The growth of Albanian drug trafficking and the proliferation of cannabis production in the country has earned Albania the nickname the “Columbia of Europe”. Italian authorities have found links between the Cosa Nostra and criminal groups in the Balkan country, while their influence on Albanian politics ensures they can continue to operate with minimal state interference.
Albania, one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, has become the largest producer of outdoor-grown marijuana on the continent. An illicit industry that could be worth about 5 billion euros a year – about half of the country’s gross domestic product.
Albania, located in the Western Balkans, has a long history in the production of marijuana. In pre-Communist times it was widely cultivated and even used as a sedative for children, but in 1946, shortly after Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania until his death in 1985 – came to power, it was banned and its production driven underground. The political upheaval that ensued after the collapse of the communist system marked by sky-high rates of unemployment and endemic corruption created the ideal conditions for organised crime and drug trafficking to take root.
In addition to high unemployment, social benefits are very low in Albania, only 75 euros per month per family. “Thousands of Albanians have no other alternative because social and economic measures are missing from the Government to support the rural regions,” the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, told Deutsche Welle (DW).
A marijuana grower earns around 200 euros for 1 gram of cannabis, which is usually planted in “uncultivated” or difficult to access lands. Some farmers have developed special irrigation systems and defend their plantations with weapons. It is an extremely profitable illicit industry: “In Albania, a kilogram of this illegal drug is sold at between 100 and 200 euros. But, in Italy it reaches up to 1,500 euros. Most of the country’s marijuana is exported: to the north through Montenegro, to the south through Greece or to the west across the Adriatic to Italy,” according to the BBC.
The Albanian opposition blames the problem on alliances between some parts of the government and organised crime. “The industry is controlled by powerful people with strong relationships with state authorities. It is true that the police destroy many marijuana plantations. But those fields that are under special protection are not touched,” explained Elvis Nabolli, editor-in-chief of the television channel Rozafa, to Deutsche Welle.
This growing role of Albanian gangs in international drug trafficking has given the country the nickname of the “Colombia of Europe”. In July 2017, the Directorate of Antimafia Investigation (DIA) of Italy, revealed the extent of the relationship between members of the Sicilian Mafia and the gangs in Albania – a country in which a significant part of the population knows how to speak Italian and that some even consider the “twenty-first Italian region”. In addition, they had registered “signs of activity” of the Cosa Nostra in the Balkan country.
“It must be understood that historically, Albanian criminality has not had a direct relationship with the Cosa Nostra, as has happened with the Sacra Corona Unita of Apulia and with the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta,” said Antonio Ingroia, a former prosecutor in El Confidencial. While in Europe they may be forging alliances with Italian gangs, across the Atlantic Albanian gangs have made a name for themselves aggressively muscling into the space being vacated by the Italian mob in New York as it was broken up the authorities in the late 1980s.
The government, at pains to prove to the the EU – which it hopes to join one day – how hard it is working to reign in the problem points to the huge increase in the number of plants destroyed: 500,000 in 2014 to more than 2 million in 2016. But the failure to arrest a single kingpin and the fact that despite the government’s efforts the Foreign Security Advisory Council of the United States found that production continues to increase in Albania, raises serious concerns about Tirana’s commitment to shaking Albania’s reputation as an oasis for drug dealers.