Down the smack track

The rise of heroin in Africa partly reflects a surge in global supply. As the Taliban has consolidated its hold on parts of Afghanistan, where 85% of the world’s heroin is made, more of the country has been given over to poppies. In 2017 opium production increased by 65% to 10,500 tonnes, the highest recorded by the UNODC since it began collecting data in 2000.

Not only is there more heroin being produced, but a rising share of the crop is being trafficked via Africa. The so-called Balkan route, encompassing Iran, Turkey and south-east Europe, has been the main way of getting heroin to the West. But over the past decade moving drugs along it has become harder, a side-effect of Turkey tightening its borders in response to the war in Syria and European countries’ attempts to keep out refugees. As a result, more of the harvests are being dispatched along the “southern route”.

On this route, sometimes called the “smack track”, heroin is taken from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Makran coast, where shipments are put on dhows, traditional Arabian boats with triangular sails. (Some heroin is also smuggled via containers in larger ships.) Throughout the year, save for the monsoon season, dhows sail south-west through the Indian Ocean before anchoring off Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. Smaller boats collect the contraband, taking it to beaches and coves, or to commercial harbours. From there heroin is taken by land to South Africa and shipped or flown to Europe or America, according to a report by Simone Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. Although it is longer than the Balkan route, the high margins on drug-smuggling more than compensate.

This extract is from our print edition.