Iraqi alcohol smugglers: job for the poor

The smuggling of alcohol to Iraq, where it is forbidden, brings huge profits to the dealers, but for smugglers themselves it is a job just to make their ends meet – despite the risk of being shot or receiving a life sentence in jail if caught.

­In northern Iraq, Kurdish smugglers load their horses with hundreds of boxes of booze they are taking into Iran. Although alcohol is forbidden in the Islamic Republic, much of Tehran’s bourgeoisie can’t resist a drink. And smugglers provide them with an extraordinary selection.A box of vodka will cost a smuggler $105 in Iraq. He will sell it in Tehran for over $400.

Although the profits appear immense, the men who actually take the dangerous journey are paid a mere 50 dollars a night.  This is not work for those looking to make a fortune. It is work for the poor, uneducated, and desperate.

“I do this because I’m illiterate. I don’t know how to do anything else so this is the only job I can do,” says 38 year-old Smile Kaleh.Iran is brutal in its approach to keeping alcohol out. A smuggler recently arrested was sentenced to life. Others who have been wounded in police ambushes have been fined up to half a million dollars and then charged the price of the bullets that were shot at them or the mines they stepped on.Not only is the job dangerous, but the living conditions are bleak. 

On the Iraqi side of the small river that makes up the border sits a series of shantytowns full of tattered shacks. They serve as small shelters for the smugglers as well as stables for the horses.

“This isn’t a life. There’s no food or drink. It’s getting cold and wet now and we live in leaky tents,” says 19 year-old Bahmani Asan Pour, who sees no other way to earn his living.

On the other side sit hundreds of Iranian border police – some in concrete towers, others in canvas tents, but all ruthless in their pursuit to keep smugglers out of their country. An ambush to apprehend smugglers is a normal event.

“They came from the other side and took three of my mules back across the border and shot them. Everyone could see it,” Hama Reza said. The Iranians left the corpses rotting on the riverbank as a warning to the smugglers. But the need to have money outweighs the risks. And despite all the warnings, smugglers take off towards the border with Iran as soon as they are informed the route is clear.