It was in January in a dilapidated suburb of Tirana, the Albanian capital, and I met two local cocaine traffickers who had just returned from a smuggling trip to Germany. Like many young addiction teams in Albania, Artan and Luli have switched from cannabis to cocaine because they contain more money and are easy to obtain. They tell me that they can earn about $ 23,000 by smuggling a kilogram of powder into the richest European countries, where the cocaine market is booming.
Between macho tales of American punches and baseball bats, they discuss Rolex watches, fast cars and pretty girls. "As you can probably see," says Artan, pointing to the flooded and flooded street that has not been fixed since they remember, "if you want to go out and get things here, you have to make the trip. Germany, Italy or England Cocaine is a good job. "
Since the financial crisis of the 1990s, which led to widespread misery and civil chaos, the younger generations of Albanians have been trapped under a network of poverty and corruption. For some, the drug trade offers an escape from the slums bordering the Tirana hinterland. But drug smuggling is not new; it is a widespread business in Albania. Although NATO is about to join the European Union, Albania has become the first European narco-state.
According to the definition of narco-state defined by the International Monetary Fund as a state "where all legitimate institutions are penetrated by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade", such as Venezuela, Guinea-Bissau and the Afghanistan, Albania is kneeling the drug money.
A US State Department report published in 2018 described Albania as a hotbed of "widespread corruption, judicial and governmental weaknesses and weak border controls", drug trafficking, tax evasion, smuggling and trafficking in human beings being the most profitable crimes in the country. The drug is a big deal here.
This small and former mountainous communist state on the Adriatic coast is the. In 2017, the Albanian police seized 68 tons of weeds. But it is cocaine trafficking that allows Albania to become a narco state. In the last decade, gangs and Albanian street gangs have become major players in the lucrative cocaine trade in the UK and the rest of Europe. Albanian gangs have made themselves known by selling high purity cocaine at competitive wholesale prices and have contributed to the rise in Europe since 2012.
Albanian smugglers have established direct supply lines via South America and the major cocaine receiving ports in Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. In February of last year, police seized 613 kilograms of cocaine hidden in Colombia upon arrival at the port of Durres, Albania. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of alleged killings of ethnic Albanian criminals in South America. In 2017, Remzi Azemi, a Kosovo Albanian and a suspected cocaine trafficker, was murdered in a gang-type assassination while traveling with his family in an armored vehicle in Guayaqil, Ecuador. The previous year, Ilir Hidri, another Albanian suspected of involvement in drug trafficking, was murdered in the same city.
Albania is unique in Europe because its drug barons are not renegade outlaws. Instead, they are strongly connected to those who run the country and often get along with the very people who are accused of pursuing outlaws.
Drug money is an essential part of the Albanian democratic system, because the best way to guarantee the citizens' vote is to pay it in cash and the best money generator is the drug trade. A, who ran from 2016 to 2019, found that 20.7% of Albanians had received money or favors in exchange for their vote. In January, cocaine gangs managed to rig elections by buying votes. Afrim Krasniqi, director of the Albanian Institute of Political Studies, said the role of criminal gangs in the 2017 election campaign was greater than that of political parties. "Today, we have the general impression that no one can win the elections without the support of such groups," he said.
Protesters fired tear gas in Tirana, Albania, during protests in February calling for the Prime Minister's resignation for allegations of corruption. Photo: GENT SHKULLAKU / AFP / Getty Images
Because drug trafficking is closely linked to power, British intelligence units have been deployed in Tirana to monitor traffickers. A member of the British liaison team told VICE that it was clear that shared information had been provided to the dealers by the Albanian police. The British were joined by teams from the United States, the Netherlands and Italy, all of whom decided to get involved after finding that the information they shared with the Albanian authorities was in the wrong hands .
The last two interior ministers of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama have been victims of drug scandals. The first, Saimir Tahiri, should be tried later this year for drug trafficking and corruption. Tahiri's name was mentioned in a phone tapping heard by the Italian anti-Mafia police about. Tahiri denies the charges against him. He is replaced by Fatmir Xhafaj, Minister of the Interior after the half-brother Agron, imprisoned for seven years for drug trafficking in Italy. Although there is no evidence that Xhafaj was directly involved in his brother's crimes, domestic and international political pressure probably led Rama to separate from his minister.
