For a tiny country in South Eastern Europe, Albania has one of the biggest reputations for corruption and is widely known as a major drug trafficker.
According to the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report by the US State Department, Albania is a significant source country for marijuana, as well as a transit route for cocaine and heroin destined for European markets.
Commenting on the report, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama said it proves “how much Albania had done in the fight against cannabis” and how much more remains to be done.
Albania’s neighbour, Italy, is anxious. According to Italy’s national Anti-Mafia and Anti-Terror Prosecutor Franco Roberti, a recent surge in drug trafficking from Albania to Italy is “very worrying”. On March 27, he said: “We have recently been to Albania with colleagues from Bari and Catanzaro and we hope to sign a deal with the Albanian government”.
Speaking to reporters during his visit to Tirana, he said: “We needed to understand together with our Albanian colleagues what produced the multiplication of drug trafficking between Albania and Italy, and in the same time, what we can do to improve our strategies in enhancing joint cooperation.
“Italy has confirmed its interest to work together with Albania through the appointment of an Italian connection Prosecutor here in Tirana, our colleague Francesco Ciardi,” added Roberti. He also stressed that corruption is a “privileged instrument of organised crime to penetrate the public administration institutions and the formal economy”.
“We are convinced that there can be no effective fight against organised crime, if corruption is not fought effectively and simultaneously, and this what we say also in Italy, by insisting for more effective instruments against corruption,” he said.
As the links between cannabis and corruption unfold, the crisis has taken a political turn. In January, Rama sacked his justice minister, Ylli Manjani, saying he wanted to cooperate better with parliament to push through judicial reforms.
But Manjani has a different view. He accused Rama of sacking him in revenge for speaking out about cannabis growing and alleged corruption, although his own party said it had not opposed the move.
Manjani, whose dismissal has been interpreted as a sign of the growing dispute between Rama’s Socialists and their junior coalition partners, the Socialist Integration Party (SIP), said the pressure for him to go began after he said the army should go after cannabis growers.
“The pressure for my dismissal was intensified on the day that I made the statement I made on cannabis,” he told reporters shortly after his dismissal.
“Rama’s government had managed to eradicate the large-scale cultivation of cannabis in the southern village of Lazarat in 2014,” Manjani explained. “But in the following two years cannabis growing spread to an area five times that size in the Balkan state, and police have been unable to catch known cannabis trafficker Klement Balili, wanted by neighboring Greece since last May.”
Balili is a fugitive suspected of having significant ties with a widespread drug organisation. According to Manjani, he was the only official to systematically call for Balili’s arrest. “When I called for his arrest, policemen ate and drank at Santa Quaranta,” Manjani said, referring to a hotel run by Balili’s family.
CNN has dubbed Balili as the Escobar of the Balkans – a reference to his alleged role as head of a heroin trafficking network. Albanian police, however, have reportedly refused to execute a warrant against him that was issued by the Greece. Balili remains at large.
Meanwhile, Albania’s drug situation is receiving plenty of international media attention. For instance, BBC World Service reported that the annual value of drugs produced in Albania is estimated at €5bn. Rai 1, Deutsche Welle, Corriere della Sera, CNN Greece, Frontex, La Republica and the Huffington Post have also reported on the cultivation of cannabis in Albania.
Recent media allege that billions of euros generated by trafficking will fund the upcoming June parliamentary elections. Worse still are reports that exponents of organised crime groups have strong political ties with the government and have received assurances that their activities will not be targeted – in exchange for election campaign funding.
Another factor to consider is poverty, which some argue is the reason so many Albanian farmers and the unemployed grow cannabis.
“Thousands of Albanians have no alternative because social and economic measures to help rural regions are lacking,” says Lulzim Basha, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Albania. “People are faced with the choice to either have no bread for their children or to work on cannabis farms. Many have chosen the second option.”
Research conducted earlier this year by Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, suggests that a cannabis farm in Albania can earn €200 for 1kg of cannabis.
Cannabis is often planted on “wild” plots of land and areas that are hard to reach. Some cannabis farmers have even developed irrigation systems and they protect their fields with weapons, according to DW.