Kosovo police battle smugglers
Published by BBC News – Tuesday 26 November, 2002
Copyright: BBC News
The ex-German paratrooper is a police officer serving with the UN, whose role is to check patrol routes for mines and unexploded cluster bombs that litter this area of the border with Montenegro.
They hunt the smugglers who bring horse trains over deeply rutted tracks that snake through the mountainous country.
The ponies and mules are specially trained for the rough terrain and their horseshoes are bent down at the back to create studs that help the animals grip under their heavy loads of cigarettes alcohol and drugs.
“Maybe every second night the drugs come, by horse, maybe five or 50 horses, a maximum of 100,” says Peter.
The drugs, including heroin from Turkey, are en route to northern Europe, while cigarettes and alcohol go south.
But the hunters know they are also the hunted.
The armed smugglers who inhabit the villages at the base of the mountains keep constant watch.
They use sophisticated radio communications, to try to keep ahead of the police.
If that fails there are more traditional methods in an area where the blood feud is a way of life.
Peter and his men have just had a warning.
Two Kosovo Police Service Officers had their cars burned outside their homes.
They know its just a beginning because this is not about a little local cottage industry.
The smugglers work hard for bigger interests, the organised crime gangs that traffic drugs, women and weapons across Europe; whatever commodity commands a high profit.
Because of a combination of geography, history and culture, organised crime has a pernicious grip on this an area of the central Balkans.
One senior officer described Kosovo as a “playground” for organised crime.
Kosovo is a natural crossroads with largely porous borders.
The structure of organised crime gangs often follows that of army units with commanders lieutenants and soldiers.
In an area where the tensions mainly between ethnic Albanians and Serbs have led to the creation of parallel networks for business, the conditions are ripe for exploitation. Unemployment is a further factor.
On some scales its running at 50%.
On top of that the gangs are almost impossible to penetrate because the members are almost always either related or from the same village.
However a large warehouse in northern Kosovo gives the lie to the idea that this is an area where the ethnic tensions are insurmountable.
The warehouse contains 20 million fake Marlborough cigarettes seized by UN customs officers.
They were the product of close co-operation between ethnic Albanian gangs and Serbian organised criminals.
As John Robertson in charge of intelligence and investigation for Customs in Kosovo put it: “There are no ethnic problems with organised crime. It seems the barriers one encounters in other fields are not present when it comes to exploiting financial opportunity.”