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In the 21st century, organized crime in the Balkans has accomplished what empires like the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Hapsburgs and, briefly, Hitler's Third Reich achieved in centuries past. Namely, to compel the myriad, rival ethnic groups of the region to work together for a common purpose. The difference, of course, is in the compulsions and incentives. Past empires used limited doses of advantages for those who cooperated, combined with brute force against those who resisted.

The empire of organized criminals employs a more contemporary incentive – the profit motive – for enterprises such as smuggling and selling narcotics, trafficking women for sex, and moving contraband goods across frontiers. To be sure, compulsion is also employed, whether it be various grades of blackmail, or even murder.

This is not to say that organized crime is an exclusive Balkan specialty, like Shopska salad. Rather, in these times of widespread poverty, of physical and social ruins left by a series of civil wars and weak central governments, the criminal empire has risen to become the largest industry in the region. It is regulated not by traditional power structures, but by multiethnic networks of bosses, transporters, dealers, and enforcers. Its tools are cell-phones, big trucks, vans, buses, fast cars, and boats. The grease for its machinery consists of bribes. Organized crime depends on willing partners in the police, customs, border guards, judiciary and, ultimately, the political class.

Historically, there has always been smuggling and banditry in the Balkans, often celebrated in song and legend, as in the tales of the Hajduks, or brigands. Hajduks were not automatically considered anti-social, especially by ordinary people. Banditry survived even in the days of Communist rule. Narcotics trafficking from the poppy fields of Afghanistan through Southeastern Europe flourished then, under mainly Turkish entrepreneurs. With the fall of the Communist regimes in 1989, and with it, the fall of strong border defenses and controls as well as the virtual collapse of police forces and even of any central authority, the entire region opened up to the forces of lawlessness. Indeed, criminal organizations coopted not only political but also law enforcement officials. They were abetted by the simultaneous collapse of Balkan economies, the crumbling of industrial enterprises, consequent massive unemployment, and the creation of a class of desperate men and women. All of these factors fed into the burgeoning underworld. Its activities were greatly enhanced by the outbreak of the civil wars that brought about the fall of Yugoslavia – the fighting in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, the spillover to Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, the breakdown of authority in Albania in 1997, the outbreak thereafter of combat in Kosovo, followed by ethnic Albanian insurrections in southern Serbia and Macedonia. All contributed to the anarchy in which organized crime flourished.

Adding to the advantage of the criminal elements was the fact that law enforcement authorities, even if they wanted to combat the new cross-border trafficking, were woefully short of modern techniques and technology, including sniffer dogs, x-ray devices and, in the case of Albania as recently as 2001, of flashlights and handcuffs.

Within a short time, the West – the Swiss, the Italians, the French, the Germans and, lately, the English – began taking notice that the Balkan criminal activities were impinging on established Western European societies. All of these Western European nations, but also the Slovaks, the Czechs and the Dutch, published law enforcement estimates arguing that between 40 and 90 percent of the narcotics traffic was dominated by mainly Albanian gangs. Interpol followed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) also raised warning flags about the rise of Albanian gangs trafficking heroin, sex slaves, contraband, and large quantities of arms (although not only Albanians were involved in these activities).

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and various member countries of the European Union have recently energized their efforts to search for ways to combat organized crime indigenous to, and emanating from, the Balkans.

The press and television have also taken notice. Books about organized crime have started appearing – for instance – Drugs, the Empire of Evil in 2000, by Marko Nicovic, and Human Traffic in the Balkans by Jelena Bjelica, in 2002. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post is also writing one, and presumably others are in the works. Academic scholars have so far given very little attention to the subject.

For the most part, published accounts of organized crime, however thorough and reputable, have tended to be brief and limited to one kind of criminal undertaking – such as the narcotics trade or the sex trade, or even a single crime case – rather than the subject as a whole. Thus, in December, one could read three lines on a seizure of 44 kilos of heroin from two Bulgarians at a Yugoslav frontier crossing. The haul was valued at over $2 million, but there was no follow-up in the reporting. Or another short item, stating that Bulgaria had lost $30 billion in revenue over a period of ten years due to smuggling, principally contraband cigarettes and oil. Or, a four-line item noting that Serbia had found and freed 48 victims of sex trafficking in the year 2002. Again, no follow-up on the identity of the traffickers. This treatment has tended to minimize the scope of the organized crime phenomena in the public eye.

In the United States, Congress has held hearings both on drug trafficking and on sex traffic in the Balkans. For several years, the State Department has been issuing annual reports on human trafficking worldwide and, specifically, in the Balkans, together with behavior ratings ranging from "tier one" for relatively good, to "tier three" for bad. These ratings have implications for American treatment of foreign governments in terms of granting economic assistance and other forms of bilateral cooperation.

