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KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - Abullah came out of the night like a ghost, his long shirt flapping as he flitted out of a dark alleyway and climbed into a waiting car.
The 28-year-old smuggler flashed a confident smile and shook hands.
As the car jolted into the chaos of Kandahar's traffic, he seemed perfectly at ease, looking like a wealthy Afghan businessman with his suit vest, pressed white tunic and gold watch.
Over dinner, Abullah explained why he's not afraid to meet a foreign reporter, despite the fact that he makes his living by transporting illegal drugs. It's the same reason he doesn't fear the police, he said, and the reason Afghanistan remains the world's largest supplier of opium: corruption.
"Bribery is more and more common nowadays," he said, tearing into a chicken kebab.
"Business is good."
Smugglers, poppy farmers, addicts and anti-narcotics officials say precisely the same thing.
This week marks the start of early planting in Afghanistan, and the government is scrambling to persuade farmers that they should grow legitimate crops instead of opium poppies, which produce the main ingredient in heroin.
The efforts are undermined, however, by police and government officials who profit from what is Afghanistan's largest industry.
The United States and other donors, embarrassed by the idea that Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state, have been pushing President Hamid Karzai to remove governors and police chiefs who are complicit in the trade. Observers say Mr. Karzai wants to help his U.S. backers, but must tread cautiously because the government needs local strongmen to maintain control over rural areas.
"What can the central government do, if it doesn't have the force necessary to remove a governor?" said Thomas Pietschmann, an analyst at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna.
The U.S. State Department expressed similar concerns last month, suggesting that rising corruption would fuel growth in Afghanistan's opium trade in 2006.
Two opium smugglers interviewed by The Globe and Mail said they regularly pay bribes, usually 4 per cent of their gross incomes, to district police chiefs in the areas where they operate. Researchers say those percentages sometimes reach 10 to 20, depending on a smuggler's connections.
Farmers must pay for protection, too: One opium grower near Kandahar said the police usually demand a flat rate that is the equivalent of $5,800 to $7,000 a year.
Some indications suggest that the rot goes much higher. One of Afghanistan's senior ministers responsible for counter-narcotics, Interior Minister Ahmad Ali Jalali, quit his job last week after complaining that unspecified government officials were involved in the opium industry. Counter-narcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi has made similar allegations in the past, saying unnamed provincial governors and police chiefs are suspected of reaping drug profits.
However, nothing has happened to those suspected and many people in the trade interpret this to mean that the government tacitly accepts the status quo.
"If the government said 'Stop,' and they stopped taking bribes, they could stop us," said a 36-year-old poppy farmer with a weathered face and ugly scars on his hands.
Police officers usually visit his small farm in March when the poppies are fully grown. If farmers cannot pay what the police demand, he said, officers raze their fields.
If the bribes are paid, the farmers are allowed to harvest. They prick the seed pods with metal tools so the milky sap oozes down the sides of the green bulb. The sap turns dark and gummy when exposed to the sun, and the farmers scrape off this paste and package it into plastic bags. Farmers and smugglers say it sells for about $200 to $220 a kilogram.
Minor dealers collect the bags from the farmers, and sell them to bigger smugglers, usually pocketing about $20 to $40 a kilogram.
The smugglers try to find the most direct route to the nearest border, so they can reduce the number of local officials they need to bribe along the way. Many send their product north into Central Asia, bound for markets in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Others go south, to Pakistan, where the drugs are eventually loaded as cargo at the docks in Karachi.
The longest smuggling routes reach across Afghanistan to the border with Iran, because dealers are willing to travel further to reach a country where raw opium commands the best prices from traders, who send the goods through Turkey to Europe.
It's a challenge that leaves the smugglers two options: travel over the wilderness, or risk the roads. Abdul Rahman, 30, prefers the off-road route. A native of Lashkarga district in Helmand province, an area notorious for its Taliban sympathies and its opium growing, Mr. Rahman says he organizes large convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers and stays in the dangerous areas where police still fear the insurgents.
His convoys carry up to 450 kilograms of drugs each time, Mr. Rahman says, and they're heavily armed to fend off bandits. Mr. Rahman says his men sometimes tear straight across the desert, crossing most of Afghanistan's breadth, without paying more than a few small bribes. (Experts say it's unlikely that Mr. Rahman could operate among the Taliban insurgents without also paying them a percentage.)
Other smugglers, such as Abullah, prefer a subtler means of transportation on Afghanistan's slowly improving roads. He hires specialists to fashion hiding spots in the bodies and engine compartments of his cars and trucks. These vehicles blend in with the regular traffic; in case of trouble, each carries three unarmed men who have the equivalent of $1,000 in Pakistani rupees hidden on their bodies.
Usually there aren't any problems, Abullah said, because he pays the police chief in every district that maintains checkpoints along the roads.
"At each checkpoint, there's a guy who is ours," he said.
Getting caught with drugs in Afghanistan isn't a problem, Abullah said, rubbing his thumb and fingers together in a gesture to indicate how easily he buys his freedom.
But the Iranian dealers have a different level of fear, he said. They pay him at a hiding place in the borderlands -- he makes up to $200 profit a kilogram -- then disappear across the desert on horses, camels or in SUVs, knowing that they face death if caught.
Smuggling happens more overtly at the border town of Wesh, on Afghanistan's southern frontier with Pakistan.
In the daytime, smugglers pay children such as Jamaludin, 12, to ferry blankets, stereos and even people across the border. The children are paid 40 or 50 cents per crossing, they say, and split their earnings with the border guards.
"I take the money, and the guards know me, they know it's okay," Jamaludin said.
At night, locals say, the smuggled goods include a steady traffic in drugs. Experts say the poorly policed territory just inside the Pakistani border is home to many large drug laboratories, reputed to be protected by well-equipped private armies.
At the Kandahar Drug Control and Co-ordination Unit, the Afghan government office responsible for counter-narcotics, co-ordinator Gul Mohammed Shakran says he's supposed to monitor prevention work in three provinces but can't afford gasoline for his beat-up old Toyota Corolla.
"Please help me," Mr. Shakran said, begging a reporter for spare change. "Can you give us $20 for a camera? What about $10 for gas? We need a whole new car, in fact, because this one doesn't go across rough roads."
The Kandahar region has about 3,000 addicts hooked on opium or its derivatives, Mr. Shakran said, and will likely have 4,000 by next year. He gave a tour of the region's only treatment facility, which has 10 beds, and stated the obvious: "The available services simply aren't enough."
Most of the addicts at the treatment centre say they discovered drugs after the overthrow of the strict Taliban regime, which was famous for refusing bribes.
Qadir Jan, 40, was a butcher during the Taliban's rule. Over the past three years, he slowly sold his tools to pay for heroin and opium, he said, and was reduced to manual labour, which itself became difficult as his addiction took hold. Now he sits listlessly on his thin mattress while flies crawl across his face.
Another addict, Bakht Mohammad, 26, blames corruption for the misery. He used to buy drugs from shops adjacent to police stations and government offices, he said, and the officials knew exactly who their neighbours were.
"The police are involved in this," Mr. Mohammad said. "They help the traffickers, and the government doesn't do anything."