Couriers receive between $300 and $700 for the journey--enough to live for a year in Tajikistan.
Last year a couple with a 4-year-old Down's syndrome child were both found to have swallowed drug packages. On two separate occasions, children of 11 and 13 swallowed packages along with their parents. Each family was promised $1,200 for the flight. There was even a case in which a Muslim mullah was found to have swallowed packets of drugs.
Looking for Drugs in a Crate of Cherries
In the cramped customs operations room at the airport, Capt. Igor Aksyonov combed through a wooden crate of fresh cherries with rubber gloves, speculating on the chances of finding narcotics, chatting relentlessly to his nervous suspects.
He searched a man accompanied by his small daughter and fished dozens of flat loaves of bread from the father's bags. The officer gouged his fingers into a homemade cake.
"How much bread have you got?" Aksyonov asked in amazement.
"Even more," the child replied, as more flat loaves emerged.
A second customs officer, Lt. Alexander Poleyev, said he sympathized with the Tajiks. "These people are the least to blame of all because the entire Tajik nation has been brought to its knees and they're forced to do it," he said.
But the head of the customs shift, Lt. Col. Viktor Bylinkin, has little sympathy. "They're forced by poverty to become drug couriers. But I wouldn't have any problem if all the drug packages in all their bodies leaked. I feel no pity. They poison the nation," he said.
As the father and his daughter walked free with their bags full of bread and ruined cake, a Russian named Sergei, 34, also went free. The police were sure that he was carrying drugs in his stomach. They shadowed him, hoping to catch his contacts. Police have not released his full name.
The contacts showed up, but spooked, they melted into the airport crowd.
When the police later picked up the Russian, they found 79 packets of drugs in his stomach. And he explained his motive.
He needed the $700 he was promised for the trip to pay off a drug debt.
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.