Drug wars: Major busts in Italy, Albania, and Turkey show reach of global narcotics trade

Authorities unravel drug networks extending from Latin America to the Balkans to Western Europe

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Wednesday 01 July 2020 02:19
How the Adriatic Sea became the drug trafficking capital of Europe

Authorities in Italy and Albania have broken up a major transnational drug cartel and seized goods and drugs worth €44m (£40m) as part of the latest attempt by law enforcement to disrupt one of the principal sources of narcotics entering Europe.

Police and judicial authorities in the two nations arrested 37 members of an organised crime network and seized 3.5 tonnes of marijuana, hashish and cocaine as well as other goods and assets.

“Today’s action is the culmination of long-lasting criminal proceedings in Albania and in Italy,” said a press release by EuroJust.

A security source involved in the investigation called the operation a “major step” in the fight against drug trafficking. ”The operation is not a drop in the ocean,” said the source. “We believe we have dismantled a criminal organisation capable of systematically importing tons of drugs from Albania to Italy.”

Separately, authorities announced the seizure of $10m (£8m) in cash and the arrest of at least 67 people involved in a drug trafficking network that extended from Turkey to Europe and Latin America, and involved investigators from nine nations including the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil.

Europe’s illicit drug trade is worth an estimated $30bn (£24bn) a year. Authorities say trafficking has barely slowed down despite the coronavirus pandemic, with prices for cocaine jumping 20 per cent.

The latest suspects arrested are of Italian and Albanian origin, and had allegedly been using leisure boats to transport drugs from Albania, which has emerged as a distribution hub for Latin American cocaine and Afghan heroin, to Italy’s Bari, Puglia and Basilicata regions, according to EuroJust, an international federation of European prosecutors.

According to Italian authorities, the raids took place in both countries at 04.00 local time.

“There was no resistance because the preparatory activity was so effective that no one tried to escape,” a security source said.

Authorities in Albania also seized a coffee production facility, an alcohol distribution firm, a restaurant, more than a dozen apartments, motor vehicles and a boat allegedly used as part of the trafficking network. Albania, once a centre for the production of marijuana, has since evolved into a major hub for the distribution of narcotics and the laundering of drug trafficking profits.

“We have not limited ourselves to arresting the responsible persons, but we have also filed charges for laundering the proceeds of crime,” Arben Kraja, head of Albania’s anti-drug agency was quoted as saying in local media.

Many observers have questioned the efficacy of cracking down on traffickers in a business fuelled by mushrooming demand by users eager to pay cash for cocaine, heroin and weed.

“Arrests and seizures have the same effect as cutting the head off a Hydra, the mythological creature capable of regrowing after every blow,” the Italian journalist Gaetano Campione wrote in a piece about the Adriatic drug traffic this month.

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