‘Balkan Route’ addressed in UN Drug Report

by Balkan Insight

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published its 2010 World Drug Report, and corruption and a lack of sufficient regional cooperation in transit countries, including in the Balkans, are noted as factors that facilitate drug trafficking

The report, which focuses largely on global heroin and cocaine production and trafficking, includes data on the so-called ‘Balkan route’ via which heroin originating mainly from Afghanistan makes its way across the Balkans to consumers in Western Europe, which is the world’s largest heroin market.

The Balkans are pointed to as one of the main transit routes for heroin, while the quantity of drugs seized in Southeast Europe is considered to be quite low, with corruption, strong organised crime groups, and a lack of regional cooperation pointed to as contributing factors.

Networks of local diaspora in Western Europe are described as part of the heavily used Balkan route, while inter-ethnic cooperation is also found to be flourishing in the trafficking world.

“Most of the heroin dispatched from Afghanistan to West Europe proceeds overland along the so-called ‘Balkan route’, transiting the Islamic Republic of Iran (or Pakistan to the Islamic Republic of Iran), Turkey and the countries of South-East Europe.

It is estimated that 37 per cent of all Afghan heroin, or 140 mt, departs Afghanistan along this route, to meet demand of around 85 mt. Most of the heroin interdicted in the world is seized along this route: between them, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey were responsible for more than half of all heroin seized globally in 2008.”

However, the report notes that Balkan countries are less successful in seizing these drugs as they transit the region, for reasons including corruption, lack of regional cooperation, and “clan-based and hierarchically organized structures”.

According to the report: “Once heroin leaves Turkish territory, interception efficiency drops significantly. In the Balkans, relatively little heroin is seized, suggesting that the route is exceedingly well organized and lubricated with corruption.

“In 2008, the countries and territories that comprise South- East Europe (a total of 11 countries, including Greece and Cyprus) seized 2.8 mt of heroin in 2008. This is in sharp contrast to what is seized upstream in Turkey (15.5 mt in 2008) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (32 mt in 2008) every year. In other words, for every kg seized in the South East Europe, nearly 6 are seized in Turkey and 11 in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Given that approximately 85-90 mt travel through this region, this suggests inadequate controls and poor cooperation in a region where high levels of unemployment and low salaries also create incentives for corruption,” the report continues.

The report also points to organised crime groups in the region as powerful sources of drug trafficking through the Balkans, noting that the profits accrued by these groups are extremely significant and that they are involved in the trafficking of other goods and people as well.

“The routes through this region also operate in the reverse direction with cocaine, precursor chemicals and amphetamine- type stimulants (ATS) moving eastward into Turkey and beyond. Organized crime groups controlling these corridors thus have comparatively better access to more numerous and diversified crime markets than their Northern route counterparts.

“Thus, many tend to be poly-drug (heroin, cannabis et cetera) and poly-crime (trafficking in human beings, weapons and stolen vehicles, to name but a few)”.

Another notable feature of the transit of drugs through the Balkans to West Europe is the network of local diaspora that help move the drugs along to their destination.

The report found that “some important networks have clan-based and hierarchically organized structures. Albanian groups in particular have such structures, making them particularly hard to infiltrate. This partially explains their continued involvement in several European heroin markets. Albanian networks continue to be particularly visible in Greece, Italy and Switzerland.

“Italy is one of the most important heroin markets in Europe, and frequently identified as a base of operation for Balkan groups who exploit the local diaspora. According to WCO seizure statistics, Albanians made up the single largest group (32%) of all arrestees for heroin trafficking in Italy between 2000 and 2008.

“The next identified group was Turks followed by Italians and citizens of Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Kosovo/ Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and to some extent Greece).”

Cooperation, however, is not limited to within ethnic groups, as drug trafficking consistently crossing ethnic lines, the report notes. “…different ethnic groups cooperate seamlessly. This includes Kurdish and Turkish groups as well as Bosnian, Serb, Albanian and Croat groups further downstream. The 2010 US International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report argues, regarding trafficking in the Balkans, that ‘elements from each ethnic group and all major crime “families” are involved in the narcotics trade, often collaborating across ethnic lines.’”

The report calls for greater support to developing countries that require outside support to effectively tackle drug control, while encouraging greater regional cooperation and enhanced border controls in the Balkan region, for example through the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI) centre in the Balkans.