Pubdate: Jan/Feb 2000
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Author: Peter Klebnikov


When the bombs stopped falling over Yugoslavia last June, a flood of
humanity swept through the Balkans as thousands of Kosovar Albanians
returned home from refugee camps.  But over the craggy mountains separating
Yugoslavia and Albania, a far less innocent traffic returned.  A fleet of
Mercedes sedans without license plates lined the streets of Kosovo's
capital, Pristina, and young men with hooded eyes and bulky suits checked
into the top floors of showcase hotels such as the Rogner in Tirana, the
Albanian capital.  It was time for criminal elements with close ties to
America's newest ally to reopen the traditional Balkan Road-one of the
biggest conduits for global heroin trafficking.

Law enforcement officials in Europe have suspected for years that ties
existed between Kosovar rebels and Balkan drug smugglers.  But in the six
months since Washington enthroned the Kosovo Liberation Army in that
Yugoslav province, KLA-associated drug traffickers have cemented their
influence and used their new status to increase heroin trafficking and forge
links with other nationalist rebel groups and drug cartels.

The benefits of the drug trade are evident around Pristina-more so than
Western aid.  "The new buildings, the better roads, and the sophisticated
weapons-many of these have been bought by drugs," says Michel Koutouzis, the
Balkans region expert for the Global Drugs Monitor (OGD), a Paris-based
think tank.  The repercussions of this drug connection are only now
emerging, and many Kosovo observers fear that the province could be evolving
into a virtual narco-state under the noses of 49,000 peacekeeping troops.

For hundreds of years, Kosovar Albanian smugglers have been among the
world's most accomplished dealers in contraband, aided by a propitious
geography of isolated ports and mountainous villages.  Virtually every stage
of the Balkan heroin business, from refining to end-point distrbution,is
directed by a loosely knit hierarchy known as "The 15 Families," who answer
to the regional clans that run every aspect of Albanian life.

The Kosovar Albanian traffickers are so successful, says a senior U.S. State
Department official, "because Albanians are organized in very close-knit
groups, linked by their ethnicity and extended family connections."

The clans, in addition to their drug operations, maintained an armed brigade
that gradually evolved into the KLA.  In the early 1990s, as the Kosovar
uprising in Yugoslavia grew, ethnic Albanian rebels there faced increased
financial needs.  The 15 Families responded by boosting drug trafficking and
channeling money and weapons to the rebels in their clans.  As traffickers
started taking bigger risks, drug seizures by police across Europe
skyrocketed from a kilo or two in the early 1980s to multimilliondollar
hauls, culminating in the spectacular 1996 arrest at Gradina, Yugoslavia, of
two truckers running a load of more than half a ton of heroin worth $50

German Federal Police now say that Kosovar Albanians import 80 percent of
Europe's heroin.  So dominant is the Kosovar presence in trafficking that
many European users refer to illicit drugs in general as 'Aibanka;' or
Albanian lady.

The Kosovar traffickers ship heroin exclusively from Asia's Golden Crescent.
It's an apparently inexhaustible source.  At one end of the crescent lies
Afghanistan, which in 1999 surpassed Burma as the world's largest producer
of opium poppies.  From there, the heroin base passes through Iran to
Turkey, where it is refined, and then into the hands of the 15 Families,
which operate out of the lawless border towns linking Macedoniji, Albania,
and Serbia.  Not surprisingly, the KLA has also flourished there. According
to the State Department, four to six tons of heroin move through Turkey
every month. "Not very much is stopped," says one official.  "We get just a
fraction of the total."

Initially, the Kosovar traffickers used the direct Balkan route, carrying
goods overland by truck from Turkey and Yugoslavia into Europe.  With the
Busnian war, the direct route was shut down and two splinter routes
developed to bypass Yugoslavia.

