told me about. Loss of heroin, regardless of the reasons, shall be refunded by the responsible person in full, including the cost of the drug and the costs incurred for its transportation and storage. This way members of the group turned into debtors, dependent on Boimurodov and his proxies. You could leave the business only after full settlement with the leaders. In 2007, Boimurodov accused one of his partners in the loss of 100 kilos of heroin, confiscated by the police. The accused had his house in Tajikistan taken, and was forced to leave the country for good.
Boimurodov handled his competitors without mittens. In 2008, he decided to gain control of the dealer network that belonged to a Tajik named Nurali. Boimurodov agreed with him for the supply of 35 kilograms of heroin from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Nurali paid $ 15 000 for every kilogram. When the courier moved from one city to the other, Boimurodov called a familiar cop. The terrified delivery guys gave $ 100 000 to policemen to let him go, and only then learned that instead of heroin the packages contained flour.
There is a video on YouTube featuring a popular Tajik singer Parviz Nazarov. He sings about something on the background of skyscrapers of Dubai, and then comes a motorcade with a white Porsche Cayenne. On the back seat we see a dark-haired man in a white shirt and trousers. The guards accompany him to the hotel for a meeting with an Arab sheikh. Sitting on the leather sofas, they nod to approve the transaction: the sheikh takes a huge diamond for his girldfriend, and the seller receives two suitcases full of dollars. In the apartment, the brunette takes the gift from the rich Arab, and then drops an effervescent tablet into his glass of champagne. The naive Sheikh rapidly loses consciousness, while the girl picks up her treasure and runs away with the seller. Once the evil Sheikh awakes, he discovers that the couple has long been wanted by the FBI for similar scams. Putting all the cash in a Louis Vuitton bag, Bonnie and Clyde leave in Parviz Nazarov’s convertible sports car, after a shootout with the security guards. This clip was filmed in 2010, starring Umed Alidodov. Federal Drug Control Service believes him to be the chief treasurer in Boimurodov’s drug cartel. Umed Alidodov is a former professional football player from FC Rustar in Dubai, in which Russian-speaking residents of the Emirates contest in the amateur league. Among other players there were businessmen, embassy employees, and airline workers. Umed met with Boimurodov in 2007, when the latter decided to move to the UAE, because in native Tajikistan, security services started paying too much attention to his activities. The leader entrusted his sibling Saydali with doing business. He also inherited some 30 apartments and five houses.
1. Boym, also known as Ibragim Safarov — Tajik Pablo Escobar. 2. Dzhurabek Boimurodov replaced Boym as the chief CIS drug lord. 3. Makhmadi Kadyrov is responsible for packing and storage of heroin in Tajikistan. 4. Makhmadlatif Musoev oversees drug trafficking in vehicles. 5. Shodi Gulyamonsirov controlled distribution of heroin batches in Samara. 6. The cartel’s treasurer Umed Alidodov played football with diplomats in UAE and starred in music videos. 7. The person who controlled delivery of drugs in the Moscow suburbs is known as Sher. 8. Makhsatullo Aliev supervised deliveries in St. Petersburg
Alidodov developed an ideal payment system for Boimurodov. Calculations were carried out at all stages simultaneously with drugs transportation. Special people in Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for them. Most often they used underground money transfer systems organized on the principle of a hawala known in the Islamic world. This simple system has existed for centuries in the Middle East: the payer brings cash to the point of reception, receives a receipt with a digital code, transmits the password to the recipient, and the latter comes to the point of issue in another state where he names a call code and takes the required amount of cash from the reserves available there. In Russia, the hawala points can be found at large markets.
With Boimurodov, heroin buyers paid in two stages. First, $ 13 000 per kilogram were transferred to Tajikistan or the UAE. Then funds were accumulated on bank accounts of front men, controlled by Alidodov. Boimurodov used this money to pay for the services of smugglers and covered all of the cartel’s expenses. The second part of the sum went for payments to the cartel’s affiliates and their superiors.
By the end of the 2000s, it turned out that every large batch of heroin seized in Russia belonged not to some abstract drug traffickers and smugglers, but to Boimurudov’s strong network led by actual top managers. The Federal Drug Control Service called this system of drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia "the Northern Route," but investigators called it "junk pipeline." Investigators needed only one person to cut off the flow of heroin to Russia, and Atobek Gulmamadov was finally found in Dubai.
