Albania is uprooting cannabis at an unprecedented rate, but endemic corruption and a failure to target the kingpins behind a multi-billion-euro industry give the lie to the NATO member’s ‘war on drugs’
BIRN Shkoder, Tirana, Bari
As dusk falls, the path through the mountains becomes increasingly treacherous. Gjergji leads the way, 10 minutes by foot from the road, down into a beech forest to several small clearings where the first green shoots of a cannabis crop are poking out of the earth.
The 21-year-old quit his university degree in order to tend to the plantation near an empty house his family owns in the dramatic wilderness of the Albanian Alps near the northern city of Shkoder.
“This plant needs a lot of work. But if we manage it through to the end, the money will be good,” he says. “I’ll renovate my house in Shkoder. Then I’ll leave for England.”
Gjergji plucks empty five-litre bottles from a stash in the bushes, filling them from pools of rainwater on the forest floor to water the cannabis plants.
“More young people like me are up in the mountains taking care of cannabis plantations than down in the town,” he says. But success depends on one thing.
“It’s only worth it if you have a connection in the police. He’ll tip me off about police operations in this area, so if we manage to harvest it, from 2,000 plants about 200 belong to him.” That is a potential windfall of tens of thousands of euros for the corrupt officer, if the plants grow strong and tall.
These are the grassroots of a multi-billion-dollar industry that in 25 years has turned Albania into one of the chief sources of cannabis on international markets, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Colombia, Jamaica, the Netherlands and Paraguay.
In 2013, power changed hands, and a new Socialist government under artist-turned-politician Edi Rama declared war on the cannabis cultivators the following year, with a five-day assault on a notorious drug den near the country’s southern border with Greece.
That year, 2014, police seized just over 101 tonnes of marijuana, slightly more than the previous nine years put together. Just over half a million cannabis plants were destroyed, while the next year that number rose to 800,000 and in the first nine months of 2016 police said they had more than doubled the amount of destroyed plants again to 2.1 million.
Such numbers, Rama’s government says, are evidence it is winning the war after years of impunity under the rule of its Democrat arch rivals.
An investigation for the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, however, presents a more nuanced picture: undeterred, cultivators have dispersed into remote mountain areas; smugglers brag about the police protection they enjoy; Italian investigators marvel at the ingenuity of Albanian crime gangs; and in Europe and the United States, governments wring their hands at the stark failure of their NATO ally to arrest and charge anyone but the foot soldiers.
Stubborn poverty, meanwhile, undercuts any effort to convince cannabis growers they have an alternative.
“One is arrested when one has no friends either in the police or at the state administration”
|– New York-based Balkan crime expert Jana Arsovska on Albania’s kinship society|
“Criminal organisations are learning organisations that quickly adjust to top down countermeasures,” said Jana Arsovska, an assistant professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in organised crime in the Balkans.
“You need the people and the society at large to fight this problem, not just state agencies.”
The war began in Lazarat, a village in southern Albania that over 15 years had built up a cannabis industry unrivalled in Europe. Heavily armed, the village was responsible for around half of the cannabis production in Albania or some 900 tonnes per year with an estimated street value in Europe of 4.5 billion euros.
Its residents, who openly cultivated cannabis in backyards and fields, regularly voted for the Democrats, who last ruled from 2005 until 2013.
Rama ordered the downfall of the village’s cannabis industry a year into his mandate, and just a few days before the European Union was set to rule on whether to grant Albania the coveted status of membership candidate, which would unlock more EU funds.
Some 800 police officers, including Special Forces in armoured vehicles, tightened a noose around the village over five days in June, taking fire from those determined to defend the crop as they gradually pulled back and fled over the mountains. Some 130,000 cannabis plants went up in smoke, four drug laboratories were destroyed and 80 tonnes of marijuana seized. Dozens of people were arrested.
