Ghoryan, Afghanistan — As a district, Ghoryan is largely unremarkable. It sits 40 minutes west of the bustling city of Herat and about 60 kilometres from the border with Iran. There is a simple market centred around one main roundabout. Most of its 86,000 residents have spent time as refugees or workers in neighbouring Iran.
Like much of Afghanistan, the district is also home to thousands of men, women and children suffering from addictions to various narcotics: hashish, opium, heroin and more recently, crystal methamphetamine.
Inside the mud, brick and concrete houses lying along its many unpaved roads is a booming secret trade that residents say puts food on the tables of more than 68,000 people at a time when unemployment in Afghanistan has reached 40 percent.
Over the last four years, Ghoryan has become one of the hubs for the production and trafficking of crystal meth in Afghanistan.
Largely shielded from the airstrikes both coalition and Afghan forces have launched on so-called ‘drug labs’ across a dozen southern, eastern and western provinces, tens of thousands of Ghoryan residents have embraced crystal meth as a lucrative source of economic empowerment.
“Ghoryan is a poor, dusty, remote district no one pays attention to,” a local leader, who has been accused of taking part in the trade, says when explaining how his district has been able to largely evade the attention of officials in Kabul and Herat.
Ahmad, a spry, inconspicuous man in his forties, has been involved in the meth trade since it first took off in 2014. Each month, he stands to make thousands of dollars by facilitating the production and trafficking of the highly addictive stimulant that is fast coming to surpass heroin as the drug of choice in western and southern regions.
“It’s a complex, precise chemical process, but over the years, everyone has learned enough to take part in at least part of the process,” Ahmad says.
Though he insists that it takes a team of at least five people working over a period of a week to produce enough meth to sell, Ahmad admits that hundreds of households in Ghoryan have started using basic kitchen supplies and over-the-counter antihistamines to claim their stake in the trade.
As in the West, residents use everyday pharmaceuticals, namely Panadol CF, a cold and flu medicine, to extract the Pseudoephedrine — referred to locally as ‘Chemical F’ — that is essential to the production of methamphetamines.
The local leader, who refused to be identified, said the medicine is so essential to the process that local drug mafias have been known to pay upwards of $20 for a single Panadol CF pill in times of shortage. Even in the most high-end pharmacy chains of Kabul, a pack of 10 sells for the equivalent of 26 cents.
The local leader recalls a rumour last year that the elusive ‘Chemical F’ could be found in certain strand of grass.
“Overnight you saw hundreds of men and women rushing to scour the fields for this magic grass, it was an unbelievable sight,” he says.
Sources speaking to TRT World said the rest of the chemicals, including acetone, anhydrous ammonia (a fertiliser), lye, sulphuric acid, lithium and toluene (used in paint thinners and TNT) come from neighbouring Iran, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan.
Ahmad and the local leader said that over the years the flow of crystal meth has reversed. In the beginning, the drug itself was trafficked in from Iran as a new high to replace heroin, which itself began as an Iranian import a decade ago.
As time went on and the value of the Iranian rial continued to fall, Iranian and Afghan drug mafias began to realise it was cheaper to produce the drug in Afghanistan and move it back to Iran and Turkey.
Troubles in the local economy have also led to the meth boom in Ghoryan.
Residents in Ghoryan say their district is home to some of the highest-quality saffron in the country — which Kabul and its international partners had hoped would serve as a viable alternative to opium-poppy production in the country — but over the last two years, that market has taken a hit due to the illegal importation of cheaper Iranian-made saffron.
Recognising the impact on local markets, President Ashraf Ghani officially banned the importation of Iranian saffron in October. But it’s not just Iranian saffron that has turned people to crystal meth.
Every month, thousands of Afghans return from Iran, either due to falling rial prices or as a result of deportation, and the drug trade provides a valuable income source for the returnees and deportees.
Ahmad said drug mafias were quick to take advantage of this situation and began to farm out parts of the process to local households. In a country, where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day, a single household in Ghoryan can make nearly $400 a month from helping in the production process or storing the chemical compounds necessary for production.
The local leader said 80 percent of Ghoryan households are now involved in some stage of the process. This represents a major increase from the 30 or 40 households that residents said were initially involved in the process.
Still, as with the production of hashish and opium, it is the mafias, not farmers and local residents, who stand to gain the most from the meth trade.
“In the beginning, the ‘cooks’ tried to make the process sound more involved than it actually was so that they could demand more money, but people eventually realised it doesn’t take much and tried to make it in their homes,” said the local leader.