The ascent of the Kosovar families to the top of the trafficking hierarchy
coincided with the sudden appearance of the KLA as a fighting force in 1997.
As Serbia unleashed its campaign of persecution against ethnic Albanians,
the diaspora mobilized. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate Kosovars around
the world funneled money to the insurrection. Nobody sent more than the
Kosovar traffickers-some of the wealthiest people of Kosovar extraction in
Europe.  According to news reports, Kosovar Albanian traffickers launder
$1.5 billion in profits from drug and arms smuggling each year through a
shadowy network of some 200 private banks and currency exchange offices.  A
congressional briefing paper obtained by Mother Jones indicates: "We would
be remiss to dismiss allegations that between 30 and 50 percent of the ISLAs
money comes from drugs."

[PHOTOS] KLA rebels (facing page) display their Kalashnikov AK-47 assault
rifles, which police say drug traffickers helped provide. Italian police
(above) with heroin seized from Albanian smugglers

As the war in Kosovo heated up, the drug traffickers began supplying the KLA
with weapons procured from Eastern European and Italian crime groups in
exchange for heroin.  The 15 Families also lent their private armies to
fight alongside the KLA.  Clad in new Swiss uniforms and equipped with
modern weaponry, these troops stood out among the ragtag irregulars of the
KLA.  In all, this was a formidable aid package.  It's therefore not
surprising, say European law enforcement officials, that the faction that
ultimately seized power in Kosovo-the KLA under Hashim Thaci-was the group
that maintained the closest links to traffickers.  "As the biggest
contributors, the drug traffickers may have gotten the most influence in
running the country," says Koutouzis.

The congressional brief explains how groups like the KLA become involved
with drug barons.  "Such groups had it easier during the Cold War when they
could seek out patron states," it notes.  "But today, with the decline in
state sponsorship of insurgent groups, private funding is critical to keep
the revolution alive."

The KLAs dependence on the drug lords is difficult to prove, but the
evidence is impossible to overlook:

[Newshawk's Note: The numbered items below were bulleted items in the

1) In 1998, German Federal Police froze two bank accounts of the "United
Kosovo" organization in a Dilsseldorf bank after they discovered deposits
totaling several hundred thousand dollars from a convicted Kosovar drug
trafficke.  According to at least one published report, the accounts were
controlled by Bujar Bukoshi, prime minister of the Kosovo government in

2) In early 1999, an Italian court in Brindisi convicted an Albanian heroin
trafficker named Amarildo Vrioni, who admitted obtaining weapons for the KLA
from the Mafia in exchange for drugs.

3) Last February 23, Czech police arrested Princ Dobroshi, the head of a
Kosovar drug gang.  While searching his apartment, they discovered evidence
that he had placed orders for light infantry weapons and rocket systems.  No
one questioned what a smalltime dealer would be doing with rockets.  Only
later did Czech police reveal he was shipping them to the KLA.  The Czechs
extradited Dobroshi to Norway, where he had escaped from prison in 1997
while serving a 14-year sentence for heroin trafficking.

In Kosovo it's hard to seperate a legal organizational structure from an
illegal one.  "A trafficker can sell blue jeans one day and heroin the
next," says Koutouzis.  "The same supply network is used.  There are no
ethical distinctions.  Heroin is just another way of making money.

It was the disparate structure of the KLA, Koutouzis says, that facilitated
the drug-smuggling explosion.  "It permitted a democratization of drug
trafficking, where small-time people get involved, and everyone contributes
a part of his profit to his clan leader in the KLA," he explains.  "The more
illegal the activity; the more money the clan gets from the traffickers.  So
it's in the interest of the clan to promote drug trafficking."

According to Marko Nicovic, the former chief of police in Belgrade, now an
investigator who works closely with Interpol, the international police
agency, 400 to 500 Kosovars move shipments in the 20-kilo range, while about
5,000 Kosovar Albanians are small-timers, handling shipments of less than
two kilos.  At one point in 1996, he says, more than 800 ethnic Albanians
were in jail in Germany on narcotics charges.

In many places, Kosovar traffickers gained a foothold through raw violence.
According to a 1999 German Federal Police report, "The ethnic Albanian
gangs...have been involved in drugs, weapons trafficking...blackmail, and
murder....  They are increasingly prone to violence."

