Monday, June 11, 2007

Albania's Hero

Albania an artificial country created, by Woodrow Wilson, after WWI, that is a bastion of international crime and terrorism heralds George Bush as its hero.

It was a unique day in the recent history of the Bush presidency: The U.S. leader, whose stops in Italy and Germany earlier on this trip prompted massive demonstrations against him and the Iraq war, could not suppress a satisfied smile as Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called him "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times."

He told the Albanians what they wanted to hear: that he supported their effort to join NATO and wanted independence soon for Kosovo, a largely ethnic Albanian breakaway province of Serbia, without making any fresh commitments. "At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you've got to say, 'Enough is enough - Kosovo is independent,' " Bush said.

Well at least he has one country he can retire to. Though their real hero should be Bill Clinton, who got them Kosovo.

Like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia this is another criminal terror state that is a client of the U.S.

In 2006, Albania granted political asylum to eight persons deemed "no longer enemy combatants" being held by U.S. authorities in Guantanamo Bay, another indicator of the strong ties between the U.S. and Albania and their willingness to support our efforts in the Global War on Terror.

Albania is known as the country of revenge. There is a code of honor followed by some (primarily in the north) that results in blood killings related to families and clans. Often these clashes are related to organized crime and turf battles. On occasion, these blood feuds or revenge killings occur in Tirana and other cities outside of the north. Albania transitioned from communist rule between 1990 and 1992, putting an end to 46 years of isolation and establishing a multiparty democracy. The transition to democracy was not easy. The country had to cope with political instability as successive governments tried to deal "with high unemployment, widespread corruption, a dilapidated physical infrastructure, powerful organized crime networks and combative political opponents," according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Like its neighbours, even though it’s a democracy, Albania suffers from the post-1989 syndrome. Independent institutions are shaky; high politics are a sour duel of personal slurs; Prime Minister Sali Berisha is accused of authoritarianism; corruption is widespread, poverty is widespread and organised crime remains a problem. (Sound familiar?)

EUROPOL is—in a sense—the equivalent of the European Union's F.B.I. Over the years, it has dealt extensively with organized crime in Europe in the sectors of money laundering, connections with terrorism, and trafficking.

In the case of Albania, the European authority is very much concerned about the overall attention the state is paying to the all-pervading influence of crime networks within the country. A very interesting aspect is the existence of a well developed network within Albania that imports capital made by illegal trade—mostly narcotics and human trafficking—and then invests it in construction and finance. Albanian media has been busy exposing reports from abroad, such as one from the F.B.I., that highlight the ties between heads of organized crime and public figures of the state. These ties have the effect of hindering the efficiency of the state system in combating illegal activities of organized form.

Interestingly, during the recent municipal elections in Albania, the opposition party won largely because its campaign focused on the alleged ties between state officials and "Mafia capos" therefore relying on public sentiment that is heavily burdened by the inability of the state to protect its citizens and its own interests. The sectors in which corruption is more evident in Albania are the police, the tax service, and to a great extent the judiciary system, which is composed by very low paid public servants who have to deal with increased pressure from the crime barons.

Balkan organized crime

The Balkan Organized Crime (BOC initiative, which consists of addressing organized criminal activity emanating from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and Greece, is a relatively new program, and a very high profile endeavor on the part of the FBI's Organized Crime Section (OCS) and DOJ's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section (OCRS). Balkan organized crime is an emerging organized crime problem with transnational ramifications that has been identified and is being addressed in 12 FBI divisions throughout the United States.

Balkan organized crime groups, particularly those composed of ethnic Albanians, have expanded rapidly over the last decade to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries, and are beginning to gain a foothold in the United States. In the last year or two, European nations have recognized that Balkan organized crime is one of the greatest criminal threats that they face. European police organizations now estimate that Balkan organized crime groups control upwards of 70% of the heroin market in some of the larger European nations, and are rapidly taking over human smuggling, prostitution and car theft rings across Europe.

