The coordinates for the operation were been given to the police chief, Saimir Rrustemi, directly from the Ministry of Interior Affairs. In the light of a street lamp, he goes through the prints once again: Google Earth satellite imagery, wooded mountain ridges, and yellow needles on it.
It is just after four at night, and Shkodra, the largest city in northern Albania is still asleep. Only in the police unit life begins. More and more men are slipping out of the darkness. Police chief Saimir Rrustemi strikes off the names on his list against the tired faces. He has asked for 50 men from the police stations in the region, a colorful bunch of dark blue uniforms. And because the locations marked by the pins show where last year policemen were being shot at, a special commando is present too: three bullky vehicles full of equally bulky guys. Everyone with a Kalashnikov.
“It will be exhausting,” says Rrustemi, as he steps before the men. Wide awake, with the shadow of his beard on his cheeks, his legs in a broad military pose. “No one will return to the city until we have done our job.” He is 36, younger than most of his men. They call him Chief Saimir, after he was promoted to the highest criminal police post in his city last year. His most important mission since then: weed destruction. Each of the twelve pins represents a cannabis field.
Albania, in the south-west of the Balkans. The sun is shining up to 300 days a year. Nevertheless, the rivers that stream into the Mediterranean from the mountains carry to a lot of water. These are optimal conditions not only for the native flora and fauna, but also for the cannabis plant originally native to Central Asia, in Latin: Cannabis sativa. It grows so well in Albania that the small country has become the most important producer and supplier of marijuana in Europe. By far, says Europol.
A selection of the seizures of Albanian marijuana in recent months: two tons on board a luxury yacht south of the Peloponnese, 25 kg in a coach in Vienna, 674 kg in a van in Amsterdam, 2.3 tons on a speedboat off Apulia, 550 kg in a truck on highway 9 near Hof. It was one of the greatest narcotics discoveries the Bavarian customs ever made.
One of the large cultivation areas was last year in the Dukagjin mountains, not far from Shkodra. Albania is here, as Karl May once described it, without ever being present: impassive, rugged and beautiful. “Hell,” say the men of Chief Saimir.
The coordinates for their deployment are originally from the Italian Guardia di Finanza. The financial and customs police regularly survey Albanian territory and take photos, which they subsequently evaluate. The green of cannabis fields is more intense than the rest of the vegetation, and when the Italians discover such spots, they pass on the information to the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Tirana. Then policemen like Saimir Rrustemi have to go out. On the ground, because helicopters they don’t have.
And the road to Dukagjin is in fact a hell of a ride. The shock absorbers of the police car have long since given up. The gravel track hugs a deep canyon, and every few kilometers there are crosses and memorials with names that tell of whole families who have fallen to their deaths. The villages are no more than widely spread-out farms, somewhere a church and a school with a collapsed roof. After four and a half hours, the path becomes so steep that one of the police cars spits out smoke and stops. The driver tries to restart the van, they try to push it, but the engine does not pick up again. ” Production year 1998,” says a policeman. “So we are supposed to fight cannabis cultivation? They have a lot more money than us. “
Organized crime has found fertile soil in Albania. The transition from the totalitarian regime to democracy in the early 1990s was characterized by violent unrest, lawlessness, and corruption. Mafia clans with close relations to politics began to earn their money with cigarette, weapon, heroin, and human trafficking. Soon they also entered the cannabis business. In Lazarat, not far from the Greek border, the cultivation took on industrial proportions. The villagers planted in backyards, gardens, and fields. There were several laboratories for further processing. According to estimates by the Guardia di Finanza, up to 900 tonnes of cannabis were produced every year in Lazarat.
The Tirana government allowed Lazarat to be a free zone for drugs. The inhabitants voted en masse for the Democratic Party, which was last in power from the years 2005 to 2013. The new Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama ordered a full attack after the change of government – and a few days before the European Union would decide whether to award Albania the status of candidate membership. 800 police and special forces in armored vehicles besieged the village. They were bombarded with machine guns and shells. After five days, the police were able to destroy 80 tons of marijuana and about 130,000 plants. But the war against cannabis cultivation had only begun. After that, the plantations metastasized all over the country.
