Heroin Heroes

The United States propped up the KLA in the Kosovo conflict. With Milosevic gone, and no one in control, the former freedom fighters are now transforming the province into a major conduit for global drug trafficking.

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When the bombs stopped falling over Yugoslavia last June, a flood of humanity swept through the Balkans as thousands of Kosovar Albanians returned home from refugee camps. But over the craggy mountains separating Yugoslavia and Albania, a far less innocent traffic returned. A fleet of Mercedes sedans without license plates lined the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, and young men with hooded eyes and bulky suits checked into the top floors of showcase hotels such as the Rogner in Tirana, the Albanian capital. It was time for criminal elements with close ties to America’s newest ally to reopen the traditional Balkan Road — one of the biggest conduits for global heroin trafficking.

Law enforcement officials in Europe have suspected for years that ties existed between Kosovar rebels and Balkan drug smugglers. But in the six months since Washington enthroned the Kosovo Liberation Army in that Yugoslav province, KLA-associated drug traffickers have cemented their influence and used their new status to increase heroin trafficking and forge links with other nationalist rebel groups and drug cartels.

The benefits of the drug trade are evident around Pristina — more so than Western aid. “The new buildings, the better roads, and the sophisticated weapons — many of these have been bought by drugs,” says Michel Koutouzis, the Balkans region expert for the Global Drugs Monitor (OGD), a Paris-based think tank. The repercussions of this drug connection are only now emerging, and many Kosovo observers fear that the province could be evolving into a virtual narco-state under the noses of 49,000 peacekeeping troops.

For hundreds of years, Kosovar Albanian smugglers have been among the world’s most accomplished dealers in contraband, aided by a propitious geography of isolated ports and mountainous villages. Virtually every stage of the Balkan heroin business, from refining to end-point distribution, is directed by a loosely knit hierarchy known as “The 15 Families,” who answer to the regional clans that run every aspect of Albanian life.

The Kosovar Albanian traffickers are so successful, says a senior U.S. State Department official, “because Albanians are organized in very close-knit groups, linked by their ethnicity and extended family connections.”

The clans, in addition to their drug operations, maintained an armed brigade that gradually evolved into the KLA. In the early 1990s, as the Kosovar uprising in Yugoslavia grew, ethnic Albanian rebels there faced increased financial needs. The 15 Families responded by boosting drug trafficking and channeling money and weapons to the rebels in their clans. As traffickers started taking bigger risks, drug seizures by police across Europe skyrocketed from a kilo or two in the early 1980s to multimillion-dollar hauls, culminating in the spectacular 1996 arrest at Gradina, Yugoslavia, of two truckers running a load of more than half a ton of heroin worth $50 million.

German Federal Police now say that Kosovar Albanians import 80 percent of Europe’s heroin. So dominant is the Kosovar presence in trafficking that many European users refer to illicit drugs in general as “Albanka,” or Albanian lady.

The Kosovar traffickers ship heroin exclusively from Asia’s Golden Crescent. It’s an apparently inexhaustible source. At one end of the crescent lies Afghanistan, which in 1999 surpassed Burma as the world’s largest producer of opium poppies. From there, the heroin base passes through Iran to Turkey, where it is refined, and then into the hands of the 15 Families, which operate out of the lawless border towns linking Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia. Not surprisingly, the KLA has also flourished there. According to the State Department, four to six tons of heroin move through Turkey every month. “Not very much is stopped,” says one official. “We get just a fraction of the total.”

Initially, the Kosovar traffickers used the direct Balkan route, carrying goods overland by truck from Turkey and Yugoslavia into Europe. With the Bosnian war, the direct route was shut down and two splinter routes developed to bypass Yugoslavia.

The ascent of the Kosovar families to the top of the trafficking hierarchy coincided with the sudden appearance of the KLA as a fighting force in 1997. As Serbia unleashed its campaign of persecution against ethnic Albanians, the diaspora mobilized. Hundreds of thousands of expatriate Kosovars around the world funneled money to the insurrection. Nobody sent more than the Kosovar traffickers — some of the wealthiest people of Kosovar extraction in Europe. According to news reports, Kosovar Albanian traffickers launder $1.5 billion in profits from drug and arms smuggling each year through a shadowy network of some 200 private banks and currency exchange offices. A congressional briefing paper obtained by Mother Jones indicates: “We would be remiss to dismiss allegations that between 30 and 50 percent of the KLA’s money comes from drugs.”

As the war in Kosovo heated up, the drug traffickers began supplying the KLA with weapons procured from Eastern European and Italian crime groups in exchange for heroin. The 15 Families also lent their private armies to fight alongside the KLA. Clad in new Swiss uniforms and equipped with modern weaponry, these troops stood out among the ragtag irregulars of the KLA. In all, this was a formidable aid package. It’s therefore not surprising, say European law enforcement officials, that the faction that ultimately seized power in Kosovo — the KLA under Hashim Thaci — was the group that maintained the closest links to traffickers. “As the biggest contributors, the drug traffickers may have gotten the most influence in running the country,” says Koutouzis.