However, as with the meth labs in the Midwestern United States, people in Ghoryan quickly learned how dangerous the trade can be.
Ahmad said there have been reports of at least three or four people dying when the chemical reactions went awry. Dozens more have been disfigured by fires and explosions caused by the chemicals.
“People don’t realise they’re dealing with acids and that once something acidic catches fire the flames spread quickly,” said Ahmad.
Malek is one of the hundreds of people who realised how difficult the production process actually is. To an outsider, the 36-year-old, tall, grizzly bear of a man is an imposing presence, but his broad frame and stubby fingers proved a hindrance to the delicate chemistry involved.
After years of watching others in Iran and Afghanistan cook the meth, he set out to learn how to do it himself. But it wasn’t nearly as easy as he had thought.
“I needed the money … so I tried it in Iran and in Afghanistan, but I kept fumbling and nearly set fire to so many places. I finally had to accept that this wasn’t for me and gave up,” said Malek, who battled addiction to various narcotics for more than two decades.
Having seen the process from beginning to end, Malek balks at government claims that meth and other drugs are produced in ‘drug labs’.
“These are just rooms in simple houses with some pots, pans, beakers, mixers and other basic items used to mix and steam basic pharmaceuticals, nothing else,” he explains.
The dangers faced by people like Malek led the ‘cooks’ - who were either trained during their time in Iran or by Iranians who came to the provinces of Farah, Helmand and Herat - to standardise the process by building teams that they would oversee.
Ahmad said this role — similar to a chef in a professional kitchen — made the ‘cooks’ so invaluable to drug mafias that they can now demand a share of the profits from the sale of the drugs.
With the production sorted out, the mafias quickly turned to trafficking. To do this, Ahmad said they used local drivers who haul goods in the back of trucks to traffick the drugs across the border into Iran, much as they have been doing with heroin and opium over the decades.
However, Iran’s strict anti-drug policies — last month, Iranian authorities seized more than six tonnes of heroin — mean the drivers demand top dollar for their services. A single driver can make upwards of $400 for each batch they successfully transport across the border.
Ahmad says $400 is pittance for drug mafias who stand to make more than $4,600 from each kilo trafficked into Iran.
US President Donald Trump’s threats of re-imposing crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic may also end up working in narcotics traffickers’ favour. In a recent speech, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani warned that renewed sanctions could put a dent in Tehran’s efforts to battle the regional narcotics trade.
“We spend $800 million a year to fight drugs which ensures the health of nations stretching from Eastern Europe to the American West and North Africa to West Asia. Imagine what a disaster there would be if there is a breach in the dam,” Rouhani said in a televised statement.
The effects of the crystal meth boom are already being felt in Afghanistan itself.
Noor Ahmad Arab, who runs a series of local, non-governmental drug treatment centres across Herat province said 90 percent of the addicts he treats now are suffering from crystal meth addiction.
Last month, police in Kabul arrested a single suspect with more than 1,700 kilos of crystal meth in the Afghan capital. There have even been reports of crystal meth seizures as far away as Badakhshan, a remote, mountainous province on the border with Tajikistan.
Arab, who treats addicts in Herat, says that unlike heroin, hashish and opium, which were mainly introduced to Afghans working on Iranian construction sites to alleviate the pains associated with manual labour, meth is a rich man’s drug.
“Meth is used recreationally for enjoyment, especially for its effects on the sex drive, so it’s an entirely different clientele from other drugs,” says Arab.
Herat is currently home to 60,000 to 70,000 of the nation’s 3.6 million drug addicts, and each day more and more of them are turning to crystal meth as their drug of choice.
Residents in Herat said the involvement of local authorities and security forces in the drug trade are only furthering the difficulties in addressing the local drug trade.
One resident, who did not wish to be identified, said he could map out each police checkpoint in the city where police are either involved directly in the sale and transport of narcotics, or turn a blind eye.
In October, a parliamentary candidate from Ghoryan was disqualified two days prior to the election, residents say it was because of his involvement in the drug trade. Last year, the Herat Airport police chief was arrested on charges of narcotics smuggling.
The local leader agrees that officials and security forces have enabled these mafias.
“These aren’t simple smugglers, these are some of the richest, most powerful people in the country. They are Afghanistan’s real international businessmen,” he says.
In the end, the local leader’s guard puts it quite simply: “This is Herat, look around you, it’s everywhere. If someone isn’t growing or cooking drugs, they’re transporting it or pushing it on an addict.”