Kosovo Drug Threat

Albanian drug dealers and traffickers are flourishing in post-war Kosovo

Kosovo Drug Threat

Albanian drug dealers and traffickers are flourishing in post-war Kosovo

A group of Albanian youngsters sprawl over a sofa in one of Pristina's many cafes. The teenagers, half-asleep, their eyes ringed by dark circles, are victims of Kosovo's burgeoning drug culture.

A score of marijuana, the most popular drug in Kosovo, cost around ten German marks. The distribution network is well-organised. Dozens of dealers - many of them youths - supply hundreds of clients.

Ben is one such dealer. He makes at least ten sales a day, supplying marijuana and hashish. "Nine months ago, when I started to deal, I only had a few clients. Now I've got loads. Marijuana sells the best."

The drugs enter Kosovo by two routes, through Albania and Macedonia. Much of the cannabis imported is consumed locally, whereas the more expensive drugs like cocaine and heroin are shipped on to Albania en route to western Europe.

International narcotics experts believe the province's drug smugglers are handling up to five tonnes of heroin a month, more than twice the quantity they were trafficking before the war.

"It's coming through easier and cheaper - and there's much more of it," Marko Nicovic, vice-president of the international enforcement officers association, recently told the The Guardian newspaper.

"If this goes on we are predicting a heroin boom in western Europe on the same scale as the one in the early 80s."

The Kosovo conflict forced Albanian drug traffickers to abandon the well-established "Balkan route" - a smuggling channel from Afghanistan via Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo to western Europe.

But with the end of the conflict and the absence of robust law enforcement agencies in Kosovo, the route is being revived, experts say.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, drugs began entering Kosovo from Macedonia. Macedonian customs officers recently seized 465 kilos of cannabis on the country's Albanian border.

At the same time, the porous border between Kosovo and Albania enabled traffickers to ship drugs without much fear of capture.

Southern Albania is a major cannabis growing area, offering the impoverished local community a much needed source of income. Once harvested, it is shipped to the northeastern Albanian town of Kukes and then onto Prizren in Kosovo.

The reinforcement of KFOR patrols along the Kosovo-Albanian border has had some impact on traffickers, forcing them to find alternative routes along that frontier. One Kosovar dealer said he now uses secondary roads to transport shipments, "though we now transport in smaller amounts," he conceded.

The dealer said he used to sell drugs in Germany, but returned to Kosovo last year. He said he is now part of a well-organised network in Kosovo, which operates under foreign control. "We work on instructions from our bosses abroad, in Switzerland and Germany," he said.

The involvement of Albanian criminal gangs in drug trafficking is well-documented. The Swiss media, in particular, has highlighted the number of Albanians arrested in connection with drug offences there.

The international administration in Kosovo has so far preferred to set the issue to one side.

UNMIK police sources said no-one was currently being held on drug-related charges in Kosovo. The same source said the police were "carefully following the situation" but he added, "we have more important matters to deal with."

The international administration's neglect of the drugs issue is creating ideal conditions for the business to flourish. Burdened with a weak economy and ramshackle law enforcement, the drugs mafia are finding the province an ideal place to operate. Once such a culture is entrenched it will be very difficult to uproot.

Imer Mushkollaj is editor-in-chief of the Kosovo Albanian daily "Epoka e re"

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