Rama said police had dismantled “the 20-year-old taboo of a crime zone that declared itself a separate republic and turned into a mark of shame for Albania”. His interior minister, Saimir Tahiri, said it demonstrated the government’s determination “to install the rule of law in every corner of Albania”.
But more than two years later, just 10 people have been jailed, mainly on charges of shooting at police and cultivating cannabis.
The men were widely seen as bit players in an industrial-scale organised crime operation, the leaders of which slipped away untouched, or were more likely never there at all.
In a progress report on Albania’s application for membership, released in November, the EU commended “remarkable drug seizures and destruction of cannabis plants” but said that the number of convictions remained low. Investigations and prosecutions, it said, “do not go high enough up the drug supply chain”.
“Police and prosecution fail to identify criminal gangs behind drug cultivation and trafficking, and efficient judicial follow-up in criminal proceedings is seldom secured,” the report said.
The previous year’s progress report had warned that financial investigations, anti-money laundering measures and asset confiscation were “underused”. Indeed, between 2010 and 2015, the report said, fewer than 35 people were convicted of money laundering.
Arsovska told BIRN: “Albanian society works on the kinship or friendship system, and one is arrested when one has no friends either in the police or at the state administration.”
“Although the government claims to be ‘fighting’ the drug problem, at the same time we have serious offenders/drug traffickers going free and escaping prison.”
The United States’ ambassador to Tirana, Donald Lu, weighed in on the issue in September, telling a group of journalism students that both the current and previous government “have a problem with drug trafficking and there are politicians who have benefited from their connections with drug traffickers”.
He reminded his audience: “We know there are several members of parliament, there are mayors in Albania and there were candidates for the position of mayors who had convictions for drug trafficking in EU member states.”
BIRN requested an interview with the interior ministry and emailed questions regarding the issue of police corruption and accusations that the state has failed to target the kingpins behind the cannabis industry, but received no reply. BIRN also requested comment from the state police and border police but received no reply.
Adapting to survive
There are signs that the crackdown in Lazarat has dispersed cultivators to other areas in order to meet demand; they are increasingly planting on public rather than private land, within forests or on remote, mountain slopes, making it more difficult for police to detect plantations and identify to whom they belong, police say.
An internal analysis by the office of Albania’s general prosecutor, parts of which were leaked to the Albanian media in June, said: “During the last few years, cannabis cultivation has spread all over the country and in each region.”
“Growers of cannabis sativa,” according to an excerpt of the report obtained by BIRN, “use land which is public property, mostly in forests and pastures, or near water sources and far from residential areas.”
A spokesman for General Prosecutor Adriatik Llalla, who was appointed to the post by parliament under the previous Democrat-led government in 2012, did not respond to a BIRN request to confirm the existence of the report and its findings.
“The situation this year is incomparable with previous years, due to the huge increase in planted areas,” said Hivzi Bushati, the former head of police Special Forces for North Albania, who was dismissed when the Socialists took power and is now a member of the opposition Democrats.
“Without connections within the police and politics, no one has the courage and bravery for such an investment, to cultivate thousands of cannabis plants across the country,” he told BIRN in a café in Shkoder.
The government disputes that cannabis production is up and that police officers are involved. It also rejects accusations, levelled by the opposition Democrats, of collusion with the traffickers.
“The public is creating the wrong impression that there is an increase in surface area of cannabis,” Altin Qato, the deputy director general of Albanian state police, told a news conference in August. “But there isn’t, the police are simply better at identifying it and taking action.”
He said the interior ministry had no indications implicating police officers. “If we did, we would arrest them, because collaborators are equal to cultivators.” Later, in September, Qato said eight police officers had been fired and 21 placed under investigation on suspicion of failing to monitor their areas of responsibility.
“If you want to do this [transport cannabis], you must speak with those in power”
|– unnamed drug ‘transporter’ in northern Albania|
Blessed with an average 218 days of sunshine per year and abundant water supplies running off the mountains, Albania is fertile ground for cannabis.
Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who sealed Albania’s borders during four decades of paranoid, Stalinist rule after World War II, banned Albanians from cultivating cannabis in 1946. The drug had previously been freely traded for recreational use and as a sedative for children.
Under Hoxha, the state took control, growing it as an industrial export crop on the grounds of what is today part of the Institute of Agriculture in Kamez, a municipality of Tirana County.
“It was very good quality cannabis,” Ahmet Osja, the last agriculture minister of the ruling party before communism fell in 1991-92, told BIRN. “The Swiss wanted it because it was very good quality because of the light. It was used in pharmaceuticals, medicinal herbs and rope.”
The end of communism ushered in a decade of intense instability, with civil unrest at home and war in neighbouring former Yugoslavia. Weapons became commonplace, politics became deeply polarised and crime gangs flourished. A member of NATO since 2009, Albania is still wrestling with the legacy of the nineties and the power of entrenched organised crime networks that extend deep into Western Europe.
Arsovska said the short-lived efforts of successive Albanian governments since the fall of communism to tackle the drugs trade were made “more for fame and publicity”, often motivated by the ‘carrot and stick’ policy pursued by the EU towards Balkan countries striving to one day join the bloc.
“In general, there is a lack of solid, long-term institutional arrangements to fight organised crime in Albania,” she said. “Organised crime lives in symbiosis with the state institutions.”
“Flexible adaptation based on an analysis of ways to circumvent government anti-drug policies helps explain why the illicit drug industry persists in Colombia or in Albania in spite of the governments having dismantled several core organisations, including the Medellin and Cali groups [drug cartels in Colombia], or the Lazarat groups.”
The US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook describes “limited opium and expanding cannabis production in Albania” and says ethnic Albanian narco-trafficking organisations are “active and expanding in Europe”.
In Hoti, a remote mountain village on the border between Albania and Montenegro, a smuggler pointed out a narrow path, concealed by bushes and trees.
“From this point on, we use animals for transportation,” he said.
“The job of the police is simple, once an agreement has been reached. They just turn the radar the other way, away from the mountain in the direction of Shkoder Lake, and tell us when the road is free so we send it safely to its destination.”
“To transport one kilogram of cannabis sativa, we pay 50 euros, and this covers the Albanian transporters and the Montenegrin transporters, while the police take another slice because it’s impossible to transport anything without their permission,” he told BIRN. Transporters use donkeys, he said, laden with between 50 and 100 kilos.
“Usually only those who try to go it alone or are not correct with the payments to their contact within the border police get arrested,” the smuggler said.
In Hoti, one such ‘transporter’ takes a seat in the corner of a café terrace, facing the road. He gives his name as Gezim. “Everybody here has ears, though they all do it,” he says.
Like other transporters, he knows the terrain and has police connections.
“At maximum, we have managed to transport 100 kilos in a day, and the payment is the same, 50 euros per kilo. Usually we go during the night or in the early afternoon”, when people are either eating lunch or resting.
“If you want to do this, you must speak with those in power. Otherwise, you end up in prison for a very long time.”
Under Albanian law, the cultivation or transportation of cannabis is punishable by between three and seven years in jail, or five to 10 years if part of an organised group. Ringleaders face sentences of between seven and 15 years.
From Hoti, into Montenegro, the drugs will then wind their way by road across the porous borders of the former Yugoslav republics, through Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia and finally into the EU’s borderless Schengen zone beginning in Hungary or Slovenia.
Other smugglers take a more direct route, by sea or air from Albania’s western shores to the Puglia coastline of southern Italy. A little over 200 kilometres separate Albania’s Durres and the Italian port city of Bari.
“Albanian marijuana often comes on very powerful speedboats, over land across Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia, or by small planes called Pipers,” said an investigator with the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian agency tasked with fighting financial crime, smuggling and the drugs trade.
“Under the last method, traffickers just drop large quantities of drugs in Puglia, where their collaborators on land wait for it,” the investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to journalists, told BIRN in Bari.
