Patrols on Albanian-Greek Border force Drug Smugglers to Vary Tactics

Smugglers are hiring young men from Albanian border villages to take cannabis in backpacks into Greece, trying to avoid beefed-up patrols since the arrival of officers from the EU’s border agency.

On April 20, the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, posted a photo on its Facebook page of three black backpacks, abandoned on the border between Albania and EU member Greece.

“Here’s something from our Lost and Found department,” the caption read. “If you recently lost three large black bags full of cannabis in the middle of a forest near the Greek border with Albania, we want to talk to you.”

Officers seized roughly 50 kg of cannabis worth tens of thousands of euros on the streets in Greece. It was not the first such haul in the two years since Frontex deployed to the Albanian side of the 212-kilometre border.

The task of some 71 officers was to crack down on the illegal migration of Albanians to Greece, but they have seized a significant amount of cannabis too, forcing traffickers to vary their tactics and seek out new routes, according to BIRN’s findings. Some have abandoned the use of donkeys, preferring to hire young locals as couriers to carry small quantities of drugs on their backs.

“They looked like refugees,” said Mihali, a resident of the order village of Peshkepia, describing young men with big backpacks trying to cross the border by foot.

“They used mules in the past but that became too well-known to police so now they walk.”

Greece is the second biggest destination for Albanian cannabis after Italy, with Greek police estimating that about half of all cannabis confiscated in the country originates in its northern neighbour. Rugged terrain and a scarcity of paved roads on the border make life difficult for police patrols. For smugglers, the mountains are not easy to cross, but provide effective cover.

Greek police have identified three main zones of interests: the Thesprotia region in Greece, over the border from Albania’s Saranda; the Derviciani village in the southern Albanian area around Gjirokastra; and the border towns of Permeti in Albania and Konica in Greece.

An Albanian anti-drug officer said the photos published by Frontex were just one of several cases identified on both sides of the border.

“They use black backpacks because they are not visible during the night but they can also carry up to 40-60 kg,” he said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

In most cases the cannabis is tightly packed to prevent it from getting wet so that smugglers can abandon it if spotted by police and retrieve it later.

“In the cases when cannabis was found, it has been found well-packed with dark colour duct tape to resist rain and to not lose moisture under the sun,” the officer said.

He said the smugglers appeared to be relying on youths from the border villages, paying them as little as 100-200 euros per crossing.

“Such smugglers have an advantage of knowing the territory very well,” the officer said, and have an alibi for being in the area if stopped by police.

The officer said that police lacked the manpower and equipment to monitor the length of the border and that the couriers are often armed.

“We have sometimes seen how one of the couriers decides to steal the cannabis from the other, so guns are used for protection,” he told BIRN.

An Albanian anti-drug officer said the photos published by Frontex were just one of several cases identified on both sides of the border.

“They use black backpacks because they are not visible during the night but they can also carry up to 40-60 kg,” he said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

In most cases the cannabis is tightly packed to prevent it from getting wet so that smugglers can abandon it if spotted by police and retrieve it later.

“In the cases when cannabis was found, it has been found well-packed with dark colour duct tape to resist rain and to not lose moisture under the sun,” the officer said.

He said the smugglers appeared to be relying on youths from the border villages, paying them as little as 100-200 euros per crossing.

“Such smugglers have an advantage of knowing the territory very well,” the officer said, and have an alibi for being in the area if stopped by police.

The officer said that police lacked the manpower and equipment to monitor the length of the border and that the couriers are often armed.

“We have sometimes seen how one of the couriers decides to steal the cannabis from the other, so guns are used for protection,” he told BIRN.

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