A small village in southern Albania called Lazarat opened in 2014 a “Pandora Box” for police officers producing new sorts of pressure for them when chasing drugs.

By Besfort Lamallari (Open Society Foundation)

Retaliation danger from organized crime gangs; accusations of state and police infiltration by the organized crime; the lack of human, logistical and financial resources of the police; the issue of maintaining a culture of integrity within the police. These are only a few sorts of pressure when police officers tackling drugs. The seriousness of the situation came under the spotlight only after the crackdown in Lazarat.

The “Lazarat” Syndrome  

It’s been exactly two years since the elite police officer Ibrahim Basha, a veteran of the Albanian Special Forces who had served in and survived the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan and Iraq while deployed with NATO forces, was shot dead during a police raid in Lazarat – the former cannabis stronghold.

That small village in southern Albania become a bold roar of defiance, challenging authorities with an international echo. Based on air monitoring, the Italian mission of Interforza estimated in 2013 that 319 hectares of land in the village was producing about 900 tons of cannabis annually.

After many years of being out sight, in June 2014, the Albanian police surrounded the outlaw marijuana-growing village. The police raid hailed a success as it took away from drug traffickers 71 tons of processed cannabis, 17 liters of cannabis oil, as well as destroyed more than 133 thousand cannabis plants.

The operations did not end up without human costs. A gunfire opened from within the village took away, in June 2015 the life of the police officer Basha, and injured two of his colleagues. Eventually, the drug kingpins’ stronghold fell, and the police took over.

Deadly retaliation from organized crime gangs and drug traffickers is the most blatant act of violence against state representatives. According to estimates, around 31 per cent of organized crime groups have used violence against police officers. Other more ‘silent’ forms of abuse include psychological, verbal and physical violence.

Retaliation for ‘getting into their way’ and intimidation for not doing so, are the most common reasons behind violence against police officers. By doing so, criminals intend to establish and maintain power and control over those who may put them in danger, especially their illicit profits.

The size of their illicit profits should help us understand better their violently demonstrated urge for ‘power and control’.

Official estimates indicate that that from 1993 to 2016, around 923 cases of cannabis cultivation or more than 22 thousand plants have been registered each year. Circa 148 people involved in this illicit activity felt the repressive arm of the state each year. In terms of damage done to their ‘business’, around 290 thousand plants have been destroyed per year or some 7 million, in total. If converted to money, their loss speaks of billions of dollars.

Looking for Sustainable Option

After the police raid, it appeared that a battle had been won, but a feverish war had just started. As Europol reports, the police operations against cannabis cultivation and stock caused an increase by four times of its price per kilogram in the EU countries. This, in turn, became a powerful incentive for drug traffickers who identified new hard-to-be-accessed areas for cultivation, which scored a two-fold expansion in a very short time.

The wider spread of cultivated areas, the introduction of the new plants able to produce several harvests per year, and the adjusted modus operandi by the criminals – all of these meant new and more painful challenges posed to the authorities. Moreover, political accusations of state and police infiltration by the organized crime erupted and followed all along, adding so even more strain. This affects creating additional pressures for the police in tackling drugs.

Primarily, chasing is a must, but not a sustainable option. Destruction of cannabis plants can become an exhaustive process in the long-run (not to mention the use of downgrading labels such as ‘farmer police’). Prevention needed, as is the need for sharing responsibilities and adopting a multi-agency approach (it is also a public health and education issue).

Besides, while focusing on drugs, the police cannot ignore the pressing need for balancing priorities and available resources. Other sorts of criminality need to be tackled, including the everyday petty crimes that have a powerful say in public perceptions and fear of crime.

Last, but not of importance, it should be borne in mind that the way how the police behave and cope with various demanding and adverse circumstances affects their image and public trust.

Police integrity, as defined by a clearly understood and implemented set of rules and policies, is more important than hiring the “right” people or “getting rid of the rotten apples”. While dismissal and initiation of proceedings against corrupt police officers are a legal obligation, maintaining a culture of ethics and integrity are the way to go.

In more practical terms, the sanctions taken in the recent months against the police chiefs of Vlora, Gjirokastra, Tepelena, Kurbin, Përmet, and that of the Border and Migration Police of Durrës, and of the Drenova’s Prison are most welcome and point to a staunch commitment to fighting cannabis cultivation and trafficking. Whether deeds or words, suspicions of passive or active support to drug traffickers can be sufficiently harmful to the police integrity and image.

The human, logistical and financial resources of the State Police remained almost the same no matter the fact that in the last couple of years police operations against cannabis cultivation, production and trafficking have followed an upward trend.

Official data indicate that compared to 2015, a year later the police conducted:

  • 36 proactive investigations/2.5 times more;
  • 14,672 controls/23 times more;
  • 1,671 cases of cannabis cultivation identified/+38.5%;
  • 29,869 police officers engaged (1 police officer deployed in more than one operation) / 5 times more;
  • police operations increased by 9 times;
  • costs of police operations (payments, per diems, fuel, vehicles maintenance, etc.): 3.8 million Euros (2-fold increase).

All of the above issue a clarion call to the need for a well-designed vetting mechanism, which will guarantee that every member of the organization, be of leading or executive role, complies with legal and ethical standards of professionalism, as well as moral and financial integrity. The standards are there. They have been set by those whose bravery and sacrifice we salute.

TAGS: AlbaniaCommentaryExternal OversightOrganized Crime