The unprecedented seizure of more than half a ton of cocaine at an Albanian port suggests Colombian crime groups seeking to cash in on booming production are diversifying trafficking routes into the lucrative European market.
Albanian authorities seized 613 kilogramss of cocaine on March 1 that had entered the country on a cargo ship, according to a press release from the Colombian army, which participated in the operation.
Albanian Police Chief Ardi Veliu said that the cocaine seizure was the largest in Albania's history. The cocaine was hidden in a secret compartment within a shipping container on a boat transporting bananas from Colombia. The cargo ship passed through ports in Malta and Italy before arriving at Durres, Albania on February 19.
Following a tip from the Colombian military, Albanian police tracked the movement of the shipping container to a nearby warehouse belonging to a company called Arbiri Garden. Authorities then arrested two employees, including the truck driver who transported the container. An arrest warrant has also been issued for the company's owner.
According to the Colombian army, the Urabeños crime group is known to have contacts at several European ports.
Police Chief Veliu said that "Albanian authorities are still investigating with their foreign counterparts to uncover all of the relationships and people involved in this criminal activity," Reuters reported.
Authorities estimate that the confiscated cocaine had a market value of about $220 million and was likely destined for sale in Western European countries.
InSight Crime Analysis
Albania’s recent seizure of the biggest ever cocaine shipment intercepted in that country indicates that Colombian crime groups are attempting to extend their reach into profitable European markets by diversifying points of entry.
With cocaine production booming in Colombia, European countries are becoming increasingly attractive markets for Colombian crime groups looking to offload the drug. As InSight Crime has recently reported, massive shipments of cocaine have been seized in Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Germany. Last month, a plane carrying half a metric ton of cocaine was intercepted in the United Kingdom, while another half-ton of cocaine seized from Russia’s embassy in Argentina led to the dismantling of an unprecedented drug ring.
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Albania already has a long history of marijuana production and trafficking, but its status as a transit route for Colombian cocaine destined for European markets appears to be growing. Colombian crime groups are likely being drawn by Albania’s strategic location between lucrative markets in both Eastern and Western Europe, as well as existing ties between the Albanian mafia and the Italian 'Ndrangheta.
In 2016, Albanian authorities uncovered a cocaine trafficking ring involving Colombian chemists, members of the 'Ndrangheta and contacts in Holland, Greece and Belgium. The now dismantled network would dissolve Colombian cocaine into shipments of construction supplies like cement, then Colombian chemists in Albania would extract the cocaine for distribution across the European continent.
Colombian crime groups trafficking directly to Albania likely expected to avoid interception by avoiding the usual European routes through countries like Spain, where authorities are cracking down on drug rings. But with Albania under pressure to intensify the fight against organized crime as part of its bid to join the European Union, the recent massive cocaine seizure indicates this alternative route into the region will not go unwatched.
*With additional reporting by María Fernanda Ramírez.