HIRMAND, Iran -- The featured speaker -- an 11-year-old girl -- waited hours for the helicopter to land near the watch tower and high concrete walls in this remote region not far from the Afghanistan border. Close by, a military band played marching music on large drums and trumpets, sounding a discordant note in an arid desert where drug smugglers make their fortunes ferrying drugs into Iran.
The spectacle was orchestrated by the Iran government on Wednesday to showcase the success of its anti-narcotics forces in thwarting drug-smuggling into the country.
Flanked by her mother and other relatives under a burning sun, young Zahra stood before reporters to praise "the role of my martyred dad and his comrades in fighting narcotic traffickers."
Her father, a border agent killed three years ago, was one of more than 3,700 agents who have died in ambushes or in clashes with outlaws over the last three decades along Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just two nights before the event staged for the media, three more border agents were killed.
“Iran is fighting with the illicit drug traffickers on behalf of all humanity, ” said Gen. Ali Moaiyedi, chief commander of the anti-narcotic police.
Iran has dug wide, deep canals, erected hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences and built concrete walls along its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan to hinder smugglers.
But the barriers have only redirected the flow of drugs into the country. One official at the event said traffickers had started using sea routes from Pakistan to smuggle drugs through Iranian ports.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, or UNODC, has described Iran as having one of the largest opiate-using populations in the world, in part because of its proximity to the narcotics' source.
In 2008, heroin seizures around the world reached a record of 73.7 metric tons. Iran and Turkey accounted for more than half of the total. And Iran continues to be the world leader in the amount of heroin it seizes, said Tehran-based UNODC representative Antonino de Leo.
All Iran's enforcement efforts, however, haven’t translated into a reduction of drug addiction in the country. There are no official figures on the number of drug addicts in Iran, but estimates run as high as 2.2 million in a country of 75 million people.
Iran has opened more than 500 nongovernmental organizations to focus on addiction, De Leo said, in addition to hundreds of detoxification and methadone clinics.
But the problem remains a difficult one.
“In my clinic, one in every five patients is a drug abuser,” said a doctor who recently opened an office in west Tehran. “The increasing number of detoxification clinics indicates that addicts in Iran do not have a shortage of illicit drugs."
Photo: Iranian border guards display packages of seized Afghan-made drugs at an Iran-Afghanistan border checkpoint in the southeast. Credit: Abedin Taher Kenareh / European Pressphoto Agency