Domestically, Albanian organized crime groups have been involved in murders, bank and ATM burglaries, passport and visa fraud, illegal gambling, weapons & narcotics trafficking, and extortion. In New York City, the Albanians have actually challenged the LCN for control of some traditional criminal activities which have historically been the mainstay of LCN operations. Albanian OC groups have also formed partnerships with the Gambino, Genovese, and Luchese LCN families to facilitate specific crimes.

While the Albanian organized crime groups have a well-deserved reputation in underworld circles for extreme violence, they are also knowledgeable about United States sentencing guidelines. For example, rather than rob a bank at gun-point with employees and customers present, and potentially receive a long sentence, we have seen them burglarize the bank after hours by smashing into unguarded ATMs through brute force.

The Albanian Mafia or Albanian Organized Crime (OC) are the general terms used for various criminal organizations based in Albania or composed of ethnic-Albanians. Albanian criminals are significantly active in the United States and the European Union (EU) countries, participating in a diverse range of criminal enterprises from human trafficking and prostitution to narcotics and gunrunning. Although the term "mafia" is often used as a description, it does not imply that all Albanian criminal activities are coordinated or regulated by an overarching governing body headquartered in Albania proper, Kosovo or elsewhere. Despite media reports that often have the effect of suggesting an emerging global Albanian mafia "movement" or network, this interpretation has not been substantiated.

The nature of the relationship between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Albanian organized crime has been a controversial subject. During the 1990s the KLA was viewed by many, including top US government personnel, as a freedom fighting organization struggling for the rights of ethnic Albanians, while others claimed that the KLA was a terrorist group financed and guided by the United States. For example, Senator Joe Lieberman said regarding the KLA: "The United States and the Kosovo Liberation Army stand for the same values and principles...fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values."[

In 1999 the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee accentuated widespread allegations of the KLA's criminal connections, claiming that a "major portion of the KLA finances are derived from [criminal] networks, mainly proceeds from drug trafficking" the report goes on to say that former president Bill Clinton's befriending of the group is "consistent Clinton policy of cultivating relationships with groups known for terrorist violence... in what may be a strategy of attempting to wean away a group from its penchant for violence by adopting its cause as an element of U.S. policy."

KLA is not a genuine movement of freedom fighters but a highly morally corrupted organization deeply involved in terrorism and criminal activities, which makes it very dangerous for the regional stability. Despite its official disbandment in Sept 1999 it continues its existence through the elements of Kosovo Protection Corps, Kosovo Albanian mafia as well as different sattelite organizations like NLA, UCPBM, ANA etc, which are responsible for exporting the terrorism to the territory of Southern Serbia and FYROM. Former leaders of the UCK, now Kosovo renowned political leaders, are still pursuing the extremist goal of ethnic cleansing and creation of ethnically pure Kosovo and Western Macedonia.

"Ten years ago we were arming and equipping the worst elements of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan - drug traffickers, arms smugglers, anti-American terrorists…Now we're doing the same thing with the KLA, which is tied in with every known middle and far eastern drug cartel. Interpol, Europol, and nearly every European intelligence and counter-narcotics agency has files open on drug syndicates that lead right to the KLA, and right to Albanian gangs in this country."

former DEA agent and author Michael Levine
Quoted in the New American Magazine, May 24, 1999

Albanian Organized Crime Groups.

Albanian organized crime groups are hybrid organizations, often involved both in criminal activity of an organized nature and in political activities, mainly relating to Kosovo. There is certain evidence that the political and criminal activities are deeply intertwined. Also, it has become increasingly clear that Albanian crime groups have engaged in significant cooperation with other transnational crime groups.

Several extraneous factors explain the current, relatively strong, position of Albanian organized crime:

1. Concerning Albanian organized crime in the United States, the 1986 break-up of the "Pizza connection" made it possible for other ethnic crime groups to "occupy" the terrain which had until then been dominated by the Italians. For Albanians this was especially easy since they had already been working with, or mainly for, Italian organized crime.