The congressional brief explains how groups like the KLA become involved with drug barons. “Such groups had it easier during the Cold War when they could seek out patron states,” it notes. “But today, with the decline in state sponsorship of insurgent groups, private funding is critical to keep the revolution alive.”

The KLA’s dependence on the drug lords is difficult to prove, but the evidence is impossible to overlook:

  • In 1998, German Federal Police froze two bank accounts of the “United Kosovo” organization in a DŸsseldorf bank after they discovered deposits totaling several hundred thousand dollars from a convicted Kosovar drug trafficker. According to at least one published report, the accounts were controlled by Bujar Bukoshi, prime minister of the Kosovo government in exile.
  • In early 1999, an Italian court in Brindisi convicted an Albanian heroin trafficker named Amarildo Vrioni, who admitted obtaining weapons for the KLA from the Mafia in exchange for drugs.
  • Last February 23, Czech police arrested Princ Dobroshi, the head of a Kosovar drug gang. While searching his apartment, they discovered evidence that he had placed orders for light infantry weapons and rocket systems. No one questioned what a small-time dealer would be doing with rockets. Only later did Czech police reveal he was shipping them to the KLA. The Czechs extradited Dobroshi to Norway, where he had escaped from prison in 1997 while serving a 14-year sentence for heroin trafficking.

In Kosovo, it’s hard to separate a legal organizational structure from an illegal one. “A trafficker can sell blue jeans one day and heroin the next,” says Koutouzis. “The same supply network is used. There are no ethical distinctions. Heroin is just another way of making money.”

It was the disparate structure of the KLA, Koutouzis says, that facilitated the drug-smuggling explosion. “It permitted a democratization of drug trafficking, where small-time people get involved, and everyone contributes a part of his profit to his clan leader in the KLA,” he explains. “The more illegal the activity, the more money the clan gets from the traffickers. So it’s in the interest of the clan to promote drug trafficking.”

According to Marko Nicovic, the former chief of police in Belgrade, now an investigator who works closely with Interpol, the international police agency, 400 to 500 Kosovars move shipments in the 20-kilo range, while about 5,000 Kosovar Albanians are small-timers, handling shipments of less than two kilos. At one point in 1996, he says, more than 800 ethnic Albanians were in jail in Germany on narcotics charges.

In many places, Kosovar traffickers gained a foothold through raw violence. According to a 1999 German Federal Police report, “The ethnic Albanian gangsÉhave been involved in drugs, weapons traffickingÉblackmail, and murder.ÉThey are increasingly prone to violence.”

Tony White of the United Nations Drug Control Program agrees with this assessment. “They are more willing to use violence than any other group,” he says. “They have confronted the established order throughout Europe and pushed out the Lebanese, Pakistani, and Italian cartels.”

Few gangs are willing to tangle with the Kosovars. Those that do often pay the ultimate price. In January 1999, Kosovar Albanians killed nine people in Milan, Italy, during a two-week bloodbath between rival heroin groups.

Daut Kadriovski, the reputed boss of one of the 15 Families, embodies the tenacity of the top Kosovar drug traffickers. A Yugoslav Interior Ministry report identifies him as one of Europe’s biggest heroin dealers, and Nicovic calls him a “major financial resource for the KLA.” Through his family links, Nicovic says, Kadriovski smuggled more than 100 kilos of heroin into New York and Philadelphia. He lived comfortably in Istanbul and specialized in creative trafficking solutions, once dispatching a shipment of heroin in the hollowed-out accordion cases of a popular traveling Albanian folk music group. German authorities eventually arrested him in 1985 with four kilos of heroin. They confiscated his yachts, cars, and villas, and sent him to prison. Kadriovski’s reign appeared to be over.

But Kadriovski greased his way with narco-dollars. He escaped from prison by bribing guards, and in 1993 he headed for the United States, where it’s believed he continues to operate.

According to Nicovic, Kadriovski reportedly funneled money to the KLA from New York through a leading Kosovar businessman and declared KLA contributor. “Kadriovski feels more secure with his KLA friends in power,” Nicovic says.

The U.S. representatives of four other heroin families are suspected by Interpol of having sent money for the uprising, according to Nicovic. These men typically maintain links with local distributors, he says, and move heroin through a network of small import-export companies in New York and Philadelphia.

Now free of the war and the repressive Yugoslav police machine, drug traffickers have reopened the old Balkan Road. With the KLA in power — and in the spotlight — the top trafficking families have begun to seek relative respectability without decreasing their heroin shipments. “The Kosovars are trying to position themselves in higher levels of trafficking,” says the U.N.’s Tony White. “They want to get away from the violence of the streets and attract less attention. Criminals like to move up like any other business, and the Kosovars are becoming business leaders. They have become equal partners with the Turks.”

Italian national police discovered this new Kosovar outreach last year when they undertook “Operation Pristina.” The carabinieri uncovered a chain of connections that originated in Kosovo and stretched through nine European countries, extending into Central Asia, South America, and the United States.

“People from Pristina worked all over Europe and the world,” says JŸrgen Storbeck, director of Europol, the cooperative police force of the European Union. “They used sophisticated methods, taking advantage of places where police work was not so successful, like Eastern Europe.” Eventually, 40 people were arrested and 170 kilos of heroin were seized in an operation that involved seven European police departments.

