Date: Mon, 17 May 1999 22:20:54 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Organization: PACH
Article: 64467
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War leaves drug, arms traffic up for grabs

By Frank Viviano, The San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday 11 May 1999

In the shadows of the war in Kosovo, a ferocious upheaval is reshaping the criminal landscape of Europe.

As NATO bombs and Serbian troops disrupt a Kosovar crime network that has dominated the narcotics trade across the continent, underworld clans from neighboring Albania are making a powerful bid to take over.

They are the real government of Europe's poorest—and most lawless — nation, and by some estimates even more dangerous to the Allied campaign than the tanks and anti-aircraft systems of Yugoslavia.

“Albania has become the leading country in a wide variety of trafficking, in clandestine immigration, in prostitution. It ranks as a top exporter of narcotics,” the nation's own former president, Sali Berisha, charged in a January speech accusing his successors of corruption and links to criminal syndicates.

“Until recently, our heroin abusers got their supplies from Kosovars based in Zurich,” Chief Jean-Bernard Lagger of the Geneva police brigade told investigators from Geopolitical Drug Watch (OGD), Europe's most respected narcotics surveillance organization. “But now, Albanian traffickers have moved into Geneva to deliver drugs to their doorstep.”

Police officials say that the clans, known as “fares” in Albanian, have even begun contesting turf with South American cartels in the European cocaine market.

“The criminal mentality in certain fares existed before the war, but it was relatively small-time,” says Michel Koutouzis, senior researcher at OGD and Europe's leading expert on organized crime in the Balkans. “What the Kosovo crisis and the war have done is to elevate that mentality enormously, to push it to a much higher level.”

The clans have embraced what police officials call the “Sicilian model” of criminal organization. Put simply, this model works on the solidation of a firm power base at home, with deadly influence on the political structure, from which domestic crime syndicates gradually build international operations.

By the time NATO and hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees arrived in Albania two months ago, the consolidation was well under way. “Whole districts and towns are actually under the utter control of the gangs,” former president Berisha says.

In the countryside surrounding the cities of Vlore and Durres, according to the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and other European periodicals, refugee convoys from the war zone have been held up by armed bands in the past two weeks, with young Kosovar women singled out and abducted.

Elsewhere in the country, humanitarian workers and journalists from many Western news services report highly organized war profiteering — including the diversion of aid shipments into the black market, bribery demands by customs agents processing the shipments in Albanian ports, and gang-run “taxi firms” charging as much as $120 to transport exhausted refugee families less than eight miles from the Kosovo border to the Albanian town of Kukes.

The normal fee is $4. An unheated room for aid workers in Kukes today rents for $300 per night, in ramshackle houses that sold outright for less than $1,000 before the NATO bombings began.

“It's like the Klondike during the Gold Rush,” Albanian journalist Frrok Cupi told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche, describing the profits being reaped from foreign military and humanitarian operations.

Men claiming to be sales agents for the national telecommunications company have asked as much as $3,000 for the computer card necessary to connect a cellular phone with the satellite network.

“We should know from experience—from places like Rwanda and Somalia and Bosnia—that humanitarian agencies must deal with the local mafias in a war zone,” says Koutouzis. “There is no other way to get to the victims.”

Those who try to sidestep the clan syndicates do so at their own peril, in a land where the number of illegally owned Kalashnikov automatic assault weapons in some cities is greater than the number of residents.

On April 30, the Associated Press reported that “almost every journalist” who has gone to the refugee camp at Bajram Curri in northern Albania has been robbed, including a team from the Associated Press. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which oversees the camp, has had two of its official vehicles hijacked by armed men.

The U.S. Army's Task Force Hawk installation at the Tirana airport, outside the Albanian capital, ranks “crime” ahead of “Yugoslav forces” among the main threats to American troops in Albania.

Locked inside a hermit country for half a century while the eccentric pseudo-Marxist regime of the late Enver Hoxha prevailed, the Albanian clans did not arrive on the European organized crime scene until the early 1990s, more than a decade after Kosovar drug lords mounted their own successful takeover of the heroin trade.

Albanian crime bosses have made up for their late start with extraordinary aggressiveness and risk-taking, say European law enforcement authorities.

In Germany alone, more than 800 Albanian nationals are currently serving prison sentences for heroin trafficking, a phenomenal number from a country with scarcely 3 million people.

The only larger foreign group in German prisons is from Turkey, which has 20 times the population of Albania and millions of its citizens resident in Germany.

Unhampered by the political struggle that led Kosovar drug bosses to put their empires at risk in a war with Belgrade, Albanian clans have also extended their reach far beyond the drug trade. As their local power base has solidified, they have rapidly become major players in a dizzying array of criminal enterprises abroad.

Regional clans from southern Albania are believed to have formed an active partnership with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and its branches in mainland Italy, and emerged as the principal agents and enforcers in sex rings fed by Albanian speedboat fleets that ferry undocumented immigrants across the Adriatic Sea.

In February, a Chronicle reporter found dozens of automobiles with Palermo license plates parked under heavy guard in the gang- infested southern port of Vlore, near waterfront cafes where much of the conversation was in Sicilian dialect. The police chief of Vlore, Colonel Sokol Kociu, contends that a special high- speed ferry service has even been established to serve Cosa Nostra emissaries traveling back and forth between Sicily and Albania.

