#NATO and EU must toughen up on #Balkan drug gangs

| January 29, 2020

Earlier this month, the Greek capital was rocked when two men were murdered in cold blood at a popular Athens restaurant in front of their wives and children. The victims, Stevan Stamatović and Igor Dedović, were believed to be members of the infamous Montenegrin drug-smuggling Skaljari clan, with the hit allegedly ordered by their rivals, the Kavac outfit.

Depressingly, high-profile incidents such as this one have become increasingly commonplace in recent years. The spiraling violence is testament not only to the emergence of Balkan gangs as a force to be reckoned with in the importation of narcotics into Europe from South America, but its brazen nature also underlines the fact that those responsible feel they’re able to act with impunity outside of their national borders. For countries like Montenegro and Albania – which harbor ambitions of joining the EU – that kind of lawlessness should not be allowed to go on unchecked.

Par for an increasingly violent course

The Athens atrocity is only the latest in a concerningly lengthy list of overseas attacks. In January 2018, a prominent member of the Kavac gang was gunned down in his own vehicle in Belgrade. At the end of the same year, a Viennese restaurant became the battleground, as one man was killed and another grievously injured when gunmen opened fire at a famous Austrian eatery. No arrests have yet been made for any of these three incidents, which represent just the tip of the iceberg in this ever-bloodier spat between the two gangs.

The vendetta is still fairly fresh. Just ten years ago the two factions were united, but the assassination of high-ranking member Dragan Dudić in May 2010 – followed by the subsequent arrests of kingpins Dusko and Darko Šarić – left behind a power vacuum that tore the gang apart. The disappearance of around 250kg of cocaine in 2015 was the spark that lit the touchpaper which continues to fuel this raging inferno even to this day.

Drugs as the root cause

Of course, the drugs themselves are the real root cause of the problem. Taking into account the sums at stake, it’s little wonder that the feud is such an intense one. According to the latest figures, there are 3.6 million adults in the EU using cocaine each year, which fuels a demand of around 91 tons of the stuff flowing in from South America on an annual basis. With a market value of €5.7 billion, it’s easy to see why everyone is desperate for a piece of the pie.

The most recent Global Initiative report has highlighted how those Balkan gangs are commanding a bigger share than ever before. Given that a single kilo of cocaine can fetch up to €80,000, and that the average drug ring traffics between 500kg and 1,000kg per year, the potential gross profits can be substantial and the net is over half of that amount.

New kids on the bloc

As recently as 2014, 80% of the cocaine entering Europe came from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands or Spain. However, times have changed, and the GI report has identified Balkan ports as new epicenters of the drug trade. In particular, Bar, Budva and Kotor (where the Kavac and Skaljari clans are originally from) in Montenegro and Dürres, Vlorë and Saranda in Albania have developed into so-called “illicit transit zones”, experiencing a high volume of illegal activity in recent years.

This is due to their ideal location, advanced infrastructure, high unemployment rates and, most significantly of all, weak governments. They are either situated in disputed territories where jurisdictions are unclear or, most concerningly of all, in areas where the authorities seem to be complicit in the crimes. Indeed, investigative reports in both nations have turned up incidences of political figures embroiled in unsavory stories linked to the drug trade, which paint their regimes in less than flattering colors.

Unbecoming behavior

In 2019, Saimir Tahiri was found guilty of abuse of his former position as Albanian Interior Minister – but crucially, he escaped charges of corruption and drug trafficking. Instead of serving the 12-year prison sentence which prosecutors were hoping for, he was given a three-year probation. The verdict came just one month before the EU met to decide whether to allow Albanian accession to the bloc and the lax ruling can hardly have been met with approval.

Meanwhile, an exposé from the OCCRP has revealed that First Bank of Montenegro – which is controlled by the family of incumbent President Milo Đukanović – counted the aforementioned kingpin Šarić among its most valued customers. Šarić is in control of a number of shell companies based in overseas locations like Delaware and the Seychelles, which have deposited vast sums into First Bank and received generous loans in return, with no due diligence done by the bank at the time. In just one example, one of those companies (Lafino Trade LLC) bailed out the bank when it was struggling to stay afloat in 2008, depositing €6 million for five years at a measly 1.5% interest rate. Clearly, First Bank has no qualms about taking money from one of the country’s biggest criminals, and the institutions connections to the highest echelons of power is even more troubling. Worth noting that President Đukanović himself was accused by Italian prosecutors of running a billion-dollar cigarette – smuggling ring; he was never charged because of his diplomatic immunity.

EU must act

Given that both Albania and Montenegro are members of NATO and candidates for EU accession, such blatant fostering of a reckless drug trade cannot be allowed to continue. Not only does the practice increase the likelihood of bloodbaths like those seen in Athens, Vienna and Belgrade occurring, but it also destabilizes regions, discourages foreign investment, weakens tourism and exacerbates the brain drain effect.

In order to stop the rot and bring this damaging industry to heel, the eyes of the authorities must no longer be blind. If it means that NATO and the EU must intercede to bring about such a change, so be it – but the change must come soon, or the wounds caused by the South American drug trade in Europe will continue to fester.

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Category: A Frontpage, Crime, Law, Police, Victims of crime

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