Albania's crime problem a huge obstacle to EU entry
Albanian gangs are spreading across Europe to trade drugs, stolen cars, guns, and women for the sex industry, writes Kieran Cooke in Tirana
Ilhir Meta, Albania's foreign minister, has a steely look about him.
"Our number one aim, the goal of our foreign policy, is membership of the European Union. I am determined that we do everything to make this happen."
A former champion weightlifter with a physique to match, Mr Meta - still only in his mid-30s - seems well able for the challenges ahead. The signs look good. In February, Romano Prodi, the president of the EU Commission, is due to visit Tirana to sign a "Stabilisation and Association Agreement" with the Albanian government, seen as the first step on the ladder to eventual full EU membership.
However, both Mr Meta and Brussels know enormous obstacles have to be overcome,in particular Albania's large and well-established crime problem.
"We receive the EU message loud and clear" says Mr Meta. "Our government has achieved a large measure of stability. We are fighting crime and illegal activities on all fronts."
Estimates vary but it's calculated that up to 50 per cent of Albania's economy is associated with various illegal activities, from people- and drug-trafficking to money laundering and a rampant trade in stolen cars. Albanian gangs have spread their tentacles throughout Europe. In London, the police talk of the increasing control by Albanian mobsters of the city's vice trade.
A recent EU crime conference was told of well-organised Balkan gangs posing a serious danger to Europe. Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Affairs, described organised crime in Europe as a cancer and warned no country should be allowed to join the EU "unless we are satisfied they are working to rid their countries of this evil". A decade ago, Albania - a country about the size of Wales - emerged from more than 40 years of communist rule under the dictator Enver Hoxha. For much of Hoxha's time, Albania was locked away from the outside world - a Stalinist enclave on the shores of the Adriatic.
Freedom brought many problems: nearly a million people, including much of the intelligentsia, left the country. Political crisis followed political crisis. In 1997, following the collapse of a government-supported pyramid scheme, police and army arsenals were looted. At one time, there were estimated to be four million guns loose in a country with a population of only 3½ million people. In such an environment, crime and corruption flourished.
Earlier this year an anti-trafficking unit was set up in the port city of Vlora, a favourite transit point for Albania's smugglers of people and drugs. Transporting women and young girls - some of them kidnapped - from all over the Balkans, Russia and the Ukraine form part of the trafficking trade.
It is a brutal business. Loaded onto dinghies with powerful engines, the women are taken from places such as Vlora on the three-hour journey to the heel of Italy. From there they go to the massage parlours and saunas of Europe. Some do not survive the journey. Often the traffickers do not even put ashore but throw their human cargo into the sea to swim to land. Some drown. Bodies have been found handcuffed.
The anti-trafficking unit, based in a former holiday villa of Enver Hoxha, is a combined venture between the Albanians, Italians, Greeks and Germans. The US also has advisers at the centre. Avni Jasharllari, the Albanian police colonel in charge of the unit, says that in recent months police actions, including dramatic shoot-outs at sea and the burning of the traffickers' boats, have stopped the people-smuggling trade.
"Now the big problem is drugs" says the colonel. "The trade is getting increasingly large and sophisticated. It has become truly globalised. In one recent operation, we managed to stop a drug swap involving cocaine from Colombia and heroin from Afghanistan. The cocaine was en route to Albania and was then going to be distributed in eastern Europe. The heroin was transiting through the Balkans and going first to Colombia, then to the US."
Many Albanians feel the gangster label often applied to them is unfair. International narcotics experts say it is still the Italians, particularly the mafia in Calabria, who are the real bosses in Europe's drugs trade. Turkish gangs also play a leading role.
"Albanians are the workers; it is we Italians who are still in charge," says an officer in the Guardia di Finanza, the branch of the Italian security forces fighting the trade in people and drugs.
Mr Meta and others in his government insist considerable progress has been made. The streets of Tirana and other cities are as safe, or safer, than most European cities. Increasing numbers of criminals are being jailed and convicted. But Albania's institutions are weak and corruption is a big problem.
Among those arrested in connection with the recent cocaine/heroin seizure was the police prosecutor who was investigating corruption in government. Police say at the time of his arrest he had $1 million in cash in his house.
Mr Fatos Nano, the prime minister, who spent an extended period in jail in the nineties on what he says were trumped-up corruption charges, says history has not been kind to Albania.
"First we had the long period of communism, then 10 years of political and economic turbulence. Now we have stability and there is a new confidence in the country. Yes, sometimes we think we are unfairly labelled because of the activities of various criminals. We are determined to strike at them; we have to in order to secure our future in the EU."