Balkan Route – Business as usual

Article published on July 9, 2010
community published
Article published on July 9, 2010
Transnational organized crime is considered as one of the major threats to human security, impeding the social, economic, political and cultural development of societies worldwide. It is a multi-faceted phenomenon and has manifested itself in different activities, among others, drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings; trafficking in firearms; smuggling of migrants; money laundering; etc.
In particular drug trafficking is one of the main activities of organized crime groups, generating enormous profits. (UNODC)

The World Drug Report 2010, issued on June 2010 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), shows that even drug cultivation is declining in Afghanistan (for opium) and the Andean countries (coca), and drug use has stabilized in the developed world, the famous Balkan route still facilitates a lucrative business. Some 85 mt (metric tn) goes vie Balkan route to western Europe markets. What is significant for Balkan route that other transit regions – Iran and Turkey – are seizing 6-11 times more drugs that Balkan countries. Even in northern route – via Central Asia and Russia – seizures are 5 % of heroin flow while in some countries of South-Eastern Europe, including EU member states, are intercepting less than two per cent of the heroin crossing their territory. It is clear that these figures are reflecting one of then fundamental problems in the Balkans – the big role of transnational organized crime in Balkan societies.

The 2010 World Drug Report states that 37% of all Afghan heroin is annually trafficked via the “Balkan route” towards the European market. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region has become a key link in the chain in the transport of heroin, from Afghanistan to the West.

The illicit opiate industry also has a detrimental effect on stability and security in a number of places, including through the funding it provides for insurgents in production areas, particularly in Afghanistan. Links between illicit drug production, trafficking and involvement of terrorist groups, criminals and transnational organized crime are clear. In some regions, the nexus of illicit drugs, organized crime and instability has taken the form of growing infiltration of state institutions by drug trafficking groups.

In this article I try to highlight some aspects of drug trade via Balkan route and their links to society. My main source is The World Drug Report 2010 of UNDOC, which I refer if nothing else is mentioned.

Source and demand

If we are already bombing Taliban positions, why won’t we spray their fields with a harmless herbicide and cut off their money? ( counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen)

After the drought during Taliban rule, opium production surged to over 4,000 mt in 2000. In 2001, the Taliban, caving into international pressure declared opium production illegal. This campaign was very effective, and in 2001, only 200 mt of opium was produced. But, in 2002, when the new, weak Karzai regime took control over Afghanistan, opium production increased and reached record levels, with an unprecedented yield of 8,200 mt, or 193,000 hectares in 2007. The rise in the opium economy has created many opportunities for insurgent groups, militia, and warlords to finance their operations against one another. Other opium producing countries have stopped production. Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey have clamped down on opium production and are now poppy‐free. Combined with a growth in demand, opium prices have increased, and Afghan farmers have more of an incentive to grow opium (World Bank 2005). (Source:Vicious Circle: An Analysis of the Role of Narcotics in Insurgent Violence in Afghanistan From 2001 to 2008”thesis by Jared Stancombe)

The Karzai government that has prevented efforts to engage in aerial eradication of poppy crops, which is one very important tool in any counter-narcotics toolbox. However UNODC officials interviewed by the authors in April 2007 believe that the “Taliban are completely dependent on the narco-economy for their financing.” Where the Taliban are able to enforce it—mostly in the south and some eastern districts—they are said to levy a 40% tax on opium cultivation and trafficking. A low estimate of the amount that the Taliban earn from the opium economy is $10 million, but considering the tradition of imposing tithes on cultivation and activities further up the value chain, the total is likely to be at least $20 million. One should also make a difference between Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Taliban are mainly local Afghans who do not want to be occupied by any invading army, local Afghan nationalists resisting occupation, ISI pakistani agents fighting a proxy war against the US, drug smugglers and opium growers protecting their drug territories, foreign jihadists working with the pakistani ISI and the angry relatives of Afghans killed by coalition forces getting revenge. As much as one-third of Afghanistan's GDP comes from growing poppy and illicit drugs including opium and its two derivatives, morphine and heroin, as well as hashish production.

It is estimated that 37 per cent of all Afghan heroin, or 140 mt, departs Afghanistan along tBalkan route, to meet demand of around 85 mt. Most of the heroin interdicted in the world is seized along this route: between them, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey were responsible for more than half of all heroin seized globally in 2008. The world’s largest heroin market is West Europe, and about half of this market is contained in just three countries: the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

The fight against the illegal use of drugs has almost 100 years long history. In February 1909, the Shanghai Opium Commission, which comprised 13 states including Russia, tried to find the ways to restrict drug import from the Asian countries. At present there are about 30 million drug addicts in the world. In particular the number of marihuana users is between 143 million - 190 million people, about 20 million people consume opium and cocaine, from 16 million to 50 million take non-natural drugs and about 17 million people take ecstasy. The Afghan drugs hit Russia, Europe, the US and the main attack is aimed at the young generation. Over the last 8 years almost one million of people younger than 35 died of the Afghan heroin.

