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UN: Seven Balkan Countries To Swap Intelligence On Drug Trafficking

The Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) -- the United Nations narcotics watchdog -- is launching a plan to help Balkan countries collect and share intelligence on drug trafficking. Since the fall of communism, Balkan states have become a major transit route for narcotics bound for Western Europe. The ODCCP says the plan is aimed at increasing the capacity of the states to gather and share data to identify drug traffickers and disrupt their networks.

Prague, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention, or ODCCP, has initiated a program to increase the ability of Balkan states to collect, analyze, and share intelligence on drug trafficking and organized crime.

The ODCCP made the announcement on 14 June at a meeting in Sofia attended by regional crime experts from seven states: Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia.

The program is meant to answer a growing need to adopt similar standards in the fight against organized crime.

The Balkan region has traditionally served as a transit route for hard drugs, such as heroin, originating in Central Asia and heading for Western Europe.

After the fall of communism and the outbreak of war in some areas, criminal activities thrived, turning the region into a hotbed for drugs and arms trafficking, cigarette smuggling, and prostitution.

ODCCP spokesman Kemal Kurspahic told RFE/RL the new program aims to help the countries in region to cooperate better against drug trafficking. "Especially countries in transition that still don't have all the technical expertise [have] been part of this program to help countries share intelligence, use the same techniques, same standards in dealing with drugs. It is actually a recognition that no country in isolation can deal with something that is a global challenge, as drugs are in our time," Kurspahic said.

The ODCCP was established in 1997 in response to the growing threat posed by drug trafficking and organized crime. It has its headquarters in Vienna and consists of two separate units, the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) and the United Nations Center for International Crime Prevention (CICP).

Kurspahic said more than $2 million will be invested in the ODCCP-initiated program. He said other specialized projects, which benefit from separate funding, are also under way. "In this particular project, we are planning to spend some $2.2 million, mostly provided by the government of the United Kingdom. That is a specific project which involves intelligence sharing among those seven countries. But there is a number of other projects in the region that deal with different aspects of drug control and crime prevention, including corruption and all the other aspects of drug trade and organized-crime activities," Kurspahic said.

The program aims at expanding the ODCCP's successful cooperation since 1999 with three countries in the region: Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia.

Kurspahic said the ODCCP's focus on these countries was determined by a spectacular rise of heroin seizures in one of them, Bulgaria, which signaled an increase in the overall drug trafficking in the region.

Kurspahic told RFE/RL that the ODCCP's cooperation with the three countries since 1999 resulted in seizures of more than 1,000 kilograms of hard drugs. "In that work together we have produced some significant results. The coordinated activities among those three countries contributed to the seizure of drugs during the last three years of more than 1,100 kilograms of hard drugs. The reason why we concentrated our work initially with these three countries is that Bulgaria is a key transit country of narcotic drugs and in 2000 there was an amazing increase in seizures of heroin in Bulgaria, seven times more than in 1999," Kurspahic said.

But law-enforcement officials suggest that such captures, while a positive step, may be only the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, estimates that some 4,000 to 6,000 kilograms of heroin are smuggled monthly from Central Asia to Western Europe, largely through the Balkans.

Experts estimate that with a kilogram of heroin selling for between $50,000 and $200,000 on the street in Western Europe, drugs that transit the Balkans generate as much as $7 billion a year.

Kurspahic said an accurate estimate of the volume and profits of drug trafficking in the region is hard to make, given the hidden nature of the business.

But he said traffickers are opening more routes to transport narcotics. "There is a sense of increase; there is a sense of new routes, for example, this traditional Balkan route that usually goes from Turkey through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and then Central Europe and farther through Western Europe. This traditional route was used in 19 percent of reported cases in 2000. But there is a northern variation of the Balkan route that goes via Romania, and it was used even more than the traditional route that I mentioned, so there are new areas of interest for traffickers. Another one is the [alternative] southern route of the Balkans through Bulgaria, Greece Macedonia, Albania," Kurspahic said.

Kurspahic said the ODCCP will continue to build regional structures to counter the increasing cooperation among organized-crime groups. "Organized-crime groups cooperate very well and I think that cooperation among organized-crime groups even precedes cooperation among UN member states, so there is a need -- since we face a global challenge -- there is a need for global response, and building regional structures is part of that scheme," Kurspahic said.

In the face of the growing challenge, other regional anticrime programs have also been initiated. Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia have joined to create the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, or SECI, a U.S.-inspired and -assisted operation based in Bucharest that began a coordinated operation against organized crime last year.

Kurspahic said the United Nations ODCCP is considering expanding its ties in the future with regional programs such as the SECI.