The inventive ways traffickers get drugs past Iranian customs

Hazelnuts or cup a soups: just some of the ways that Iranian drug smugglers try to sneak drugs across the border.
Hazelnuts or cup a soups: just some of the ways that Iranian drug smugglers try to sneak drugs across the border.


Iran’s customs department had a bumper year of drug busts in 2016, uncovering 171 cases of secretly trafficked drugs. But traffickers are finding new, original ways to hide the goods: in rugs, sewn into dresses, or even inside watermelons. Iranian customs have started posting photos of the spoils they’ve found on their website and on their Telegram account.

Iran sits on the main thoroughfare of the world’s opium and heroin trade; right between Afghanistan, the biggest opium producer in the world, and Europe, one of the biggest markets.

According to Sadar Ali Mayedi, an Iranian police commander in the country’s anti-narcotics department, 705 tonnes of different drugs were found last year.

The border between Afghanistan and Iran is 900 kilometres long and hard to control. A huge quantity of drugs permeate this border, before passing towards countries with more tightly controlled borders.

Opium found inside hazelnuts. Traffickers crack open the shells, put the opium inside, and then stick them together again. Photo published on Telegram on January 24.

In the cat and mouse game between Iranian customs and traffickers, traffickers are always trying to get one up on border staff by hiding their drugs in more inventive ways. The FRANCE 24 Observers team looked at some of the most recent tricks drug traffickers have used to get through border inspections.

Iranian customs agents found 37 kilograms of crack cocaine in the wheel of a truck in Dogharoon, on the border between Iran and Afghanistan. Published on the Iranian customs Telegram account on January 28.

6 kilos of opium found in an oven at Imam Khomeini International airport — photo published February 16.

About a kilo of opium found in nuts and tea at Imam Khomeini International airport — March 6.

Around 30 kilos of opium discovered in a soft drinks machine — March 9 in Tehran.

Opium found inside some seeds at Imam Khomeini International airport, March 11.

Iranian customs agents found 5,414,000 tramadol pills (an opioid used to treat pain) stuffed in paper cartons in Ganaveh Port in the south of Iran – March 16.

Opium found in toothpaste tubes on the Nordouz border between Iran and Armenia — March 22.

235 grams of methamphetamine found in sunflower seed packets, on the Bazargan border between Iran and Turkey, March 23.

2.8 kilos of opium in sachets of powdered soup in Imam Khomeini International Airport on March 24.

Drugs found in packets of spaghetti on April 30.

61 kilos of meth found inside tubes of glue on May 1 at Imam Khomeini international Airport. It is the biggest meth haul discovered by Iranian customs so far.

Meth hidden amongst sugar cubes – May 4.

168 kilos of opium found in large pots, well hidden inside the ceramic. Found in Tehran, May 31.

On June 5, Iranian custom staff found opium stuffed into tinned food and nappies.

Illegal drugs found in toothpaste tubes on the border between Iran and Armenia. March 22.

Shargh Daily — one of the most important newspapers in Iran — interviewed a trafficker in 2011, and revealed some of the typical tricks for smuggling drugs.

There’s even a business in coming up with clever new ways of hiding drugs: some people design new ways of smuggling the drugs and sell these ideas to the traffickers.

A trafficker told an Iranian newspaper that traffickers are always one step ahead; each method is used only until it is discovered, and then it won’t be reused.

"The war on drugs is more complicated than we think"

Faraz is an Iranian journalist specialising in the drug economy.

According to official estimations, drug trafficking costs Iran around 10 billion euros every year. Iran’s military budget in 2016 was about 11 billion euros.

One gram of heroin costs about 2.4 dollars in Afghanistan, about 20 dollars in Tehran, and when it arrives in Paris, it will have a value of more than 45 dollars per gram.

The main route it takes after Iran is through Turkey, Georgia, or Armenia, then through the Balkan region, usually passing through Moldova and Ukraine. In the last four or five years, traffickers have also tried using the ports in southern Iran and sending drugs directly to EU ports. Done this way, the main recipient ports would be in Belgium, the Netherlands, and England. [In 2014 the Rotterdam seaport seized 764 kilograms of heroin that had come originally from Iran]. You can also smuggle a small quantity of drugs using passengers acting as drug mules and travelling by aeroplane.

The war on drugs is much more complicated than we imagine.

For example, in 2000, Iran adopted a new strategy in the war on drugs. Iran’s anti-narcotic police force actually went into Afghanistan to fight drugs at the source. They used incentives to stop growers. They gave tractors and financial aids to any farmer who agreed to stop growing poppies and fight the traffickers inside Afghanistan (they were able to take advantage of the failure of the Afghan state at the time, which was ruled by the Taliban). It worked in the sense that the production reduced and so the price increased — but there were two problems. Firstly, it was a costly operation for Iran. Secondly, it played a part in changing people’s addiction habits, not only for drug addicts in Iran but also further afield: many people switched from heroin to meth. Iran ended up just giving up that method.

On June 14, Tehran customs agents found 282 kilos of opium in an industrial oven intended for export from Iran to Germany. Traffickers had hidden the opium under layers of lead to avoid detection by X-ray machines, and also mixed the opium with camphor to mislead sniffer dogs.

According to UN documents published in 2014, Iran accounted for 74% of the world's opium seizures and 25% of the world's heroin and morphine seizures.

In the last three decades, more than 3,700 Iranian police officers have been killed in direct clashes with traffickers.

However, Iran’s severe laws against drug-related offences have been criticised, as they lead to hundreds of executions each year. In 2015, Iran executed about 1,000 prisoners, most of their cases relating to illicit drug crimes.