It’s January in a rundown suburb of Tirana, Albania’s capital city, and I’ve met up with two local cocaine traffickers just back from a smuggling trip to Germany. Like many young drug crews in Albania, Artan and Luli have shifted from trafficking cannabis to cocaine, because there’s more money in it and it’s easy to get hold of. They tell me they can make around $23,000 by smuggling a kilo of powder into the richer European countries, where the market for cocaine is expanding.
Between machismo tales of brass knuckles and baseball bats, they discuss Rolex watches, fast cars, and beautiful girls. “As you can probably see," says Artan, nodding to the sunken, flooded street that has gone unfixed since they can remember, "if you want to go out and get things around here, you’ve got to make the journey to Germany, Italy, or England. Cocaine is proper work.”
Ever since a financial meltdown in the 1990s led to widespread destitution and civil chaos, Albania’s younger generations have found themselves trapped beneath a mesh of poverty and corruption. For some, the drug trade offers an escape from the slums that litter Tirana’s hinterland. But drug smuggling here is nothing new; it’s a trade that runs deep in Albania. Despite being a NATO country on the verge of joining the European Union, Albania has become Europe’s first narco-state.
According to the International Monetary Fund's definition of a narco-state, as a state 'where all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade', like Venezuela, Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan, Albania is knee-deep in drugs money.
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 country. Drugs are big business here.
This small, mountainous former Communist state on the Adriatic coast is the largest producer of illegal outdoor grown cannabis in Europe. In 2017, police in Albania seized 68 tonnes of weed, around $680 million worth. But the cocaine trafficking is what’s lifting Albania to narco-state status. Over the last decade, as revealed by VICE, Albanian gangs and street crews such as the Hellbanianz have become major players in the lucrative cocaine trade in the UK and the rest of Europe. Albanian gangs have made a name for themselves by selling high purity cocaine at competitive wholesale prices, and contributed to the rising availability and purity of cocaine in Europe since 2012.
Albanian smugglers have established direct supply lines via South America and Europe’s big cocaine receiving ports in Belgium and Holland. In February of last year, police seized 613 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas from Colombia as it arrived in Albania’s eastern port of Durres. There has been a concurrent rise in suspected criminals of Albanian origin being killed in South America. In 2017, Remzi Azemi, a Kosovan Albanian and alleged cocaine trafficker, was murdered in a gang-style assassination as he travelled with his family in an armored car in Guayaqil, Ecuador. The year before, Ilir Hidri, another Albanian suspected of being involved in drug trafficking, was murdered in the same city.
Albania is unique in Europe because its drug barons are not renegade outlaws. Instead, they’re heavily linked to those running the country and often in cahoots with the very people charged with chasing outlaws down.
Drug money is an essential part of Albania’s democratic system, because the best way of securing people’s votes is to pay them in cash, and the best generator of cash is the drug trade. A EU-funded study, which ran from 2016 to 2019, found a staggering 20.7 percent of Albanians were offered money or favors in exchange for their vote. In January, it was revealed that cocaine gangs successfully rigged elections by buying votes. Afrim Krasniqi, head of Albania’s Institute for Political Studies, said the role of criminal gangs in the 2017 election campaign was greater than the role of political parties. “Today, there’s a general impression that nobody is able to win elections without support from such groups,” he said.
Because the drug trade is so enmeshed with those in power, British intelligence units have been deployed to Tirana to monitor traffickers. One UK liaison team member told VICE they had clear evidence of shared intelligence being leaked straight back to dealers by Albanian police. The British have been joined by teams from the US, Netherlands, and Italy, all of whom decided to get involved after finding that information they shared with Albanian authorities was ending up in the wrong hands.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama's last two interior ministers have both been felled in scandals linked to drugs. The first, Saimir Tahiri is due to stand trial later this year on charges of drug trafficking and corruption. Tahiri’s name was mentioned in a wiretap overheard by Italy’s anti-mafia police in connection with kick-backs, cannabis trafficking and smuggling Kalashnikov rifles. Tahiri denies the charges against him. He was replaced by Fatmir Xhafaj, whose short stint as interior minister ended last year after his half-brother Agron was jailed for seven years for drug trafficking in Italy. Although there is no evidence Xhafaj had any direct involvement in his brother's crimes, domestic and international political pressure likely led Rama to ditch his minister.
