(RIEAS Junior Analyst and Coordinator of the World Security Network Foundation Southeast Europe Office)
The Albanian Organized Crime groups constitute one of the most expanding and networked criminal groups in contemporary Balkans & Europe. Further, their role in the political developments in relation to the Kosovo issue, or the domestic Albanian events should be assessed as well. It is more than certain that any move towards Kosovo independence is strongly supported by them, in order to expand their bases in a newly formed state, thus legalizing to an extent the underworld realm on which they thrive nowadays.
Albanian organized crime groups are hybrid organizations, often involved both in criminal activity of an organized nature and in political activities, mainly relating to Kosovo (1). According to the UN Information Service, “It has become more and more difficult to distinguish clearly between terrorist groups and organized crime units, since their tactics increasingly overlap. The world is seeing the birth of a new hybrid of “organized crime -- terrorist organizations”, and it is imperative to sever the connection between crime, drugs, and terrorism now.” (2) The interrelation between crime and terrorism has its own international and regional ramifications as an attack against the USA Embassy in Athens-Greece revealed last January, that seems to originate from the triangle between Kosovo-Tetovo-Albania and the arms smugglers networks there (3).
In 1997, the so-called pyramid savings schemes in the Albanian republic collapsed. This caused nation-wide unrest between January and March 1997, during which incredible amounts of military equipment disappeared (and partly reappeared during the Kosovo conflict): 38,000 hand-guns, 226,000 Kalashnikovs, 25,000 machine-guns, 2,400 anti-tank rocket launchers, 3,500,000 hand grenades, 3,600 tons of explosives (4). Even though organized crime groups were probably unable to "control" the situation, it seems clear that they did profit from the chaos by acquiring a great number of weapons. Albanian organized crime also profited from the financial pyramids which they seem to have used to launder money on a large scale. Before the crash, an estimated 500 to 800 million USD seem to have been transferred to accounts of Italian criminal organizations and Albanian partners. This money was then reinvested in Western countries.
What's more is the sheer size of the economic dynamism that organized crime is able to produce in this small Balkan state. According to Albanian economic reviews since 2003, legal investments average some 200 million euros, while illegally invested funds are in excess of 1 billion, a ratio of one to five. According to Transparency International, 80 percent of the Albanian economy is a "parallel one"; for every 100 euros of documented capital, another 80 euros are never accounted for, most of it from organized crime activities (5).
The narcotics and more specifically heroin trade is a major concern for the security authorities across Europe, and the role of the Albanian OC groups is formidable over the past decade or so. Dr Mark Galeotti reports that “Two Albanian-run heroin processing facilities in FYROM. Ethnic Albanian communities in Europe provide street-level distribution networks”. He also adds that “This is especially important in Belgium (with a concentration in Brussels), Germany, Switzerland and Greece (which has absorbed an estimated 300,000 illegal Albanian immigrants since 1991). Some 70 per cent of the heroin reaching Germany and Switzerland is now reckoned to have been transported through Albania and/or by Albanian groups, and the figure for Greece may be closer to 85 per cent” (6). In general some 70-80% of heroin being distributed in modern day Europe is Albanian –managed, along with the close collaboration with Turkish groups and to a further extent with the opium producers in Central Asia and Afghanistan. A transnational set of connections par excellence that resembles a sophisticated corporation.
An example of the international cooperation that is needed in order to raid this kind of networks is a routine operation that was carried out by certain European police forces. According to Europol, "A closely co-coordinated operation between the law enforcement authorities in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands has led to the simultaneous arrest of 28 persons. The arrests were based on extensive observations against an ethnic Albanian organized crime group, exchange and subsequent analysis of investigative details and co-ordination both at police and judicial level. The arrests were carried out on 23 and 24 October in execution of arrest warrants issued by the Prosecutors Office of Brescia (Italy)" (7).
