Little chance of success for illegal immigrants, smugglers as Greeks, Albanians improve security

An undeclared war is being waged on the Greek-Albanian border, with ambushes, surveillance, pursuits, exchanges of gunfire and arrests of both illegal immigrants and traffickers in drugs, arms and women for sexual exploitation. Border guards on the other side of the boundary line are also attempting to stem this tide of people. The situation that developed on the Greek-Albanian border after 1990 found this country wholly unprepared to deal with the migrant influx, with the police forces in the border areas too small and underequipped to deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants. To avoid arrest, the migrants entered the country via rough mountain paths. Many made it. Others did not. Even today, skeletons can be found in the craggy mountains, the remains of those who succumbed to cold and exhaustion or simply lost their way and wandered till they dropped. Today, the situation is different – on both sides of the border. The Greek side has been guarded by the border guard corps since 1999, with 4,119 men and women in three zones watching out for illegal immigrants and traffickers of all kinds. Much has changed on the other side of the border as well. In the first place, due to stricter measures and an improved standard of living, there is no longer a mass influx of migrants into Greece. The last time that Albanian immigrants attempted to enter the country en masse was in the summer of 2001, when immigrants living illegally in Greece were given the opportunity to make themselves legal. The wave of migrants that followed was so great that they made no attempt to hide. In groups of 100 or so, they literally rushed the Greek borders. Some fell into the hands of police and border guards, but others managed to escape. Police buses went constantly to and from the border post at Kakavia, carting illegal immigrants back to Albania. Since then, the mass influx has dwindled to a trickle of migrants trekking over the rough, mountainous terrain. Often, they prefer to resort to organized rings, who, for a fee, promise to take them to Greece by road. Though the number of people who attempt to cross the border illegally has decreased, they have become more dangerous, as the few who attempt to cross are members of smuggling gangs who have no compunction about shooting their way out of a possible arrest. The ways in which gangs attempt to smuggle drugs into Greece are constantly changing. The «stray mule» method is one of the most common, in which the drugs are loaded onto mules that are turned loose, to be caught by other gang members as they cross the border. This method is used particularly for cannabis, which is cheap and whose loss or discovery can be dealt with. A wholly different tactic is used for cocaine or heroin. The border guards have caught migrants with 1 or 2 kilos of the drug on them, who said that gangsters had made them carry the drugs in exchange for being taken across the border. A common method for slipping drugs into the country is in hiding places in cars, within the wings, near petrol tanks, inside tires – wherever they can be hidden. Drug squad officials say that factories processing heroin and cocaine exist in southern Albania, with the result that increasing quantities now flow into Greece. There are always individuals carrying drugs in sacks as well. Locating and arresting them is very much the work of the border police, and special equipment has been provided to help them do it, including modern weaponry, up-to-date radio communications and infrared cameras, on which warm objects such as human bodies show up. The camera’s range enables it to replace the human eye at night. Placed on a mountainside, the camera tracks every source of heat greater than 36 degrees Celsius, and monitors its movements. In addition, it gives data such as distance from the person it has located, which the camera operators on base give to the border police, who then hasten to the spot to arrest the illegal immigrants. Essentially, the cameras enable the border guards to watch large tracts of the border while remaining invisible, thus depriving any border-crossers of the cover of darkness. The Albanian corps A border guard corps has been set up on the Albanian side of the border after pressure was brought to bear for measures to stem the flow of migrants and to check the activities of organized crime. Every 15 days, officers of both sides meet to discuss common action to combat crime. Greek officers note that this cooperation has started to bear fruit. Successes by the crimefighting forces in this country appear to have spurred their Albanian counterparts to greater activity. For instance, after the seizure of tons of hashish at Kakavia, checks on the Albanian side were stepped up. Cars were taken apart, which was unthinkable in the past. Dividing the border guards into three zones reaching into the hinterland is thought to have helped the fight against illegal migration. Those migrants who do manage to cross the border unnoticed are often caught by guards stationed in the hinterland.