By Krista Mahr
KABUL (Reuters) - U.N. officials recorded a sharp spike this year in the amount of heroin being seized from passengers trying to fly from Afghanistan to India, a worrying trend since the Taliban insurgency lines its pockets on the illegal drug trade.
A lack of coordination is hampering efforts to clamp down on the route, officials said, with India blaming Afghanistan for poor cooperation in helping to track smugglers.
In January alone, officials intercepted 44 kilograms of heroin from Afghan airports in eight separate cases, compared to 50 kilograms of heroin and hashish seized during the whole of last year, according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) data.
Most of the cases have involved passengers trying to board flights bound for the Indian capital New Delhi after swallowing as much 2 kg of the illegal opiate in capsules, like condoms.
The spike is an "alarming trend," said Mark Colhoun, deputy representative to the UNODC in Afghanistan.
"These mule are small fry," he said. "You need to track down the networks."
The UNODC started working with Afghan police and customs in 2013 at Kabul's airport, and later expanded to airports in Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. It is unclear whether the rise in heroin being seized represents an increase in trafficking or better tracking of smugglers.
But opium cultivation in Afghanistan, which produces some 90 percent of the world's illegal opiates, is on the rise.
Afghan smugglers often travel to India under the guise of seeking medical care, said a senior official in India's Narcotics Control Bureau speaking on condition of anonymity.
In India, the smugglers sell the heroin to dealers, who then sell the drug through networks to neighboring countries.
Last year, a joint exercise between Indian and Afghan authorities to monitor drug trafficking at the international airport in Kabul collapsed due to poor coordination, the official said.
"[Kabul authorities] give very sketchy intelligence inputs and often they don't share the profile of smugglers and their background with us," he said.
The Afghan government said only 12 kilograms of heroin have been apprehended at the Kabul airport since last March, and did not comment on the exercise.
"We believe combating drug trafficking requires global cooperation," said a Ministry of Interior statement.
Amar Sinha, the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, said Indian authorities were in "active cooperation" with Afghanistan on anti-narcotics.
The U.N. said most traffickers were bound for New Delhi, but officials have also stopped smugglers trying to board flights to the United Arab Emirates.
(Additional reporting in New Delhi by Rupam Jain Nair; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)