In 2017, Ermal Hoxha was imprisoned for 10 years for his part in an operation to traffic 120 kilos of cocaine from Latin America to Western Europe. Yet Ermal hadn’t climbed up through the criminal ranks from Albania’s slums; he’s the grandson of Albania’s notorious Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country for 41 years until his death in 1985.
No man illustrates the closeness between Albania’s elite and its big drug players, or the story of how this nation is emerging as Europe’s first narcostate, than Klement Balili, a luxury hotel owner, former civil servant, and drug kingpin described on his Greek arrest warrant as the "Pablo Escobar of the Balkans." A 10,000-page dossier compiled by the Greek government, and reviewed by VICE, describes his meticulously organized, $1 billion transnational narcotics empire, built on cannabis and cocaine and funneling into countries such as Italy, Greece, Germany and the UK.
Balili grew his empire out of the lawlessness following Albania’s economic collapse in the 1990s, caused by the crash of huge government-backed pyramid schemes. Between $1-2 billion disappeared overnight and ordinary families lost all their savings. According to a 2016 report by the Open Society Foundation, a mixture of high unemployment and low wages mean Albanian gangs have been expanding ever since.
Officially, Balili’s business was in transport, leisure, fishing, and security. In 2014 he was appointed director of regional transport in the seaside resort of Saranda, a well-known drug trafficking hub. Over the last decade, Balili has built a string of luxury hotels on Albania’s stunning Adriatic coast.
In 2015, Ilir Meta, the current President of Albania, cut the ribbon at the opening of Balili’s five star hotel, Santa Quaranta. Joining Meta alongside Balili at the opening party was the then-minister of finance Arben Ahmetaj and Socialist Party MP Koco Kokëdhima.
Balili himself has been open about his close ties to one of Albania’s main political parties, the Socialist Movement for Integration, or LSI. In a media interview earlier this year, Balili explained that his appointment as Director of Transport for the southern town of Saranda came in exchange for the financial donations he and his family made to the LSI. Balili’s nephew serves as mayor for the LSI party in the town of Delvina. Balili has been very open about the fact he takes a clear interest in his nephew’s campaigns.
Greek police have been on Balili’s trail for the last decade. But whenever they seemed to be making progress, they hit an obstacle with the Albanian authorities. In May 2016, Greek police seized 12 Balili gang members and almost 700 kilos of marijuana, the result of a two-year surveillance operation in conjunction with the DEA. Greek police issued an arrest warrant for Balili, but Albanian police refused to acknowledge receipt of the warrant. By the time the Albanian authorities did acknowledge it, he had “vanished” according to Albanian police.
Three months after Balili’s arrest warrant was issued, he was photographed allegedly partying with a high-ranking police official on the drug baron’s yacht off the Albanian coast. This wasn't a one-off moment: At the time, Balili’s smiling face was regularly popping up in the background in mobile phone footage and photos taken at social functions held by Albania’s political elite.
Balili’s proximity to Albania’s political power base has, according to US and Greek officials, proven key to his success as a major drug smuggler. In a damning keynote address in 2016, US ambassador to Albania Donald Lu said, “Politicians from the right and the left have listened to the powerful interests of corrupt businessmen, major criminals, and even drug traffickers. How else can we explain the fact that untouchable drug trafficker Klement Balili is still free?” And in a 2018 speech, Lu said the biggest failure of the Albanian government during his four-year tenure was its inability to catch Balili, who he described as “a powerful organized crime leader with political connections.”
"The money was paid, the community respected him, he was a businessman, not a Godfather."
In January, Albanian police finally arrested Balili. Some view his arrest and trial as more of a PR exercise than a punishment. The Albanian government hyped his capture as a major coup to impress international observers. But in reality he dictated his own terms. The Ministry of the Interior and the Prosecution Office for Serious Crimes were notified of Balili’s arrival time by his legal team. He surrendered himself to Albania’s General Director of Police. Because of a constitutional change last year, he was not extradited to Greece, and was tried in Albania instead.
In February, the Serious Crimes Court accepted Balili’s request for an "abbreviated trial," which not only guaranteed his sentence was cut by a third, but allowed quick proceedings that ensured he did not spill the beans on what he knows about Albania’s political elite. On May 7, Balili was sentenced to 10 years for drug trafficking, membership of a criminal group, and money laundering. His lawyer has already stated that he will appeal the conviction. A string of influential Albanians have previously seen charges or convictions for serious corruption offenses mysteriously disappear on appeal. Balili may yet be acquitted, or receive a reduced term.