The Kosovo experience has been up to date, a great disappointment for the international community. The UN administered territory has not been able to withstand the all-pervading influence of the organized crime. Despite numerous acts of violence and a very high homicide rate; very few convictions have been handed out to culprits, none of those was a member of the organized crime either. Nowadays the existence of regular heroin supply from Afghanistan, and the control by the “Albanian Mafia” of the Balkan route (8), has enabled it to obtain a large capital base that is laundered mainly though the construction centre in Albania and the use of offshore financial centers. Actually the largest enterprise in terms of sales and profits in South Eastern Europe is the Albanian organized crime (9).
On the continent of Europe, the Albanians from Kosovo hold more than 80% of the heroine trade, their dealers are located in at least half the European countries and they smuggle 4 to 6 tons of heroin monthly amounting to two billion US dollars a year. The Interpol data show that in 1999 the Albanian mafia earned 38 million dollars from the drug trade, in 2001 fifty and in 2002 seventy million US dollars. The Interpol statistics also shows that during 1997 out of all arrested heroin smugglers, Albanians accounted for 14%, but that the average amount of heroin found on non-Albanian dealers was 2 grams, while the Albanians were found in the possession of 120 grams on the average (10). Furthermore the rise in opium production in Afghanistan over the past 5 years have most certainly assisted in the expansion of narcotics smuggling interests of the Albanian OC groups, that further empowered their abilities and distribution networks. According to the UN News Center, “Opium production in Afghanistan, a $3-billion-a-year trade accounting for more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegal output, could rise again this year after a nearly 60 per cent increase in 2006, due to the ousted Taliban using the trade in the raw material for heroin to fund their war” (11). One has to take note that the total profit from the opium production is immense because of the metamorphosis of opium into heroin. Therefore, “The street value of the 2005 harvest should be roughly twice the street value of the 2002 harvest, about 173 billion USD" (12). That is just a pointer of the importance of Organized Crime groups in the international financial system, and the key role of the Albanian ones in Europe in particular (13).
In order to thrive, the Albanian criminal syndicates involved in the Balkans narcotics trade need friends in high places. Smuggling rings with alleged links to the “Turkish deep State” are said to control the trafficking of heroin through the Balkans cooperating closely with other groups with which they have political or religious ties . In this new global financial environment, powerful undercover political lobbies connected to organized crime cultivate links to prominent political figures and officials of the military and intelligence establishment.
The narcotics trade nonetheless uses respectable banks to launder large amounts of dirty money. While comfortably removed from the smuggling operations per se, powerful banking interests in Turkey but mainly those in financial centers in Western Europe discretely collect fat commissions in a multibillion dollar money laundering operation. These interests have high stakes in ensuring a safe passage of drug shipments into Western European markets (14).
Most criminal activities in K&M are conducted by members of the family clans ("fis") who control their respective territories. The clans are connected and closely cooperate with similar criminal groups from other European countries, especially from Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria, due to the fact that the main smuggling routes run through these countries.
The family structure is characterized by a strong inner discipline, which is achieved by a means of punishment for every deviation from the internal rules, so that the fear should guarantee an unconditional loyalty to the clan, with the provisions of the official laws considered to be secondary, not important and non-binding. Due to the fact that the clans are based on the blood ties, which is a factor that restricts the number of the clan members, the bonds between them are very strong, which makes getting close to and infiltrating into them almost impossible. Members of other ethnic groups can be accepted only to execute certain one time or secondary jobs. Moreover, the Albanian mafia families are organized in 3-4 or more levels, which enable them to preserve the organizational action capability even in case some of its members or groups are captured (15).
Moreover, according to Interpol reports, trafficking in women and enforced prostitution have become important for the Albanian mafia in 1999 when thousands of women left K&M and went to Albania because of armed conflicts in the region. The Albanian prostitution networks increasingly involve women of other nationalities, such as women from Romania, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries. The pimps usually state that they originate from K&M in order to obtain the status of political refugees although actually most of them come from Albania and not from K&M. Some Albanians control these operations from abroad, where Belgium is the seat of some of the bosses of this activity (16).
