Cocaine goes ‘bananas’ on the Adriatic coast.

Major drug busts in Croatia and Albania over the past few months show that there is a tsunami of cocaine coming through the Adriatic ports. Most of the drugs are hidden in containers transporting bananas from Latin America to Europe. While cocaine consumption in the Western Balkans is relatively low, these seizures, taken together with past trends, show that ports in Albania, Croatia and Montenegro are important entry points for the cocaine pipeline into Europe.1

This illustrates how organized criminal groups from the Western Balkans have, over the past decade, become actively involved not only in distributing cocaine in the Western Balkans and the EU, but also in organizing large shipments of cocaine directly from Latin America.2 Some of these shipments head for ports in Western Europe, the Black Sea or Greece but others are coming into the Western Balkans on container ships.

At the end of March 2021, more than half a tonne of cocaine worth around €50 million was discovered at the port of Ploce in southern Croatia hidden in a container of bananas. This was the most recent and largest seizure of several cocaine shipments that have come through Ploce.

In June 2020, in Bacina near Ploce, 25 kilograms of high-purity cocaine were seized from a passenger vehicle; the driver of the car, an Italian citizen, was arrested.3 Subsequently, a number of arrests were made in Croatia and Italy. According to police, this group smuggled at least 146 kilograms of cocaine.4

In March 2021, the police in Dubrovnik exhibited almost 73 kilograms of high-purity cocaine that had been seized.5 The cocaine was also found in a container full of bananas imported from South America.6

Ploce is considered vulnerable because it has a high volume of banana imports – around 1 200 containers a year – with little capacity to check them. This should soon be rectified with the recent investment in a mobile X-ray device.7

In the past, major drug busts have been made in the port of Rijeka in northern Croatia. In January 2017, 478 kilograms of cocaine were taken out of a container that had arrived from Peru.8 As part of a joint operation with the Italian and Slovenian police, the container was resealed and thanks to the controlled delivery, several arrests were later made, including of suspected leaders from the Calabria region of Italy.9 Further arrests related to this seizure were made in February 2021.10

In March 2018, in the port of Rijeka, police seized 100 packages of cocaine found in a container in which there were 20 tonnes of mixed metal waste. The cocaine was purchased in Panama and then shipped to Croatia. Several arrests were made, particularly of people from Croatia and Slovenia, including Stjepan Prnjat, a Croatian citizen originally from Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the Croatian Escobar.11 In their investigation, police found a network of Zagreb-based companies that were importing cocaine in containers of fruit and scrap metal.12

Ploce and Rijeka are not the only Adriatic ports being inundated with cocaine. Down the coast, in Montenegro, the port of Bar has, in the past, been a notorious entry point for the drug. For example, in June 2014 police seized 250 kilograms of cocaine that had been shipped to Bar from Ecuador in a banana container.13 Between 2015 and 2019, on at least three occasions, more than 30 kilograms of cocaine were discovered in containers that had originated in South America.14 In April 2019, Montenegrin authorities seized 50 kilograms of drugs on a naval training ship in the port of Tivat.15

In Albania, the port of Durres is a hub for drug smuggling. On 10 April 2021, 143 kilograms of cocaine were seized in the port in a container full of bananas. The container had originated in Ecuador and had travelled via the mafia-controlled port of Gioia Tauro in Italy. A few days earlier, on 1 April, 49 kilograms of cocaine were also seized in the port of Durres, again from a container coming from Ecuador. These two seizures of almost 200 kilograms of cocaine in the first quarter of 2021 exceeded the entire amount of cocaine seized in Albania in 2019 and 2020 combined. In 2018, a record 613 kilograms of cocaine were seized in the port of Durres in a shipment of bananas coming from Colombia.