2. Due to a highly developed ethnic conscience - fortified by a Serb anti- Albanian politics in the 80’s and 90’s, Albanians, particularly Kosovars, have developed a sense of collective identity necessary to engage in organized crime. It is this element, based on the affiliation to a certain group, which links organized Albanian crime to Panalbanian ideals, politics, military activities and terrorism. Albanian drug lords established elsewhere in Europe began contributing funds to the "national cause" in the 80’s. From 1993 on, these funds were to a large extent invested in arms and military equipment for the KLA (UCK) which made its first appearance in 1993.

3. From 1990 on, the process of democratization in Albania has resulted in a loss of state control in a country that had been totally dominated by the communist party and a system of repression. Many Albanians lacked respect for the law since, to them, they represented the tools of repression during the old regime. Loss of state structures resulted in the birth of criminal activities, which further contributed to the loss of state structures and control.

4. Alternative routing for about 60% of European heroin became necessary in 1991 with the outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia and the blocking of the traditional Balkan route. Heroin was thus to a large extent smuggled through Albania, over the Adriatic into Italy and from there on to Northern and Western Europe. The war also enabled organized criminal elements to start dealing arms on a large scale.

5. Another factor which contributed to the development of criminal activities, is the embargos imposed on Yugoslavia by the international community and on the F.Y.RO.M. by Greece (1993-1994) in the early 90’s. Very quickly, an illegal triangular trade in oil, arms and narcotics developed in the region with Albania being the only state not hit by international sanctions.

6. In 1997, the so-called pyramid savings schemes in the Albanian republic collapsed. This caused nation-wide unrest between January and March 1997, during which incredible amounts of military equipment disappeared (and partly reappeared during the Kosovo conflict): 38,000 hand-guns, 226,000 Kalashnikovs, 25,000 machine-guns, 2,400 anti-tank rocket launchers, 3,500,000 hand grenades, 3,600 tons of explosives. Even though organized crime groups were probably unable to "control" the situation, it seems clear that they did profit from the chaos by acquiring a great number of weapons. Albanian organized crime also profited from the financial pyramids which they seem to have used to launder money on a large scale. Before the crash, an estimated 500 to 800 million USD seem to have been transferred to accounts of Italian criminal organizations and Albanian partners. This money was then reinvested in Western countries.

7. The Kosovo conflict and the refugee problem in Albania resulted in a remarkable influx of financial aid. Albanian organized crime with links to Albanian state authorities seems to have highly profited from these funds. The financial volume of this aid was an estimated $163 million. The financial assets of Albanian organized crime were definitely augmented due to this situation.

8. When considering the presence of Albanians in Europe, one has to keep in mind the massive emigration of Albanians to Western European countries in the 90’s. In 2000, estimations concerning the Albanian diaspora are as follows:

United States and Canada: 500,000

Greece: 500,000

Germany: 400,000

Switzerland: 200,000

Turkey: 65,000

Sweden: 40,000

Great Britain: 30,000

Belgium: 25,000

France: 20,000

For those emigrants to EU countries or Switzerland, the temptation to engage in criminal activities is very high as most of them are young Albanian males, in their twenties and thirties, who are unskilled workers and who have difficulties finding a job. For Italian organized crime, these Albanians were ideal couriers in the drug trafficking business running through Albania as they were able to circumvent the area border patrols after the outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia. Many of them came into contact with Albanian organized crime through Albanian emigre communities located throughout Western Europe. This gave an impetus to the dispersion and internationalization of Albanian criminal groups.

The typical structure of the Albanian Mafia is hierarchical. Concerning "loyalty", "honor" and clan traditions, (blood relations and marriage being very important) most of the Albanian networks seem to be "old-fashioned" and comparable to the Italian Mafia networks of thirty or forty years ago. Infiltration into these groups is thus very difficult. Heroin networks are usually made up of groups of fewer than 100 members, constituting an extended family residing all along the Balkan route from Eastern Turkey to Western Europe. The Northern Albanian Mafia which runs the drug wholesale business is also known by the name of "The Fifteen Families."

