Afghanistan has been a major producer and consumer of narcotics for as long as anyone can remember. Opium, hashish and heroin are deeply ingrained in the nation’s culture, and multiple attempts by the Afghan government to reduce the country’s reliance upon narcotics—and the income they provide to otherwise isolated communities—have failed. In fact, the introduction of crystal methamphetamine from Iran in the last decade has started a new and dangerous chapter for Afghanistan’s drug economy.

In the last few years, the established network of meth making and distribution has been turned on its head by a simple ingredient change. A 2019 investigation by Dr. David Mansfield and the GIS organization Alcis shows that Afghan drug producers have learned how to use the naturally abundant ephedra plant as their source of ephedrine (a meth precursor) instead of expensive decongestant. The cost savings associated with this change have turned Afghanistan into a meth powerhouse that exports to Iran instead of importing. Moreover, hundreds of ordinary Afghan citizens willing to climb the rocky slopes and harvest the ephedra plant have been drafted into the meth business.

This edition of Maxar Spotlight examines the relationship between the ephedra plant harvest and the methamphetamine lab boom in Afghanistan. It uses Maxar Technologies advanced geospatial capabilities and unique subject matter expertise to identify the tell-tale signs of meth production in Afghanistan—proximity to ephedra plants and construction of runoff pools for chemical waste. The combination of ground truth from Dr. Mansfield’s team and analysis from Maxar’s cutting-edge tools paints a vivid picture of the situation today and suggest what trends await in the near future.

How can governments and NGOs assess and address the ever-changing world of global narcotics production and trafficking? See the complete picture on the ground and from space with this month’s Maxar Spotlight.

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Sneak Peek: (excerpt from Maxar Spotlight, Vol. 19)

GeoHIVE-Detected Probable Newly Constructed Methamphetamine Labs in Bakwa

The suspected meth labs identified by the GeoHIVE campaign revealed a striking diversity in the physical properties of the runoff pools, especially concerning size, shape, and proximity to the suspected lab structure. The before and after satellite images of five separate labs (depicted on the following two pages) illustrate such variations. An unintended takeaway from scrutinizing the physical characteristics of each suspected runoff pool is that the size of each pool could provide a good indication as to how much methamphetamine any single lab may be producing relative to others in the area.

It is also interesting to note the geographical distribution of the suspected labs throughout the district. The labs cluster in areas of the district that have a greater density of residential compounds. They are also in close proximity to the Abdul Wadood bazaar, which is the epicenter of the meth trade in this region. According to Dr. Mansfield, the locations in the southern part of the district are also near preferred trafficking routes that cut through the desert towards Iran.

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