DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Heroin use is growing in the United States, and let's track down the source. One crucial point in the global supply chain is the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria. Experts believe most of the heroin that enters Europe comes through that country, and a good bit of it eventually winds up on American streets. NPR's Ari Shapiro begins this report on the edge of Europe at Bulgaria's border with Turkey.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: From the top of this hill, we can see the border between Bulgaria and Turkey stretching off to the horizon. On either side of the border, there's a line of trucks at least a hundred long waiting to get through. You can just imagine how difficult it would be to find out if there were drugs in one of these trucks because there are so many of them, they are so big and they are so full of, for the most part, legitimate goods.
PLAMEN DINEV: (Speaking Bulgarian).
SHAPIRO: Border Surveillance Chief Plamen Dinev tells us they intercepted nearly 250 pounds of heroin just over the weekend. Not too long ago, the Bulgarian government looked the other way. In fact, it actively profited from the drug trade across this border.
ELENA POPTODOROVA: That was a plague - literally a plague - in the '90s, and we're still bearing the fruit from that period.
SHAPIRO: Elena Poptodorova is the Bulgarian ambassador to the United States. She says the biggest change since the '90s is that Bulgaria is now a member of the European Union.
POPTODOROVA: This is probably the best remedy because in order to benefit from European funds, we need to meet certain criterias.
SHAPIRO: If it's a choice between getting rich off Brussels or getting rich off drug trafficking, most people will choose the one that does not come with a prison sentence. Still, drug trafficking in Bulgaria remains a big enough problem that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened an office here in 2012. The DEA declined our interview request. To get the full picture of how drug trafficking in Bulgaria fits into the global marketplace, I went to Sofia, the capital city. In a leafy courtyard, I met Tihomir Bezlov. He's with a think tank called the Study of Democracy. He says Bulgaria is a good place to bring heroin because it has a well-established route and good infrastructure.
TIHOMIR BEZLOV: And by the way, we see that these channels, how they rise, when the, for example, U.S. Army reduced the presence in Afghanistan.
SHAPIRO: You're saying when the U.S. Army reduced its footprint in Afghanistan, Afghanistan produced more heroin?
BEZLOV: And heroin is very important source of financing to terrorist organization.
SHAPIRO: So this is not just about drug abuse. It's also about stopping terrorism. Bezlov says around two thirds of the heroin in Europe passes through Bulgaria, and up to a third of that ultimately reaches the U.S. The country is taking real steps to change things, though. At the central police station, the head of the anti-drug trafficking unit wears jeans and a T-shirt. Ivan Vasilev is only 33 years old.
How long have you been in charge of part of the organized crime unit that deals with drug trafficking? How many years?
IVAN VASILEV: One month.
SHAPIRO: One month?
SHAPIRO: Wow. Congratulations, this is a new job for you.
VASILEV: (Laughter) Definitely.
SHAPIRO: That's amazing.
VASILEV: (Speaking Bulgarian).
SHAPIRO: Vasilev explains that a few years ago, the department introduced a series of exams - IQ tests, psychological profiles and lie detector tests. After those tests, a lot of people went into retirement. Now his team has an average age of 35. I asked Vasilev...
...And is that because people assumed that if you were above a certain age, you were associated with a time when the government was helping the drug traffickers instead of fighting the drug traffickers?
VASILEV: (Speaking Bulgarian).
SHAPIRO: The head of the anti-drug trafficking unit replies, "you would have to ask someone else about that. In the 1990s, I was in middle school." Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Sofia, Bulgaria.
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