In Italy, Albanian organized crime gangs appear to control the car trafficking market. One method they employ is to deliberately drive into a car and then when the driver stops to assess the damage to his vehicle, they take the car by force. The cars are then exported to Tirana. A car stolen in central Italy in the morning can be in Albania with its new owner that same evening (17). In Italy, the so-called “Highwaymen” are causing panic because they have begun holding up motorists and stealing their cars. The method of the robberies is simple but highly effective. These groups of criminals, thought to be mainly Albanians, crash into high value cars. When the driver pulls up to assess the damage, the gang immobilizes him before taking his car by force. According to the Italian police, it takes 14 hours to deliver a stolen car from central Italy to Tirana, where there is a growing demand for cars, especially high value cars (18).
The dynamics of the Albanian Organized Crime seem large enough to alarm not just the Balkan region but further beyond in a Pan-European and international level. The negotiations in Kosovo have barely touched this critical aspect, that is all-pervading and create an imminent threat to social and political stability. In a nutshell there could be not tangible solution to the problems concerning South Eastern Europe, if the international community does not invest considerable political capital in combating with the threat that Albanian groups pose. There might not be a state, albeit they form one of the most important aspects when one wants to assess in a balanced way the actual state of affairs in the Balkans.
(1)http://www.russianlaw.org/Mutschke.htm, CONGRESSIONAL STATEMENT OF RALF MUTSCHKE-Assistant Director, Criminal Intelligence Directorate International Criminal Police-
(2)http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2004/soccp311.doc.htm, UN Information Center in Vienna Briefing
(3)http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_politics_100012_07/02/2007_79818, Article by the Kathimerini Newspaper on the terrorist attack against the USA Embassy in Athens-Greece
(4)http://www.russianlaw.org/Mutschke.htm, CONGRESSIONAL STATEMENT OF RALF MUTSCHKE-Assistant Director, Criminal Intelligence Directorate International Criminal Police-
(5)http://www.worldpress.org/Europe/2705.cfm, Article by the Worldpress.org , on the EU-Albanian security cooperation
(6)http://www.janes.com/security/law_enforcement/news/ipi/ipi0268.shtml, Report by Dr Mark Galeotti on the Jane’s Intelligence Journal, on the Albanian Organized Crime
(7)http://www.europol.europa.eu/index.asp?page=news&news=pr051029.htm, Briefing by the EUROPOL on an operation against an Albanian OC group in Europe
(8)http://www.interpol.int/Public/Drugs/heroin/default.asp, Report by Interpol on the Albanian OC groups
(9)http://glasgowcrew.tripod.com/albanian.html, Archive online data on the Albanian crime syndicates
(10)The information published in the "National Post" on April 13th 2000
(11)http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=21752&Cr=afghan&Cr= , Briefing by the UN News Center on the international organized crime
(12)http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/2005_Afghan_opium_harvest_begins, WIKI News briefing on the Afghani opium harvest-2006-
(13)www.amazon.com/Terror-Incorporated-Tracing-Dollars-Networks/dp/1583226737, Book by Loretta Napoleoni, “Terror Incorporated”
(14)http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/2/2743/1.html, German online archive data base on Balkan organized crime
(15)http://www.kosovo.net/albterrorism.html, Kosovo Net paper on the Albanian organized crime
(16)www.organisedcrime.info/index.php?mode=12&id=26, Article by the Organized Crime Online Publication, on the Albanian groups
(17)www.organisedcrime.info/index.php?mode=12&id=26, Article by the Organized Crime Online Publication, on the Albanian groups
(18)http://www.europol.europa.eu/publications/Serious_Crime_Overviews/overview-Motor_vehicle_crime_2006_1.pdf, Research Report by EUROPOL, on the vehicle theft networks in Europe