Region ramps up joint efforts against trafficking
Selling newborns is the latest twist in Balkan-style organised crime.
By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina — 21/02/11
Significant sums have been seized during various joint operations. [Albanian State Police]
Trafficking took on a new dimension late last month when Greek and Bulgarian authorities, acting on a tip, broke up a crime ring that bought and sold newborn babies. Baby boys fetched a higher price than girls, and skin color was a further factor.
The babies‘ mothers, usually impoverished, got a fraction of what the trafficking gang did, along with immeasurable amounts of remorse.
Authorities trumpeted the joint nature of the investigation that spanned several months, and the co-ordinated arrests of 11 suspects in both Greece and Bulgaria. It was the latest in a series of high-profile trans-border operations against organised crime.
With successive police operations making headlines, authorities across the region appear to be making headway against smuggling and trafficking rings. Is strengthened rule of law finally becoming a reality?
The EU has been using the promise of accession as an incentive to convince governments to join forces. Criminals recognise no boundaries, authorities agree, so efforts to fight them should not stop at the borders either.
A December report by Interpol highlighted the two main global routes for smuggling heroin. One, the so-called Silk Route, crossed Central Asia. The other, known as the Balkan Route, snakes across Southeast Europe.
Serb-dominated northern Kosovo remains a hotspot. Over the course of the past year, Kosovo Police General Director Reshat Maliqi says his personnel confiscated nearly 365kg of heroin, marijuana and cocaine.
Five tonnes of drugs were confiscated by Albanian police last year. [Albanian State Police]
Neighbouring Albania says it confiscated 5 tonnes of drugs in 2010.
Arben Hanelli, head of the Risk Analysis and Trans-Border Crime Office in the Albanian rule of law structures, says a considerable number of joint police operations have been conducted by countries in the region, sometimes with the help of FRONTEX, the European border control agency.
„The effect of the crime prevention is extremely high,“ Hanelli tells SETimes.
Also effective are bilateral agreements Albania has struck with Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro for joint police patrols — mixed police units — patrolling together in each other’s territory.
Serbia has been pushing for stepped-up efforts in Montenegro, whose longtime prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, retired in December. Slobodan Homen, state secretary in Serbia’s Ministry of Justice, said the new government in Podgorica should demonstrate its willingness to be „one of key factors in the fight against organised crime in the region“.
A prime target of any joint effort is the crime group led by fugitive Darko Saric, who is accused of smuggling 2.6 tonnes of cocaine from South America in 2009. More than 20 people — some Serbian, some Montenegrin — have been indicted, but Saric himself remains on the run.
Weapons trafficking is another example of cross-border crime. On December 30th, a freight train bound from Serbia to a scrap collecting company in Albania was stopped at Bajza of Malesia e Madhe, on the Albania-Montenegro border. One of the 16 rail cars was filled with various kinds of military ammunition, including artillery rockets, mixed in with scrap. Five crewmen were accused of trafficking weapons and ammunition.
Weapons trafficking is another example of cross-border crime. [Albanian State Police]
Balkan-based organised crime has become an emerging threat in the United States, according to the FBI.
In one high profile case, Almir Rrapo, a former employee of the Albanian Foreign Ministry, was extradited late last year to the United States. The FBI says he was part of „a racketeering enterprise that engaged in murder, kidnapping, narcotics trafficking, extortion, robbery, arson, obstruction of justice, and interstate transportation of stolen goods“. Rrapo fled to Tirana, where he was arrested in July at the request of the United States.
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Janice Fedarcyk said the co-operation in Rrapo’s extradition „should be a stern message to the murderers, kidnappers, and drug dealers who try to flee prosecution: you can run, but you cannot hide“.
Many of the countries in the region are both destinations and origins of organised crime. Neighbouring countries are aware of the need for stronger co-operation.
In BiH, prosecutors accused 18 people of trafficking Albanians to Western Europe. Radio Free Europe reported in December that the suspects include 15 Bosnians, two Serbs and one Slovenian. Ethnic differences, experts agree, do not matter in the least.
In late September, police in Vlora, Albania arrested Albino Prudentino, whom Italian authorities sought for „criminal mafia-style collaboration“, drug trafficking and kidnapping. He was extradited to stand trial in Italy.
With successive police operations making headlines, is the tide finally turning? [Albanian State Police]
The entire operation was the result of co-operation between rule of law agencies in both countries. „The Vienna Convention [governing treaties between states] should be applied to create joint investigation groups,“ Ardjan Cipa, head of the department fighting illegal trafficking in Albania’s State Police, told SETimes.
Cipa cites an ongoing cross-border anti-drug operation that involves Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. The operation, initiated by Interpol, is part of a regional project to jointly fight organised crime.
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