Russian mafias carve up drugs trade: The Bosnian war has forced crime clans to find new Balkan routes for smuggling heroin into Europe, writes Leonard Doyle

EAST EUROPEAN mafias are carving out new routes for smuggling hard drugs into West Europe, according to European drug intelligence officers. They say the war in Bosnia is blocking the traditional pipeline through the Balkans, forcing traffickers to shift their main overland route via East Europe.

Albanian clans from the Serbian province of Kosovo are also deeply involved in the heroin trade, and they use the profits to buy weapons which are smuggled back in preparation for conflict with the Serbs.

Heroin, produced mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Golden Triangle of south-east Asia, used to flow from Turkey via Yugoslavia to Western Europe. Tons of heroin are smuggled annually in customs- sealed TIR (International Road Transport) trucks. Now that the highway of Brotherhood and Unity from Belgrade to Zagreb is blocked, the traffickers are shifting the drugs to the north-east.

The heroin trade from Turkey and Iran follows at least three new routes, skirting the conflict in Bosnia and pushing north-east through Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. It is sometimes then divided into smaller packages before being trans-shipped to Germany, France and Britain, Europe's main consumers.

The new pattern showed up this year with a dramatic fall in heroin seizures in West Europe compared with 1992, and an even sharper rise in heroin seizures in East Europe, according to the international Customs Co-operation Council.

European drug intelligence officers say the new players are organised crime syndicates from the former Soviet Union, mostly Russians and Ukrainians. In addition, the Albanian clans have opened another route to funnel heroin to Switzerland and Germany. 'They move heroin westward and smuggle automatic and semi-automatic weapons purchased in Switzerland and Czechoslovakia back to Kosovo,' according to Alain Labrousse, head of the Geopolitical Observatory of Drugs in Paris.

There are reports of 'crime summits' in Warsaw and Prague, bringing together Russian underworld groups with the three main Italian organised crime groups - the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra - and signalling to drugs intelligence agents a new carve-up in the European drugs trade.

The level of violence in Europe associated with drug trafficking and drug use has been much lower than in the United States, where arms are readily available to criminals. That is changing, the intelligence agents say, because mafia groups based in East Europe are trading in arms and controlling vast profits from drug- trafficking. Calling the new trend 'a genuine threat to society and political stability', Suzy Symes, head of the European Programme at Chatham House, said that the enormous profits from the drug trade would give these new organisations influence in Western society.

The Colombian cocaine cartels, meanwhile, are turning their attention to the single market of the European Union where profits are a third higher than in the US, where the risks of being caught are lower and the opportunities to launder the profits are infinitely more varied. Cocaine, mostly produced in Colombia, fetches around pounds 26,000 a kilo on the European market, compared to pounds 18,000 in the US.

The cocaine - some 300 tons a year, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration - is shipped in a variety of ways, but increasingly via Nigeria and Ghana. Nigerian drug couriers play an important role in getting both heroin and cocaine into Europe, but because of the likelihood of their being searched at airports, the Nigerian distributors have started recruiting Poles and Czechs to ferry the drugs in. The usual method is by swallowing up to 100 condoms filled with cocaine or heroin, which remain in the body for several days.

East European countries are increasingly used for trans-shipment because controls at their airports are lax and drug-dealing laws are either non-existent or barely enforced. From there, the cocaine is readily couriered across the German and other frontiers into the EU, where border controls are almost a thing of the past.

The most dramatic example of the shifting pattern of the cocaine trade was the seizure of 1.2 tons of the drug near the Finnish-Russian border last February. The drugs were being trans-shipped to the Netherlands for further distribution throughout the EU. The seizure points to a maturing and close relationship between Colombian drug cartels and East European crime syndicates, according to European drug trafficking experts.

According to Interpol, the new criminal gangs are organised along ethnic lines and include Russian, Ukranians, Chechens, Georgians, Armenians and Azeris. Interpol blames them for the boom in organised crime that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals and includes arms- and drug-smuggling, stolen art trafficking, car theft, forgery and money laundering.

These mafia groups are entrenching themselves in European cities such as Helsinki, Prague, Warsaw, Berlin and Frankfurt, according to Rensselaer Lee, an American expert in the international drugs scene.

In recent testimony to Congress, Mr Lee said that the flourishing drugs and arms trade on the borders of the EU 'could set the stage for retaliatory customs and immigration barriers that would set back the cause of European integration. A flood of narcotics sweeping in could provoke protectionist reactions from European governments.' According to German police sources, some 30 Russian crime groups are operating in Germany, some comprising more than 300 members.

The route for the heroin manufactured in Asia's Golden Crescent lies through Turkey to the Albanian coast and on to Kosovo. From there, Albanian clans spirit the drugs to markets in Switzerland and Germany, and buy Kalashnikov rifles and Uzi sub-machine guns with the profits in preparation for a possible armed struggle with Serbia in Kosovo and possible unrest by the Albanian community in Macedonia.

Another disturbing trend is the emergence of Poland as the most important producer and exporter of amphetamines to the EU. Polish amphetamines are now the highest- quality drugs in Europe, often with 97 to 100 per cent purity, according to figures released by Swedish forensic laboratories. The amphetamines are sent to the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, to be distributed throughout West Europe, where seizures of Polish origin jumped from 6 per cent in 1989 to more than 25 per cent last year.

Marijuana use in Europe is also booming. Seizures of cannabis, from Morocco's Rif mountains and from Lebanon increased by 28 per cent last year, when the authorities confiscated some 26 tons.

Tomorrow: Arms trafficking

(Map omitted)

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