The Balkan gate of the transnational cocaine trade

By Ioannis Michaletos | The transnational cocaine illicit trade has considerably expanded over the past generation and a notable trend that has emerged since the beginning of this century is the use of the Balkan countries as a main hub for the transfer of the narcotic to other European markets. This trend was directed due to a combination of economic and political circumstances and it will likely continue in the future.

The worldwide turnover of the cocaine contraband is difficult to be estimated accurately, with figures up to 500 billion USD. The majority of these ill gains are “laundered” eventually through the legal international banking and finance system, whilst the influence of the cocaine cartels is all-encompassing internationally and in the Balkans in particular due to the sheer amount of capital they generate.

Montenegro is a major transit hub for cocaine trade where Latin American criminal networks cooperate with Southern Italian “Mafia” groups and Albanian and “Yugoslavian” drug kingpins.

Cocaine is being transported via small and mid-sized vessels, often used just for one voyage and incorporated in offshore tax heavens owned by maverick ship owners. Numerous cases have proved the link between the transfer of cocaine from mostly Colombia, Panama and Venezuela to Montenegro through Western African ports in Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Each year it is estimated that up to 1,000 tons of cocaine (first product) is being produced in Southern America, with an initial price up to 10,000 USD per kilo. In the European metropolises the drug is distributed for up to 1.5 million Euros per kilo after it has been reduced its purity, thus offering immense profits for all intermediates involved. For a country of 600,000 people such as Montenegro the influence of cocaine wholesale transporters and distributers can be significant. Moreover the persons in charge of that trade often use the ports of Lisbon, Malaga, Marseilles, Palermo, Napoli, and Bari as destination hubs or as intermediate routes. The same networks often used the “airport route” in the international airports of Milano, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Rome and Vienna. The proliferation of tourist destinations, low budget airlines and peripheral international airports, as well as the border-free Schengen zone agreement has greatly assisted in the cocaine trade in Europe.

Europol has noted since the early 00’s the formation of stable transport routes in the Balkan for the re-distribution of the drug to other markets, as well as, for the increased local consumption. The existence of well-formed organized crime networks previously or currently involved in human trafficking, heroin trade and tobacco contraband, provided with ample human resources, experienced in dealing with the shadowy world of illicit organized activities. Moreover the lax in border controls in the region between Montenegro, Kosovo, FYROM, Albania and Bosnia due to the recent political history, and the widespread corruption in customs and border controls, was also another strong impetus.

The Colombian mafia in the Balkans cooperates with the Italian N’dragetta, the Kosovo Albanian mafia and intermediates from Montenegro, Greece, FYROM and Albania.

The focal ports from where the shipments arrive are: Bar, Durres, Vlore, Thessaloniki and Piraeus.

– The importance for the Colombians concerning the Balkans is: The proximity to the big Western European markets (Italy, Germany)

– The corrupted public sector and the existence of very powerful criminal groups that agree to use their countries as bases for the export of this drug.

The basic outline of the trade is:

By merchant ships that load cocaine from Columbia, Venezuela and arrive at the aforementioned ports. Then the “product” is packaged and stored in warehouses that belong to fake companies-and then the “product” is divided and a percentage remains in the domestic market-the rest travels via trucks, commercial trains or vessels to Western Europe.

Lastly the Colombian mafia has a very strong base in Spain and in the Netherlands, where Balkan groups also operate and communication lines between them are established in these territories, before decisions for the shipments are being made.

The bulk of the cocaine arriving in ports of Montenegro is destined for European markets and the local Balkan ones. The Kosovo territory plays an important role because shipments are often gathered there and then are distributed in the north from Bosnia or Serbia to Croatia and Hungary and then to Western-Central Europe.

Other shipments travel to the South through FYROM-Albania and Greece and then to Western Europe mainly through vessels. Lastly there is the route from Greek ports up North via the Balkans towards central Europe.

Europe is certainly a prime destination for Latin American cocaine traders, for two reasons. One is the rise of Euro against the Dollar since 2003. The latter is the currency used in all Americas, so the smugglers earn a harder currency (The Euro) which they exchange for Dollars thus increasing their financial strength. The second reason is the unification of Europe and the non-existent border controls in an area of almost 500 hundred million people that created over the past decade tremendous opportunities for all kinds of organized illegal activities. The police authorities in many European countries proved ineffective to deal with this kind of situation.

