24th Oct 2016

Crime report spotlights Bulgaria and Romania passport-free bid

  • Heroin seizure in Afghanistan: Gangs are increasingly smuggling drugs via south east Europe (Photo: isafmedia)

Southeastern Europe is becoming the main gateway for smuggling drugs, guns and people into the EU, according to a study likely to hurt Bulgaria and Romania's bid to join the bloc's passport-free zone.

The finding comes in a report by the EU's joint police body, Europol, out on Wednesday (4 May), based on over 70,000 pages of intelligence from individual police forces over the past two years.

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"Of all the hubs, the south east has seen the greatest expansion in recent years, as a result of increased trafficking via the Black Sea, proliferation of numerous Balkan routes for illicit commodities to and from the EU, and a significant increase in illegal immigration via Greece. These developments in the region have contributed to the formation of a Balkan axis for trafficking to the EU," the study says.

The report notes that while organised crime groups are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and cellular, Albanian language gangs pose one of the biggest problems.

"Albanian-speaking organised crime is truly poly-drug and poly-criminal. Within the EU, Albanian-speaking groups are active in the fields of cocaine, heroin, synthetic drug and cannabis trafficking," it says.

"Albanian speaking criminals are notorious for their use of extreme violence ... Many group members have a secret service, police or paramilitary background."

On arms smuggling, the report speaks of "large illicit stockpiles" in Albania, Bosnia and Croatia and "access to considerable quantities of ... military grade weapons including anti-tank rocket launchers and anti-aircraft equipment."

It adds: "Albanian-speaking, Turkish and former Soviet Union criminal groups are seeking to expand their interests in the EU, and may exploit opportunities in the possible accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the Schengen [passport-free] zone, and recent and prospective EU visa exemptions for western Balkan states, Ukraine and Moldova."

Europol director Rob Wainwright told EUobserver: "We carry out an objective report wihout political influence. It's for policymakers to judge how to react. We will forward the study to EU interior ministers in June and it will be up to them to decide on any adjustments to EU priorities."

He added: "The possible accession into Schengen of Bulgaria and Romania and visa liberalisation for Ukraine - one would see these as potential new opportunities for organsied crime. But we shouldn't overestimate the strength of current border arrangements. They already find many ways to operate in the EU ... it's not make or break for how organised crime works."

Wainwright noted that complex relations between different groups make it hard to speak of "a champion's league" of top criminal gangs in Europe. But he said Albanian-speaking groups, west African gangs, "traditional" Italian organisations, and "emerging" Lithuanian and Polish groups pose egregious threats.

In other findings, the survey says gangs are exploiting unrest in Libya and Tunisia: "Organised crime groups are facilitating several thousands of illegal immigrants, mainly of Tunisian origin, in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe."

It also notes: "The large and growing number of illegal immigrants from countries and regions in which Islamist terrorist groups are active - such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia - raises the possibility that channels for illegal immigration will be used increasingly by those seeking to engage in terrorist activity in the EU."

Europol says the economic crisis is seeing more professional experts in the fields of maritime logistics, pharmaceuticals, engineering, law and finance working with criminals. It is also seeing more people willing to act as drug or cash mules.

Increasing sophistication in human trafficking saw one Swedish-based Iraqi gang buy a small airline in order to smuggle people. Another group on two occasions chartered planes to fly Aghans from Greece to Italy.

Gangs use offshore funds in banking centres such as the UK and the United Arab Emirates to launder cash. But forensic accounting is being frustrated by the emergence of a "barter market" in which one gang pays another gang for drugs with stolen guns or pays for human trafficking services with stolen credit card data.

The EU also exports problems to third countries.

Illegal cigarette factories in Poland and crystal methamphetamine producers in the Czech Republic supply markets in the western Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Meanwhile, money from the pockets of wealthy EU consumers of cocaine and qat can end up - sometimes via Latin America - in the hands of militants in Africa and the Middle East.

"The reported establishment of links between Latin American groups active in west Africa and AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Hezbollah and national liberation forces in the region, raises the possibility that cocaine trafficking to the EU is a source of funding for some terrorist groups."

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