Regarding cooperation with other transnational criminal groups, the Albanian Mafia seems to have established good working relationships with the Italian Mafia. On the 27th of July 1999 police in Durres (Albania), with Italian assistance arrested one of the godfathers of the "Sacra Corona Unita", Puglia’s Italian Mafia. This Albanian link seems to confirm that the Sacra Corona Unita have "officially" accepted Albanian organized crime as a "partner" in Puglia/Italy and delegated several criminal activities. This might be due to the fact that the Sacra Corona Unita is a rather recent phenomenon, not being as stable nor as strong as other Mafias in Italy. Their leaders might have decided to join forces rather than run the risk of a conflict with Albanian groups known to be extremely violent. Thus in certain areas of Italy, the market for cannabis, prostitution and smuggling of illegal immigrants is run mainly by Albanians. Links to Calabria’s Mafia, the "Ndrangheta", exist in Northern Italy. Several key figures of the Albanian Mafia seem to reside frequently in the Calabrian towns of Africo, Plati and Bovalino (Italy), fiefs of the Ndrangheta. Southern Albanian groups also seem to have good relationships with Sicily’s "Cosa Nostra", which seems to be moving steadily into finance and money laundering, leaving other typical illegal activities to other groups. Close relationships also exist with other criminal groups active along the Balkan route, where Turkish wholesalers, Bulgarian and Romanian traffickers are frequent business partners. There are also indications that a South American cartel has become active in Albania through Albanian middlemen, in order to place more cocaine on the European market

The heavy involvement of Albanian criminal groups in drugs trafficking, mainly heroin is proven. Currently, more than 80% of the heroin on the European market has been smuggled through the Balkans, having mainly been produced in Afghanistan and traveled through Iran and Turkey or Central Asia. In the Balkan region, two routes seem to have replaced the former traditional route, disrupted by the Yugoslavian conflict: one Northern route running mainly through Bulgaria, then Romania and Hungary and one Southern route running from Bulgaria through F.Y.R.O.M., the Kosovo region and Albania. An average of more than a ton of heroin and more than 10 tons of hashish are seized along those Balkan routes each year. According to DEA estimations, between 4 and 6 tons of heroin leave Turkey each month bound for Western Europe, traveling along the Balkan routes.

Albanian trafficking networks are becoming more and more powerful, partly replacing Turkish networks. This is especially the case in several German speaking countries, Sweden and Norway. According to some estimations, Albanian networks control about 70% of the heroin market today in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries. According to analyses of the Swedish and Norwegian police, 80% of the heroin smuggled into the countries can be linked to Albanian networks. In 1998, Swiss police even estimated that 90% of the narco-business in the country was dominated by Albanians. Throughout Europe, around 40% of the heroin trade seems to be controlled by Albanians. Recent refugees from the Kosovo region are involved in street sales. Tensions between the established ethnic Albanians and newcomers seem to exist, heroin prices having dropped due to their arrival and due to growing competition in the market.

Albanian networks are not only linked to heroin. In the Macedonian border region, production laboratories for amphetamine and methamphetamine drugs seem to have been set up. Currently, these pills are destined for the local market. Cannabis is grown in Albania and cultivation seems to have become more and more popular, especially in the South. Annual Albanian marijuana revenue is estimated at $40 million. In 1999, cannabis plantations existed in the regions of Kalarat (about 80 kilometers from Vlore/Albania) and close to Girokaster in the regions of Sarande, Delvina and Permetti. Albanian cannabis is mainly sold on the Greek market. In order to transport the drugs to Greece, Albanian crime groups work together with Greek criminals.

