Greece on crossroads of international heroin trade

Greece is a central hub on the route connecting the main country where heroin is produced, Afghanistan, and its biggest markets in Western Europe, annual reports by Europol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) have shown. It is estimated that around 60-65 tons of the drug make their way through Southeast Europe every year, while figures show that in 2011-12, 67 percent of the overall heroin seizures made in the Balkans were in Bulgaria and Greece.

“Traffickers generally choose to travel by road and Egnatia Odos [a highway which crosses northern Greece] is the most frequently used route,” the latest reports from Greece’s central coordinating body for drug enforcement, SODN, says. “The amount of heroin that has been seized near the border with Turkey and at the exits of Egnatia Odos, especially to Igoumenitsa Port, prove that this road is used for drugs destined to Italy and from there to Western Europe.”

Notably, in August 2012, at the border with Turkey in Kipi, Evros, police arrested an Italian national carrying 61 kilograms of heroin and later a German national who was caught with 20 kilos of the drug. In November 2012, meanwhile, another German, carrying 23.8 kilos of heroin, was stopped at Igoumenitsa port. According to SODN, a total of 331.1 kilos of heroin was seized in 2012 and 340.4 kilos in 2011. Figures compiled by Kathimerini for 2013, for which official data is not available, suggest that seizures last year reached 235 kilos. The so-called “Balkan road” is the main conduit of heroin from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan headed to Western and Central Europe, a report by UNDOC confirms.

In the report, published in March and titled “The Illicit Drug Trade Through South-Eastern Europe,” the UN agency refers specifically to the southern branch of the Balkan route, which runs through Greece and Italy. It also states that the main intermediary stop for heroin from Asia is Turkey, where 13.3 tons of the drug were seized in 2012. Taking into account that 5 tons of heroin was discovered in the same year in destination countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Germany), the UN report concludes that most of the heroin makes it through the Balkan passage without being detected by authorities in those countries.

To get an idea of the quantities in play, in 2011 Afghanistan alone produced 5,800 tons of opium (representing 83 percent of global production), while “just” 9 tons were seized.

The report also cites Greece, saying that it is an important hub for processing and repackaging heroin before it is sent on to other countries.

In its 2013 report titled “EU Serious Organized Crime Threat Assessment,” Europol notes that criminal organizations in Turkey play a leading role in the heroin trade to Europe.

“The vast majority of heroin in the EU continues to transit through Turkey and is trafficked by Turkish OCGs [organized crime groups] from its origin to destination markets,” the report says.

Authorities also says that criminal groups will traffic drugs themselves or facilitate partners in doing so, adding that Turkish gangs are known to maintain very close ties with their suppliers in the country of origin.

Greek seizures

Over the past two weeks, two large-scale operations have led to the biggest busts in the Mediterranean country’s history, as authorities last week seized 1.3 tons of heroin from two warehouses in Attica – one in the upscale northern Athens suburb of Filothei and the other in Koropi, eastern Attica – and on Saturday night uncovered another ton of the drug, also being stored in Koropi, though at a seperate location.

It is believed that the two hauls are part of one shipment.

A total of 12 suspects were arrested during the first operation, including a prominent Greek businessman and shipowner, his ex-wife, their teenage son and her current partner.

A 29-year-old Albanian national who turned himself in to authorities a few days after the crackdown and had worked for the Greek family as a handyman was pointed out by the other suspects as the person responsible for stashing 577 kilograms of heroin at the Filothei property owned by the businessman.

Testifying before a magistrate, the 40-year-old entrepreneur, his wife, 40, and her partner said that the Albanian brought the heroin into the house’s storage area without their knowledge. All three have been remanded in pretrial custody, while the woman’s mother, her 15-year-old son and a Bulgarian housekeeper were granted unconditional release.

Five Turkish nationals arrested at the warehouse in Koropi, where the remaining 500 kilos of heroin was found, were also remanded in pretrial custody last week.

Following Saturday’s bust, 14 suspects have been arrested, including 11 crew members of the Noor One Togo-flagged tanker, which is believed to have transported the drugs to Greece.

The other three suspects are a 53-year-old woman and two males.

Marijuana remains popular

Using more imaginative or mundane methods, via international cartels or small-scale operations, a plethora of narcotic substances is continuing to make its way into Greece, as, according to authorities, despite a crackdown on drug gangs and street dealers, demand and profit will always be the forces nurturing the cycle.

According to official reports, the majority of the cannabis in the Greek market continues to come from neighboring Albania, where it is grown on an industrial scale.