In Lazarat they only arrested lower level criminals. The bosses got away with it – with all their money, their expertise, their good connections with politicians and policemen. How important these connections are is confirmed by someone who has worked on cannabis fields in Dukagjin. He does not want to mention his name, and he does not want to speak in the bar in Shkodra that he has chosen as a meeting place, but only in a driving car. “I only did that because I needed the money for my family,” he says time and time again. He is 17, tall, but still childishly narrow. Ten years ago he moved with his parents and the five siblings from a mountain village in the Dukagjin to the outskirts of Shkodra. For a year he was at school, has learned to write his name, but not more. He began to wash cars, earning 300 lekë a day. Converted barely €2.50.
Two years ago, a young guy from the neighborhood approached him, someone who also came from the Dukagjin and always wore brand clothes. “Do you want to work for me in the field?” he asked. And because he promised 3,000 lekë a day, the boy agreed. His new boss owned four fields, hidden in forest clearings up in the mountains. Five or six rowdy guys worked there over the summer. They planted seeds, fertilized them, dragged up water, sprayed pesticides. And in autumn they reaped. He had never been categorized as a guard, he said. A kalashnikov, the boss found, was still too difficult for him.
Especially before the harvest, policemen had always come to the mountains to destroy cannabis plants. Their own fields, however, the boy says, had been safe. “My boss has friends in politics. And he paid a lot of money. “
The Scoialist government in Tirana, which was confirmed during the June elections, does not dispute the fact that even high-ranking state officials are involved in the machinations of the drug gangs. But it claims to act uncompromisingly against it. “This is a real war, it’s not like mowing the lawn in your garden,” says Prime Minister Edi Rama. “There are moments when you go on the attack, and then there is another counteroffensive of the criminals. But now we have every reason to believe that this story will come to an end this year. “
All police officers of the twelve Albanian regions have been replaced since the beginning of the year. The operations for the destruction of the cannabis fields began, differently than before, for sowing in the spring. Indeed, joint research by this newspaper with the ARD magazine “Report Munich” shows that in several parts of the country less cannabis is cultivated than in the past year and if so, in very remote areas. Villagers, local journalists, and parties confirm this. “My boss has no fields this year,” says the boy from Shkodra. “I am now washing cars again.” And police chief Saimir Rrustemi says: “Cannabis has the highest priority this year.” Then he adds: “This time for real.”
However, the availability of Albanian marijuana has not yet subsided because of the offensive – on the contrary: European customs and police officers have confiscated more than ever. In the first half of this year alone, the Guardia di Finanza has ensured a good 25 tons on ships in the Adriatic, more than in the whole of 2016. Despite the exterminations staged by the Albanian police for the media, the harvest of the drug mafia last autumn must have been quite good.
Artan Hoxha, the best-known investigator in Albania, suspects that the Socialist government has deliberately tolerated cannabis cultivation in the year before the elections. Hoxha is a bullish guy with a brushy haircut who has been researching the organized crime for a long time and cannot be stopped by death threats through text message or intimidation attempts by corrupt state organs.
Last spring, Hoxha says, several regional police officers had come to him and asked him to report less about cannabis cultivation. “They told me, ‘We respect you very much and we protect you. But in order to remain friends we must ask you: don’t investigate our regions,” The police officers, Hoxha says, had suggested that there was an agreement between the drug organizations and state institutions. And indeed, especially in those particular regions a lot of cannabis had been cultivated – and especially frozen. On his mobile phone Hoxha shows a self-recorded video: panning over a cannabis plantation with more than 10,000 plants, not far from the closest village, as if it were a lush vineyard.
The Albanian Ministry of the Interior Affairs does not want to comment directly on Hoxha’s allegations. A spokesman said: “Despite all the progress made in the strengthening of the police, the latter still suffers from the profound influence of the political parties.
