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Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe


Summary highlights

  1. Shadow of the mountain: organized crime around the Jahorina winter resort.

    The ski resort at Jahorina, close to Sarajevo, was busy during the winter of 2020–2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The mountain is famous as the location of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. In the 1990s, after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Jahorina region suffered from underdevelopment and was known as a criminal hideout. Today, it is a place where high-profile criminals spend their time and where corrupt officials want to invest or launder their money. This article looks at the reasons why Jahorina has become an unlikely hotspot of organized crime and corruption.

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  2. Cocaine goes ‘bananas’ on the Adriatic coast.

    A number of major drug busts in Croatia and Albania over the past few months shows that there is a tsunami of cocaine coming through 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 – as well as past trends – show that ports in Albania, Croatia and Montenegro are important entry points for the cocaine pipeline into Europe. Major seizures may indicate more effective law enforcement, but they may also be a sign that the so-called ‘protection economy’ that enables drug trafficking is being disrupted. This article looks at a recent spate of big seizures and considers what could be behind them.

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  3. Digital dangers: warning signs from North Macedonia.

    As more people go online for communicating, shopping and searching for information, they also become targets for predatory and criminal behaviour. This trend has accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, with young people being particularly vulnerable. In late January 2021, police in North Macedonia broke up a group of more than 7 000 people who were using the Telegram messaging app to share explicit pictures and videos of women and girls. This is the second time in two years that the group has been taken down. Similar cases were also reported in Serbia in March, when several offenders were arrested for sharing child abuse material. As discussed in this article, such cases show the growing dangers of tech-facilitated crime, including cyberbullying, sexual exploitation and sextortion in the Western Balkans, and the challenges faced by law enforcement.

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  4. Western Balkan criminal groups in Greece.

    In recent years, Greece has become a theatre for a wide range of illicit activities carried out by criminal groups from the Western Balkans. Its ports and proximity to the Western Balkans make it an attractive entry point for the smuggling of cocaine, while it is also a market and transit country for cannabis smuggled from Albania. Since 2015, it has also been a key gateway for the smuggling of migrants, particularly into North Macedonia and Albania. This article shows that Greece is a further example of how the transnational tentacles of crime spread out from the Western Balkans around the world.

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  5. Unburying guns from Albania’s past.

    In April 2021, police in Albania made two major seizures of weapons in the capital, Tirana. Most of the weapons date from when the arsenals were looted during civil unrest in the country in 1997. It is believed that the vast majority of killings related to organized crime that have taken place in Albania since 1997 have been carried out using guns stolen from the old arsenals. This article looks at the legacy of that problem and what the Albanian government is doing about it.

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  6. Community Building Mitrovica: An open door for young people.

    More than 20 years after the war in Kosovo, Mitrovica continues to be a divided city with a Kosovo-Albanian community located in the southern part and a Kosovo-Serbian community in the northern part of the city, separated by the Ibar river. Tensions between the communities remain and rule of law is weak. As a result, the region continues to have a reputation as being a haven for organized crime. Community Building Mitrovica is a civil society organization that works with young people in the city to increase their resilience to organized crime. In our regular series of profiling the work of such organizations, we talk to two leaders of the initiative.

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About this issue

Welcome to the seventh issue of the Risk Bulletin produced by the Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

The hotspot that we profile in this issue does not have many of the characteristics of the usual locations that we look at, namely socio-economic vulnerability, a strategic location along trafficking routes or weak governance. Rather, Jahorina and its famous ski resort is a popular destination near Sarajevo, making it a magnet for criminals on holiday as well as for corrupt officials looking for a profit.

In the first quarter of 2021 there have been a number of major drug busts in Adriatic ports. We examine the flow of cocaine from Latin America to Western Europe through the Western Balkans and analyze what the increase in seizures could indicate.

Thanks to increased digitalization, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are spending time and money online. This is convenient, but it is also potentially dangerous: data can be stolen or exploited; gaming platforms and social media are being abused to groom children for sexual harassment and exploitation; and young people are vulnerable to harmful and violent content, cyberbullying and radicalization. We analyze the warning signs in North Macedonia, as well as what is being done to address this threat. In May 2021, the GI-TOC will issue a comprehensive report on the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the Western Balkans.

Building on the GI-TOC’s flagship publication ‘Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime’, we occasionally review other countries that were not covered by that report. In this issue, we look at the activities of criminal groups from the Western Balkans in Greece, particularly trafficking of drugs and the smuggling of migrants.

On 1 April 2021, Albanian police carried out two operations that resulted in the seizure of a large cache of military weapons and ammunition, including sniper rifles, anti-tank weapons, Kalashnikov automatic rifles, silent pistols, police and military radio scanners, ammunition and explosives. According to the police, this arsenal was for sale and was the source of some weapons that had been used for contract killings in recent years. We look at the legacy of more than half a million weapons that were looted from arsenals during the civil unrest in 1997 and what steps the Albanian government is taking to address this danger.

As part of our regular series profiling the work of civil society organizations strengthening resilience to organized crime in the Western Balkans, we talk to two leaders of the NGO Community Building Mitrovica on their work in the divided community of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.

As always, we welcome potential contributions to the Risk Bulletin. If you have a proposal for a story or would like to provide feedback, please contact almedina.dodic@globalinitiative.net.