The Balkan route

The Balkan route to West and Central Europe runs from Afghanistan via the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and south-east European countries. This route and its various branches form the artery that carries high purity Afghan heroin into every important market in Europe. UNODC estimates that 37% of all Afghan heroin or 140 mt is annually trafficked into the Islamic Republic of Iran, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, towards the European market. The bulk of the supply (at least 80%, or 85 mt) travels the traditional overland Balkan route. An additional 10 mt reach Europe by air or sea from various points of departure. The so-called ‘northern Balkan route’ is a relatively recent variant on the Balkan route which transits the Caucasus rather than Turkey. Every year, approximately 9 mt of heroin are estimated to be trafficked from the Islamic Republic of Iran along this route. Joining this flow is a smaller volume of about 2 mt from Central Asia (not shown on map). In all, 11 mt of heroin are estimated to enter the Caucasus. After consumed or seized amounts around 7 mt, is thought to be trafficked to Europe.

The US State Department International Strategy for Narcotics Control report, released on March 2010, says that the Balkan countries remain major transit points for Afghan heroin, while the war against traffickers is hampered by corruption and weak state institutions. According to the report, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are used by narcotics traffickers to move Afghan heroin from Central Asia to destinations around Western Europe. To a lesser extent Macedonia, Romania and Montenegro are also considered as staging posts for traffickers. Apart from being an important transit country for heroin and cocaine, Bulgaria is also a producer of illicit narcotics, the report says. With its geographic position on Balkan transit routes, Bulgaria is vulnerable to illegal flows of drugs, people, contraband, and money.

Balkans – the worst link of seizures

"There's nobody to stop them." (heroin middleman on the Kosovo route)

Interception rates vary widely between regions; however, estimated global interception rates are approximately 20% of the total heroin flow worldwide in 2008. Once heroin leaves Turkish territory, interception efficiency drops significantly. "In 2008, the countries and territories that comprise South- East Europe (a total of 11 countries, including Greece and Cyprus) seized 2.8 mt of heroin in 2008 - only 3% of flow. This is in sharp contrast to what is seized upstream in Turkey (15.5 mt in 2008) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (32 mt in 2008) every year. In other words, for every kg seized in the South East Europe, nearly 6 are seized in Turkey and 11 in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the Balkans, relatively little heroin is seized, suggesting that the route is exceedingly well organized and lubricated with corruption. Across Europe, many countries directly straddling the main heroin trafficking routes report rather low levels of heroin seizures, such as Montenegro (18 kg in 2008), Bosnia and Herzegovina (24 kg), the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (26 kg), Hungary (28 kg), Albania (75 kg), Austria (104 kg), Slovenia (136 kg), Croatia (153 kg) and Serbia (207 kg).

However, some cross-border efforts have seen success – not exactly with heroin but coce. The so-called 'Balkan Warrior' anti-narcotics operation involved officers from Serbia, Argentina, the U.S., and Uruguay, and in October last year the joint effort resulted in the seizure of over 2.1 tons of high quality cocaine intended for the European market.

Heroin – the core of lucrative business for organized crime

Getting opiates from producer to consumers worldwide is a well-organized and, most importantly, profitable activity. The most lucrative of illicit opiates, heroin, presently commands an estimated annual market value of US$55 billion. When all opiates are considered, the number may reach up to US$65 billion. Traffickers, essential to the transportation of drugs from production areas to lucrative end-user markets, pocket most of the profits of this trade. One kg of heroin is worth around US$2,000-2,500 in Afghanistan, but rises to US$3,000 on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and to US$5,000 on the Iran-Afghanistan border. It increases yet again by around 60%, to approximately US$8,000, at the Iran-Turkey border. An average of US$44,300 per kg in West and Central Europe.

Corruption and insufficient regional cooperation in transit countries, including in the Balkans, are noted as significant challenges facing the effort to clamp down on drug trafficking.

Drugs seized in Southeast Europe is considered to be quite low, with corruption, strong organised crime groups, and a lack of regional cooperation pointed to as contributing factors. Networks of local diaspora in Western Europe are described as part of the heavily used Balkan route, while inter-ethnic cooperation is also found to be flourishing in the trafficking world.