Several tradesmen we spoke to who’d worked on Balili construction projects, including Santa Quaranta, expressed fondness for him. “I don’t know what Klemend did, or whether what they say is really true… but Klemend brought money to our community," one person, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of Balili, said. "He had many construction projects, and we worked on them for many years. The money was paid, the community respected him, he was a businessman, not a Godfather.”
But another, younger builder was less charitable. “He paid when he felt like paying, and when he didn’t want to, you could do nothing to make him,” they told VICE. “He owns the police, the courts, the tax officials...if he didn’t settle a bill and I would have raised it with him I don’t want to think about what would have happened. He knows and controls everyone and everything. He’d have stubbed us out like a cigar.”
At first glance, Tirana is a city on the up, with a lively cafe culture and some glitzy nightlife. Big money has been used to prettify the immediate surroundings of two international hotels where diplomats, foreign businessmen, and politicians meet to eat club sandwiches, swipe Tinder, and talk shop. Despite comprising the vast majority of Albania’s populace, the poor exist in the capital’s polluted hinterland, where houses lack electricity, water, and glass windows.
Tirana’s central Blokku ("the Block") zone, reserved exclusively for Communist Party officials until the regime collapsed in 1992, is now the playground for Albania’s elite. In the Blokku, your neighbors are either politicians, judges, or guys who know how to sell blow. Mercedes-Benzes circle strip-lit bars like tiger sharks. In these bars, parliamentary deputies swill Krug while watching PornHub on their iPhones and listening to Dua Lipa and Notorious B.I.G. These newly minted movers and shakers are loquacious, animated, and often just one deal away from being broke. Though murder rates are nowhere near those of South or Central America, someone may still whip out a handgun at a 25th birthday party and fire it wildly into the sky because they can.
But the success of Albania’s drug smuggling gangs has come at a cost to the country’s citizens, who are left to sink or swim in the mire. In a 2018 Gallup poll, adult Albanians expressed the fourth strongest desire to emigrate—outranked only by Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Young people first encounter corruption at high school in the form of bribes to teachers for good grades. Next comes university, where entry depends on a kick-back or a friend in high places keen to groom your interest in their political party.
Rudina Hajdari, leader of Albania’s parliamentary opposition and Chair of the European Integration Committee, told VICE, "Young Albanians feel angry and cheated by the government. We have seismic, mind-blowing problems with corruption. When drugs came into the picture, so much cash was flowing that it actually shook the national currency. Money dictates our country's decisions, and as that money is provided by drug cartels—to individual politicians, and to all political parties—anyone fighting corruption hits big hurdles.”
Albanians are waiting to see whether the EU will begin accession talks in June, and could soon be blocked from visa-free travel to the EU completely. France and the Netherlands now see Albanian drug gangs as such a serious threat that they’re attempting to halt Albanians' visa-free travel. The Dutch grounds for requesting the halt are “a substantial increase in criminal activities by the Albanian Mafia in the Netherlands and [that] these criminal organizations are abusing the possibility of travelling through Europe visa-free...thus further expanding their smuggling network.”
Prime Minister Rama, a former basketball player who blazed into office in 2013 on a hardline anti-corruption ticket, won plaudits from the international community when he smashed a notorious cannabis growing village called Lazarat. Yet he has found it difficult to shake off allegations of fraud and corruption, resulting in violent anti-government protests in Tirana, including Molotov cocktails thrown at Rama’s office last week. His detractors say he should quit in order for Albania to join Europe. Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha said: “We are here with a mission, to liberate Albania from crime and corruption, to make Albania like the rest of Europe.”
Therein lies the tension for Europe: the concept of a narco-state has always felt very far away to Europeans, who can tend to figure the corrupt states producing their drugs are someone else's problem. But Albania's central positioning in the drug industry has brought the problem closer, right at a time when Albanians are hoping to become more connected to the EU's economic engine. This is the most tragic thing about a narcostate: Supporting a nation's elite with funds from criminal activity has its biggest impact not on far-flung lands, but the opportunities for its own people.
Correction: This story originally said that police seized 613 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a shipment of bananas in February, meaning February 2019. The seizure happened in February of 2018. We regret the error.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.