Monday, February 22, 2016

State of affairs in the Balkans on organized crime issues, by Ioannis Michaletos

Southeastern Europe region is characterized by six transit movements East-West that have a profound significance regarding the overall security architecture of the EU and beyond.


- Narcotics (opiates) from Asia to Europe

- Illegal immigration from Asia to Europe

- Jihadists-terrorist operatives from Asia to Europe

-Arms contraband from Europe to Asia

- Mercenaries-Jihadist volunteers from Europe to Asia

- Multiple illegal goods: Tobacco, cocaine, counterfeits from across the planet into Balkan ports and then re-exported to the rest of the EU.

Moreover, there are a number of internal South East Europe illicit flows of goods and services:

-Tobacco contraband from Turkey/Bulgaria/Ukraine to Greece/Italy

- Cannabis from Albania to Greece/Italy and from Greece to Italy and from Bosnia to Croatia/Slovenia/Serbia

-Human trafficking from Ukraine/Moldova/Romania to Istanbul, Greece/Italy and Western Balkans

-Arms trafficking from Western Balkans to Greece and from Bosnia to Croatia/Serbia/Montenegro

- Counterfeit trade from Turkey to Greece/Bulgaria

- Organized beggars networks and armed robberies bands from Albania/Bulgaria/Romania to Greece/Istanbul

- Fuel contraband from Greece to the Southern Balkans

- According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2013: “The Balkan heroin route traverses the Islamic Republic of Iran (often via Pakistan), Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria across South-East Europe to the Western European market, with an annual market value of some $20 billion” . To put numbers into perspective, the amount of wholesale priced heroin that passes through the Balkans each year is larger or similar than the nominal GDP of countries such as Montenegro, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia.

- Arms trafficking of light weaponry has flourished in the Balkans during the 90’s and the wars of that period and since then the region is a steady hub for global illicit procurement of AK-47, hand grenades, RPG rockets, plastic explosives, and a variety of pistols. The wars in Libya, Syria,Ukraine, Yemen and Iraq and the aftermath effects of the “Arab Spring”, have once again flourished that trade. For instance in 2011, 800,000 12.7 mm rounds of ammunition, originating from Albanian surplus stocks, found their way into the hands of Libyan rebels (of Jihadi origin) and a UN panel of experts suggested that Tirana had some information about the final destination of the ammunition but did not follow it through .

In 2013 a New York Times report, revealed that arms shipments originating from Croatia were heading into Jihadists in Syria via Jordan and through Saudi financing. Further indications of a substantial flow of weaponry through radical Islamist channels based in the Balkans towards Syrian groups, was noted by Israeli sources,commenting that “Senders were groups from Kosovo and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina linked to Al Qaeda. The package included anti-tank systems delivered by the Soviet Union to former Yugoslavia in the past”.

The illegal immigration "business" is an expanding one with at least 3 billion Euros turnover in the region and fueled by massive population flows as witnessed in the whole of Europe in 2015. Furthermore since organized crime brokers and intermediates in terms of money laundering especially, are the same figures-due to the specialization and high-level connections this sector entails-then the immigrant movement is further fueled by the existence and cohabitation of other endemic criminal forces in the area. In turn that creates an "avalanche phenomenon" that contributes in proliferating both illegal immigration and the rest of the aforementioned criminal syndicates.

Apart from the local organized crime syndicates in southeast Europe the following ethnic ones also operate either on a permanent basis or through ad hoc consultations: Colombian, Mexican, Italian, Georgian, Russian, Israeli, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Armenian, Turkish-Kurdish, Chinese, Pakistani, Nigerian, Eritrean, Iranian, Afghani, Polish, Lebanese, and Vietnamese. In addition, multiple loose networks composed by members of various ethnicities are involved in all kinds of organized illicit action, with strong preference in using the region for money laundering purposes.

It has to be noted that in some instances the security situation seems to be deteriorating and in a strategic level. For example after a series of crackdowns against the Georgian “Thieves in Law” groups in Spain , there are credible information and analysis that points out that the new headquarters of the so-called “Georgian Mafia”, are now based in the city of Thessaloniki . Moreover the Chinese Triads have gradually but steadily build formidable foundation for their operations in Belgrade, Istanbul and Athens. A rather recent entrance in the spectrum of security challenges, are the “Motorcycle” gangs, which add up to the linkage between the American and Canadian organized crime scene and the Balkan one.

More alarmingly the Jihadist-inclined networks in the Balkans, and those in the Western region, are interlinked strongly and for a number of years with their “counterparts in Vienna and Milano (most of those carrying EU passports and having sleeper-thus undetected cells), while a formidable “Hawala transaction system” has been established with main hubs in Sarajevo, Istanbul, Athens, Kosovo and Skopje . Thus conventional tools such as economic intelligence, infiltration and surveillance cannot provide effective results.

Points of interest:

-Economic-crisis commercial and job market depression fuels the phenomenon in the region

-The destabilization in the MENA region is an added factor over the past few years since there is a steady demand for illegal goods and especially arms and illegal immigration facilitation

-The different sectors of systematic criminal activity tend to multiply the dynamics of each. At the same time the success of each group tends to be imitated by newly emerging ones: In times of economic & political uncertainty and crisis, while new sectors of illicit activity are being created (such as the mass illegal immigration “caravans” from Asia into the Balkans since roughly 2004), newly formed groups are getting involved by seeing opportunities to raise much needed capital.

-Economies of scale: Due to pressure of the security authorities and the one exercised by the EU for an eventual membership of Western Balkan countries; criminal groups already cooperating in the sectors of narcotics, arms and trafficking  join structures and combine their forces. The historical example of neighboring Italy is illustrative that local groups tend to formulate even stronger syndicated ones when circumstances make the existence of any individual group perilous. Similar “Cartel-type” organizations exist in Latin America and in USA, while the economics behind such model are evident. As the younger generation of local "Mafiosi" takes the reign, their globalized mentality and their greater understanding of the EU political context will force them to adopt into "cleaner structures" resembling legal business conglomerates.

-Well-formed money laundering networks based on enduring local socio-political interpersonal relations. Plus the institutional deficiencies that enable a continuation of the process. Several territories owing to non-recognition along with endemic corruption, shaped by recent wars and social upheaval (i.e. Kosovo, Transdniestria, Bosnia, Occupied Cyprus, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Ukraine)

- Formation of all-powerful and well politically protected Turkish-Middle Eastern criminal networks that are interlinked with geopolitical aims further fuel the organized crime phenomenon in the whole of the region.

- Likely border closure trend in the Balkans -to check the population flows- will inevitably result in changing of routes for the transit movements, especially those relating to drugs and other fast-moving objects. In such a case sea routes in South East Europe's vicinity will augment in relation to such trade, as well as, re-enactment of the Adriatic routes and the Black Sea ones.