“The bigger the Muslims they claim to be the more they drink"
24 May 2009
Dying for a drink? Men and mules do so all the time in the hills along the Iran-Iraq frontier east of Bashmagh. Some are shot by Iranian security forces as they smuggle their illicit cargo of alcohol across the border at night. Others fall foul of the minefields that were planted during the war, which finished 20 years ago, as they test new trafficking routes.
The lure of money keeps bringing the smugglers back, however — that and the thirst for drink in Iran, a theocratic state where alcohol is forbidden.
“Canned whisky is the Iranians’ favourite,” said Karwan, 28, a smugglers’ merchant in Bashmagh, 2km inside Iraq, throwing across a 330ml can of Glen Grant from his cache.
“We sell it to the smugglers in cartons of 24 cans at 48,000 Iraqi dinars (£26) a carton. The other side of the border it fetches triple price. On a good week I’m shifting between 10,000 and 20,000 cartons destined for Iran — and I’m just one merchant,” he said. The risks to Karwan, an Iraqi Kurd, are mostly financial, although a Kalashnikov rifle that was nearby acted as insurance.
Karwan, a merchant based on home soil, operates a loan system to the Iranian smugglers whereby they are advanced boxes of alcohol which, once sold on to middlemen in Iran, they repay on their next trip to Bashmagh.
“Sometimes I get turned over but mostly not,” he said at his storage site, which is a collection of concrete sheds hidden in dense woodland near to the frontier where stacked boxes of whisky and beer waited to be collected.
“They know I sell at a good price so want to come back. It’s when they are killed or put in prison that there is a problem. I reckon I’ve lost about $1 million over the last ten years that way. But we hear who gets arrested and try to help. When they are out again they pay me back in instalments.”
Tuborg, which is brewed in Turkey, came in a close second on Karwan’s sales register as a cheaper alternative to Glen Grant. Good quality whisky and vodka stood in the middle price bracket and Karwan once sold a bottle of tequila to an Iranian smuggler for $600 (£378).
Despite the vast sums of money made by Iraqi and Iranian alcohol merchants at either end of the business, for the men doing the dirty work of shifting drink across the border who are mainly Iranian Kurds, the profits are low, risks high and life cheap.
“My father was killed coming across the border here with his mule to pick up drink seven years ago,” a 25-year-old smuggler using the alias Quaraman, said.
He sat waiting among the trees with a dozen others to load up their mules with Karwan’s whisky in a scene that resembled the Wild West more than the Middle East.
“The border guards shot him and he died of his wounds later. I lost a good friend on a hill over there recently, who was shot with another two guys. Only a month ago they ambushed me and 50 other men at Asnawa. We got away but they killed every one of our mules,” he added.
The loss of a good mule, which can cost more than $1,000, can be catastrophic to the smugglers, who mostly make between $40 to $60 profit per trip with a single mule carrying eight cartons of whisky. The animals are regularly shot by Iranian security forces who, at times, have tried to ban villagers along the border from owning the animals in an attempt to curb the trade.
Mines are another threat. One smuggler said that he knew of ten men maimed by the devices as they explored remoter smuggling paths.
Most seemed to have spent time in prison yet had nothing but scorn for the Iranian authorities who sentenced them.
“The bigger the Muslims they claim to be the more they drink,” said one man, who said that one of his best clients had been the Iranian judge heading the courts in Mariwan. “I used to drop the load round at his house,” he added, “then go to his office at the courts to collect my payment.”
Like gamblers caught in a cycle of debt, none of the smugglers claimed to have any lasting profit from their work.
“In 13 years of doing this I’ve done two prison sentences,” said a smuggler who was using the alias Hazhar. “I’ve been shot at dozens of times, had five mules killed, and been fined more than $2,000. I’ve got nothing to show for it.
“But I’ve got no other choice. There’s no work at home, nothing. So I do this. Anyone who starts this job will lose it all in the end — their freedom, their money, their life.”
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