NEWS

Narcotics war rages in the Balkans

War is raging among rival gangs of drug runners in Bulgaria. In November alone, four major known gang chiefs were murdered and the authorities are rubbing their hands at the prospect of benefiting from internal dissension among drug barons. Bulgaria is a link in the chain that ships heroin from the Golden Triangle of Central Asia to Western Europe; the port of Burgas is thought to be a significant gateway for shipping Latin American cocaine to former Soviet bloc countries. Interior Ministry General Secretary Boyko Borisov recently announced that major Bulgarian drug dealers had held a secret meeting, a sort of informal peace meeting, in Thessaloniki. But it seems they reached no agreement, he explained, as one of them has gone missing since then and another, by the name of Constantin Dimitrov, was murdered a few days ago in the Netherlands. The tough man of the Bulgarian security service spoke of ongoing bloodshed among drug runners in his country. Why are the dealers feuding with each other when there are ample profits for all? Presumably, they are eliminating each other over shares of the pie at a time when their sphere of action has been curtailed by the efforts of the international and national police in combating drug trafficking. Like other Balkan countries that hope to join the European Union, Bulgaria is under heavy pressure to crack down on organized crime. In fact, this has been made a condition in continuing the accession process. US Ambassador to Sofia James Pardew strongly criticized the government in connection with the feuding drug dealers, accusing it of failing to make arrests or to convict anyone, despite the many acts of violence perpetrated by organized criminals recently in Bulgaria. Other high-ranking Western diplomats have issued similar warnings to other governments in Southeastern Europe. Matters are not so straightforward, however, as organized crime has mushroomed in those countries, chiefly due to the inability of governments to suppress it, when they are not actually involved in it themselves. Organized traffickers of narcotics, cigarettes, women, illegal immigrants and weapons wield great influence in ruling circles and have access to the state mechanism. They fund election campaigns, control sensitive customs posts, may influence developments when their interests are at stake, and they also make threats to kill which they have no scruples about carrying out. On its way from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Central and Western Europe, heroin brings huge profits to traffickers and the network is still in place, despite the occasional successes by the authorities. According to reports made by international organizations to a meeting of police officers from Balkan countries in Thessaloniki, 80 percent of the heroin available in Europe goes through the Balkans, where Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Romania and Albania are hubs, while Greece is an alternative route, mainly by its seaways. Trafficking in Europe is mostly under the control of Turks, who are feeling pressure from Albanian and Kosovar networks, while gangs from Bulgaria, FYROM, Albania and Romania are involved in transport and in distribution networks. One speaker at the meeting said: «The Turkish organizations are formed and act along the lines of organized crime. Their members try to conceal their real activities by presenting themselves as businessmen, usually in shipping and construction companies. They cultivate relations with sports clubs as sponsors, get involved in philanthropic activities (such as offering houses to earthquake victims and repairing schools), and maintain relations with various services. «The gangs operate according to a hierarchy. Members who have cooperated with the police have been murdered. If drugs are confiscated in Turkey or elsewhere, the method used to hide them changes, and other companies or people are used to make deliveries, showing that they have a wide circle of contacts.» Due to its strategic position, Albania is a heroin distribution center for all Europe. According to data collected by Western police, heroin is diluted and sent on by speedboat to Italian ports, from where it it sent to European markets. The route through Kosovo is no longer used, since the area contains 23,000 KFOR troops and another 6,000 members of an international police force that crosses the border. Romania and Bulgaria have become transfer and storage countries for heroin from Turkey, even though Turkish authorities have confiscated significant quantities, especially following the installation of modern detection devices at the Kapitan Andreeva pass on the border of Turkey and Bulgaria, in collaboration with British services. Just last year a metric ton of heroin was seized. Some of the heroin that goes through Bulgaria in transit stays there as compensation for services rendered, and is channeled by the local mafia to the country’s 30,000 drug users and also on to Greece. Meanwhile, an unrelenting war goes on between the Greek authorities and the gangs importing heroin from Bulgaria. A year ago, on the Greece-FYROM border, the notorious drug baron Stoyan Stoyanov was killed in a clash between Greek police and a Bulgarian gang that had been trafficking large quantities of heroin. An ex-police officer who fought in Chechnya as a mercenary, Stoyanov was thought to be impossible to get rid of, so news of his death was treated with awe by the Bulgarian press. «Unbelievable, they’ve killed God,» wrote one newspaper in Sofia, using Stoyanov’s nickname.