The arrest of a senior Albanian government official with almost 60kg of cannabis shows the country is still struggling to shake off its links with state corruption and gangsterism, experts have told VICE World News.
The arrest of Erisa Fero, 28, on the 29th of December in a remote, mountainous section of Albania near the border with North Macedonia as she was allegedly transporting 58kg of cannabis, immediately turned into a political scandal – considering her position as IT director for Albania’s state information agency, AKSH.
Albanian police said Fero was using her official government ID as a security official to avoid police checkpoints and searches. During the arrest, Fero’s reported romantic partner, Leke Basha, 30, and a 17-year-old suspect, were also detained for drug trafficking offences. Two suspects on the North Macedonian side of the border, believed to have been receiving the drugs, escaped after a long manhunt, according to police.
According to local media reports, police suspect those arrested in the incident, including Fero, of having links with organised crime gangs. The incident came as NATO member Albania pushes for a deeper relationship with the EU, including potential future membership.
“Albania and other countries including Bulgaria and Romania have made significant gains in battling local organised crime and corruption in cooperation with the EU and NATO,” said a senior EU security official, who asked not to be named discussing internal European politics. “But this incident shows the difficulty in battling corruption in a patronage environment like Albania.”
The official said with access to internal IT and information systems, Fero’s alleged crime links could lead to a high risk of intelligence being passed onto criminal gangs or hostile intelligence services.
“It would stand to reason that a government official allegedly caught trafficking large amounts of drugs in Albania could have links to organised crime groups,” said the official. “And these groups are certainly involved with Russian organised crime, so this would be a major security concern. The EU will be watching Albania closely to see how they handle it.”
Local media and the EU official both suggested that Albania has already moved to dismiss Fero from her position as IT Director for the National Agency on Information (AKSH). The government is yet to comment directly on Fero’s current employment status.
Albania’s political opposition linked Fero’s alleged criminal activities to her previous position as a member of the ruling Socialist Party. They argue her appointment at AKSH was a reward for her political support.
During the 2021 national election Fero served as an electoral commissioner but was reported by the country’s Central Election Committee for election fraud while counting ballots. However, no action was taken against her. After the Socialist Party won the election she got the role at the intelligence agency.
“The current government system is rotten because people use the party as a catapult to get a job in the state, even though they are not professionals,” said Rudina Hajdari, chair of Albania’s EU Integration Committee and a former MP. “Then they use the state to get rich, by using their position as camouflage to conduct highly illegal activities,” said Hajdari.
“It is unfortunate that young people in Albania aspire to become part of this corruption and criminal scheme because ultimately they are damaging their future and the future of young people in Albania,” said Hajdari, a Fellow with Atlantic Council who is the daughter of Azem Hajdari, who led the 1990–1991 student movement which brought about the collapse of communism in Albania before being assassinated in 1998.
Albania has long been a hub for organised crime and drug trafficking, dominating regional cannabis production in the Balkans and playing a major role in the European cocaine trade.
The involvement of government and local officials with the drug trade has left the country, which is bidding to join the EU, open to accusations it is a “narco-state”. A 2018 US Department of State report described Albania as a home of “rampant corruption, weak legal and government institutions and weak border controls” with drug trafficking, tax evasion, smuggling, and human trafficking the most profitable crimes in the country.
Fero has been a surprisingly active TikTok user considering her sensitive role at the heart of Albania’s state information system. Her TikTok page is an unfiltered mix of her daily life, including partying in clubs, beach life, her young family and jibes aimed at an ex-boyfriend. In one post she laughs at a video of an incident showing a man punching Albania’s Democrat Party leader Sali Berisha in the street in December.
There has been no official statement so far from Fero in response to her arrest and the allegations against her.