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Drugs

Cops Raided Albania's Cannabis Capital Yesterday

Naturally, its inhabitants shot at them with machine gunes, rockets, and mortars.

by Axel Kronholm
Jun 18 2014, 6:33pm

An anonymous guest worker trimming the buds from marijuana plants. Photo by Telnis Skuqi

Yesterday, a police force of more than 500 officers stormed Lazarat, an outlaw Albanian mountain town that produces around 900 tons of cannabis every year. A fierce firefight ensued. People having weapons is not unusual throughout Albania, but Lazarat’s residents are particularly well armed. As the police tried to seize a warehouse belonging to a local drug baron on the outskirts of the town, they came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and heavy machine guns, and had to pull back. The police are currently holding their positions outside of town, awaiting further orders.

I visited Lazarat only a few weeks before the police raid, when growing season had just begun. Farmers had plowed and harrowed the fields, and the surrounding hills were dotted with light-blue plastic barrels. My local fixer who had witnessed several previous growing seasons informed me that the barrels were filled with seeds. Although no one I spoke to was expecting the approaching police raid, the atmosphere was tense.

The residents kept an eye on me from the moment I entered the city. The last time my local contact tried to bring a foreign reporter to Lazarat they were hounded out of the city under threats of death. I picked up my phone to snap a picture of the fields surrounding the town and a woman sweeping a nearby terrace instantly dropped her broom. "No, no! Are you out of your mind?” she shouted.

View of Lazarat, a small town about 100 miles south of the capital, Tirana. Photo by Axel Kronholm

"Me and my family can get in trouble, and so can you if you don’t stop asking questions,” said a young woman from a family of weed farmers when I asked for an interview. Most of the city’s 7,000 inhabitants are believed to take part in the cultivation of marijuana in one way or another, so they have good reason to be wary of outsiders with cameras. It was hard to get anyone to talk.

While many of those growing cannabis are regular farmers, criminal organizations control the trade and transport of the product out of Lazarat and into the EU, where most of the profit is generated.

From studying aerial photos of the city, the Italian financial police, Guardia di Finanza, estimates its annual production to be around 900 tons of marijuana, with a total market value of 4.5 billion euros (£3.6 billion). That’s about 50 percent of Albania's GDP.

Lazarat has been producing pot since the early 1990s. Ever since the demise of Enver Hoxha’s harsh communist rule, the black market has flourished under Albania’s political turbulence. Lately, crackdowns on drug cultivation in Greece have also contributed to an increased production in Albania, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, EMCDDA.

By the end of the summer, Lazarat and the surrounding hills are covered in weed plants. This photo is from last year's growing season, which yielded about 900 tons of cannabis. Photo by Telnis Skuqi

When it’s harvest time, starting in the middle of August, guest workers are brought in to handle the workload. Every morning a group of people hang about, just outside the city limits, waiting to be picked up by a van or a tractor trailer bringing them to the weed fields.

I got hold of two women who have worked in the fields of Lazarat several times. They didn’t want to give me their names, but said they got paid as much as 30 euros ($40) for an eight-hour day. That’s actually a pretty decent wage, considering workers in Albania have an average monthly salary of less than 400 euros ($435).

I met one of the women, a 41-year-old, as she was tending a hotel garden in Lazarat’s neighbouring city, Gjirokastra. That's her main job, but she has harvested cannabis in Lazarat many times with her son. "It’s heavy work. Last summer I got a headache and became dizzy from handling all the cannabis," she said. "The smell was so strong, the feeling was similar to smoking it.”

The other woman, a 32-year-old textile worker, said the police visited the plantations several times while she was working there. "They had a look around but did nothing. They don’t care, and even if they did, they could hardly do anything about it," she said. "If I can’t find any other work this summer, I will probably go back to Lazarat again."

Fatmir Bilbili, chairman of Lazarat municipal council. Photo by Axel Kronholm

In a rooftop café in Lazarat’s local government building, the chairman of the municipal council drank coffee and smoked cigarettes with his friends. Dressed in a black jacket over a yellow buttoned shirt, Fatmir Bilbili seemed surprised when a foreigner turned up. After a while, I managed to talk him into agreeing to an interview. He got up with a sigh and led us into his office—a small, somewhat messy room with light-blue concrete walls. On his desk there was a calendar, completely empty of notes, and the sports section of a newspaper.

"Lazarat is long forgotten by the government. They offer us nothing, and we don’t see any investments coming our way,” he said, explaining that people have turned to drug cultivation in order to sustain themselves and their families.

But, he claims, this year there is no cannabis being grown in Lazarat. "Yeah, we don’t have that problem anymore. Nowadays people grow vegetables and such instead,” he said. But standing on the steps of the building, only a few strides from his office, I could see more of the neatly harrowed fields and light-blue seed barrels.

The criminal gangs use any method available to get the product out of the country: Cars, boats, and airplanes have been implemented in the past. Here, a donkey is used to carry a shipment of weed out of Lazarat. Photo by Telnis Skuqi

In a US State Department report from last year on international drug trade, Albania is described as a transit country for drug trafficking through Europe. Italy is the main destination for the cannabis produced in this part of Albania, according to the EU drug monitor EMCDDA. In their 2012 report, Albania is described as a "significant but often overlooked source of cannabis products used on some European markets."

Albania is not only the most corrupt country in Europe—it’s also one of the poorest. It’s fairly easy to understand the temptation of growing a profitable crop like cannabis for people in the rural and underdeveloped parts of the country.

Recently, a debate on legalization has sprouted in Albania. The issue got a lot of attention in March when Mark Crawford, president of the American Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview with Albanian television that the country should legalize and tax marijuana. It would bring much-needed revenue to the state and deflate the illegal economy, Crawford explained. But Albania does not yet seem ready for such a reform: There are no political parties that support legalization, and according to opinion polls, neither do the vast majority of the Albanian people. 

Fatmir Bilbili trotted back to his friends in the café. I hopped in my car, hoping to find more people to speak to. As I drove into the city, a brown Mercedes appeared behind us, following every turn we take. ”Problem,” said my fixer, glancing anxiously at the rearview mirror. Then another Mercedes appeared, this time a white one, and quickly overtook us. The driver looked absolutely furious. Gesturing wildly with his hand through the open window, he forced us to pull over.

"Who the fuck are you? What are you doing here?" he shouted as our cars came to a halt next to each other. He saw me taking photographs, he said. I explained that I am a journalist, but told him that I hadn't taken any pictures. After a minute or so of heated discussion he decided to let us go, but insisted on escorting us out of Lazarat and didn't turn back until we were well outside the city limits.

Later that day I bumped into Gentian Mullai, the deputy chief of police of the nearby town of Gjirokastra, at a roadside café. I took the opportunity to ask him about the situation in Lazarat.

"What situation?" he asked, giving me a quizzical smile.

"The weed production," I said.

"What production? I was there today with two of my colleagues. Everything was under control; we saw nothing out of the ordinary,” he said with a wide smile, before turning on his heel and walking away.

Political parties in Albania regularly accuse one another of being corrupt and mixed up in the drug trade. None of its governments have proved able, or even willing, to seriously combat it. The authorities have launched raids against Lazarat before, without achieving any lasting change. Maybe yesterday's raid was a genuine change of direction, but it's probably too early to say.

Follow Axel Kronholm on Twitter.

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