It is brought into Greece mainly across the land border, along paths that are incredibly difficult to police regularly because they are over mountainous and wooded terrain and the weather also often does not permit surveillance.

A small amount of Albanian cannabis is believed to be smuggled into Greece from the sea.

Seizures have increased sizably since 2010, indicating a spike in smuggling.

The largest amount of cannabis is currently intercepted in Epirus (representing 45 percent of total seizures in 2012), because it is on the Albanian border, followed by Attica (31.8 percent of seizures in the same period), the Peloponnese (8.2 percent) and on the Ionian islands (3.3 percent).

As far as domestic cannabis production is concerned, approximately one-third of the marijuana plants in Greece are found on the southern Aegean island of Crete.

The price of cannabis on the retail market in 2012, according to the annual report by the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Center for Drugs, was 15-25 euros per gram.

In 2013, authorities confiscated more than 20 tons of unprocessed cannabis.


Cocaine, the same sources say, arrives in Europe and Greece from Latin America mainly via the Iberian Peninsula, and especially Spain, as well as from the Low Countries, mainly the Netherlands. Often, larger quantities of cocaine found by authorities in Greece have come via France, Italy and the UK. By road it is imported in large quantities by truck and by air the quantities tend to be much smaller. There have been cases where large shipments of cocaine have come by sea.

The street price of cocaine in 2012 was between 35 and 120 euros per gram, while its purity was on average 59 percent. Last year, Greek authorities seized around 700 kilograms of cocaine in total.

Synthetic drugs

The Greek drug market is also being inundated by synthetic drugs, the most popular of which remains the substance commercially known as ecstasy, a potent amphetamine. In 2013, Greek authorities seized around 35,000 ecstasy pills, the street value of which ranges between 5 and 25 euros per tablet. Drug enforcement authorities, however, add that this number relates to all similar drugs in pill form broadly called ecstasy.

Unsurprisingly, most of the drugs that are dealt in Greece are concentrated in urban areas, and especially Athens. According to police sources, this does not necessarily correlate to the location of seizures, as these normally occur shortly after the drugs have entered the country in bulk and before they are cut and packaged for the market.

Users addicted to more dangerous drugs

Illegal narcotics in Greece have become stronger, are being used in a more dangerous manner and are being used for longer periods of time, according to experts who have seen a marked shift in drug abuse trends since 2010.

As far as heroin users are concerned, even though their number remains steady at an estimated 20,500, there are concerns about other phenomena that have been linked to the crisis along with the influx into the market of cheaper, often more dangerous, substances.

These conclusions have been reached after a study of the profile of individuals seeking treatment – something that is in itself becoming harder at a time when budget cuts are stretching rehabilitation programs to their limits.

According to Gerasimos Papanastasatos, the head of the research department at the Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals, known by its acronym KETHEA, while there was a steady decline in intravenous drug use throughout the 2000s, it shot back up in 2010 and has been rising continuously since. One of the main reasons why users are increasingly injecting heroin rather than taking it by other means, according to the expert, is that it has become more expensive and is of poorer quality, meaning that users need a more direct way to achieve the desired result.

Papanastasatos also attributes users’ putting off seeking treatment to the crisis, saying that “there is less motivation for them to become involved in the rehabilitation process.”

“Simply put, addicts see no reason why they should stop using,” he added.

One small silver lining is the gradual decline of the use of shisha, a highly dangerous synthetic narcotic known as the “poor man’s drug,” which had gained enormous popularity in 2011 through about the start of 2013. According to Papanastasatos, the rehabilitation center and its outreach teams who work with addicts on the streets have seen a marked decline in the number of shisha users.

“This market is also maturing in terms of the change in direction of the behavior of users,” Papanastasatos told Kathimerini, adding that shisha appears to have fallen out of favor with local users because it does not produce the same rush as heroin.

KETHEA has also seen an increase in the number of individuals seeking to kick marijuana, noting that the use of this substance has also increased. That said, marijuana remains the most popular drug of choice in Greece, with figures showing that from 2007 to 2011, the percentage of teenagers aged 15-19 who had tried it or used it rose from 9.5 percent to 13.4 percent.

Speaking at a recent press conference, meanwhile, KETHEA’s board president, Gerasimos Notaras, Director Vassilis Gitakos and supervisor Michalis Mylonas, warned that around 40 percent of users approached by the outreach teams state that they are homeless and either sleeping on the streets or in abandoned buildings. This shows a rise from 2011, when 53.2 percent of addicts said they lived on the streets and from 2010, when the figure stood at 24.5 percent.

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