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Albania: Trafficking Rings Flourish Despite Post-11 September Security

The September terrorist attacks on the United States deeply affected life in the Balkans, as they did many other places. Analysts say security issues have become a priority in the region, especially in Albania. RFE/RL correspondent Alban Bala reports that stepped-up antiterrorist measures around the world mean the numerous trafficking routes running through Albania are facing a tough new barrier.

Tirana, 13 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Already this year, Albanian police have confiscated several large shipments of heroin and cocaine. But rather than serving as a reminder of the increase in hard-drug trafficking through the impoverished Balkan nation, the recent achievements of the police have instead resulted in a kind of public lethargy, as politicians exchange accusations of corruption rather than working to combat the problem.

Andrea Stefani is a news columnist who currently heads the Tirana office of the U.S. International Research and Exchanges Board. He says that despite the public apathy, the fight against trafficking in Albania has intensified significantly since the 11 September attacks on the United States set off a global war on terrorism.

"In my opinion, Albania -- which is overwhelmed by illegal trafficking -- is making its first steps [toward fighting the problem]. But I don't think it's still as easy for the traffickers as it used to be. Before the 11 September attacks, Albania used to be a haven [for traffickers], and it's no coincidence that the Albanian public these days is hearing more about drugs being seized and people involved in illicit trafficking being arrested," Stefani says. "This doesn't mean that trafficking was created and defeated in one day. It means that after years of totally out-of-control activity that was not investigated by state structures, something in the end is getting done. Some steps are being taken, mainly due to pressure from the international community. But the steps are being taken by the Albanian authorities."

Stefani says the international community, aware of the funding links between trafficking rings and terrorist networks, has moved to target Albania's criminal groups. He says the antiterrorism and antitrafficking strategies adopted in the region are propelled by social concerns -- namely, the fact that teenage girls and children are the main victims of trafficking in Albania.

But still, Stefani says, the lessons learned from 11 September have yet to result in improved regional cooperation, despite urging from the international observers to improve relations in the area.

"I think that many voices called for cooperation following September 11. But they remained isolated. In my view, little has been done to organize regional structures or to give life to the words surrounding them. At the moment, the regional structures supporting trafficking are still more successful than the regional structures fighting trafficking, which still mean little more than words and paper," Stefani says.

Ardian Visha is the spokesman for Albania's Prosecutor-General's Office. He says the reason behind the recent crackdown on drug trafficking rings has less to do with increased police vigilance and more to do with the country's intense political rivalries, as charges of corruption and ties to smuggling operations fly within the Albanian government.

Visha says the Prosecutor-General's Office has come under increased political pressure since the recent rise in drug-related arrests -- an apparent contradiction he says is due to the dominance of illegal economic interests in the country.

"I cannot name names, but I can confirm that the alleged drug dealers, according to prosecutors' investigations, have close relations with different politicians in the country," Visha says. "This does not directly incriminate them, but it is of extreme moral significance, and also explains the considerable political pressure put on the Prosecutor-General's Office for its actions."

Visha says the Balkans trafficking corridor is flourishing, with Albania providing one of at least three paths for drugs traveling from the Middle and Far East to Western Europe.

"We recently destroyed a large criminal organization intending to traffic cocaine. I don't think it's the only one of its kind. I believe it was the largest in the country that we could detect, but I don't rule out the existence of others," Visha says.

Visha says some trafficking networks operating in Albania have made the United States their market of destination. Several arrests were made two years ago when it was suspected that police officers working at Tirana's international airport were aiding the trafficking route.

Now, Albania's political opposition says the recent spate of drug-related arrests by the Prosecutor-General's Office are politically motivated. A faction within the ruling Socialist Party supporting former Prime Minister Ilir Meta says it intends to vote on 18 March to impeach the prosecutor-general, Arben Rakipi.

The Albanian parliament has been asked to determine whether such a request is constitutional. A second Socialist faction supporting majority leader Fatos Nano is moving to block the impeachment bid. Nano has defended his support for Rakipi as confirmation of his belief in the political independence of Albania's branches of government.

"I meet the prosecutor only institutionally, and not as a friend," Nano said.