Albanian Crack-down on Traffickers

A senior Albanian official has been implicated in a major drug trafficking operation.

Albanian Crack-down on Traffickers

A senior Albanian official has been implicated in a major drug trafficking operation.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Albanian police have launched a nationwide search for a senior judicial figure wanted in connection with an alleged international drug-trafficking operation.

The case has caused a sensation in Albania, with new twists in the scandal reported on a daily basis.

Senior security force officials declared last week that they will do their "utmost" to find Sokol Kociu, chief investigator in the Prosecutor-General's office, who went into hiding last week after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

He is the most senior official to be accused of high-level involvement in mafia crime, according to the Prosecutor-General, Arben Rakipi.

Kociu was charged on February 18 of participating in what police have described as a major criminal cartel, turning over around $400 million a year, which aimed to turn Albania into a heroin distribution base for Western Europe.

Earlier this month, police arrested Kociu's alleged accomplices, Albanian businessmen, Frederik Durda and Arben Berballa. Other suspected members of the cartel were simultaneously detained in Colombia, Spain, Greece and Italy. The arrests followed a two-year international police investigation, in which some 10,000 telephone calls are reported to have been tapped.

Durda and Berballa are alleged to have secured a $5 million dollar deal to smuggle 40 tonnes of heroin from Colombia to Albania for processing. Consignments of the drug were then to be flown to Russia and shipped across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

Rakipi said he had long suspected Kociu, but became convinced of his links with the cartel after he was found in Berballa's car as the latter was being arrested on February 2. The judicial investigator subsequently denied that he had any involvement in drug-trafficking and accused Rakipi of corruption.

Kociu claimed the prosecutor-general had violated tender procedures in awarding Berballa's brother a contract to computerise his office. This, Kociu claimed, enabled Berballa to glean vital intelligence on judicial investigations.

Rakipi's office strenuously denied the charge and subsequently began releasing details of Kociu's alleged involvement in the drug-trafficking ring, which culminated in the warrant for his arrest.

The cartel's apparent plans to smuggle heroin into Albania was exposed last August when the US Drug Enforcement Agency intercepted a ship carrying four tonnes of heroin in Venezuela.

Albanian prosecutors believe it was bound for Spain where a vessel owned by Durda was to pick up the consignment and ferry it to Albania. They say the final leg of the journey was to be made by his powerful speedboat.

Prosecutors are almost daily revealing more and more details of the alleged trafficking plan. They say they are also looking into possible links between the cartel and a series of Mafia-style murders over the last two years.

Tirana sees the break-up of the drugs cartel as a vindication of its conviction that traffickers operating out of Albania are not working in isolation but are part of international crime organisations.

"At last the international community has realised that trafficking is not just an Albanian phenomenon, " said interior minister Ilir Gjoni in an article sent to different newspapers on Sunday.

Rome, which has in the past criticised Tirana for not doing enough to curb trafficking, has been quick to praise Albania for its role in breaking up the cartel.

Both countries acknowledge, however, they've got a long way to go before the flow of drugs from Albania to Italy - one of the main narcotic routes into Western Europe - is stemmed.

On an almost nightly basis, powerful Albanian speedboats head across the Adriatic towards the Italian coastline, carrying illegal immigrants and drugs. The boats are rarely intercepted, as they are too quick for both countries' coastal vessels.

With help from the Italian authorities, Tirana's record in thwarting the mafia has steadily improved over the last year. Since last November, scores of traffickers have been arrested, while large numbers of illegal immigrants detained and substantial consignments of drugs confiscated.

The authorities in Tirana are concerned at the growth and influence of the Albanian traffickers, revealing this week an apparent mafia plan to get involved in politics and government.

Officials claim the criminals were preparing to sponsor candidates in the forthcoming general election and create their own political party and media group.

Next month, Tirana, Bonn, Rome and Athens plan to open an Albania-based regional bureau dedicated to the fight against trafficking.

At the same time, Tirana has been keen to root out corruption within the police force. So far this year, nearly 60 officers have been fired for a variety of offences.

Tirana wants to overhaul the suspect reputation of its police force and judiciary both to fight the traffickers and improve its prospects of one day becoming a member of the European Union.

Llazar Semini is IWPR country coordinator in Albania.

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