Crime: Albania's export boom in vice and drugs

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The Independent Online
Albanian politics may be returning to normal, but Albanian organised crime is still flourishing and spreading throughout Western Europe. Andrew Gumbel examines the vicious network peddling prostitution and drugs, and what the police are doing to stop it.

Amarildo Vrioni's little empire of prostitutes and marijuana was humming along nicely - until the accident. Just over a week ago, a rubber speedboat plying the narrow strip of Adriatic between southern Italy and Albania capsized outside the Italian port of Brindisi. Five people were recovered dead from the choppy waters, including a five-year-old child. Another 11 were unaccounted for.

The coastguard assumed the passengers were the usual desperate clutch of refugees hoping for a better life in Italy. In a way, they were. But then the police picked up some hair-raising conversation from Mr Vrioni's car and mobile phone, which they had bugged, and realised what the nature of the desperation was.

"Dammit, a little girl died," Mr Vrioni was overheard saying to his wife and a friend. "But the four girls who survived were prostitutes. That's a relief." Over the next few hours, Mr Vrioni unwittingly gave away details of an intricate organisation that for months has been bringing over young women and drugs for sale in Italy and the rest of Western Europe. One police spokesman described the testimony as "hair-raising".

The prostitutes were bought from their families in Albania for around pounds 800 each, "tried out" by members of Mr Vrioni's gang to see how much they were worth and then sold to pimps in Italy for upwards of pounds 1,500.

Albanian prostitution rackets are notoriously vicious. Those women who were bold enough to speak about their experiences have talked of mutilation and torture at the hands of their so-called "protectors". Two of the four women who survived the capsized speedboat escaped from their hospital beds and vanished, presumably out of fear. The Italian police are hunting for them, hoping to reach them before the Albanian gangsters take their brutal revenge.

Based on the intercepts, the police arrested 11 people. They were all Albanians, including some, like Mr Vrioni, who were based in Italy. Other police operations and intelligence work suggest there is a great deal of co-operation between the Albanians and the Italian Mafia organisation based on the Adriatic Coast, known as the Sacra Corona Unita. They may not collaborate over prostitution, but they do help each other to traffic in arms and drugs and launder the profits.

For months, the Italian police has been seizing high-grade marijuana grown in the foothills of southern Albania - as much as eight tons in the year to May 1997, according to international police sources.

Last week, the Italian police working their counterparts elsewhere in Europe successfully dismantled their first international smuggling ring, with a series of 19 arrests in Italy, Germany and Holland. In one direction, marijuana was crossing Europe and ending up on sale in Amsterdam coffee- shops. In the other, arms and harder drugs, notably cocaine, were being subsumed into the racket. All the key figures arrested were Italians and were suspected members of the Sacra Corona Unita.

The criminals are exploiting two key loopholes - Italy's inadequate and poorly enforced immigration laws, and the climate of criminality and anarchy in Albania fuelled by poverty and the high-level corruption that was rampant until elections held this summer.

Some progress is being made on both sides. In Albania, the new Socialist government has taken steps to build up a respectable police force and has, for example, recently confiscated a number of speedboats operating out of the port of Vlora.

In Italy, a new immigration law giving the police powers to expel undesirables immediately (rather than giving them two weeks to leave the country) is worming its way through parliament.

But progress to beat the criminal gangs is bound to be slow. The new Albanian government's hands are tied by the need to provide its people with a living - something that is far from achievable for the moment, at least by legal means. And the Italians seem unable to take a clear stand on immigration for fear of seeming racist; the new bill is so complex that it is not clear it will achieve much.

The Italians are still scratching their heads over their crazy decision to let more than 10,000 Albanians enter the country freely at the height of the armed rebellion that racked their country last spring - a decision that, almost certainly provided the criminal gangs with valuable extra manpower. In concert with Tirana, they have decided to expel the last 5,000.

These refugees were supposed to have gone home yesterday. But they are refusing to go willingly, and the Italian government has shown no signs of using force to get rid of them.