The Balkans, which lie at the heart of South-Eastern Europe, have historically been an important transit route for drugs, especially for heroin coming from the East to be trafficked across Europe.
In particular, after the fall of communism in 1991, Albania also became an important country in the region for heroin trafficking. Strategically positioned at the centre of the region, with a large coastline along both the Adriatic and Ionian seas and neighbouring Italy and Greece, the country quickly turned into a key hub for heroin coming from the East before reaching the European Union.
Alongside heroin trafficking, the country is also known for illicit cannabis cultivation. For over two decades, Albania was considered one of Europe’s largest producers of outdoor cannabis, a phenomenon that was tolerated by those in power. From 2000 to 2014, Lazarat, a village in south Albania, was one of the country’s symbols of cannabis cultivation. The village became a safe place for cultivation, though the plots of cannabis did not belong to the village citizens alone: criminals from other areas of the country could rent land in the town and cultivate their own crop. Together with Lazarat, Dukagjini Highlands in northern Albania’s Shkodër municipality was also a notorious place for cultivation.
Despite a 2014 police crackdown in both places, the war against cannabis cultivation was far from over. In fact, in 2016, the country saw an unprecedent level of spread in cannabis cultivation all over the country. This situation raised the alarm and, as result of internal and external pressures, the police and other institutions in Albania intensified their efforts against the phenomenon, bringing cultivation rates to historic lows over the past five years.
This long experience with heroin trafficking — coupled with large, illegal cannabis cultivation — has granted Albanian criminal groups crucial know-how as well as financial leverage.
As a result, at the beginning of 2000, these groups have also entered the lucrative 'business' of cocaine trafficking. The start was humble. Criminals from Albania were randomly contracted from the Italian mafia and other criminal networks to drive cocaine from ports throughout the continent and distributing it in the streets of European capitals.
However, Albanian criminal groups soon started to master the skills and learned the tricks, moving up the value chain to eventually become major distributors by securing cocaine directly from Latin America before unloading it in Albania and some of Western Europe’s major ports; thus creating distribution networks across the continent and beyond.
Drawing from the Italian mafia model, these criminal groups have effectively moved upstream toward the source: their brokers are in the countries where cocaine is produced — like Colombia — and in important dispatching centres — like Ecuador.
Their activities were facilitated by the fact that these groups had also started to build cells and expand their activities in major cities across the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, among others.
As such, they were able to create and run the whole chain, from arranging big shipments directly from Latin America to street distribution throughout Europe, empowering themselves and raising their prominence.
Accounts show this business model has secured them millions of euros in revenue, money that is usually laundered in Albania as well as countries where they operate.
Countering drug trafficking
In the overwhelming majority of cases, Albanian criminal groups have drug traffic at the centre of their criminal operations. These groups traffic the heroin that enters Albania through Turkey across Western and Central European countries, as well as cocaine that they secure in Latin America. Illicit cannabis is also a commodity that often makes up an important part of these groups’ activities. Albanian-grown cannabis is usually transported by speedboats to Italy to be further distributed across Western Europe.
In 2016, cannabis cultivation in Albania reached an unprecedented level and was spread throughout the country as never before.
In the same year, the police seized nearly two and a half million marijuana plants, a far greater figure than the average number of cannabis plants found by law enforcement in previous years — usually about a quarter — and almost four times higher than in 2015, which had seen a then-record in cannabis confiscations.. Such data spotlights the Albanian police’s increased efforts to combat drug trafficking. Given the gravity of the situation, the government adopted a three-year anti-cannabis action plan in March 2017. The plan tasked not only law-enforcement agencies but also a wide range of state institutions, ministries, and local authorities to help in the fight against cannabis cultivation. Altogether, the measures have been successful, as cannabis cultivation has drastically decreased over the past four years.
Nevertheless, there has also been a shift in cannabis cultivation from Albanian criminal groups abroad. Since for the past five years cultivating cannabis has not been as easy nor profitable as it once used to, groups have been cultivating it indoors abroad. For example, in the last few years, Albanian criminal groups’ indoor cannabis cultivation in the UK has experienced an increase and raised security concerns in the country.
Moreover, one of the main reasons behind the Albanian government’s efforts to aggressively tackle cannabis cultivation was the international pressure and bad reputation Albania had acquired because of it. Curating this image also became salient as it coincided with the time Albania was intensifying its efforts around the European Integration path. In fact, in 2016, the opening of the accession negotiations didn't happen in part because of the widespread cultivation of cannabis in Albania that year, diminishing Tirana’s chance to open negotiations with the EU.
However, this wasn’t the only concern as regards relations with Brussels. In 2019, the Dutch Parliament opposed Tirana’s opening of negotiations with the EU, setting a date to open the membership talks whilst demanding more commitment in the fight against corruption and organized crime.
In fact, besides tackling cannabis cultivation, Albania has also recently intensified its collaboration with foreign law enforcement authorities, above all with Italy, in bringing down Albanian organized crime groups.
The Albanian judicial reform, which started five years ago, is also showing its first results. A new Special Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime Structure (SPAK) investigating high-level cases of corruption and organized crime has been recently established and is already having a significant impact in the fight against Albanian criminal groups operating abroad, too. These new structures are expected not only to break down the wall of impunity, but also to bring to justice powerful figures who have helped these criminal organizations succeed. The vetting of judges and prosecutors as part of this judicial reform is considered an important step in this regard.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.