How Heroin Travels

About 85% of the world’s heroin comes from poppy cultivated in Afghanistan–a near global monopoly.  In turn, about 80% of Afghan-poppy derived heroin travels along a similar route to western Europe. 

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime calls this the “Balkan Route.” It flows from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey to the Balkans, where it gets slit up to various destinations in Western Europe.  (Lower set of purple arrows, below).

That’s from the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2010, which contains a fascinating explanation about how this route operates. First, the drugs market fluctuates widely along this trail.  The report says that 1 kg of heroin in Afghanistan can fetch $2,000-$2,500. But once that heroin reaches the Af/Pak border, the price increases to $3,000. At the Iran-Afghan border 1 kg of heroin will fetch you $5,000.   As you can see from the map, Iran—>Turkey is the first major transit route for Europe-bound heroin. At the border, the price per kg jumps by 60%, to $8,000 a kg.

Turkey and Iran are also the last places where big drug seizures occur, in part because the shipments get broken down to into smaller units.  According to UNDOC, in 2008 the 11 countries of south-eastern Europe siezed about 2.8 metric tons of heroin. That compares to over 15 metric tons seized in Turkey and 32 mt seized in Iran.

Still, most shipments make it through to Europe.  After Turkey, the first stop is usually Bulgaria. There, it flows to other Balkan countries and heroin traffic via the Balkans, with the majority of the supply entering Germany and the Netherlands. From there, it is trafficked to major markets in Spain, the UK and France. 

According to the report, the four top national markets in Europe account for 60% of all European heroin consumption. They are: The UK (21%), Italy (20%), France (11%) and Germany (8%). 

So who is doing the trafficking? According to the report it is mostly-ethnic based organized criminal groups (like Kurds and Azeris along the Iranian-Turkish region and Albanians in the Balkans).  In the destination countries, though, you get a fairly wide mix of traffickers.


And in the UK:

The security effects of this trade are enormous. It goes without saying that having a large, illicit drug trade in Afghanistan is a major barrier to stability there.  But also think on this: the combined GDP of Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania is about $20 billion — that is equivalent to the value of the entire western European heroin market.  Corruption, destroyed lives, and empowered organized criminal groups are all consequences of the Afghan heroin trade.