As their business reaches a saturation point in Europe, Kosovar traffickers are looking more to the West. It’s a smart business move. The United States has seen a marked shift from cocaine to heroin use. According to recent DEA statistics, Afghan heroin accounted for almost 20 percent of the smack seized in this country — nearly double the percentage taken four years earlier. Much of it is distributed by Kosovar Albanians.

The Clinton administration has launched a vigorous crackdown on Colombian heroin. As the campaign intensifies, some White House officials fear Kosovar heroin could replace the Colombian supply. “Even if we were to eliminate all the heroin production in Colombia, by no means do we think there would be no more heroin coming into the United States,” says Bob Agresti of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Look at the numbers. Colombia accounts for only six percent of the world’s heroin. Southwest Asia produces 75 percent.”

Perhaps most alarmingly, Kosovar drug dealers associated with the KLA have begun to form partnerships with Colombian traffickers — the world’s most notorious drug lords. “We have an all-new situation now,” says Europol’s Storbeck. “Colombians like to use Kosovar groups for distribution of cocaine. The Albanians are getting stronger and stronger, and there is a certain job sharing now. They are used by Turks for smuggling into the European Union and by Colombians for distribution of cocaine.”

Washington clearly hopes the KLA will disentangle itself from its drug-running friends now that it’s in power, but this may not be easy. “The KLA owes a lot of debts to the traffickers and holy warriors,” says Koutouzis. “They are being pressured to assist other insurrections.” Already, the OGD has reports of KLA weapons being routed to the newest Muslim holy war in Chechnya.

The congressional brief addresses the KLA’s future: “One of the problems you have with organizations that engage in drug trafficking is that they become addicted to the trade and the income it brings,” the report notes. “Later on in life, even if they want to stop trafficking in drugs, it’s not always possible.”

Marko Nicovic, the former Belgrade police chief, puts it a bit more succinctly: “If Kosovo gets full autonomy, they may well double the production of heroin,” he says. “Kosovo will become a smuggler’s paradise, its doors open to every global criminal.”

The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits aid to any entity that has colluded with narcotics traffickers. Similarly, the Balkan peace agreement brokered in June prohibits the KLA from engaging in criminal activity. And so the Clinton administration tries to steer clear of questions suggesting the KLA has joined a rogues’ gallery of narco-leaders. KLA drug-running is the last thing the administration wants to tackle with the success of its “moral war” already open to question.

Late last spring, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to President Clinton requesting an assessment of KLA drug trafficking. The president responded quickly, telling Grassley in a June 15 letter that he had demanded an intelligence assessment from the CIA and the DEA on Kosovar drug trafficking. “Neither agency,” the president wrote, “has any intelligence that indicates the KLA has either been engaged in other criminal activity or has direct links to any organized crime groups.” Clinton did acknowledge that crime groups “have contributed at least limited funds and possibly small arms to the KLA.” He promised to “monitor” narcotics distribution there in the future.

“There was no action,” said a congressional source close to Grassley. “It was a nonanswer.”

White House officials deny a whitewashing of KLA activities. “We do care about [KLA drug trafficking],” says Agresti. “It’s just that we’ve got our hands full trying to bring peace there.”

The DEA is equally reticent to address the issue. According to Michel Koutouzis, the DEA’s website once contained a section detailing Kosovar trafficking, but a week before the U.S.-led bombings began, the section disappeared. “The DEA doesn’t want to talk publicly [about the KLA],” says OGD director Alain Labrousse. “It’s embarrassing to them.”

High-ranking U.S. officials are dismayed that the KLA was installed in power without public discussion or a thorough check of its background. “I don’t think we’re doing anything there to stem the drugs,” says a senior State Department official. “It’s out of control. It should be a high priority. We’ve warned about it.”

Even if it tried to stop Kosovar heroin, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to do so. “Nobody’s in control in Kosovo,” adds the State Department official. “They don’t even have a police force.”

Regardless of what it says, there’s little indication that the administration wants to do anything with the intelligence available about its newest ally. “There is no doubt that the KLA is a major trafficking organization,” said a congressional expert who monitors the drug trade and requested anonymity. “But we have a relationship with the KLA, and the administration doesn’t want to damage [its] reputation. We are partners. The attitude is: The drugs are not coming here, so let others deal with it.”

That phrase is troublingly familiar. It raises the question: Is our embrace of the KLA the latest in an ignoble tradition of aiding drug traffickers for political reasons? Similar recipients of U.S. largesse have included the Nicaraguan Contras, former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the Afghan Taliban, and Burma’s Khun Sa.

Early in 1999, as the war against Serbia raged, Congress voted to fund the KLA’s drive for independence. In the days ahead, our embrace of the KLA may come to haunt us. Elections scheduled for this spring in Kosovo have been delayed; but no matter when they occur, observers say, their outcome is already certain. The time-honored clans will win. And the men in oversized suits — the kind who sing allegiance to democracy and global capitalism while conducting business in the back of an unlicensed Mercedes — will be running the show.


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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

Yet, we just came up pretty short on our first big fundraising campaign since Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined forces.

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