Tony White of the United Nations Drug Control Program agrees with this
assessment.  "They are more willing to use violence than any other group,"
he says.  "They have confronted the established order throughout Europe and
pushed out the Lebanese, Pakistani, and Italian cartels."

Few gangs are willing to tangle with the Kosovars.  Those that do often pay
the ultimate price.  In January 1999, Kosovar Albanians killed nine people
in Milan, Italy during a two-week bloodbath between rival heroin groups.

Daut Kadriovski, the reputed boss of one of the 15 Families, embodies the
tenacity of the top Kosovar drug traffickers.  A Yugoslav Interior Ministry
report identifies as one of Europe's biggest heroin dealers, and Nicovic
calls him a "major financial resource for the KLA." Through his family
links, Nicovic says, Kadriovski smuggled more than 100 kilos of heroin into
New York and Philadelphia.  He lived comfortably in Istanbul and specialized
in creative trafficking solutions, once dispatching a shipment of heroin in
the hollowed-out accordion cases of a popular traveling Albanian folk music
group. German authorities eventually arrested him in 1985 with four kilos of
heroin. They confiscated his yachts, cars, and villas, and sent him to
prison.  Kadriovski's reign appeared to be over.

But Kadriovski greased his way with narco-dollars.  He escaped from prison
by bribing guards, and in 1993 he headed for the United States, where it's
believed he continues to operate.

According to Nicovic, Kadriovski reportedly funneled money to the KLA from
New York through a leading Kosovar businessman and declared KLA contributor.
"Kadriovski feels more secure with his KLA friends in power," Nicovic says.

The U.S. representatives of four other heroin families are suspected by
Interpol of having sent money for the uprising, according to Nicovic.  These
men typically maintain links with local distributors, he says, and move
heroin through a network of small import-export companies in New York and

Now free of the war and the repression Yugoslav police machine, drug
traffickers have reopened the old Balkan Road.  With the KLA in power-and in
the spotlight-the top trafficking families have begun to seek relative
respectability without decreasing their heroin shipments.  "The Kosovars are
trying to position themselves in higher levels of trafficking," says the
U.N.'s Tony White.  "They want to get away from the violence of the streets
and attract less attention. Criminals like to move up like any other
business, and the Kosovars are becoming business leaders.  They have become
equal partners with the Turks."

Italian national police discovered this new Kosovar outreach last year when
they undertook "Operation Pristina." The carabinieri uncovered a chain of
connections that originated in Kosovo and stretched through nine European
countries, extending into Central Asia, South America, and the United

"People from Pristina worked all over Europe and the world," says Jurgen
Storbeck, director of Europol, the cooperative police force of the European
Union.  "They used sophisticated methods, taking advantage of places where
police work was not so successful, like Eastern Europe." Eventually, 40
people were arrested and 170 kilos of heroin were seized in an operation
that involved seven European police departments.

As their business reaches a saturation point in Europe, Kosovar traffickers
are looking more to the West.  It's a smart business move. The United States
has seen a marked shift from cocaine to heroin use. According to recent DEA
statistics, Afghan heroin accounted for almost 20 percent of the smack
seized in this country-nearly double the percentage taken four years
earlier.  Much of it is distributed by Kosovar Albanians.

The Clinton administration has launched a vigorous crack-down on Colombian
heroin.  As the campaign intensifies, some White House officials fear
Kosovar heroin could replace the Colombian supply. "Even if we were to
eliminate all the heroin production in Colombia, by no means do we think
there would be no more heroin coming into the United States," says Bob
Agresti of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  "Look at
the numbers.  Colombia accounts for only six percent of the world's heroin.
Southwest Asia produces 75 percent."

Perhaps most alarmingly, Kosovar drug dealers associated with the KLA have
begun to form partnerships with Colombian traffickers-the world's most
notorious drug lords.  "We have an all-new situation now" says Europol's
Storbeck.  "Colombians like to use Kosovar groups for distribution of
cocaine.  The Albanians are getting stronger and stronger, and there is a
certain job sharing now.  They are used by Turks for smuggling into the
European Union and by Colombians for distribution of cocaine."

