Western Balkan criminal groups in Greece.

On 29 January 2021, Greek police in the port city of Thessaloniki arrested a man loading black bags into a car. In the bags and a nearby apartment, police found 324 kilograms of pure cocaine,1 suspected to have come from Latin America.2 A Greek, an Albanian of Greek origin and a Croatian citizen were arrested on the spot, while a fourth man from Croatia managed to escape. This is just the latest incident in a number of cases that link criminal groups from the Western Balkans to organized crime in Greece.

Greece seems to be an access point for the cocaine pipeline entering Europe.3. The seizure of cocaine in Thessaloniki is allegedly linked to a case that was uncovered in Athens in November 2020, when Greek officers seized 254 kilograms of cocaine. The cocaine was believed to have arrived in the Piraeus port from Ecuador, hidden in a container carrying bananas.4

Some of the cases in Greece that relate to criminal groups from the Western Balkans are linked to the gang war between the Škaljari and Kavač clans, which originally hail from the Montenegrin town of Kotor. For example, on 19 January 2020, two Montenegrins were shot dead by four masked gunmen in front of their families while dining at a tavern in Vari, Athens. The two victims, Igor Dedović and Stevan Stamatović, both 43, were allegedly members of the Škaljari clan.5 They had pending international arrest warrants related to establishing a criminal organization, attempted murder and violating weapons and explosives laws.

The Greek daily Kathimerini reported6 that the double murder in the Athens tavern may have been linked to a record seizure in Philadelphia in June 2019 in which 20 tonnes of cocaine were discovered on a Liberian-flagged container ship.7 Kathimerini, citing unnamed police sources, reported that Dedović was allegedly held responsible for the loss of the cargo in the US and that he was killed in Athens as an act of punishment. The double mafia-style murders in Athens remain unsolved.

Dedović was reportedly leading the Škaljari clan along with Jovan Vukotić, a Montenegrin linked to a 136-kilogram cocaine haul discovered by Greek authorities in an apartment in the southern Athens suburb of Varkiza in 2017. Although the Greek authorities had issued an international arrest warrant for Dedović, when he was arrested in Antalya, Turkey,8 in September 2018 he was extradited to Serbia, rather than Greece, where he was also wanted for previous offences.

Greek police say that the 136 kilograms of cocaine in Varkiza are possibly linked to another seizure of 27 kilograms in Preveza, western Greece, in March 2018. Two Serbians and two Italians were arrested for drug trafficking in connection with the seizure in Preveza. Drug law enforcement authorities believe the cocaine in Varkiza and Preveza was of the same lot, because of an embossed seal on all the packages in the shape of a bull‘s head.9

The Kotor clan war led to another bloody incident in Greece. In July 2020, a Montenegrin and a Serbian were killed on the island of Corfu. Alan Kožar and Damir Hadžić, both allegedly close to the Škaljari clan, were shot dead in a hail of bullets while sitting in a car in front of a resort villa. The two were wanted by Montenegrin and Serbian police for their alleged involvement in murder and attempted murder.10 The fact that they were in Greece suggests that the country, with its numerous islands, is considered by criminals from the Western Balkans to be a safe place to lie low. Their double murders remain unsolved.

Greece provides a useful gateway for criminal groups from the Western Balkans to smuggle cocaine, since there are many more ports than on the Adriatic. Indeed, Greece has 15 container ports and a further 15 ports that have piers for vessels of around 20 metres’ length. While attention has been on Bar and Durres, criminal groups from the Western Balkans can move their loads through Greek ports and then by truck across the region and into Western Europe.

For example, in January 2020, police seized 1.2 tonnes of cocaine in Astakos port, western Greece.11 Police arrested eight alleged members of an international drug trafficking group, including Albanian, Moldovan and Dutch citizens. An Albanian nicknamed ‘Doctor’, who reportedly lives in Spain, is considered to be the leader of the cocaine-smuggling gang.12 Raids on homes in Athens yielded an AK-47 assault rifle, three pistols and €233 000 in cash. Two undercover officers had infiltrated the gang,13 pretending to be sailors for 16 months and following the cargo’s route.

