CHU VALLEY, KAZAKHSTAN // It was just a shoeprint in the sand, but for Sergei it was the sign of action in this parched pocket of steppe in southern Kazakhstan. "It looks fresh," Sergei, a narcotics officer dressed in a camouflage uniform, said before hopping in his off-road vehicle and tearing around the adjacent territory in search of a possible suspect.
The suspect was never caught, and Sergei returned to inspect the crime scene near a deserted farmhouse in the Chu Valley, a sprawling steppe known as the "Cannabis Klondike" for the huge amounts of wild cannabis that grows here. All around the shoeprint, stems of the weed had been cleanly sliced off by a local harvester. "It's from a sneaker," he said, checking out the soles of his fellow officers and some accompanying journalists to ensure it was not a false lead.
Chasing marijuana traffickers can be like chasing ghosts for the small brigades of Kazakh narcotics police operating here. There are just more than 20 men in Sergei's unit - known as "Delta Valley" - who patrol about 1,400 square kilometres of sand where hordes of cunning, small-time harvesters collect the abundant plant for the production of marijuana and hashish. The hot, dry conditions of this region have allowed the proliferation of a wild strain of cannabis, unusually containing high amounts of the active drug tetrahydrocannabinol, making the Chu Valley the home to the most famous cannabis across the former Soviet Union.
The drug trade flourishes in the valley despite government efforts to eradicate it. With the nearby city of Shu being Kazakhstan's main railway station, drugs are smuggled out of the area for distribution in other parts of the country, Russia, and sometimes in Europe. For those who have never laid eyes on the Chu Valley, patrolling the cannabis field may seem like a simpler proposition than reality allows.
Even international anti-narcotics officials arrive here with misconceptions about the Chu Valley crops. A UN official based in Central Asia once suggested that Kazakh authorities erect watch towers in each corner of the valley and arrest the harvesters, said Kuat Zhapabayev, the head of the Delta Valley unit. "He thought it was like a giant garden where you could just put up watch towers and guard the place," Mr Zhapabayev said with a chuckle.
Wild cannabis grows in fits and spurts alongside the local desert vegetation all across the huge and dusty valley's jagged terrain, making routine patrols a labour-intensive endeavour with minimal results. Thus, police rely primarily on tips from locals - sometimes they come from competing cannabis harvesters, according to one police officer - and concentrate on known areas of growth and cultivation.
They also focus their efforts on the summer harvest season - from May to October - with their annual Operation Poppy, in which dozens of narcotics officers are brought in from around the country to reinforce the Delta Valley unit. The extra manpower, however, is only enough to make a small dent in the drug trade in the Chu Valley, which yields about 140,000 tonnes of marijuana and 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of hashish annually, according to the Kazakh interior ministry. Last year's Operation Poppy led to the confiscation of 20 tonnes of marijuana and about 74 kilograms of hashish.
"It's impossible to cover the entire valley," said Mr Yeseyev, whose stern face belies a congenial temperament. "We simply don't have enough resources." At one farmhouse, the officers questioned an owner, who was collecting water from a well with an electric pump, whether he had been harvesting any of the cannabis growing wild in front of his house. "He said he hasn't touched the stuff," said Sergei, translating his words into Russian. Most of the farmers and shepherds encountered here are skittish about talking to police.
The lion's share of the harvest is left to manual labourers and local farmers familiar with the terrain and who can quickly disappear into the steppe on horseback when police try to track them across the inhospitable terrain. "The ones who harvest the stuff around here are little guys," said Mr Zhapabayev of the Delta Valley unit. "They're usually just fulfilling orders from bigger traffickers." One evening in the valley's Merkensky district, which occupies an 850 sq km area where wild cannabis grows, a joint operation by anti-narcotic and border police resulted in the arrest of two Kyrgyz citizens on suspicion that they had harvested 500kg of cannabis.
The duo, a man and a woman, who claimed to be working separately, were paraded before journalists, a common practice in post-Soviet countries where suspects are brought before media for confession. The female suspect, Lyudmilla, 37, said she was jobless and that she had harvested the plant for personal use. "They usually take the bags to a larger stash a few kilometres away from where they are harvesting," said one officer involved in the arrest. "Then, if confronted by police, they can just say the bags are not theirs."