The Piper planes favoured by smugglers are light, single-engine, two-seater aircraft that can carry up to around 500 kilograms and fly up to 1,600 km without refuelling.
“The criminal-political nexus fed by corruption allows organised crime to flourish”
|– Balkan crime expert Jana Arsovska|
A 2015 report by Italy’s Central Directorate for Anti-Drug Services cited the use by smugglers of “clandestine runways built up across the Adriatic”. Italy’s National Anti-Mafia Directorate, also in a 2015 report, said one of the favourite tactics of smugglers was to hide drugs among other goods in “modified trailers, vans or passenger cars” passing through the Bari port.
According to Guardia di Finanza figures, in 2014 just over three tonnes of cannabis were seized at the port. That figure fell to 1.8 tonnes in 2015, but on just one July day in 2016, a 10-metre boat was stopped and found to be carrying 1.2 tonnes of cannabis with an estimated market value of 12 million euros.
In 2006, under Democrat Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Albania imposed a ban on private speedboats, targeting traffickers in people and drugs as the government sought to convince the EU to loosen visa rules for Albanians. The moratorium expired in 2013, shortly before the parliamentary election that Berisha lost to Rama, and has not been renewed.
Without its own surveillance capability, Albania struck a deal with Italy in August 2012 for the Italian police to take aerial photos of areas where cannabis is cultivated. The images are sent to the University of Naples, where experts calculate the number of cannabis plants.
In 2014, the surveillance flights identified 815 plantations containing an estimated 165,000 cannabis plants during flights over just 15 percent of Albanian territory, according to Guardia di Finanza figures. In 2015, it identified 1,200 plantations with some 243,000 plants, also over 15 percent of territory.
“We need money”
“When the police destroy more crops, they (cultivators) just increase the planted area,” said renowned Albanian crime reporter Artan Hoxha.
Hoxha has spent years reporting on drug crime in Albania, and in 2015 received a death threat via SMS from a Dutch-registered phone number.
“This year … to make it more difficult for police to attack them, they (drug smugglers) have increased the number of plantations and spread them out all over the country,” he told BIRN, “making it impossible for the police to destroy it all.”
“The Albanian police don’t have the numbers or equipment necessary to operate all over the country. Those who get arrested are mostly unorganised individuals or poor villagers, while most of the plantations survive.”
The EU’s 2015 progress report said the level of police equipment and logistics was concerning. It said the police force makes “little use” of the strategic intelligence tools at its disposal under an operational agreement with Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.
“The poor capacity of judicial police and prosecutors to detect and investigate complex criminal cases means they are limited to simple investigations ending in arrests in the act, so there is no comprehensive approach to investigations and prosecutions.”
The Albanian state police has around 10,000 officers, for a population of some 2.7 million people, earning on average about 350 euros per month. The average wage in Albania is only slightly higher, at 370 euros per month. Almost every fifth member of the workforce is unemployed, and agriculture is the biggest employer.
Smugglers have little trouble finding willing collaborators to grow cannabis, and police officers ready to turn a blind eye.
Arsovska told BIRN: “The criminal-political nexus fed by corruption allows organised crime to flourish.”
Bribery, she said, has a “long tradition” and is generally accepted.
“Looking at the situation in Afghanistan,” said Arsovska, “it is hard to tell the farmers to stop growing opium poppy if you don’t have good alternatives to offer. The moneymaking alternative should be equally profitable and less risky in order for the supply to go down. It is difficult to tell people to stop cooperating with offenders if they don’t have better ways of making money, or if they simply fear retribution.”
Gjergji, in the mountains above Shkoder, put it in his own words:
“[The buyers] have the money, we have the stuff. It’s that simple,” he said. “One kilo of cannabis can be sold for 800 to 1,000 euros. So you understand how important it is.”
“We want to live and we need money. Not all of us will escape, but I hope I will.”
Elvis Nabolli is a journalist for Albanian News TV based in the northern Shkoder region. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.