Organized crime in the Balkans involves a large variety of criminal activities and as such, heroin is but one, albeit among the most lucrative, commodities illicitly trafficked through this region. The profits accrued as the opiates move downstream are substantial. Organized crime groups managing heroin trafficking between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey and on to the Balkans are estimated to earn around US$8,000 per kg of heroin or a total of US$600-700 million per year. The routes through this region also operate in the reverse direction with cocaine, precursor chemicals and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) moving eastward into Turkey and beyond. Organized crime groups controlling these corridors thus have comparatively better access to more numerous and diversified crime markets than their Northern route counterparts. Thus, many tend to be poly-drug (heroin, cannabis et cetera) and poly-crime (trafficking in human beings, weapons and stolen vehicles, to name but a few).

Estimated annual value of some global criminal markets in the 2000s is following: Firearms 1 bnUS$, Trafficking in persons 32 bnUS$, Opiates (retail) 65 bn US$, Cocaine (retail) 88 bn US$. For example the 2010 report, published by the U.S. Department of State, points that Kosovo is a source, transit side, and destination of women and children, victims of human trafficking. Criminal groups in Europe are making around €2.5 billion per year through sexual exploitation and forced labour. In Europe over half of the victims come from the Balkans (32 per cent) and the former Soviet Union (19 per cent), with 13 per cent originating in South America, seven per cent in Central Europe, five per cent in Africa and three per cent in East Asia. (UNODC presented its report Trafficking in persons to Europe for sexual exploitation on 29 June 2010)

Click a related picture from The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN), BiH P19_Overview_ENG

Clan society as success factor

Organized crime in the Balkans has its roots in the traditional clan structures. In these largely rural countries, people organized into clans with large familial ties for protection and mutual assistance. Starting in the 15th century, clan relationships operated under the kanun, or code, which values loyalty and besa, or secrecy. Each clan established itself in specific territories and controlled all activities in that territory. Protection of activities and interests often led to violence between the clans. The elements inherent in the structure of the clans provided the perfect backbone for what is considered modern-day Balkan organized crime.

Many years of communist rule led to black market activities in the Balkans, but the impact of these activities was limited to the region. When communism collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it led to the expansion of Balkan organized crime activities. Criminal markets once closed to Balkan groups suddenly opened, and this led to the creation of an international network. Within the Balkans, organized crime groups infiltrated the new democratic institutions, further expanding their profit opportunities. Albanian organized crime activities for example in the U.S. include gambling, money laundering, drug trafficking, human smuggling, extortion, violent witness intimidation, robbery, attempted murder, and murder. Balkan organized crime groups have recently expanded into more sophisticated crimes including real estate fraud. (More e.g. in FBI sites )

Another notable feature of the Balkan route is that some important networks have clan-based and hierarchically organized structures. Albanian groups in particular have such structures, making them particularly hard to infiltrate. This partially explains their continued involvement in several European heroin markets. Albanian networks continue to be particularly visible in Greece, Italy and Switzerland. Italy is one of the most important heroin markets in Europe, and frequently identified as a base of operation for Balkan groups who exploit the local diaspora. According to WCO seizure statistics, Albanians made up the single largest group (32%) of all arrestees for heroin trafficking in Italy between 2000 and 2008. The next identified group was Turks followed by Italians and citizens of Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Kosovo/Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and to some extent Greece).The combined GDP of Kosovo/Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania at US$20 billion is equivalent to the value of West-Europe’s heroin market. A number of unresolved conflicts and/or remaining inter-ethnic tensions along sections of this route continue to prevent the emergence of effective regional counterdrug cooperation and to facilitate trafficking.

New business opportunities?

Though recent years have seen a proliferation of entry points, including some in the Balkan region, most of the cocaine entering Europe does so through one of two hubs: Spain and Portugal in the south, or Netherlands and Belgium in the north. A few groups from the Balkan region have also emerged as players in the international cocaine trade in recent years.

Some 500 kilos of cocaine were seized Nov 25 in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Núñez. Investigators said the drugs belonged to a Serbian criminal organization –the same one that shipped more than two tons of narcotics on a yacht bound from Buenos Aires only to be busted by the Uruguayan navy on October 15 when the boat was at anchor at a fishing pier in Santiago Vasquez, near Montevideo.

