Light on the Balkan drug routes



At least 100 alleged members of two drug rings were arrested and about €320 million worth of drugs were seized in mid-November during police raids conducted in northern Italy. Whereas one of the networks was composed of domestic groups, the other had a trans-national structure. Its leadership was tracked back to Serbia and Slovenia, while its operatives were citizens from these two countries and from Montenegro. All were suspected to have been involved since 2007 in smuggling large quantities of cocaine from Latin America. The police operation therefore pointed a new light over the role of Balkan countries in the international drug trafficking.

Balkan countries are indeed plagued by organized crime and corruption, while groups involved in the drug trafficking have developed strong roots and extensive networks in Western countries. The Serbian organization led by Darko Šarić is one of the most relevant examples for the phenomenon, which has raised strong concerns over the increasing importance of connections between the Balkan drug traffickers and the South American cartels. In this respect, one has to recall that the “Šarić network” was involved in the attempt to smuggle 2.7 tons of cocaine into Europe in 2009.

It is worth mentioning that the “Balkan smuggling route” operates both westward and eastward, with cocaine, precursor chemicals and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), but also, and most notably, with large quantities of Afghan heroin. It has indeed become one of the primary ways for smuggling opiates, serving as transit for an estimated amount of 140 mt (metric tones) of heroin, which represents 37 % of the Afghan production. One has to point out that the consequences of these activities go further than the effects of drug use, as they represent as well one of the most lucrative financing schemes for the terrorist groups operating in the production areas.

According to Interpol, the Balkan Route is divided into three sub-routes:

• The southern route, which  runs through Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy;

• The central route, which  runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and into either Italy or Austria;

• The northern route, which runs from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany.

It is worth adding that an estimated 9 mt of heroin is smuggled each year trough an alternative version of this route, which transits trough Caucasus rather than Turkey. It must lastly be taken into consideration that Kosovo’s porous borders and ramping corruption have offered a new breeding ground for networks of drug dealers in recent years. This has especially been the case of networks run by the Albanian mafia, that prove being particularly hard to infiltrate.

The quantities of drugs seized in the region are however worryingly low. For instance, in 2008, 2.8 mt of heroin were seized, representing only a small percent of the total quantity estimated to have travelled on the respective routes. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2010 World Drug Report underlined this situation. Several factors are hindering the efforts of authorities to tackle the drug traffic. The main issues are the lack of regional cooperation, the clan-based and hierarchically well organized structures of the crime groups, the strategic role of the local diasporas in the Western countries and the corruption that the Balkan states are dealing with.

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