In addition to corrupt policemen, many of the people who have no prospect of a decent income or government support in backward areas such as the Dukagjin region have benefited from the flourishing cannabis cultivation the year before the elections. The big money in this business worth billions, of course, was made by the mafia bosses and their clans, which still have a great influence at local level. And those, politically flexible, with their power and money support those parties and candidates who do not obstruct their illegal business.
The case of Klement Balili shows how close these relations still are. In May 2016, the Greek police, together with Europol and the American Anti-Drugs authorities, rolled up a gang that had smuggled cannabis and cocaine into Western Europe for hundreds of millions of euros. The investigators identified Klement Balili as the leading man and financier. He was the director for the Ministry of Transport in Saranda in southern Albania. In addition, his family built Santa Quaranta, a luxury hotel right on the beach. Despite numerous reports of lacking building permits, numerous politicians participated in the inauguration ceremony, among them the Socialist Arben Ahmetaj, now Finance Minister, and Ilir Meta, the current President of the Republic.
When the Greek authorities forwarded their arrest warrant against the presumed drug baron to the Albanians, nothing happened. Balili denied the allegations on television. He was suspended from civil service. But only months later, after a lot of international pressure, the police in Saranda dispatched a large force to apprehend him – but could no longer find the wanted criminal. “There is clear evidence that Balili has been free in Albania throughout this time and has not been arrested anyway,” says Ylli Manjani, who was then Minister of Justice in Tirana, and who was dismissed after criticism of the government’s dealings with the drug mafia. Klement Balili is still at large.
The opposition Democrats made the Balili case and cannabis cultivation an electoral theme. The EU, to which Rama is keen to lead his country, clearly criticized in its progress report the failure of the Albanian police and the judiciary to eliminate the drug gangs. But there is another reason why cannabis cultivation has declined in 2017: the interest of mafia bosses is declining. Due to overproduction, the prices have sunk to the ground. And the warehouses are still full. Only in July, the Albanian police in the coastal town of Vlora discovered more than 15 tons of marijuana, black market value: €160 million. A big find. In the past year, however, as estimated by Western European investigators, more than 1,000 tons have been harvested, so there is no great loss for the mafia.
Whether the Rama government is genuinely serious about its war against cannabis, and whether it can contend with the mighty clan chiefs, will not show until next year, when demand will be higher and international attention is lower.
The clans are investing their millions from cannabis cultivation elsewhere, in hotels and real estate, in agriculture and companies in all industries. And they expand their illegal business. For a few years, they have been increasingly active in cocaine smuggling – with direct contacts to cartels in Latin America. Albanian tribes now have “very great influence in organized crime in the UK,” warns the British National Crime Agency. The main focus was on cocaine trafficking, often accompanied by violence. The Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) reported an increase of 85.4% in suspects with an Albanian nationality. The accusation also here usually mostly: international drug trade.
After a total of five hours, chief Saimir Rrustemi and his men finally reach the area on the satellite images. We continue on foot, divided into several groups. Through the undergrowth, over meadows, mountain slopes, downhill slopes. After a good hour, they discover a first piece of evidence: an artificial pond, about ten by ten feet, feeding a thick hose. The policemen follow the hose, along a rocky slope. And a little later they stand between breast-high plants that grow on stony terraces.
The special forces with their Kalashnikovs set up above the field, but no one can be seen far and wide. The next village is an hour and a half away on foot. One of Rrustemi’s men pulls a sickle with a long wooden handle out of the backpack and starts to cut off the plants just above the ground. The others pile them up with their branches and the cut-up water hose. Then they set a few dry leaves on fire, and after only a few minutes, heavy smoke rises to the sky. Some of the younger police officers use the burning cannabis to take a selfie. Then they’re already on the search for the next pin.
It was not until after dark that the police cars rumbled back to Shkodra. 100 men returned, after almost 18 hours. Their record: no shooting, no arrests, all twelve fields destroyed. 1785 plants in total. Chief Saimir is satisfied. A decent amount of weed.
This article was first published by FAZ and translated by Exit.