Saturday, April 13, 2024
 
 

Albanian Addiction

Cannabis cultivation in Albania jumps by 1,200% in 2019, raising new questions about Tirana’s ability to crack down on drug trafficking as it pursues closer ties with the European Union

EPA-EFE//ARMANDO BABANI
Albanian policemen stand next to burning sacks holding 250 kilograms of cannabis that was seized in the village of Cakran, 140 kilometres south of the capital Tirana.

- Advertisement -

 In the nearly three decades since Albania emerged from the hermit-like isolation of its eccentric Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the poor Balkan country of nearly 3 million people has gained an unfortunate reputation as one of Europe’s main centres of organised crime, drug, organ, and human trafficking, as well as narcotics production.
Over the last several years, the Albanian government has invested a lot of its political capital on trying to change the country’s image to the outside world in the hope that it would lead the Muslim nation into a closer partnership with the West.
Despite having gained NATO membership, a clear path towards joining the European Union remains a distant prospect for the Albanian government, particularly after France refused late last year to agree to begin ascendency talks.
Now a recent report from Italy’s public broadcaster RAI 3, which cited a leaked police finding, has revealed that Albania’s path towards shaking off its reputation for lawlessness and organised crime has come up against a new hurdle; that the cultivation of cannabis – the leaves, flowers, and seeds of which are classified as marijuana – in the country jumped by an astounding 1,200% in 2019.
Prior to the report, Albania had long been known as one of the largest producers of wild cannabis in Europe, as well as being one of the main, key countries in the worldwide drug trade where drug lords are known as untouchables.

 EPA-EFE//PETER KLAUNZER

In 2014, the government launched a major crackdown, which resulted in a significant decrease in the number of cannabis plantations in Albania. The subsequent clearing out of the production sites for the drug occurred in the village of Lazarat, located in southern Albania’s Gjirokastra region, where the population is a mere 3,000 people. Despite the small number of inhabitants, Albania’s drug cartels turned the impoverished village, and its surroundings, into the drug capital of Europe.
The area is home to dozens of houses that, on first glance, appear abandoned but are, in fact, vast plots where marijuana is grown and harvested in secret. After weeks of bloody gun battles in 2014 between drug traffickers and Albania’s security forces, the government was successful in putting most of the cannabis plantation’s crops to the torch. Tirana later offered what seemed to be an even more encouraging report on the situation when it announced that the country’s law enforcement agencies had destroyed millions of cannabis plants and successfully confiscating huge quantities of marijuana, which had already been prepared to be trafficked out of the country.
The newly published Italian report, however, found that the Albanian government’s optimistic briefing about their eradication operation may have grossly overstated its actual success rate. The recent findings indicate that there are still at least 100,000 cannabis plants hidden in the isolated rugged mountains of southern Albania, making it, once again, Europe’s largest producer of cannabis.
The specific type of cannabis plant generally grown in Albania is believed to have originally been imported from Vietnam and has an abnormally high yield rate. According to some estimates, one kilo of this particular type of cannabis sells for €100 and €200 on Albanian streets, several times cheaper than it fetches in other countries across Europe.
Most of the processed product is smuggled to Europe and further afield as various grades of marijuana through Albania’s northern border with Montenegro, south to Greece, or west – across the Adriatic Sea – to Italy. Albania’s drug lords are believed to earn at least €6 billion per year from trafficking or roughly half of Albania’s GDP.
Not unlike the impoverished opium producers of Afghanistan, Albania’s numerous marijuana manufacturers attempt to defend themselves by saying that they have few options to make a legitimate living in a country that remains one of Europe’s poorest.
According to government figures, Albania destroyed 2.5 million marijuana plants and 5,200 fields between 2011 and 2016. At the time, officials describe their eradication campaign as “as actual war” on drugs. Despite Tirana’s claims, however, Albania’s powerful organised crime syndicates are so deeply rooted in the country’s often shadowy politics that even high-level officials are involved in various forms of illegitimate business.
Narcotics trafficking remains the biggest cross-border crime between Albania and neighbouring Greece. In July 2019, police in the northern Greek city of Ioannina intercepted a huge shipment of marijuana just after it had crossed Greece’s border with Albania. Similar large drug busts have also occurred at the Qafbota Border Crossing Point in Saranda, on the Ionian coast.
Origins and reach of Albania’s drug trade
In 1992, shortly after Albania experienced the fall of Communism and an opening up to the outside world after nearly five decades of self-imposed isolation, widespread student demonstrations and social unrest eventually led to open elections that brought a majority-backed government led by Sali Berisha to power. The painful transition to democracy, however, left the country deeply impoverished and in search of any source of income. Amid a massive post-Communist brain drain and with a Third World economy that teetered on a complete collapse and even worse living standards, lawlessness and organised crime flourished throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Amongst the more lucrative “businesses” that Albania’s mafia engaged in was the trafficking of narcotics and human organs.
There is no significant domestic market for marijuana in Albania, due to the fact that the drug can be sold for ten times the price in other parts of Europe. Albania’s organised crime groups, or Mafia Shqiptare as it is locally known, are unlike their better-known Italian counterparts in that they are highly visible on the streets of Tirana and other cities, which are full of gangs that drive the expensive cars that they’ve purchased from money made in the cocaine and human trafficking business. The Mafia Shqiptare is also known to closely collaborating with the Italian mafia, most notably the notorious ‘Ndranghetta from Italy’s southern region of Calabria.
A more profitable business for the Mafia Shqiptare
Albania’s leadership had hoped that its short-lived attempt to destroy several cannabis fields would be a boost to the country’s dismal rule-of-law record and would increase Tirana’s chances of gaining entry into the EU. The result of the incumbent government’s half-hearted anti-drug campaign was that it only convinced Albania’s powerful cartels to shift their focus to the far more profitable cocaine market.
Traffickers in Albania have used the same well-established networks that were for years the conduits of the cannabis trade, usually via Italy through their ‘Ndranghetta partners, to ship cocaine to the rest of Europe. Coast guard officials in Albania described the years 2015 and 2016 as the worst that they had ever seen, saying that most of the narcotics shipments go undetected and that, at best, only 10% of what is trafficked is actually intercepted by law enforcement officials on either side of the Adriatic.
The current state-of-play
In its annual report for 2017, the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime noted that the Albanian mafia was the number one cannabis and heroin smuggler in the world; third place when it came cocaine trafficking. Albania’s organised crime groups have also become much more sophisticated in their ability to launder money earned from the narcotics trade. A recent intelligence report that Albanians gangs are using crypto-currencies and bitcoin cashpoints to launder huge sums of money.
Tirana’s main law enforcement agencies claim that they are working to expand their cybersecurity capabilities to track the movement of drug-related monies, but further doubts about the Albanian government’s ability to deliver have been cast after media reports in August of last year that, for the first time since the much-publicised 2016 crackdown, that marijuana cultivation has returned to the village of Lazarat – a signal that the country’s cartels have little fear that the current Albanian government has either the capacity or even an interest in carrying out a long-term campaign that would completely destroy the country’s most lucrative industry.

