Law enforcement in the Western Balkans needs to start going after assets and the proceeds of crime if they want to have any meaningful impact on the trades in drugs and people.
This is according to a new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s (GI-TOC) Observatory of Illicit Economies in South-Eastern Europe (SEE-Obs).
The report provides a detailed look at drug trafficking, money laundering, and people smuggling throughout the Western Balkans.
Albania features as a “hotspot” for human smuggling, particularly at its southern border with Greece. The report found that the number of illegal migrants has increased from 1,978 in 2013 to almost 12,000 by the end of 2020. The increase, it notes, has been particularly dramatic since 2018.
The report confirms Exit’s investigations which revealed that many migrants are transiting the country with the assistance of fixers, gatekeepers, and package dealers. These systems include being transported in small groups in hired vehicles and the use of safe houses. Researchers also heard stories that police and border guards often work to assist the migrants or to look the other way while transportation takes place- for a fee.
An Albanian lawyer told the researchers;
“It’s impossible to move immigrants from one country to the other or to ensure their transportation without the support of the local police. Because there are police checkpoints…how can it be they are not stopped along the way?”
In terms of the value of the people-smuggling sector in Albania, the report estimates it was worth up to EUR 11.5 million in 2020 alone.
In terms of drugs, the cultivation of cannabis is mostly grown in the Dukagjin and Kruja highlands as well as Vlora. The report also said it was found in Memaliaj, Tepelena, Gjirokaster, Fier, Librazhd, Lezhe, Mallakastra, Bulqize, Devoll, and Lac. From Albania, it’s transported to Italy, or through Ohrid towards Greece. Some head towards Turkey and the rest go to the EU by way of the Kukes and Kosovo.
Heroin enters Albania from the Kukes of the Qafe Thane border with North Macedonia. More than 200kgs of the drug have been seized in the last five years. It’s believed Albania is both a destination country and a transit country.
However, heroin labs are found in Fushe Kruja and Has, and it is suspected there are additional labs in Elbasan and Kukes
But when it comes to cocaine, Albania holds the record for the most seized. Durres remains the main entry point for large shipments of the drug, usually concealed in fruit from Latin America.
Albania’s drug hotspot, according to the report, is the town of Kukes in the north, described as a “key axis for the smuggling of cannabis east and heroin to the west.”
As for the proceeds of crime, bars, restaurants, and clubs in the south of Albania are particularly popular destinations for laundering.
Another popular way of laundering money in Albania is through taking out bank loans and then acting as guarantors for construction companies. Data from the Bank of Albania showed an increase in mortgages over the last few years and an increase of 10% during 2020 despite the country being on lockdown for most of it.
The report also noted Tirana’s construction book and a spike in property prices. Analysis showed that the average residential apartment in Tirana had doubled in just three years. It was the same story in Vlora with seafront hotels and properties.
The report notes that “additional luxury projects are currently planned in the city center [Tirana] that do not reflect market forces.”
In fact, during the pandemic, there was a historic peak in the area approved for construction permits, the highest since 2008 and despite a contraction of the economy by over 10%.