Washington clearly hopes the KLA will disentangle itself from its
drug-running friends now that it's in power, but this may not be easy. "The
KLA owes a lot of debts to the traffickers and holy warriors," says
Koutouzis.  "They are being pressured to assist other insurrections."
Already; the OGD has reports of KLA weapons being routed to the newest
Muslim holy war in Chechnya.

The congressional brief addresses the KLA's future: "One of the problems you
have with organizations that engage in drug trafficking is that they become
addicted to the trade and the income it brings," the report notes.  "Later
on in life, even if they want to stop trafficking in drugs, it's not always

Marko Nicovic, the former Belgrade police chief; puts it a bit more
succinctly: "If Kosovo gets full autonomy, they may well double the
production of heroin," he says.  "Kosovo will become a smuggler's paradise,
its doors open to every global criminal."

[PHOTOS] Italian poiice arresi :Amarildo Vrioni (facing page), an Albanian
trafficker who admitted trading drugs to get weapons for the KLA.  Officers
(above) show drugs and arms seized from an Albanian boat

The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits aid to any entity that has
colluded with narcotics traffickers. Similarly, the Balkan peace agreement
brokered in June prohibits the KLA from engaging in criminal activity.  And
so the Clinton administration tries to steer clear of questions suggesting
the KLA has joined a rogues' gallery of narco-leaders.  KLA drug-running is
the last thing the administration wants to tackle with the suecess of its
"moral war" already open to question.

Late last spring, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to
President Clinton requesting an assessment of KLA drug trafficking. The
president responded quickly, telling Grassley in a June 15 letter that he
had demanded an intelligence assessment from the CIA and the DEA on Kosovar
drug trafficking.  "Neither agency," the president wrote, "has any
intelligence that indicates the KLA has either been engaged in other
criminal activity or has direct links to any organized crime groups."
Clinton did acknowledge that crime groups "have contributed at least limited
funds and possibly small arms to the KLA." He promised to "monitor"
narcotics distribution there in the future.

"There was no action," said a congressional source close to Grassley. "It
was a nonanswer."

White House officials deny a whitewashing of KLA activities.  "We do care
about [KLA drug trafficking]," says Agresti.  "It's just that we've got our
hands full trying to bring peace there."

The DEA is equally reticent to address the issue.  According to Michel
Koutouzis, the DEA's website once contained a section detailing Kosovar
trafficking, but a week before the U.S.-led bombings began, the section
disappeared.  "The DEA doesn't want to talk publicly [about the KLA," says
OGD director Alain Labrousse.  "It's embarrassing to them."

High-ranking U.S. officials are dismayed that the KLA was installed in power
without public discussion or a thorough check of its background. "I don't
think we're doing anything there to stem the drugs," says a senior State
Department official.  "It's out of control. It should be a high priority.
We've warned about it."

Even if it tried to stop Kosovar heroin, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to
do so.  "Nobody's in control in Kosovo," adds the State Department official.
"They don't even have a police force."

Regardless of what it says, there's little indication that the
administration wants to do anything with the intelligence available about
its newest ally.  "There is no doubt that the KLA is a major trafficking
organization," said a congressional expert who monitors the drug trade and
requested anonymity.  "But we have a relationship with the KLA, and the
administration doesn't want to damage [its] reputation.  We are partners.
The attitude is: The drugs are not coming here, so let others deal with it."

That phrase is troublingly familiar.  It raises the question: Is our embrace
of the KLA the latest in an ignoble tradition of aiding drug traffickers for
political reasons? Similar recipients of U.S. largesse have included the
Nicaraguan Contras, former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the Afghan
Taliban, and Burma's Khun Sa.

Early in 1999, as the war against Serbia raged, Congress voted to fund the
KLAs drive for independence.  In the days ahead, our embrace of the KLA may
come to haunt us.  Elections scheduled for this spring in Kosovo have been
delayed; but no matter when they occur; observers say, their outcome is
already certain.  The time-honored clans will win.  And the men in oversized
suits-the kind who sing allegiance to democracy and global capitalism while
conducting business in the back of an unlicensed Mercedes-will be running
the show.
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