Since the year 2000, United States law enforcement and intelligence agencies have become increasingly engaged in efforts to combat organized crime in the Balkans. Previously, their overseas involvement was confined mainly to Latin America and Asia. These agencies include the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service and even the National Security Agency. Taken together, the United States has committed millions of dollars to train, equip and back up regional law enforcement in the Balkans.

Why this attention? Why this alarm? A few facts and statistics:

  • The DEA estimates that despite costly attempts to curb opium poppy growing in Afghanistan in 2002, production is up, providing the base for 4-6 tons of heroin a month, refined and transported from Turkey along Balkan routes to markets in Western and Northern Europe. Some ends up on America's East Coast. Three years ago, a French organization estimated the value of the drug traffic of Albanian gangs in Europe alone, at $2 billion.
  • According to guess-timates by the International Organization for Migration and other international agencies, as many as 200,000 women are lured, bought and enslaved annually for the sex traffic in the Balkans, or transported further north and west. Women from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Romania trapped in this trade have recently been discovered in Florida, New Jersey, New York, California, and even Alaska.
  • The involvement of corrupt government officials in protecting and fostering Balkan criminal enterprises has become manifest. To cite a few, the wife of a Bulgarian prime minister, a deputy minister of interior and his wife in Romania, a senior prosecutor and a police chief in Albania and, most notably, the prime ministers of Montenegro and Serbia. In the matter of Montenegro, the former president and now Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is under investigation by a court in Bari, Italy, for involvement in massive cigarette smuggling across the Adriatic. His counterpart in Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, has been implicated in a related operation. If that were not enough, Mr. Djukanovic dismissed his interior minister in mid-December for putative involvement in a major sex trafficking case that is now before a court in Podgorica. In autumn 2002, an international sweep of sex trafficking operations had to be virtually aborted in Bosnia-Herzegovina when authorities learned that half a dozen Bosnian police officers were themselves patrons and protectors of brothels.

By all accounts, the activities of organized crime syndicates in the Balkans are growing and spreading out. Caches of cocaine originating in the Western hemisphere have been apprehended in Croatia and other Balkan countries. In the summer of 2002, a cargo ship bound for Latin America carrying 1.5 tons of toluol – a precursor chemical for purifying cocaine – was seized in a Ukrainian Black Sea port. These were sure signs of cooperation between Balkan and Latin American crime networks.

Yet, some of the Balkan countries persist in denial that their territories are infested with organized crime. Slovenia, for example, pays lip service to membership in a regional crime fighting organization, but has yet to acknowledge the presence of organized crime in the country. Officially, Croatia is in a similar state of denial, although its newspapers and magazines routinely report drug busts, cases of sex trafficking and large contraband operations. Perhaps it is emblematic that Vejko Slisko, a Croatian crime boss who was gunned down in 2001 in broad daylight at the central flower market of Zagreb, was opulently buried several graves away from the tomb of President Franjo Tudjman. Montenegro sporadically dispatches law enforcement officials to meetings where regional policing efforts are discussed and has recently agreed to work with Interpol, but beyond that, its cooperation with neighboring countries on this field is minimal. Kosovo, which has been run since the summer of 1999 as a United Nations protectorate, is, in the opinion of regional law enforcement specialists, a black hole of organized crime, serving not only as a target area for narcotics, trafficked sex slaves and contraband cigarettes, but also as an ideal relay station for transport further north and west. Bosnia, an international protectorate since 1996, has been a natural playground for criminal enterprises, as well as one of their key transit stations.

Now for some relatively positive news. For the last two years, a center for combating transborder crime, established and funded by all the governments of the region, has been functioning in Bucharest. Called SECI, for Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, the center has been supported with money and expertise by the United States from the outset. Manned by 27 law enforcement officers from the participating governments, it has played a vital role in successful operations designed to crack down on narcotics smuggling, trafficking in women, contraband, and even counterfeiting and money laundering.

Unfortunately, the SECI center was created after the fact – after organized crime had already penetrated the societies and the economies of a huge, diverse region with cunning, determined and seasoned operatives equipped with the latest technology for communications and transport. By itself, the center is not and never will be the final answer to the phenomenon of organized crime in the Balkans. Rather, the path toward diminishing the presence of massive criminal operations requires huge improvements in economic levels and in governance, in joint efforts to enhance the infrastructures of the region – roads, railways, waterways – and in other forms of mutual cooperation across the fracture lines of the Balkans. That, if it ever happens, will take a long time.

David Binder spoke together with John F. Markey, Director of Law Enforcement Assistance Programs and Coordinator, SECI, U.S. Department of State, at an EES seminar titled "Combating Organized Crime in the Balkans" on January 22, 2002. The above is a summary of Mr. Binder's presentation. Meeting Report #269.


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David Binder

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The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more