Notable recent cases of Balkan cocaine trade

In July 2011 169.8 kilos of cocaine was confiscated in the port of Thessaloniki, originating from Bolivia. The Greek, Serbian and FYROM authorities were involved in the interception and surveillance of the international smuggling network of Darko Simovic, Serbian national, aged 51 years old who has arranged the shipment. Thirteen people were arrested regarding the case. The shipment was coming under the cover of a soya cargo. Three FYROM nationals appeared to claim the cargo and were subsequently arrested, which subsequently revealed their accomplices. The price of that shipment was worth in street prices over 25 million Euros.

In January 2012 the Greek police arrested four Montenegrin citizens in Athens involved in a massive money laundering case on behalf of the cocaine cartel run by the Serbian-Montenegrin national Darko Saric. The four were in their 20’s studying as a cover in Greek private colleges while they were involved in laundering Saric’s funds received from the Latin American cartels. In their premises in a wealthy Athenian suburb proofs were found implicating them in a 20 million Euros laundering scheme in a space of three years. Hundreds of thousands of Euros was also found in cash in their possession along with valuable luxury items and expensive real estate.

Moreover the group was ordered to arrange a cocaine shipment from Argentina through the vessel “Zlatni lav” which would transfer 200 kilos, while officially it had invoice of a cement cargo. The vessel and the drug were confiscated in Italy after a coordinated effort of several European police authorities and the DEA. The group along with external associates located in the America’s and Europe were found also to have established four offshore companies in the Marshall Islands belonging to the Montenegrin national Dragan Dudić, named: “Secondo Porto Shipping” “Monteflowery”, “Maximus Shipping” and “Flipside Trading”. 20 million Euros of funds were directed to these companies between March 2009 and April 2010, derived from previous cocaine deals.

In March 2011 200 kilos of cocaine were seized in Durres port in Albania, whilst the shipment had used Spain as an intermediate stop. Subsequently the operation resulted in one ton of cocaine and 160 kg of hashish seized in an international police operation led by the Spanish Civil Guard and coordinated by Europol.

In May 2011 the Greek special tax service and DEA managed to confiscate 290 kilos of cocaine in Thessaloniki being sent via a vessels supposedly transferring wood from Paraguay. Nineteen people from various Balkan countries were arrested whilst the organizer was an Argentinean woman, operating on behalf of a cartel in Buenos Aires.

In July 2012 the Greek police in Thessaloniki managed to confiscate 168 kilos of cocaine and arrest two Spanish nationals, one Portuguese and one Bulgarian hotel owner. They were responsible for importing the shipment and were extremely careful of not being spotted by changing hotels each night and using pre-paid mobile phones originating from Poland. They used taxis and public transport for their movements in the region while waiting for their shipments. According to the Greek police , the DEA had informed them that Colombian citizens were actually in Thessaloniki the previous days arranging for the transfer, being very careful not to get tracked and eventually they managed to get away presumable by venturing North and evading surveillance, unlike their accomplices.

In general since 2007 the Balkan police authorities have scaled up their efforts to confiscate large amounts of cocaine cargos, although the flow is actually growing judging by the figures of the health authorities on addiction levels across the region and similar findings across Europe. Despite the modernization of police methods, training and cooperation with international authorities, the lure of quick profits and the existence of large customer base, provides no optimism for a solution on the issue in the near future.

Moreover the increased consumption of cocaine in the Istanbul metropolis by an affluent upper middle class and the introduction of this drug to Russia in even larger quantities may actually increase Balkans importance for the cocaine cartels, as an ideal geo-economic hub for this illicit trade. Lastly the complexity of organized crime activities in the Balkan region has further increased with the involvement of American cocaine cartels, making global organized crime interpersonal connections even stronger. Thus it can be safely assumed that nowadays heroin traffickers, using the “Balkan route”, Colombian cartels and a nexus of corrupted officials from Greece to Croatia, form a formidable network of persons known to each other, with access to great amounts of capital and ability to influence local decision makers, as well as, international power centers be it economic or political ones.