In one of the largest hauls in recent years, Chu Valley anti-narcotic police in July arrested a farmer after discovering 800kg of dried cannabis. The farmer told investigators that a relative had paid him US$1,000 (Dh3,670) for the load, apparently unaware that a single kilogram was worth that sum, the local KazTag news agency reported. The global economic crisis has somewhat exacerbated the situation, said Mr Zhapabayev, with more people making ends meet by harvesting the valley's cannabis for traffickers.
"Unemployed people now agree to go out and harvest the stuff," he said. "What else are they going to do?" The degree to which corruption allows the drug trade to thrive is unclear. There have been cases in recent years in which low level police officers were handed lengthy prison sentences for involvement in the trade. Sources with the knowledge of the situation say policemen's meagre wages - anywhere between $300 and $600 a month for a foot soldier - are a hindrance since many of them opt to accept bribes rather than arrest suspects.
It is unclear when wild cannabis first took roots in the valley. Some say Silk Road traders from what is now Pakistan unwittingly released cannabis seeds, which were then distributed throughout the valley by wind and animals. Cultivated strains of cannabis sativa from India were first registered in southern Kazakhstan in 1926, and until 1950 the plant was harvested for its fibre to produce fabric and rope, Zhanat Suleimenov, the head of the Kazakh interior ministry's anti-drug trafficking committee, wrote in e-mailed comments.
Harvest of the plant for industrial purposes was finally stopped in the mid-1980s. About the same time, authorities registered a much stronger cultivated strain - cannabis indica - in the valley, Mr Suleimenov said. In recent years, plans to build a factory to process industrial hemp, and legal profits from the valley's ubiquitous crop, are on hold over questions of financing and profitability. On the outskirts of the small city of Shu in the heart of the valley, a long, isolated grey brick wall is the only physical evidence of the planned factory.
"All they've managed to put up is a fence," Mr Zhapabayev said. "There's nothing inside." Eradication of the wild cannabis has also proven problematic. Burning the plants is ineffective, as their deep roots allow them to sprout up again, while attacking the cannabis with chemical agents would severely damage other plants and animals living in the valley, experts say. "The simplest plan for me would be to hire thousands of volunteers who would pull out the plants by their roots and burn them. Maybe it would take five to six years, but at this point I don't really see any other solution," said Bolatbek Bulgakbaev, a Kazakh liaison officer with the Central Asian Regional Information Co-ordination Centre, an Almaty-based intergovernmental centre aimed at battling drug trafficking in the region.
Soviet authorities paid scant attention to the Chu Valley cannabis crops until 1969, when the local weed was declared a narcotic substance "because young people started getting very interested in it", Mr Bulgakbaev said. It was an increase in drug abuse that prompted government intervention, said Mukhtarbek Madybayev, the deputy head of the centre. "Earlier, no one really paid attention to this wild plant because there wasn't such a demand for it."
The Kazakh government has earmarked about $260 million over the next two years to combat narcotics trafficking and drug use. Mr Suleimenov, the head of the federal anti-drug trafficking committee, cited statistics to show an average annual drop of 7.4 per cent in the number of registered underage drug users over the past three years, so as to prove the effectiveness of his committee in tackling the problem.
The trafficking of Afghan heroin is a more pressing issue for Kazakhstan and other Central Asian governments, but the accessibility of Chu Valley cannabis and the difficulty of securing the enormous valley make it an issue that must be addressed, Mr Bulgakbaev said. Although the Kazakh government continues to stress the importance of ending the Chu Valley drug trade, the area remains one of the country's internationally identifiable brands, said Jantemir Baimukhamedov, a musician and entertainer who is in post-production of a film about street punks caught up in the Chu Valley's cannabis trade in the mid-1990s, which he wrote, produced and starred in.
Baimukhamedov, who insists that his movie, Shu-Chu, will in no way promote drugs, has been working on the film four years now as a response to the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical portrayal of Kazakhstan in his 2006 "mockumentary", Borat. "I want to show the West the real Kazakhstan, that the reality is much funnier than a joke by Sacha Baron Cohen," Baimukhamedov, known as Jantik, said in an interview in Almaty, Kazakhstan's capital.
Referring to one of the Central Asian country's other internationally recognised brands, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which the Kazakh government leases to Russia and from where numerous wealthy space tourists have travelled to orbit, Baimukhamedov said: "They say there are two ways to get to space in Kazakhstan, from Baikonur and from the Chu Valley." firstname.lastname@example.org