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Thursday, 15 June, 2000, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Europe's drug gangs
Freight train
Drug smugglers are finding new routes
By Central Europe analyst Jan Repa

When Ray Kendall, the British outgoing Secretary General of Interpol, visited Albania in the early 1990s, he was shocked by the untrained state of the local police.

Forget computers. There were hardly any typewriters either.

The 'Albanian mafia' has acquired a fearsome reputation

Much has been done since, with Western help. But after renewed political and social upheavals, the Albanian government's control over large parts of the country remains precarious.

Last year's war over Kosovo has provided another opportunity for criminals to prosper.

According to Ray Kendall, at least 80 percent of the heroin entering Western Europe does so through Turkey and the Balkans - with Albanian gangs playing an increasingly important role.

Clan loyalty

Former Secretary Genrral of Interpol Raymond Kendall
Ray Kendall: Albanian drug gangs are on the rise
The "Albanian mafia" has acquired a fearsome reputation. It has now established itself within the European Union as well - reportedly wresting control of the criminal underworld in north Italian cities like Milan and Turin from gangs linked to the Italian mafia.

The Western media has written extensively about the "clan structure" of Albanian society; of the traditional code of silence known as "besa"; of the difficulty of penetrating tight-knit family structures.

In a way, they are behaving like any successful company adapting to market conditions

But Albanian observers say this is largely a myth. The clan tradition is stronger in the north, but the drug trade is more active in the south of Albania. Family clans are stronger in the villages, but the drug traffic goes on mainly in the cities.

Nonetheless, they acknowledge the difficulty of imposing Western notions of an impartial, equal and nationwide system of justice on a society in which the state has not been respected and where many people have traditionally governed themselves by a medieval code based on strict loyalty to the local community.

Market forces Where there is demand - and Europe by some estimates accounts for about one third of the world market in illegal drugs - there will also be those willing to supply it: farmers growing opium poppies in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan; criminal gangs controlling the transit trade; local dealers; and legions of "mules" - obscure individuals who help in the smuggling.

The crime prevention authorities in the transit countries pride themselves on the size of drug seizures being made with the aid of new detection procedures. But this may often simply mean that the volume of drugs being smuggled is increasing.

Alarm bells started ringing when the Hungarians announced recently that seizures this year are already double last year's entire haul. Drug gangs have proved adept at shifting routes and switching partners.

In a way, they are behaving like any successful company adapting to market conditions.

Despite much earnest talk from politicians, West European countries themselves have yet to agree uniform sentencing policies in relation to drug dealers - or to enact Europe-wide legislation giving access to criminals' assets and the right to confiscate them.

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