In 2017, Ermal Hoxha was involved in a smuggling operation of 120 kilos of cocaine from Latin America to Western Europe. However, Ermal had not climbed the ranks of slum criminals in Albania; he is the grandson of the infamous Communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country for 41 years, until his death in 1985.
No one illustrates the closeness between the Albanian elite and its big drug actors, or tells how this country is becoming the first narcotics of Europe, while Klement Balili, owner of a luxury hotel, former official and founder of the drug, described in his arrest warrant Greek as "Pablo Escobar of the Balkans." A 10,000-page dossier compiled by the Greek government and reviewed by VICE describes its meticulously organized, billion-dollar transnational drug empire built on cannabis and cocaine and spreading to countries such as Italy , Greece, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Balili developed his empire out of anarchy after the economic collapse of Albania in the 1990s, brought about by the crash of. Between $ 1 billion and $ 2 billion disappeared overnight and ordinary families lost all their savings. According to the Open Society Foundation, a mixture of high unemployment and low wages means that Albanian gangs have multiplied since then.
Officially, Balili's activities related to transportation, recreation, fishing and security. In 2014, he was appointed director of regional transportation for the seaside resort of Saranda, a well-known hub of drug trafficking. Over the past decade, Balili has built a chain of luxury hotels on the beautiful Adriatic coast of Albania.
In 2015, Ilir Meta, the current President of Albania, at the opening of the five-star hotel Balili, Santa Quaranta. Arben Ahmetaj, then Minister of Finance, and Socialist Party MP Koco Kokëdhima joined Meta alongside Balili at the opening night.
Balili himself was open about his close ties with one of Albania's main political parties, the Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). In a media interview earlier this year, Balili explained that his appointment as director of transport for the southern city of Saranda had been made in exchange for financial donations that he and his family had made to the LSI. Balili's nephew is mayor of the LSI party in the city of Delvina. Balili was very open to the fact that he is clearly interested in his nephew's campaigns.
The Greek police have been following in Balili's footsteps for a decade. But each time they seemed to progress, they encountered an obstacle with the Albanian authorities. In May 2016, Greek police seized 12 members of Balili gangs and nearly 700 kilograms of marijuana after a two-year surveillance operation conducted jointly with the DEA. The Greek police issued an arrest warrant against Balili, but the Albanian police refused to acknowledge receipt. By the time the Albanian authorities recognized him, he had "disappeared", according to the Albanian police.
Three months after the arrest warrant was issued, Balili was photographed off the coast of Albania. It was not an isolated moment: at the time, Balili's smiling face regularly appeared in the background in cell phone sequences and photos taken during social events held by the Albanian political elite.
Balili's proximity to Albanian political power has, according to US and Greek officials, been key to his success as a drug smuggler. In an overwhelming opening speech in 2016, the US ambassador to Albania, Donald Lu, said: "Right-wing and left-wing politicians have listened to the powerful interests of corrupt businessmen, big criminals and even drug traffickers. drug. How else can we explain the fact that the drug dealer, Klement Balili, is still free? And in a 2018 speech, Lu said that the biggest failure of the Albanian government during his four-year term was his inability to catch Balili, whom he described as "a powerful leader of organized crime with political relations. "
"The money was paid, the community respected him, he was a businessman, not a godfather."
In January, the Albanian police finally arrested Balili. Some see his arrest and trial as more of a public relations exercise than a punishment. The Albanian government has announced that its capture was a major blow to impress international observers. But in reality, he dictated his own terms. The Ministry of the Interior and the Office of the Prosecutor for Serious Crimes have been informed of the arrival time of Balili by its legal team. He went to the director general of the Albanian police. Due to a change of constitution last year, he was not extradited to Greece and tried in Albania.
In February, the Major Crimes Tribunal accepted Balili's request for a "short trial", which not only guaranteed that his sentence was reduced by one-third, but also allowed a speedy procedure to ensure that he would not reverse not what he knew about the Albanian political elite. On May 7, Balili was sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, criminal group membership and money laundering. His lawyer has already stated that he will appeal the conviction. A series of influential Albanians have already seen charges or convictions for serious corruption offenses mysteriously disappear on appeal. Balili can still be acquitted or receive a reduced sentence.
