DISRUPTED by the Yugoslav conflict, drug trafficking across the Balkans is making a comeback as Albanian mafia barons carve out a new smuggling route to Western Europe, bypassing the peninsula's war zones, according to United Nations and other narcotics experts.
Before Yugoslavia's descent into war, heroin was funneled from Turkey via Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia to Western Europe. Yugoslavia's turbulent fragmentation shut that traditional Balkan route.
Other channels quickly proliferated through Eastern Europe, exploiting lax controls and desperate cash needs. According to the UN, the main conduit now runs through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
Antitrafficking measures along this route have been stepped up, pressuring the traffickers to change their route. For example, just 14 pounds of hard drugs were seized by Hungarian police in 1990, but by August this year, the figure had risen to 1,302 pounds.
International drug-control organizations are again honing in on this area in an effort to stanch the flow of drugs through eastern Europe.
According to the East European office of the Brussels-based Customs Cooperation Council - an international customs authority - a quarter of the heroin sold in West Europe passes through East Europe. It says just 10 percent of the drug destined for West European markets is seized. In 1993, police in East Europe seized 5,000 pounds of heroin, 4,000 pounds of cocaine, and 50,000 pounds of cannabis.
With its supply in Turkey and the Caucasus, the channel now runs the length of the southern Balkans, via Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. The drugs are then shipped to Italy, the gateway to Albanian-controlled heroin markets in Switzerland and Germany, according to Observatoire Geopolitique Des Drogues (OGD), which monitors drug smuggling worldwide in Paris.
Crackdown on traffickers
The tougher measures are one of the main reasons for the development of the new drugs artery, according to a senior Macedonian Interior Ministry official.
``The Albanian mafia found that now it's not so easy to smuggle through Eastern Europe and are now switching back to the Balkans,'' says Bernard Frahi, of the UN Drug Control Program in Vienna, set up to help governments crack down on trafficking.
The UN blockade of Serbia to the north and, more recently, Greece's embargo against Macedonia to the south, has been a gift to the smugglers. They have taken advantage of the upsurge in truck traffic from the Black Sea to the Adriatic coast.
And UN narcotics experts say a lack of antidrug legislation, poorly equipped police forces, a cash-based economy, and weak banking regulations create optimum conditions for traffickers.
Tirana admits that smugglers are active, but refutes that Albania sits astride the new Balkan route. ``We can't deny there's some drug trafficking, but it's not of the dimensions that are being suggested,'' says Genz Pollo, presidential spokesman in Tirana.
But European police chiefs fear the conduit will strengthen Kosovo Albanian drug syndicates - some of the most powerful on the continent - whose tentacles have stretched as far as the East coast of the United States, UN drug agents say.
Kosovars, Albanians from the Serbian province of Kosovo, dominate the Albanian narcotics trade in Europe. Doors are opened because they are regarded as political refugees fleeing Serbian repression, and existing Albanian communities in Germany and Switzerland provide perfect cover, according to the ODG.
The Medellin of the Balkans
From their base in Veliki Trnovac in southern Serbia, dubbed the ``Medellin of the Balkans,'' Albanian mafia chiefs oversee their European drug operation and are suspected of masterminding the new Balkan route.
Balkan governments are struggling to staunch the flow of drugs along the emerging conduit. Over the past year, Macedonian police have seized millions of dollars worth of drugs and arrested scores of couriers.
Increasingly, Macedonia's antidrug force has sought the cooperation of its Italian counterparts. A 10-month-old joint operation ended in May with the seizure of 93 pounds of heroin in Skopje, Macedonia's capital. Nevertheless, the authorities there admit they're a long way from smashing the network.
In Albania, a chronic lack of antitrafficking expertise combined with an apparent ignorance of the Balkan pipeline has effectively given the smugglers a free rein.
``Albania is now a priority for us,'' says Mr. Frahi, whose agency plans to offer Tirana technical assistance to combat the drug scourge.
Most of the drugs seized in Macedonia come from Turkey according to state police officials. Opium base from the Golden Crescent - Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan - has traditionally been refined into pure heroin in Turkey for the Western European market.
Albanians benefit from two main advantages: Georgian and Armenian mafias are hostile to their Turkish counterparts, and xenophobia towards Turks in Germany is such that they are automatically suspected of trafficking, OGD officials say.