By Ioannis Michaletos
(RIEA Junior Analyst)
The past 15 years have brought the Balkan Peninsula in the world headlines, often for the worst reasons. War, conflicts and embargoes go hand by hand with the developments in the Balkans. Even though most of the conflicts of the past are steadily resulted and there is a common feeling amongst the South Eastern European public, that peace and prosperity will eventually prevail.
The main threat to the Balkans nowadays, is the existence of well organized criminal groups that to an extent are an integral part of the world wide “Crime Syndicates” that for the most part control the narcotics trade in our époque. The infamous Balkan drugs route (1) is the main path by which narcotics and specifically heroine; are smuggled to European countries. It is actually a network of contrabands, corrupted public officials and war lords that make sure that the heroine produced in Afghanistan is smoothly transferred to the European addicts.
According to the Council of Foreign affairs (2), Afghanistan has almost tripled its heroin production and in 2005 32,000 acres were reserved for poppy cultivation, out of 12,000 acres in 2004. This fact shows first of all the total failure by the NATO Forces in that country to create the necessary framework for the reconstruction process. As far as the ramifications for the Balkans are concerned, the increased profits by criminal gangs have boasted them with tremendous riches and political influence.
There are mainly two organized ethnic groups that deal most of the arrangements concerning the organized crime in the Balkans. The so called Albanian mafia (3) and the Turkish crime syndicates (4). The Albanian organized crime is very active since the collapse of the Communist rule in this country that opened the way for various indigenous gangs to spread their wings further and take part in one of the most profitable commerce of all times, namely drugs. A leading French criminologist Xavier Raufer (5) has extensively dealt with the issue of the Albanian mafia. He considers the Albanians as the only true “Mafia” in the Balkans due to the peculiar social structure of their society in the Northern parts of the country “The land of the Gheghi”.
An isolated society with very firm beliefs in issues of honor and manhood pride coupled with severe social problems and a culture of vendetta; has been transformed into a huge international crime network. Various reports (6) indicate that roughly 70-80% of the heroin distributed in European is under Albanian control, a really whopping percentage for a nation of just 6 million people. Moreover in the Balkan route –Actually 3 routes-, the Albanian mafia plays a vital role in safeguarding the interests of the world drugs trade by having its “Soldiers” and “Capos” along the way and protecting shipments from police and official interruption.
Furthermore Albania as a country is a major producer of Cannabis (7), which is mainly exported to neighboring Greece and Turkey. The narcotics traded is placed along the trafficking and illegal immigrant smuggling (8) operations that have seen the Albanians gaining the fame as the most powerful and dangerous criminal group in South Eastern Europe. In Greece alone the revenues from prostitution run at around 7.5 billion USD (9), a large portion of that being controlled by Albanian criminal groups. Trafficking of women from Albania is one of the main ways to establish a “War chest” for the organized crime, in order to invest its wealth in the drugs trade.
In essence the first stage for every respectable organized crime unit, is to establish a prostitution ring, make easily large amounts of cash, and then invest them for the drugs trade by constructing the expensive logistics bases, fake companies, pay corrupted officials and so on. Therefore when looking into the different aspects of organized criminal activity, one should note that all forms of that activity are interconnected and that each one leads to the other. That actually is one of the differences of organized crime from the other forms of criminality.
Back to the activities of the Albanian criminal groups, the recent history illustrates the existence of a hybrid criminal form (10), meaning the interconnection between criminal activities and terrorism. The Albanian groups that are mostly active in the North of the country have been associated with the preparations of the U.C.K guerilla forces in the late 90’s, as well as, with their arming and training (11). The troubling 90’s in South Eastern Europe saw the convergence of the drugs trade along with the formation of radical Islamic groups and the pervasion of corruption in the upper echelons on the countries involved. In the Albanian case the past decade it is assumed that the country is facing a virtual take over of its institution by the organized crime that in its turn has been linked with international terrorism, with Al Qaeda withstanding (12).
The main role of the Albanian Mafia in the narcotics trade is the one of wholesale distributor of Afghan heroine. Along the Balkan route and especially the one passing through Southern Bulgaria, FYR Macedonia; the Albanians import heroin and then dispense it to Italy, or Bosnia- Croatia to Austria and Central Europe. After 1999 and the consequent Albanian dominance in Kosovo, Pristina has become the unquestionable narcotics capital of Europe (13). A traditionally provisional city in the midst of the Balkans is nowadays the epicenter of all drugs deal of an area encompassing Central Europe, Balkans, and Middle East. The lack of law coupled with the existence of a society reluctant to pursue organized crime, has created a “black hole” in the centre of the Balkans that primarily lives on criminal activities and the remittances of the Kosovo-Albanian Diaspora (14). The latter is strategically located in countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Denmark and dominates the European heroin trade (15). Despite the fact that Albanians are relatively newcomers to the European organized crime scene-Like the old-timers Sicilians, Corsicans and Irish- the have already taken over the entire European heroin market and make large advances in the sectors of trafficking, racketeering, arms smuggling and illegal gambling.
