Organized crime syndicates in the Balkans, spawned when communism collapsed a decade ago, are thriving on illegal trade in drugs and sex slaves. The final destination for much of the goods and services is Western Europe. The trade, which yields billions of dollars each year, doesn’t just pay for the mansions and yachts of wealthy traffickers. It also has a political purpose — supporting the purchase of arms for Albanian rebels.
Nearly two years after NATO troops drove Serb forces from this region, rebels are believed to still be skimming profits from drug and sex slave trafficking to fund illegal arms purchases for ethnic Albanian rebel movements.
This trafficking has allowed both the Kosovo Liberation Army in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo and the National Liberation Army in Macedonia to be outfitted with the latest in rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles and night-vision goggles.
A look at European police blotters provides evidence of the close links between the rebels and Balkans trafficking. Two recent examples:
In 1999, a court in Brindisi, Italy, convicted an Albanian drug trafficker who also admitted obtaining weapons for the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In the first week of March, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported a reversal of the main heroin trafficking route across Albania — into neighboring Kosovo rather than from Kosovo. Later, two Albanians were caught in Kukes with 20 kilos of heroin bound for Kosovo, and then on to Serbia and northern Europe.
Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the Macedonian rebel group, conceded in an interview with MSNBC.com that some of the rebels’ funding might come from narcotics trafficking and a flourishing sex slave trade in the region.
But Ahmeti, whom the Macedonian government has arrested on drug charges in the past, maintained that the volume of donations to the rebel movement made it impossible to check their source.
“We try to vet all the money,” Ahmeti said in an interview high in his mountain headquarters in Sipkovica in northwestern Macedonia.
But even Ahmeti admitted he counts rich Balkans smugglers among his supporters. “We’re not so fanatic to say that such money could not reach us,” Ahmeti told MSNBC.com.
Guns for sex
As hard as it is to link sex slavery with illegal arms purchases, it’s arguable that the region’s sex slave trade has made crime syndicates rich. Of the nearly 1 million women trafficked as sex slaves worldwide each year, an estimated 200,000 pass through the Balkans, making their transfer through the war-torn region one of the area’s most lucrative businesses. Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia are filled with tiny brothels, where women, mostly from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, are forced to work as prostitutes under threat of death.
Ilir Gjoni, a former Albanian interior minister, and numerous other officials in the region said they are certain that Albanians who traffic in women and drugs contribute money to rebel arms purchases. But they admit there is no legal way of proving it.
Chaos breeds profits
The rise of organized crime syndicates flourished following the collapse of the communist system and frontier controls throughout most of the Balkan peninsula, resulting in lawlessness and civil conflict. The traffickers are from every ethnic group in the region, and despite the bloody rivalries that have torn apart Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, they work closely together.
In many areas they work with the complicity of police and customs officials. The U.S. State Department report on human rights for 2001 notes that “instances of corruption and involvement of police in trafficking in persons occurred on the local level. At least two law enforcement officials have been dismissed for accepting bribes from traffickers.”
Often these activities enjoy the protection of high-ranking politicians, who are generously bribed, according to regional law enforcement officials.
Corrupt judges and prosecutors also frequently help arrested criminals.
On April 18, the Albanian state security service acknowledged the problem, saying in a statement that a “dangerous aspect of the growing power of the criminal groups is their ability to establish links with individuals in the top state administration offices and with politicians.”
Adding up the profits
No matter how much money the sex trade generates for traffickers, their big-ticket item continues to be drugs, police say.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 kilos of heroin are smuggled from Afghanistan to Western Europe every month, largely through the Balkans.
With a kilo of heroin worth between $50,000 and $200,000 on the street, the European traffic generates a market worth $7 billion a year, making it easily the biggest regional industry in the Balkans.
In February, Thomas Koeppel of the Swiss national police said, “Albanians account for 90 percent of our problems with drugs.”
Law enforcement authorities in the Balkans openly concede that ill-equipped and underpaid police and border guards can be easily persuaded with bribes to help traffickers.
And police are no match for the smugglers’ methods of evasion. For example, they throw away cell phones after one call to avoid electronic detection and transport their contraband in the latest speedboats.
Gjoni, the former Albanian interior minister, says that in contrast, rank-and-file police “need such basic things as flashlights, walkie-talkies, handcuffs. For now, we are likely to rely on tips from villagers.”
At the regional level, things look more promising. The countries of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Turkey and Yugoslavia have joined to create the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, or SECI, an American-inspired and assisted operation that began a coordinated war on trafficking in January 2001.
The group, whose headquarters are in Bucharest, Romania, it is beginning to get results. It says one initiative involving Italian, Moldovan and Romanian police led to the arrest of a dangerous mob leader, and another involving Romanian, Greek and Bulgarian authorities ended in the dismantling of a network that had trafficked 1,000 sex slaves.
Although both mobsters and police believe illegal traffic in people and goods is increasing, SECI law enforcement officials say their group is up to the challenge.
“It has traction,” says John F. Markey, the U.S. Customs Service special agent who coordinates SECI efforts at the U.S. State Department.
David Binder covered the Balkans for The New York Times starting in 1963. He continues to travel in and report on the region. Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international editor.