In Albania, as in Croatia and Montenegro, very few of the people ordering the shipments of cocaine have been caught. The administrators of the fruit import companies usually claim that they had no knowledge that cocaine was being hidden inside the same containers as their loads of produce. Technically, this is quite possible if criminals can have access to the containers after they have been packed with fruit, but before they have been loaded onto the ships.16

But what do these seizures tell us? Is there more cocaine coming through the region than in the past? Latin American supply and European demand are certainly high. Is law enforcement becoming more effective? This could be a factor, as countries like Croatia and Albania, for example, work more closely with bilateral partners or EUROPOL and as police become more efficient at cracking encrypted messaging systems. It may also point to more effective intelligence-led policing and container security in key ports.

But an increase in seizures, as well as a growing number of high-profile arrests in some countries of the region, may also indicate holes in the umbrella of protection that has enabled criminal groups from the Western Balkans to operate with impunity in the past. Drug trafficking in the Western Balkans, as elsewhere, depends upon political protection, which (for a price) allows the trafficking machine to run smoothly: violence is kept in check and the product moves without obstacles. A low number of seizures, like a limited amount of violence, suggests an efficient market. Such protection networks often form in contexts where high-value flows (such as drugs) pass through areas of weak or corrupt governance and may involve a high degree of complicity by state actors, members of the security services or police and port officials.17 If a key political patron dies or leaves office, then the hand of protection is lifted, and law enforcement can do its job. Seizures can therefore indicate that the protection economy is being disrupted. It may also point to more competition within the market as groups look for new routes and allies or provide tip-offs to knock out other traffickers.

Clearly, container traffic has not been affected by lockdowns, there is a high demand for cocaine in Europe, and Adriatic ports are considered relatively low-risk entry points. But maybe the increase in seizures and arrests also points to some tectonic shifts in criminal markets and protection economies in the Western Balkans.

The seizure of 143 kilograms of cocaine in the port of Durres on 10 April 2021 during the police operation code named ‘El Mejor’.

The seizure of 143 kilograms of cocaine in the port of Durres on 10 April 2021 during the police operation code named ‘El Mejor’.

Photo: Albanian State Police.


  1. Jeremy McDermott et al., The cocaine pipeline to Europe, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and InSight Crime, February 2021,

  2. Ibid; Walter Kemp, Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, July 2020,

  3. HRT, Rekordna zapljena droge u mjestu Baćina kod Ploča, 27 June 2020,

  4. HRT, Dubrovačka policija razbila lanac krijumčara kokaina, 28 January 2021,

  5. HRT, Jedna od najvećih zapljena kokaina u posljednjih 20 godina, 8 March 2021,

  6. Dubrovacki dnevnik, TAMO SLUČAJNO ZAVRŠIO? U obiteljskoj tvrtki osnivačice Mosta pronašli 100 kilograma kokaina, 7 March 2021,

  7. B R, Dubrovačka policija objavila detalje zapljene kokaina vrijednog 500 milijuna kuna: Još se ne zna čija je droga, Tportal, 14 April 2021,

  8. Marin Dešković, Hrvatska policija u potpunoj tajnosti u Rijeci oduzela 478 kg kokaina okrutnoj ‘Ndrangheti, Jutarnji, 7 February 2021,

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. 24sata, Zaplijenili 100 kg kokaina: Iza svega stoji‚ hrvatski Escobar‘, 8 March 2018,

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Government of Montenegro, Largest seizure in Montenegro ever: 250 kg of cocaine worth more than 12.5 milion, 5 June 2014,

  14. Government of Montenegro, Officers of the Customs Administration seized significant amounts of narcotics on several occasions during March, 26 March 2019,; Montenegrin port customs seize cocaine, N1, 15 June 2018,; and Customs officers have discovered 33 kg of cocaine in the Port of Bar, Government of Montenegro, 2 December 2015,

  15. Montenegrin authorities seize drugs on navy training ship, Reuters, 19 April 2019,

  16. Jeremy McDermott et al., The cocaine pipeline to Europe, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and InSight Crime, February 2021, 44,

  17. Mark Shaw, ‘We Pay, You Pay’: Protection Economies, Financial Flows, and Violence, in Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic (eds), Beyond Convergence, World Without Order. Washington, D.C.: Center for Complex Operations, Institute for National Strategic Studies, October 2016, 235-250,