The infamous Albanian mafia is a formidable criminal network, but the existence of another one, influential as well, should be added in order to examine the whole spectrum of drugs trade in the Balkans. The Turkish crime syndicates are the undisputable partner of the Albanians. It would not be possible for the Albanians to become distributors in the first place if the weren’t able to acquire their good from the East, and that is where the role of the Turks begins. Turkey is a country strategically located between the East and the West. Apart from its importance in political and military level, it is also an integral part of the international narcotics smuggling. It would just be very hard for heroin to travel from Central Asia to Europe without being able to trespass Turkey, the only Asian country bordering with Europe. Turkey is a state traditionally producing Opium (16), for pharmaceutical purposes. In the early 70’s international pressure –Mostly from Nixon administration in the USA- obliged Turkey to enforce stricter rules for Opium production in 1974. Up until then heroin was produced in Turkey as an Opium derivative and quantities were sold to the West with the assistance of the Sicilian (17) and Corsican mafias (18). The heroin to be sold was transported with ships to Sicily, and then to Marseilles were the Corsicans had created labs for the fabrication of the commercial product. From then onwards it was transferred to New York and other USA ports where the American-Italian mafia would assure its allocation in the end-users AKA heroin addicts. The forceful USA administration at that time declared a war against narcotics and obliged the Turks to seek other sources of the lucrative Opium. Soon enough Turkish operational production bases were established in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan. The war in the former during the 80’s, as well as, the resurge of the Kurdish guerilla fighting after 1984 (19) and the Iraq-Iranian war (20) the same period; created a convergence of political, criminal and military operations based in heroin trade.
Events such as the Iran-Contra (21) scandal illuminate how far the heroin trade has penetrated the higher echelons of the world’s decision making process and how it interacts with the international affairs. Moreover the effective destruction of Beirut during the 80’s collapsed the cities ubiquitous reputation as the prime port for narcotics trade and this role was overtaken by Istanbul. The situation after the end of the Cold War in 1989, found the Turks financially strong from their trade in the previous decades and also ready enough to pursue stronger ties with the countries of Central Asia, an aim vividly supported by the USA administrations.
Furthermore the appearance of the Albanians and the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, provided ample of human resources in the Balkans, eager in getting involved in the drugs trade so as to survive financially or gain capital to achieve their political aims. Europe now already hosted considerable Turkish minorities-Especially Germany (22) - and individuals from those Turkish communities were used to act as local retail agents for the heroin distribution in Europe.
In 1996 the Susurluk accident (23) revealed to Turkey the extent where the Drug –Lords have penetrated the upper crust of the society and they were able to conduct their businesses untouched by the law. Even the spouse of the then Turkish Prime Minister Tancu Tsiller (24) has been widely accused for close interactions with notable underworld figures. Furthermore the accusations that the Turkish security forces were conducting drugs trade in South Eastern Turkey (25) were in relation to the civil strife in that region because of the Kurdish fight and that presents once more that politics and criminal groups seem to go hand in hand.
The modus opperandi of the Turkish organized crime in drugs trade follows the role of the coordinator and distributor. Large amounts of heroin shipments enter Turkey each month and then delivered through the Balkan route mostly, to all over Europe (26). It has to be noted that the country with the largest Turkish community-Germany- is being used also as a redistribution centre. That means that when heroin reaches Germany, it is being handed out from there to the other major European markets, especially UK and Scandinavia. Moreover some of the strongest “Capo” of the Turkish syndicates resided in Germany and generally speaking this country has become the centre of gravity for the Turkish drug barons, as far as, their posture in the European narcotics scene is concerned (27).
The alliance of Turkish and Albanian crime groups (28) can be explained at first glance by the cultural, religious and ethnic links –A large percentage of Turks in W. Turkey has Albanian ancestry-. Also, the tradition of the Albanians to join and serve larger ethnic groups with whom they feel to have a kind of affinity might have its explanation. The same was he case in USA and New York especially (29) where for decades the Albanian crime syndicates tended to operate under the aegis and influence of the much stronger American-Sicilian crime corporations.
A recent article in Balkanalysis revealed interesting facts for the interrelation between USA domestic politics, the role of the Turkish lobby and the American foreign policy (30). Even though it is extremely delicate to draw conclusive explanations about the real roots of cover the organized crime activities are given; it is beyond any reasonable doubt that in the case of the Balkans the West has dramatically failed to check the narcotics flow. Despite the fact that thousands of troops, intelligence officers and police ones are based in the Balkans assigned by NATO and the EU, there has been no real confrontation with the realities of criminal syndicate pervasion in the Balkans. On the contrary in the areas where the Western presence is more powerful like in Pristina, it is exactly the stronghold areas of the mafias and their collaborators (31).
It is more than certain that if Western societies along with their partners in the Balkans; cannot control the narcotics trade their incompetence will certainly spill over to the overall antiterrorist security framework that they are trying to enforce. The Hybrid forms that modern crime is currently experiencing will most certainly ensure the continuous flow of capital to terrorist enterprises along with the recruitment of loyal assistants and the corruption of public officials in sensitive sectors of the public sectors. The initiatives (32) by the heads of state of the Balkans to curb on organized crime should give the opportunity for further decisive measures. Balkans have already being developed as Europe’s soft underbelly-Not quite as Churchill imagined- and one of the top priorities of the EU has to be the unquestionable joint effort to “close down” the Balkan route, achieving thus a real advance against terrorism in a worldwide level.