Cannabis stashed in a cave near the Greek island Alonissos, September 2019.

Cannabis stashed in a cave near the Greek island Alonissos, September 2019.

Photo: Hellenic Police

In other cases, cocaine from Latin America is moving via Greece into the Western Balkans. In November 2020, at the port of Pireus, Greek authorities seized 137 kilograms of cocaine in four banana containers that had come from Ecuador and were destined for arrival in Durres.14 The Greek authorities replaced the load with rice and, working with their Albanian counterparts, carried out a controlled delivery that led to three arrests in Durres, including a port employee.

For the past three decades, Greece has been an important transit route for trafficking cannabis from Albania. The border between Greece and Albania is thought to be the biggest land route for cannabis trafficking in Europe. Greek police confiscated 1.5 tonnes of cannabis in 2020. Over the previous two years, they seized almost nine tonnes.15 Cannabis is trafficked on foot or by mule by Albanians who live in border villages. They hide the drugs near designated spots where Greek networks then pick them up. A kilogram of cannabis costs around €1 000 wholesale in Albania, but drug barons in Greece pay double that amount.

Albanian criminal groups also smuggle cannabis by boat, both to Greece and via Greek waters to Turkey. In September 2019, Greek Coast Guard authorities discovered 1.1 tonnes of cannabis in a cave on the Piperi islet, near the island of Alonissos. The operation was launched by the coast guard following the arrest of an Albanian national aboard a speedboat off Agistri island, near Athens, on charges of transferring drugs from Albania to Turkey. Another three Albanian nationals were arrested on the same charges after their speedboat, which reportedly had drugs on board, was intercepted after a high-speed chase south of the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos. This seems to be part of a growing trend. Greek officers claim that high-capacity Albanian speedboats cross the Aegean transporting large amounts of cannabis to Turkey and return laden with heroin.16 This suggests that there is now a maritime ‘Balkan route’ of Albanian cannabis being trafficked to Turkey in exchange for heroin.

A notorious case occurred in January 2019 when one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the Balkans, Klement Balili, turned himself in to the Albanian police. He was allegedly the kingpin behind the transport of 678 kilograms of cannabis destined for Northern Europe that was confiscated in May 2016 on the Greek island of Zakynthos. According to media reports, his network shipped tonnes of cannabis across Europe from Albania to Greece and Western Europe, using a network of phony transport companies. Balili, also known as ‘Keli’ among Greece’s anti-drug law enforcement officers, had served as Transport Director in Saranda, Albania. He allegedly had close ties with high-ranking government officials.17 In October 2019, Balili was sentenced to 10 years in prison for trafficking drugs to Greece and remains in custody.18

Speedboat carrying drugs are intercepted off the Greek coast. A growing trend in the region involves Albanian nationals trafficking drugs across the Aegean Sea.
Speedboat carrying drugs are intercepted off the Greek coast. A growing trend in the region involves Albanian nationals trafficking drugs across the Aegean Sea.

Speedboat carrying drugs are intercepted off the Greek coast. A growing trend in the region involves Albanian nationals trafficking drugs across the Aegean Sea.

Hellenic Coast Guard

Other notorious Albanian criminals have recently popped up in Greece. On 29 January 2021, police officers who were carrying out random checks on measures against the spread of the pandemic, stopped a jeep-type vehicle in Lamia city, central Greece. Among the passengers was Alket Rizaj, an Albanian convicted for murder, who was on a five-day leave from prison. Rizaj became the most-known Albanian convict in Greece after he twice escaped from Athens’ high-security prison, in 2006 and 2009, by helicopter together with Vassilis Paleokostas, Greece’s most wanted man.19

Greece is also a key hub for the smuggling of migrants into the Western Balkans. The border region between Greece and North Macedonia has been a well-travelled route since 2015. With the tightening of border control, more migrants are trying to pass into Albania.