Several traders we spoke with who had worked on construction projects in Balili, including Santa Quaranta, expressed their attachment to him. "I do not know what Klemend did or if what they say is really true … but Klemend has brought money to our community, "said one person who asked to remain anonymous for fear of Balili. had many construction projects, and we worked there for many years. The money was paid, the community respected him, he was a businessman, not a godfather. "
But another constructor, younger, was less charitable. "He paid when he wanted to pay, and when he did not want to, we could not do anything to do it," they told VICE. "He owns the police, the courts, the tax officers … if he did not settle a bill and I would have mentioned it, I do not want to think about what happened. He knows and controls everyone and everything. He would have crushed us like a cigar.
At first glance, Tirana is a thriving city, with a vibrant coffee culture and lavish nightlife. Large sums of money have been used to beautify the immediate surroundings of two international hotels where diplomats, foreign businessmen and politicians meet to eat sandwiches club, sweep Tinder and chat. Although they make up the vast majority of the Albanian population, the poor live in the polluted hinterland of the capital, where homes lack electricity, water and glass windows.
The central zone of Blokku ("the Bloc") of Tirana, reserved exclusively for Communist Party officials until the collapse of the regime in 1992, is now the playground of the Albanian elite. In the Blokku, your neighbors are politicians, judges or guys who know how to sell the shot. Mercedes-Benz surround striped bass like tiger sharks. In these bars MPs remove Krug while watching PornHub on their iPhone and listening to Dua Lipa and Notorious B.I.G. These newcomers are mocking, lively and often have only one business to win. Although murder rates are very similar to those in South America or Central America, someone can still pull a handgun at a 25th birthday party and throw it violently in the sky because they can.
On 15 January 2015, an Albanian police officer searched a clandestine cocaine refining laboratory in the village of Xibrake, near Elbasan. Photo: AFP / Getty Images
However, the success of gangs of Albanian drug traffickers has cost the citizens of the country, who are forced to sink or swim in the mud. In Albania, Albanian adults expressed the fourth desire to emigrate – surpassed only by Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Young people first encounter high school corruption in the form of bribes to teachers to get good grades. Then comes the university, where entry depends on a return or a high-profile friend who wants to spark your interest in their political party.
Rudina Hajdari, leader of the Albanian parliamentary opposition and chair of the European Integration Committee, told VICE: "Young Albanians are angry and deceived by the government, we have staggering seismic problems with corruption. money dictates the decisions of our country, and this money is provided by drug cartels – to individual politicians and to all political parties – anyone fighting corruption faces great obstacles. "
Albanians are waiting to see if the EU will start accession negotiations in June and may soon be barred from visa-free access to the EU. France and the Netherlands now view Albanian drug gangs as such a serious threat that they are trying to break the visa-free visa regime for Albanians. The Dutch motives for requesting a stay are "a substantial increase in the criminal activities of the Albanian mafia in the Netherlands and (that) these criminal organizations abuse the opportunity to travel across Europe without a visa … thus expanding their network of smugglers. "
Prime Minister Rama, a former basketball player who took office in 2013 on an uncompromising anti-corruption ticket, was applauded by the international community when he demolished a notorious cannabis village called Lazarat. Yet he struggled to get rid of the allegations of fraud and corruption, which resulted in violent anti-government protests in Tirana, including last week. His critics say he should resign for Albania to join Europe. Lulzim Basha, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said: "We are here with a mission, to free Albania from crime and corruption, and to make Albania a country comparable to that of Europe."
This is where the tension for Europe lies: the concept of "narco-state" has always been far removed from Europeans, who may tend to think that the corrupt states that produce their drugs are the problem of the other . But Albania's central position in the drug industry has brought the problem closer, just as Albanians hope to become more connected to the EU's economic engine. This is the most tragic thing about a narcostat: supporting a nation's elite with funds from criminal activity has its greatest impact, not on distant lands, but on opportunities available to his own people.
Correction: Originally, this story said that the police seized 613 kg of cocaine hidden in February, which means February 2019. The seizure took place in February 2018. We regret the mistake.
Alfredo Affazi provided additional reports from London and Tirana. Follow Monty and Alfredo on Twitter: and.
This article was originally published on VICE US.
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