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Albania: Drug Trafficking Changing Routs

Albanian police have detected a new drug-trafficking route linking Albania to Kosovo. Recent drug seizures and arrests along the new Kosovo channel have revealed suspected ties between criminal rings and the Albanian government, and have the international community urging Tirana to distance itself from all corrupt dealings.

Tirana, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This week, Albanian police in the port city of Vlore seized 350 kilograms of soft drugs ("soft" implies marijuana, hashish or any mild hallucinogens like ecstasy) bound for Italy. Also this week, Greek customs authorities at the Kakavia border crossing found 4 tons of hashish and an AK-47 assault rifle inside an empty natural gas tank on a truck driven by an Albanian.

Such seizures are relatively common in the region, but several weeks ago Albanian law enforcement officials had a much more unusual find: police in the border town of Kukes seized 20 kilograms of pure heroin bound for Kosovo. In addition to seizing the heroin, police arrested two young men driving a Nissan Patrol overland vehicle equipped with what turned out to be a set of stolen police license plates.

One of the two men -- Shkelqim Konci -- had formerly worked as the personal driver of Monika Kryemadhi, the chairwoman of the ruling Socialist Party's youth branch and the wife of outgoing Prime Minister Ilir Meta. More recently, Konci was the personal driver of Adi Shamku, a prominent member of the Socialist youth branch and the current head of the road department of the Albanian Transportation Ministry.

Following Konci's arrest, Shamku denied any current ties to the driver, saying he had fired him some six months ago. But according to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the accused drug-smuggler was in fact in Shamku's employ at the time of his arrest. Konci's cell phone was found to contain the contact information for a number of Albanian officials, including a number of top-level police authorities. All the names have since been published in the Albanian press, leading many to speculate that Albania's drug-trafficking rings enjoy the security of close governmental ties.

Both Shamku and Kryemadhi have denied having any ties to trafficking rings, and dismiss speculation about potential drug ties to an ongoing political feud within the Socialist Party pitting Meta against party Chairman and presidential hopeful Fatos Nano.

The general director of Albania's state police, Colonel Bilbil Mema, tells RFE/RL that Konci's arrest marked the first time that heroin traffic has been officially detected traveling north into Kosovo. Traditionally, most drugs traveling out of Albania travel south to Greece or cross the Adriatic Sea and head west through Italy.

"This is the first parcel caught by the police [going into Kosovo], but not the first shipment traveling in this direction. In fact, there is a change of routes in the narcotics traffic. There is evidence that heroin is passing through Kosovo and then from Serbia is spreading to Europe. This followed a strengthening in the border control from the police both in Albania and Italy. The police are not involved in the narcotics traffic. There are individuals or certain segments who do not represent the police and who might tolerate the drugs traffic, but we are fighting the phenomenon."

Mema also says Albania's intelligence services failed to inform his department about the new trafficking route.

"We never got information from other specialized services regarding the existence of this route, but operational information from the police force let us know about this corridor. Actually, the soft drugs line -- mostly marijuana -- is heading for Italy and Greece, while strong narcotics traffic moves through Kosovo.

But General Bujar Rama, director of the Albanian Center for the Study of Organized Crime and Mafia, says the route has existed for months. Rama, who warned of the new Kosovo channel in an interview with RFE/RL's Albanian Unit late last year, says the route has ties to top Socialist politicians, and that the recent discovery by the police was made when a rival faction within the party leaked information. He also said the criminal rings running the Kosovo channel have a long history of illegal dealings.

"[The trafficking] has recently moved to the northern part [of Albania] and is being controlled by groups who even earlier, during the [1997] unrest, had been dealing with weapons trafficking, and later with car theft and trafficking in prostitutes. Now there is a stable trafficking route held by top-level dealers -- according to my very accurate sources -- which goes through the north of Albania to Kosovo, then to Belgrade and from there to the rest of Europe."

Rama describes those in control of the Kosovo trafficking route as a highly efficient "East-West criminal federation."

"These groups will not give up. According to what I know, they are perfectly organized and even if you cut off a branch of theirs, you never get to the roots."

The U.S. ambassador to Albania, Joseph Limprecht, says the fight against organized crime and trafficking is of primary importance for Albania, "Organized crime networks which traffic in drugs, weapons, women, and children have the potential to be exploited by terrorists who are intent on destroying our democratic way of life."

Limprecht says the longstanding lack of rule of law in Albania left the country poorly equipped to begin a transition into a democratic society. He also says the country continues to suffer from a dim reputation elsewhere in Europe.

"Because I think we are talking about a cultural acceptance of criminality that sometimes we see here in Albania. And as a friend of Albania this is something that makes me upset when I see it, because it feeds upon the prejudices against Albanians that I see from many other people outside of Albania."

The problem, Limprecht says, is so severe that it has caused what he calls "a form of anti-Albanian racism" among many Europeans.