Over the past several years the Serb mafia has established vital business relationships with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in Colombia and in Mexico with Sinaloa/Guzman and Zetas/La Compania, which in turn interfaces with another partner of the Serbs– the Ndrangheta in Calabria, Italy. According to Serb police sources jointly organized criminal groups from Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina take in 200 million Euros per year off the cocaine trade. (Source Narcoguerratimes)

Political aspect

The US got involved in massive drug operations, importation, processing and distribution during the Reagan years, supposedly to finance covert CIA operations involving death squads tasked with murdering Sandinista "infrastructure" in Nicaragua. The deal involved Israel, Iran and the Colombian cartel. Saddam was even involved. In the end, President Reagan was put on the stand only to remember little or nothing of his tenure in office. Lt. Col. Oliver North was convicted as was Secretary of Defense Weinberger and many others. Pardons and "other methods" were used to keep the guilty out of jail. (Source: Did Bush/Cheney rebuild Reagan's "Iran Contra" drug gang? article by Gordon Duff, in Salem-News)

Radical Islam has enforced and widened their activities in Balkans last 15 years. During Bosnian war many foreign Islamists came to fight in mujahedeen brigade also many Al Quida figures – including Osama bin Laden – were supporting Bosnian Muslims 1990’s. US took the side with these “freedom fighters” in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. Links between drug trafficking and the supply of arms to the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) were established mid-90s. This made the base to successful (Kosovo) Albanian traffickers who now control some 70 % of heroin entering EU markets. Kosovo is serving as a junction for heroin trafficking from Afghanistan to West Europe through famous Balkan route. Ethnic Albanian traffickers have been described as a “threat to the EU” by the Council of Europe at least as recently as 2005. In fact, ethnic Albanian heroin trafficking is arguably the single most prominent organized crime problem in Europe today.

So from my point of view US foreign policy tactics helped to create logistics between markets via Balkan route and producers of heroin. This creature has been further developed by itself more strong by financial connection between Wahhabi organizations e.g. in Kosovo and international terrorism and Wahhabis as potential pool for operations. Same time there is historical and social link between organized crime groups and Kosovo’s political leaders. All this has also its international dimensions. Today Kosovo is a pseudo-state with good change to become next “failed” or “captured” state if international community does not firm its grip in province. Today’s Kosovo is already safe-heaven for war criminals, drug traffickers, international money laundry and radical Wahhabists – unfortunately all are also allies of western powers. I have earlier described circumstances in Kosovo with Fourfold or “Quadruple Helix Model” where government, underworld, Wahhabbi schools and international terrorism have win-win symbiosis. (More in “Quadruple Helix – Capturing Kosovo”)

Kosovo - Captured state?

"It is the Colombia of Europe" (Marko Nikovic)

Links between drug trafficking and the supply of arms to the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) were established mid-90s. In West KLA was described as terrorist organization but when US selected them as their ally it transformed organization officially to “freedom” fighters. After bombing Serbia 1999 KLA leaders again changed their crime clans officially to political parties. This public image however can not hide the origins of money and power, old channels and connections are still in place in conservative tribe society. In some other important drug transit zones trafficking is reflected in high levels of violence but not in Balkans. UN report explains this that good links between crime organizations and commercial/political elites have ensured that Balkan organized crime groups have traditionally encountered little resistance from the state or rival groups.

A relatively universal model of terrorist operations in the world - which is, as a rule, usually funded from criminal sources (trafficking in drugs, arms and people, as well as in excise goods) - was applied, at one time, by the leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and was taken over, and is applied now, by the leaders of the Albanian National Army (ANA). Drenica group, loyal to Hashim Thaqi (PM of Kosovo, under UNSCR 1244) is mainly involved in arms trafficking, dealing in stolen vehicles, in human beings, excise goods and, above all, cigarettes and fuel. Through his family connections, Thaqi has direct control over the local institutions through which he provides and secures an unhindered performance of the said criminal activity. The Thaqi family has ties with the Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Check mafia. The so-called Metohija group, led by Ramush Haradinaj (ex-PM of Kosovo), is active in Dukadjin zone in cooperation with Lab region,. The Haradinaj family is mainly oriented toward the illegal trade of weapons, drugs, excise goods and stolen cars, but also toward the racketeering of the Albanian population in K&M. there are also some ten

other families whose operations are oriented toward illegal trade and smuggling and who conduct the described activities in cooperation with, or under the supervision of, one of the listed chiefs.

More about link between organized crime and Kosovo political leaders one can find e.g. from “Albanian Terrorism and Oraganized Crime in Kosovo and Metohija (K&M)”, White paper published by the Serbian government, September 2003. Related background information can be found also from “leaked” German Intelligence reports BND report 2005 and BND-IEP report Kosovo 2007 which can be found from my document library under Kosovo headline.