Xinjiang police fight the flow of guns, drugs and terrorist media from across border

Source:The Beijing News Published: 2017/3/13 19:18:39

For people working at the Khunjerab Pass border station in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, dangers lurk underneath the region's calm appearance as criminals try to smuggle drugs and guns into China from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan

In recent years, officials have busted countless drug cases in which smugglers try to bring heroin from the "Golden Crescent" onto the Chinese market

As Khunjerab Pass is in restive southern Xinjiang, policemen are also tasked with confiscating media that promotes terrorism

Herdsmen in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in Kashgar, Xinjiang, share food to celebrate the arrival of spring on March 18, 2015. Photo: CFP

Standing on the vast snowy plain around boundary marker No.7 at Khunjerab Pass in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, one can see Pakistan stretching beyond the horizon. Every day, tourists and merchants pass through on their way into China.

But beneath the peaceful surface, dark currents lurk. For those working at the Khunjerab Pass border inspection station, every traveler could be a criminal trying to smuggle drugs or guns into the country. 

Besides Pakistan, Khunjerab Pass is also near Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Khunjerab Pass in Kashgar Prefecture has an important position in law enforcement in terror-plagued southern Xinjiang.

In 2014, 37 civilians were killed and another 13 were injured in an attack in Kashgar, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to Xinhua, local police in a township near Kasghar detained six people in December 2013 who were allegedly involved in a terrorist attack earlier that month, which killed 16 people.

Recently, the Human Resources and Social Security Bureau of Kashgar posted an online recruitment notice, stating that they will recruit 3,000 more policemen aged between 18 and 35.

A view of Khunjerab Pass taken from the Pakistan side Photo: CFP


Golden Crescent

One night in November, 2015, a minivan apparently loaded with Pakistani cosmetics was checked by the officers. When they turned their X-ray machine onto the cargo, the boxes exhibited unusual reactions.

When the boxes were opened, the officers found strong-smelling white powder that gave off a greenish hue under the X-ray machine. These characteristics led the officers to believe that the power was actually high-quality heroin.

The minivan was carrying 1,520 small bags of heroin, weighing in at a total of 76 kilograms, the most ever seized at once by Xinjiang police.

Ten days later, the officers busted another smuggling operation and confiscated 30 kilos of heroin.

These drugs came from the "Golden Crescent," an area that stretches from Afghanistan to Iran via Pakistan, where the vast majority of the world's illegal opium is grown in the three countries' mountainous peripheries.

The purity of the heroin smuggled out of the Golden Crescent can reach more than 90 percent. In recent years, the region's output has vastly outpaced opium growers in Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle," Liang Yongfei, an official at the Khunjerab Pass inspection station, told the Beijing News.

Ever since the Khunjerab Pass crossing opened in 1982, drug dealers have been trying to take advantage of this route to get their lucrative product onto the Chinese market.

Usually the drugs are grown and manufactured in Afghanistan and are then transported to northern Pakistan, where the bulk product is packaged into smaller bags before being smuggled into China.

Over the years, inspectors have seen countless concealment methods. Some put the drugs into condoms and hide the packages inside their body, some dissolve narcotics into cola, while others put them into handicrafts, cosmetic packages and other everyday goods.

In the border crossing's early years, there was no X-ray machine and the guards had to use their intuition and experience to spot crooks.

Liang says that back then, the condom method of smuggling was the most popular. To avoid the condoms breaking - which could lead to a fatal overdose - the drug mules would not eat anything while traveling. But as it would take them at least two days to arrive at the border crossing from the nearest city in Pakistan, their eyes would be bloodshot and their breath would stink by the time they arrived.

Once, a Pakistani traveler came to the inspection station asking for water. His lips were cracked and dry, but there was an unopened cola in his bag. When the suspicious guards suggested he drink the cola, he refused.

The guards immediately arrested him and discovered heroin after evaporating the liquid from the drink.

Now the drug chain from the Golden Crescent to China has become more furtive. An official in Khunjerab Pass explained that drugs from Afghanistan are packaged in Pakistan's Peshawar region. Then they pass through Khunjerab Pass on their way to Kashgar are finally driven across China to Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province. The seller is in Pakistan and the buyer is in Guangzhou.

People who take the drugs along each step of the chain do not know much about the other links.

Liang said that passengers who are most likely to smuggle banned items are those living in Peshawar who are traveling to Guangzhou. They often take little luggage and money. "It's very possible that they just transport drugs to Guangzhou and then fly home," he said.


Circulation of guns

Around the border, drugs are just one part of an intertwined illegal trade. People living on the frontier are familiar with the phrase "using drugs to foster terrorism." Guns and drugs are always near each other.

In Pakistan, people can own a wide range of guns if they acquire an easily-obtained license. Many gun shops lie along the 270-kilometer journey from Khunjerab Pass to Gilgit, capital of Pakistan's northernmost administrative region. Even without a license, it's not hard to purchase a gun on the underground market. And it's even easier to get a gun in Afghanistan.

Police officers have caught many Chinese citizens trying to smuggle guns into China from Pakistan. Often they hope to sell the weapons in China as the country's strict gun laws mean illegal firearms are highly profitable on the black market. Besides normal guns and ammunition, some have even smuggled so-called "pen pistols" which are designed to not look like a firearm.

These weapons are single-shot and effective at a range of up to five meters. They are often used for suicides or assassinations, Liang said.

With the proliferation of X-ray machines, bringing guns to China is extremely difficult. "Even if you swallow the gun, we can still find it," Liang said.

As Khunjerab Pass is in restive southern Xinjiang, policemen are tasked with confiscating media that promotes terrorism.

Many border residents engage in small-scale international trading, travelling between China and Pakistan, bringing cosmetics, handicrafts, nuts and other commodities from Pakistan to China and cheap daily living goods from China to Pakistan. Pakistani handicrafts are particularly popular among Kashgar's Uyghurs.

Every border-crosser is allowed to transport 40 kilograms of duty-free products. Lured by profits greater than one can make farming, hundreds of border residents are now engaged in this trade.

As the number of merchants grows, the border officers' workload has also grown. According to the officers, many smugglers pretend to be border residents to cross with less scrutiny.

But the police said it is relatively easy to spot a genuine border resident, as they usually transport the same kinds of goods, have many stamps in their documents and are fluent in the local languages.

Peaceful lifestyle

No matter how great the security and law-enforcement challenges facing the police officers, the vast majority of locals are able to live peaceful lives.

The border guards told The Beijing News that the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County, home to Khunjerab Pass, is the most secure in Kashgar.

The total population is less than 40,000 and most residents are ethnic Tajiks. The guards say no local Tajik has been arrested in several years.

Most of the local Tajiks still live the way their ancestors did, sowing seeds in spring, and herding their animals according to the climate for the rest of the year.

When they are not on the move, they live in bungalows provided by the local government, most of which have makeshift structures built by the residents to house their cows and sheep.

Newspaper headline: Bullets on the border

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