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In what has proved to be a sordid but lucrative growth industry, the estimated number of Albanian sex slaves in Italy has grown over the past decade from 100 in 1991 to 33,000 today. The trafficking also has spread to other European countries, where 17,000 more Albanian women have been forced into prostitution, says Vera Leskaj, who runs a shelter for trafficked women in the Albanian coastal town of Vlore.

Albania has increasingly served as a transit country for traffickers moving girls in bondage from the far reaches of Eastern Europe.

Albanian gangs, more ruthless than their competitors, have taken over many of the trafficking networks, buying and selling sex slaves in Italy and other Western European countries. By 1997, the traffic in Italy was “almost totally monopolized by Albanian gangs,” said Corrado Lembo, then deputy head of the Italian National Anti-Mafia Directorate.

In some cases, traffickers have tattooed girls with their gang symbols, according to a Italian-U.S. working group. Uncooperative girls have been disfigured and even killed.

Ilir Gjoni, a former Albanian interior minister, said that late in August, police found two Romanian girls in the seaside resort of Saranda in the hands of two traffickers with a bag full of money. “We arrested them,” he said.

This was followed by a sweep in the north, in the cities of Tropoje, Shkoder and Kukes. “Women in cars were coming from Montenegro,” Gjoni said. “We rescued two girls from Romania.

They identified police in league with traffickers. They said there were 20 more waiting in a pen in Podgorica,” the capital of Montenegro.

At this stage, Albania and Montenegro do not cooperate in fighting trafficking.

In January, the Albanian parliament passed a law making trafficking punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

David Binder covered the Balkans for The New York Times starting in 1963. He continues to travel in and report on the region.

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