While some smugglers are facilitating passage across the border, others are part of more organized networks transporting migrants into Western Europe. For example, on 3 January 2020, a 33-year-old Albanian was arrested while entering Greece via the Kapshtica—Krystallopigi border crossing based on a European warrant issued by Belgian authorities. He was prosecuted as a member of an international human trafficking gang whose leaders had been arrested in late 2019 in London and Brussels.20 He denied all charges.

According to the court papers sent to Greek authorities, some 28 smuggling trips took place between December 2018 and March 2019.21 It is unclear how many people were smuggled to the UK during that period. The migrants travelled to Belgium by plane. After staying for a few days in houses or cheap hotels around Ghent, they entered the UK via the English Channel, hidden in cargo trucks under suffocating conditions. Each migrant paid an average of €15 000. The case file includes police wiretaps in which suspects are heard saying that they gave sleeping pills to smuggled children to keep them calm while hidden in the trucks.

In conclusion, violent incidents, arrests and drug seizures show the extent to which criminal groups from the Western Balkans are major players in the Greek underworld. This is a further example of how the transnational tentacles of crime spread out from the Western Balkans around the world.


  1. Greek Police, Περισσότερα από 300 κιλά καθαρής κοκαΐνης κατάσχεσαν αστυνομικοί της Διεύθυνσης Ασφάλειας Θεσσαλονίκης σε συνεργασία με το γραφείο D.E.A. Αθηνώνhttp, Press release, 30 January 2021, http://www.astynomia.gr/index.php?option=ozo_content&lang=%27..%27&perform=view&id=100060&Itemid=2582&lang=

  2. Στην ανακρίτρια οι τρεις συλληφθέντες για τα 324 κιλά κοκαΐνης, Amna News, 30 January 2021, https://www.amna.gr/macedonia/article/524667/Stin-anakritria-oi-treis-sullifthentes-gia-ta-324-kila-kokainis

  3. Jeremy McDermott et al., The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and InSight Crime, February 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/The-cocaine-pipeline-to-Europe-GI-TOCInsightCrime.pdf

  4. Τα 254 Κιλά Καθαρής Κοκαΐνης Από το Εκουαδόρ που Κατέληξαν στο Κουκάκι, Vice, 20 November 2020, https://www.vice.com/el/article/qjpk47/ta-254-kila-ka8arhs-kokainhs-apo-to-ekoyador-poy-katelh3an-sto-koykaki

  5. Yiannis Souliotis, Men gunned down in Vari wanted in Montenegro, Kathimerini, 21 January 2020, https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/248658/men-gunned-down-in-vari-wanted-in-montenegro

  6. Yiannis Souliotis, Το φονικό στη Βάρη και οι 20 τόνοι κοκαΐνης, Kathimerini, 26 January 2020, https://www.kathimerini.gr/investigations/1061899/to-foniko-sti-vari-kai-oi-20-tonoi-koka-nis/?fbclid=IwAR37VlEqQELLiqlQ6VYJzPFYqQiOFCBcaY7LrqLis_Xqs02gaBYVzJQ5wEA&PageSpeed=noscript

  7. Hollie Silverman, Record cocaine seizure at Philadelphia terminal weighed nearly 20 tons – or 39,525 pounds, CNN, 27 June 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/26/us/philadelphia-cocaine-bust-weight-tally/index.html

  8. Mafia clan head wanted by Serbia nabbed in Turkey‘s Antalya, Daily Sabah, 12 September 2018, https://www.dailysabah.com/investigations/2018/09/12/mafia-clan-head-wanted-by-serbia-nabbed-in-turkeys-antalya