Law enforcement officials in Italy say the Cosa Nostra is moving steadily into finance and money-laundering, while the dirty work of international organized crime is subcontracted to others.

There is no mistaking the substantial Albanian presence in this arena.

Of 447 men and women arrested in Italy in 1997 for “exploitation of prostitutes,” according to that country's Ministry of the Interior, 204 were Albanian nationals.

Three months ago, a Milan court indicted 20 Albanian men who were allegedly part of a syndicate that transported 800 unaccompanied Albanian children under age 16 to Italy, where many were forced to beg in the streets under threat of torture.

The speedboats that carried these children west have not been deterred by dozens of Allied warships in the Adriatic. On a single night during the NATO bombardments of Kosovo and Serbia, April 26, the contraband fleet dumped 1,200 clandestine emigrants on the beaches of southern Italy.

The violence of the Albanian crime clans has soared exponentially since 1997, when Albania's entire financial structure collapsed, throwing the country into chaos. Riots erupted across the nation. Army units and meagerly paid police, who earn under $100 per month, abandoned their bases and armories.

In the free-for-all that ensued, looters carried off an estimated 2 million pounds of explosives and 750,000 to 1,000,000 Kalashnikov rifles. The Albanian government says that fewer than 10 percent of the looted weapons have been recovered.

“Obviously, as long as the arms stores circulating in Albania aren’t recovered, a real crackdown on crime there will not be feasible,” says Italian Interior Minister Rosa Jervolino, who leads Rome's effort to coordinate law enforcement activities against Albanian-based underworld organizations.

The Albanian legislature, known locally as “the Kalashnikov parliament” because of its members' ties to weapons dealers, shows little interest in the problem.

The arms windfall provided an important boost to the the KLA in Kosovo, but an even larger one to the narcotics bosses and smugglers of Albania. “The same crime groups that traffic in human beings also traffic in drugs and in weapons,” says Jervolino.

The economic and social effects of their activity—and the intimidation that often accompanies it—have been devastating.

“The number of the Italian investors in Albania is 10 times less than it was in 1996,” notes former president Berisha. “Thousands and thousands of intellectuals are fleeing Albania only because they feel insecure for their lives and for the lives of their children.”

Since 1992, one-fifth of the country's entire population has abandoned Albania, usually for the grim life of an undocumented alien in Western Europe.

Vlore and its rival northern counterpart, Durres, are also primary stations on Europe's most extensive stolen car circuit, which doubles as a transport system for narcotics. Hundreds of late-model luxury cars are parked on the streets. The cars have usually completed a circuitous journey, with both drivers and vehicles carrying faked papers, crossing through several Western European nations before they enter Albania from Macedonia.

“At each stage of the journey, the cars deliver drugs and stock up on televisions, video equipment and other household goods,” the OGD reports. “A `transporter car’ will make only one or two international trips, to avoid identification. The car is given as a bonus to the courier, who can have its registration changed by making a simple declaration to an Albanian official.”

In Chronicle interviews three months ago, clan leaders in Vlore openly boasted that two-thirds of all automobiles in the country are stolen. “We regard that figure as entirely credible,” said Lieutenant Domenico DiGianturco of the Guardia di Finanza, Italy's customs police.

The president of the central bank of Albania made the mistake of taking one of the vehicles on a vacation to Italy in 1996—where he was promptly arrested by the Guardia di Finanza and charged with car theft.

Bribery demands by Albania's own customs officers, a thriving business in “normal” times, has boomed with the avalanche of humanitarian aid and military supplies. The number of trucks disembarking at the port of Durres from Italian ferries has risen by nearly 700 percent in two months, from an average of fewer than 30 per day to more than 200.

The only way to prevent massive theft, insists Colonel Kociu, Vlore's beleaguered police commander, is to put the trucks immediately under the protection of a special armed military force as soon the convoys arrive. Otherwise, he says, “the aid meant for refugee camps will be diverted onto the black market.”

Kociu echoes Berisha's charge that the crime clans are directly linked to political parties in Tirana, and through them wield control over the nation's ragged customs service. Although current President Rexhep Mejdani, a former physics professor, is personally regarded as honest, even he concedes that graft and racketeering in his own bureaucracy are out of control.

Reliable sources told The Chronicle that a European Union investigative unit assembled 70 files on customs corruption and turned them over to the Albanian finance ministry in January. The findings have not yet been made public. But evidence of the corruption's scale can be gleaned from a mammoth disparity between declared tax and customs receipts and the consumption of certain import goods in Albania.

In 1998, reports Tirana journalist Sami Neza, Albanians smoked an estimated 8,000 tons of U.S. and Western European cigarettes.

The total amount officially checked through Albanian customs was 11 tons.

“There's a virus that stands in the way of being honest in Albania: the virus of illegality,” Colonel Kociu says.

“This virus lives and exists for the wretched interests of politicians. It is cultivated in the nerve centers of the state, in the customs service, in law enforcement, in the courts. It's an epidemic.”

Two months ago, a four-man official delegation from the Albanian government was prevented by Italian police from boarding a flight to France while the plane was in transit at Milan's Malpensa airport.The police were put on guard by discrepancies in one of the men's diplomatic passports. The suspicious “diplomat” turned out to be Gazmend Mahmutaj—wanted for murder, and thought by European police to be the Albanian mafia's “boss of bosses”—traveling under an alias.

His destination was the headquarters of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where the group was scheduled to participate in the ratification of an International Crime Tribunal treaty.