Albanian criminals are also involved in the traffic of illegal immigrants to Western European countries. It is part of international trafficking networks, which not only transport Albanians, but also Kurds, Chinese and people from the Indian subcontinent. The Albanian groups are mainly responsible for the crossing of the Adriatic Sea from the Albanian coast to Italy. Departures mainly take place from Vlore, some of them from Durres or even from Ulcinj in the South of Montenegro. By the end of 1999, the crossing costs about $1,000 USD for an adult and $500 USD for a child. It is interesting to notice that some illegal immigrants had to pay for their journey only once in their home country (e.g. $6,000 in Pakistan), but that the nationality of the trafficking groups changed as they moved along. This implies that Albanian groups are only a part of international distribution networks. In 1999, approximately 10,000 people were smuggled into EU countries via Albania every month. The Italian border patrol intercepted 13,118 illegal immigrants close to the Puglian coast from January until July 1999. It estimated arrivals only in this coastal region at 56,000 in 1999. For the Albanian crime groups, illegal immigration - even though it can not be compared to the narco-business - is an important source of income, bringing in an estimated fifty million USD in 1999.

Immigration is not only a source of income, it is also very important in order to create networks in foreign countries and thus create bridgeheads for the Albanian Mafia abroad. Reports indicate that of the people admitted into Western European or North America as refugees during the Kosovo conflict, at least several had been carefully chosen by the Albanian Mafia to stay in the host country and act as a future liaison for the criminal networks.

Trafficking in women and forced prostitution seem to have become much more important for Albanian organized crime in 1999, with thousands of women from Kosovo having fled to Albania during the armed conflict in the region. About 300,000 women from Eastern European countries work as prostitutes in Europe. More and more seem to be "organized" in Albanian networks that are not only limited to ethnic Albanian prostitutes, but also comprise women from Romania, Bosnia, Moldova, Russia, etc. The pimps often pretend to be Kosovars in order to have the status of a political refugee, even though many of them come from Albania. Some seem to control the "business" from abroad. Belgium, in particular, seems to be the seat of several leaders of the trafficking networks. In 1999, ten people linked to Albanian crime were shot in Brussels.

Finally, Albanian criminal groups frequently engage in burglaries, armed robberies and car theft in Europe and the United States.

There might still be links between political/military Kosovar Albanian groups (especially the KLA) and Albanian organized crime. Of the almost 900 million DM which reached Kosovo between 1996 and 1999, half was thought to be illegal drug money. Legitimate fundraising activities for the Kosovo and the KLA could have been be used to launder drug money. In 1998, the U.S. State Department listed the KLA as a terrorist organization, indicating that it was financing its operations with money from the international heroin trade and loans from Islamic countries and individuals, among them allegedly Usama bin Laden. Another link to bin Laden is the fact that the brother of a leader in an Egyptian Djihad organization and also a military commander of Usama bin Laden, was leading an elite KLA unit during the Kosovo conflict. In 1998, the KLA was described as a key player in the drugs for arms business in 1998, "helping to transport 2 billion USD worth of drugs annually into Western Europe". The KLA and other Albanian groups seem to utilize a sophisticated network of accounts and companies to process funds. In 1998, Germany froze two bank accounts belonging to the "United Kosova" organization after it had been discovered that several hundred thousand dollars had been deposited into those accounts by a convicted Kosovar Albanian drug trafficker.

The possibility of an Albanian/Kosovar drugs for arms connection is confirmed by at least two affairs in 1999:

an Italian court in Brindisi (Italy) convicted an Albanian heroin trafficker who admitted obtaining weapons for the KLA from the Mafia in exchange for drugs.

An Albanian individual placed orders in the Czech Republic for light infantry weapons and rocket systems. According to Czech police sources, the arms were bound for the KLA.

Each KLA commander seems to have had funds at his disposal in order to be able to pay directly for weapons and ammunition for his local units’ need.

It is difficult to predict the further development of Albanian organized crime. Being a recent phenomenon, its stability is difficult to estimate. Nevertheless, future threats are realistic given the ruthlessness and lack of scruples displayed by Albanian crime groups, the international links which already exist, the professionalism which characterizes most of their activities and the strong ties created by ethnic Albanian origins. Moreover, the strong position of Albanian crime groups in Kosovo, F.Y.R.O.M. and the Albanian republic itself, is definitely a cause of concern to the international community, especially when one takes into account the geo-political instability in the region and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force.

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