- Advertisement -

Subscribe to our newsletter

Latest

Western corporations must be held accountable for their role in China’s Uyghur genocide

In recent testimony before the Senate, U.S. Treasury Secretary...

New U.S.-Japan-Philippines Pacific bulwark established

The leaders of Japan, the Philippines, and the United...

The influence of Russia’s nuclear industry steadily expanding in Turkey

Turkey's decision last month that Russian State Atomic Energy...

Don't miss

Western corporations must be held accountable for their role in China’s Uyghur genocide

In recent testimony before the Senate, U.S. Treasury Secretary...

New U.S.-Japan-Philippines Pacific bulwark established

The leaders of Japan, the Philippines, and the United...

The influence of Russia’s nuclear industry steadily expanding in Turkey

Turkey's decision last month that Russian State Atomic Energy...

Kyrgyz “Foreign Representatives Law” enacted amid criticism

On April 2, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov announced that...

New U.S.-Japan-Philippines Pacific bulwark established

The leaders of Japan, the Philippines, and the United States met in Washington April 11 for the first ever trilateral summit with a deep...

The influence of Russia’s nuclear industry steadily expanding in Turkey

Turkey's decision last month that Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom will build the country’s second nuclear power plant, most likely at a site...

The Schengen Zone expands conditionally, for air and sea travelers

Europe’s passport-free Schengen Zone took an important step forward on March 31 with the partial inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. Travelers arriving in the...

U.S. condemns latest PRC actions in South China Sea as dangerous

Coming just days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Manila (March 19), Washington released on March 23 a strongly worded statement of...

With Sweden now a NATO member, what’s next?

Sweden completed the necessary diplomatic formalities on March 7, depositing its instrument of accession with the U.S. State Department in Washington, which manages the...

Inaugural B5+1 Forum launched to boost regional trade and investment

On March 13-15, government policymakers, business leaders, experts, and investors from C5+1 countries inaugurated the first-ever Business 5+1 (B5+1) Forum which was held in...

EU adopts safeguards on general purpose artificial intelligence

The European Parliament took an important step in regulating technology, approving on March 13 the EU's proposed Artificial Intelligence Act that aims to ensure...

Eyeing competitors, OPEC+ countries will keep cutting oil production

Several OPEC+ countries are extending additional voluntary cuts of 2.2 million barrels per day, aimed at supporting what they are labeling "the stability and...