BAGHU-BAGHU, Iran - The desert was silent as the sun came up in the early morning of April 16. The air was still, and no vehicles plied the road that leads directly to the border with Afghanistan, only 46 miles away.
This parched village of 60 families on a desert highway, one of the main conduits for the flood of opium into Iran, seemed to be asleep.
Then, out of nowhere, came the village patrol. They pointed Kalashnikovs at Ghafoor Bakhti and his friend. The two men were sitting by the roadside, and their being strangers in this place was reason enough for the patrol to search them.
A quick search revealed a small amount of opium, seemingly for personal use. But the strangers could be here for only one reason, the same as other passers-by from whom the armed villagers have confiscated one and a half tons of opium in the past year. So the patrolmen followed Bakhti's footprints to a patch of recently disturbed ground. Below the surface was a sack, and inside it were five plastic packets of dark brown opium.
Within the past year, villages have been given arms by the Iranian government to protect themselves from the violent onslaught of the drug traffickers who have turned huge patches of eastern Iran into a war zone. Hundreds of villages, so long the targets of kidnappings and murders by the drug smugglers, have now formed local militias.
This is the battleground in Iran's war on drugs. Stuck between Afghanistan, producer of more than half the world's opium, and the southern gateway to Europe, Iran is the unwilling corridor for a crop that peaked at more than 4,500 tons in 1999, according to the U.N. Drug Control Program.
In the past decade, the Islamic republic has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the small armies of Afghani and Iranian drug smugglers. In the process, more than 3,000 Iranian soldiers have been killed and whole stretches of the mountainous, deserted eastern part of the country have been turned into bandit lands.
With roughly 1.4 million drug abusers out of a population of nearly 70 million, Iran is highly motivated to combat the drug trade, often mercilessly so. Police in Tehran, the capital, recently leveled an entire neighborhood that was the hub of the city's drug dealers. Of all the opium seized in the world, 90 percent is seized in Iran.
But in spite of the 22 mountain passes dammed up with concrete, the 48 miles of barbed wire, the 180 miles of 11-foot-deep, 11-foot-wide trenches, the 434 miles of built-up embankments, the 400 forts and border observation posts, and in spite of the 30,000 troops posted on the frontiers with Afghanistan and Pakistan, about 90 percent of the heroin on the streets of Europe comes from Afghanistan via Iran. Some also ends up in the United States.
"It's a war up there; it really is," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "The smugglers are very well funded, and they use all the latest technology. They're ruthless. It's a real drug baron's business. The Iranians outnumber them, but the eastern border is so vast that it's simply not possible to shut it."
Wearing a light blue prison-issue shirt covered in a pattern of the scales of justice, Mohammad-Azam Teimouri sat in an office just off his cellblock. If he's lucky, he will spend a lot of time wearing that shirt and living in the Central Prison of Mashad. If not, he will be sentenced to death for smuggling 14 kilograms of opium into Iran from Afghanistan.
"I used to be a shepherd, a farmer, making my own living," says Teimouri, 43, a father of six. "Then there was the drought, and I had nothing to feed my family."
Teimouri lived in the heart of the biggest drug-producing zone in the world, a cornerstone of an industry that is second in size only to the oil industry in global terms. But it was poverty, not greed, that drove him, as it does so many Afghans, to start the journey of opium and heroin smuggling from Afghanistan through Iran, and on to the refineries of Turkey to the streets of the West.
Throughout the 1990s, the extremist Islamic Taliban government has controlled most of Afghanistan. In its isolation, experts in and outside of Iran say, the Taliban saw becoming the world's largest producer of opium as the only way to generate revenue.
Under international pressure, the Taliban clamped down on last year's poppy crop, drastically reducing output from the opium fields, according to Iran's drug czar, Mohammad Fallah. But few expect this year's crop reduction to last.
The 30,000 Iranian soldiers guarding the border continue to have weekly gunbattles with the convoys of professional smugglers that penetrate Iranian territory every day. And Iran's prisons - where 80 percent of all inmates have drug-related convictions, according to officials - continue to overflow with men like Teimouri.
"I'm a Bedouin from an area in Herat province," Teimouri says. "A year ago a man, a rich Talibani, came and told me to take this to Iran. I was hungry; my children were hungry."
As Teimouri tells it, he and eight other men were each promised a fee of $190 for delivering the drugs just over the border.
They drove in a jeep to the border on a moonless night. Some distance from the frontier, the vehicle stopped, and the nine couriers jumped out along with an armed smuggler. Teimouri carried a gallon of water, a loaf of bread and about 30 pounds of opium.
The plan called for a guide to receive them on the other side and take the couriers to a village where they would unload the opium. But instead, once they had scaled the embankments constructed by the Iranian government, the couriers were met by Iranian soldiers.
Since that night in June, Teimouri has been living in the huge prison in Mashad, home to 11,531 other inmates. He has not seen his family since he left Afghanistan. He has not been sentenced yet.
"For $190, I've become a victim of drugs, and my kids and family are left behind," he says. "I may be hanged."
Fallah, the drug czar, is the one who gave the order to arm the villages.
"A lot of the time the smugglers come into villages and kidnap the locals," says Fallah, a retired army general, who greets visitors in his office at the Drug Control Headquarters in Tehran.
"They will call on relatives of people they've kidnapped and say, 'Here's 50 or 100 kilograms of opium. Either buy it from us, or go and sell it. Then we'll release your relative.' The villages are very spread out and it's harsh terrain and they're very exposed and hard to protect. So the military has taken to going to the villages and finding selected people, those with military service, and training them, giving them guns and teaching them how to protect the villages."
And so, for the sake of defending themselves and the small finder's fees that the government pays them for the drugs they seize, the villagers of Baghu-Baghu have waged 26 gunfights with smugglers in and around the arid Marzdaran Mountains that overlook the village.
When the drugs carried by men like Teimouri have made it past the soldiers on the frontier, and past village militias in places like Baghu-Baghu, they usually end up in Tehran. And until Feb. 24, when the government demolition squad came calling, many shipments ended up in a warren-like neighborhood of East Tehran known locally as "The Island" because drug traffickers thought it was safe for them.
Little is left of The Island now, just a few trees, open sewers and some freestanding walls covered in a patchwork of wallpaper. Razing The Island was the Iranian police's aggressive answer to dealing with the distribution system of drugs inside Iran's capital.
A force of 1,500 police officers encircled the neighborhood at 1 a.m. A bank of floodlights powered by generators burst into life. First the police rushed in to arrest the major suspects, targets of a two-year police investigation. By the end of the operation, 12 hours later, the police had arrested 500 people they considered serious criminals and had kept in a guarded tent city another 1,500 people they regarded as lower-level dealers.
Then the bulldozers moved in. Before too long, The Island was just a flattened pile of rubble.