Echoes of War
The five-year Atobek, youngest in the Gulmamadov family, was playing with his brothers in the lost Pamir village Sist somewhere near the old ruby mine, close to the border with Afghanistan, when in January 1980, soldiers of the 860th separate motorized rifle regiment entered the nearest regional center Ishkashim. In winter, the temperature in these places drops to -25 ° C. The aim of the Soviet soldiers who landed here was to boost the border river Panj in cold weather and block the Wakhan Corridor — a small ledge in Afghanistan between Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. This way the rebels who fought against the established government in Kabul, received the support of arms and volunteers.
This was how Gulmamadovs met with war, which would kill 224 soldiers from the 860th regiment in nine years, cause the USSR to eventually collapse, and force the rebels to follow the example of the anti-communist guerrillas in Laos in 1960-1970 and use heroin production for funding their military needs. Gradually, the flour-like powder will take Afghanistan under control, more than the USSR, the Taliban, or the NATO forces ever could.
For Soviet soldiers, the Afghan war ended in 1989. At the same time, Tajikistan was only starting to face its internal political strife and ethnic cleansings, which later grew into a real civil war.
Between the two wars, Gulmamadov graduated from high school and tried to enter the agricultural college, but was called up for military service. After demobilization, he decided to leave the devastated and still troubled Tajikistan and move to Moscow. Here, the future main witness in the case of the largest drug cartel in the post-Soviet space was a laborer in the ZIL factory, but then moved to St. Petersburg. There he worked in the Turkish construction company that erected the Goznak factory. At the same time, the native of Tajikistan received off-campus law degree in the Luga branch of Leningrad State University. Gulmamadov defended his diploma in 2003. Around the same time, he became disillusioned with the possibility for a migrants to legally earn money for a decent life, and met with Boimurodov.
Educated, witty, with a good outlook and life experience, Gulmamadov found the drug lord at the right moment, when the boss took over Boym’s entire business empire. For several years, Gulmamadov managed Boimurodov’s entire business in St. Petersburg. Gulmamadov’s position within the group was from the highest, yet he was more than successful by the standards of poor Tajikistan. Before his arrest, he managed to acquire four apartments in St. Petersburg, two in Tajikistan, and another in the UAE. He also purchased a few Mercedes cars, a Lexus, and an Infiniti.
First problems appeared in the fall of 2008, when Gulmamadov’s relative was caught with 37 kilos of heroin in St. Petersburg. Only six months later did the investigators learn that the batch belonged to Gulmamadov. By that time, he had several Tajik and Russian passports on other people's names and rarely visited Russia. He even managed to receive Russian citizenship twice. Both times he was given a new and absolutely legal passport in the Russian Embassy in Dushanbe. The first one was in his real name, and the second — in the fictional one, which was stated in his second Tajik passport.
Major Renat Kuramshin knew that it was impossible to get to Boimurodov’s cartel without Gulmamadov’s help, and the owner of fake passports was difficult to catch. But the young major succeeded, though thanks to the help of his friends from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Interpol, and the security services of Kazakhstan and Belarus. This was neither easy, nor quick, but it happened all the same: all of Gulmamadov’s passports were found, only formalities were left — to send a request for the detention to the UAE police along with the data on all of his passports.
On December 24, 2012, Atobek Gulmamadov was detained in his Dubai apartment. On January 28, Kuramshin and his colleagues flew to Dubai to pick up the caught Gulmamadov, who had so much to tell.
Gulmamadov had only two options, and the Dubai police explained everything to him before the arrival of the Russian colleagues: he could either stand trial in the United Arab Emirates, where he could face almost a death penalty for drug dealing, or to go to Moscow, where he would at least be allowed to see his relatives in prison. Gulmamadov wasted no time. "Well, finally we have you!" Kuramshin smiled, meeting the person he chased round the globe for. Gulmamadov was in no mood for jokes though, everyone flew back to Moscow in silence.
Atobek Gulmamadov was charged under several articles, including the smuggling of 260 kilograms of heroin. Through his testimony, investigators put together more than 40 criminal cases into one, and by the end of 2015, the heroin confiscated for the investigation reached over a ton.
Dzhurabek Boimurodov and Umed Alidodov, as well as other top managers of the cartel, remain at large. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
Major Renat Kuramshin is no longer working in the Federal Drug Control Service. On June 1, 2016, the agency was abolished by decree of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The criminal case he investigated was transferred under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
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