  9. Kostas Koukoumakas, Τα Πακέτα Κοκαΐνης με το Κεφάλι του Ταύρου σε Βάρκιζα και Πρέβεζα, Vice, 29 March 2018, https://www.vice.com/el/article/59j3en/ta-paketa-kokainhs-me-to-kefali-toy-tayroy-se-barkiza-kai-prebeza

  10. Zdravko Ljubas, Montenegrin Mafia Figures Killed in Greece, OCCRP, 29 July 2020, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12875-montenegrin-mafia-figures-killed-in-greece

  11. Greek Police, Δηλώσεις σχετικά με εντοπισμό και κατάσχεση 1 τόνου και 181 κιλών κοκαΐνης και τη σύλληψη οχτώ (8) αλλοδαπών μελών εγκληματικής οργάνωσης διεθνικού χαρακτήρα, που δραστηριοποιείτο συστηματικά στη μεταφορά σημαντικών ποσοτήτων κοκαΐνη, 25 January 2020, http://www.astynomia.gr/index.php?option=ozo_content&perform=view&id=92478&Itemid=2394&lang=

  12. Yiannis Souliotis, Πρώτες προφυλακίσεις για το καρτέλ της κοκαΐνης, Kathimerini, 30 January 2020, https://www.kathimerini.gr/society/1062528/protes-profylakiseis-gia-to-kartel-tis-koka-nis

  13. Dimitris Popotas and Aria Kalyva, Ένας τόνος ναρκωτικά στον Αστακό: Δύο αστυνομικοί έζησαν στο ιστιοπλοϊκό της κόκας‘ Proto Thema, 26 January 2020, https://www.protothema.gr/greece/article/968597/enas-tonos-narkotika-ston-astako-duo-astunomikoi-ezisan-sto-istioploiko-tis-kokas

  14. Droga që u bë oriz/ Vjen letërporosia nga Greqia për 137 kg kokainë të nisura nga Ekuadori, Balkanweb, 9 November 2020, https://www.balkanweb.com/droga-qe-u-be-oriz-vjen-leterporosia-nga-greqia-per-137-kg-kokaine-te-nisura-nga-ekuadori-spak-zbuluam-se

  15. Kostas Koukoumakas, Why Europe‘s big cannabis route is so hard to shut, BBC, 7 December 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55069055

  16. Vythoulkas Dionysis, Πως δρούσε το κύκλωμα μεταφοράς ναρκωτικών με ταχύπλοα από Αλβανία προς Τουρκία, Ta Nea, 1 October 2019, https://www.tanea.gr/2019/10/01/greece/pos-drouse-to-kykloma-metaforas-narkotikon-me-taxyploa-apo-alvania-pros-tourkia

  17. Gjergj Erebara, Albania ‘Ignoring’ Suspected Drug Baron’s Greek Arrest Warrant, Balkan Insight, 16 May 2016, https://balkaninsight.com/2016/05/16/albania-ignoring-suspected-drug-baron-s-greek-arrest-warrant-05-16-2016

  18. Gjergj Erebara, Albania Confirms Infamous Drug Dealer’s Jail Sentence, Balkan Insight, 17 October 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/10/17/escobar-of-the-balkans-sentenced-by-10-years

  19. Jeff Maysh, The uncatchable, BBC, 25 September 2014, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_8700/index.html

  20. Maïthé Chini, Belgian and English police arrest Albanian human trafficking gang, The Brussels Times, 27 September 2019, https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/belgium-all-news/70322/belgian-and-english-police-arrest-albanian-human-trafficking-gang

  21. Kostas Koukoumakas, Ο Κρατούμενος στα Γρεβενά και η Διακίνηση Θυμάτων Μαύρης Εργασίας στην Ευρώπη, Vice, 21 October 2020, https://www.vice.com/el/article/qjpd9w/o-kratoymenos-sta-grebena-kai-h-diakinhsh-8ymatwn-mayrhs-ergasias-sthn-eyrwph