The KLA And The Heroin Craze Of The 90s

Newshawk: Alex Roslin
Pubdate: Wed, 15 Dec 1999
Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Copyright: 1999 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc. 
Author: Alex Roslin
Note: All figures in the story are in Canadian dollars. 

The Kosovo Connection

The shooting has stopped, but the Kosovo Liberation Army isn't resting.  It is still a major player in the international heroin trade. 

Five months after the shooting stopped in Kosovo, the first war in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is slowly turning into a debacle. 

NATO-led peacekeepers have proven virtually powerless to stop the violence, which in a complete turnaround is now being waged by Albanians against Serbs, Roma gypsies and political dissidents.  They've had just as little success arresting a wave of organized crime that has swamped Kosovo's cities. 

More questions are emerging about how many Albanians died at the hands of repressive Serb forces before and during NATO's 11-week air assault, the heaviest bombing campaign since World War II.  At the height of the war, United States officials said up to 100,000 were killed and called the Serb violence a "genocide." Now, UN investigators have found the actual death toll is likely less than 5 per cent of that. 

And then there is the Kosovo Liberation Army, the mysterious band of ethnic Albanian rebels who have emerged from their mountain hideouts and, under NATO's auspices, proclaimed themselves the "provisional government" of Kosovo. 

The KLA has taken control of all city administrations, and the UN has integrated the bulk of the 10,000 rebels into the Kosovo Provisional Corps, a militia with official policing powers and a mandate to ensure inter-ethnic stability.  But far from promoting ethnic harmony, the KLA itself stands accused of instigating much of the anti-minority violence.  Its popularity among Kosovars has dropped sharply. 

There is another question that continues to dog the KLA, and raises still more doubts about the legacy of the war - the question of drugs. 

A mass of evidence over the years has suggested the KLA got much of its funding from sales of heroin, and enjoyed intimate links with the Italian Mafia and Albanian heroin barons. 

The involvement was so great that the KLA played a part in feeding the heroin craze that has raged across Western Europe and North America during the 1990s. 

Now, months after the armed conflict ended, narcotics experts say members of the former KLA haven't severed their ties to the drug world.  Instead of buying arms with the profits, they're financing the province's rebuilding efforts. 

Kosovar Albanian rebels were linked to drugs by narcotics experts in Europe as early as 1994, while U.S.  authorities warned in 1996 that Kosovars were smuggling large amounts of weapons and drugs.  Police in various Western nations also noted the rising proportion of heroin being shipped to their countries through the Balkans, and the rise in crime and overdose deaths that accompanied the drug. 

Yet, when it came time to back a faction in Kosovo, Western governments went with the KLA. 

The war on drugs, experts say, takes a back seat to political wars.  In fact, they say the war in Kosovo actually left drug traffickers with a stronger hand. 

"The KLA was a participant in heroin trafficking going way back," said Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Politics of Heroin, a 1972 classic study of the world heroin trade.  "It's part of a long pattern.  The drug war loses out to the demands of the post-Cold War era."

"It's an old story.  It's been documented a million times," McGill University economist Tom Naylor said of the KLA ties to drug trafficking. 

"Drugs were startup money for some KLA cadres.  You can't say the KLA itself runs drugs.  It's sort of a tactical alliance," said Naylor, who studies drug and arms smuggling, and consults with the United Nations. 

A U.S.  Defense Department consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed. 

"There is a synergy between guns and drugs.  Are the Albanians involved in this? You betcha.  You can't work in a restaurant and earn enough tips to buy an anti-aircraft missile.  Name a place where there's conflict and you'll see a linkage between drugs and guns," he said. 

The official, who is involved in Balkans policy-making, said former KLA members haven't cut their ties to the drug trade, even though Kosovo is free of Serb repression and many of the rebels are now supposed to be upholding the law as members of the Kosovo Provisional Corps. 

"Once you make a lot of money from drugs, it's hard to get off it.  I doubt very much if we're going to be able to turn this back.  It's going to be much more like Colombia," he said. 

Heroin Chic

Heroin was the drug of the '90s.  It defined the decade like crack and junk bonds defined the '80s.  It inspired the undead "heroin chic" look on fashion catwalks and claimed the lives of a long list of celebrities, including actor River Phoenix and Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvion. 

Heroin was brought into the mainstream by a dramatic improvement in the drug's purity from 6 per cent in 1987 to 60 per cent today.  Instead of having to inject it, a turn-off for many potential users, junk could now be smoked.  At the same time, a glut sent wholesale prices crashing - by 70 per cent in North America since the beginning of the decade - which again increased the drug's attraction. 

In 1997, Canadian and American police seized four times more heroin than in 1984, according to the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention. 

British Columbia reported 371 drug-overdose deaths in 1998, most of them heroin-related.  It was the highest number in six years.  Toronto saw close to 300 last year, said Det.  Sgt.  Dave Brownell, head of the Metro Toronto police drug squad.  "(It's) a number which was unheard of five years ago," he said. 

Canada now has a record 25,000 to 50,000 heroin addicts, while the U.S.  addict population has shot up from 360,000 in 1991 to nearly 1 million today. 

Society is paying a heavy toll for heroin, which is more addictive and harmful than marijuana or cocaine, said Brownell.  He said junkies are responsible for 70 per cent of bank robberies in Toronto.  Vancouver police estimate the average heroin addict commits $500 to $1,000 in theft each day to support his or her habit. 

Where did all the heroin come from? Part of the answer lies thousands of kilometres away, at ground zero of the heroin explosion - the Balkans. 

The fall of the Iron Curtain and a decade of wars in the Balkans reactivated the region's ancient smuggling routes for guns, oil, refugees, contraband cigarettes, Lebanese hash, Colombian cocaine and every other commodity under the sun. 

Heroin - worth 12 times its weight in gold - was by far the most profitable commodity of them all. 

Through the Balkans pass most of the opium and derived products - morphine base and heroin - of the infamous Golden Crescent.  This is the area made up of Afghanistan and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province that accounts for 57 per cent of the world's opium production.  The opium is smuggled into Turkey, where it is refined into heroin. 

From there, the drugs are moved up the Balkan route into Western Europe and off to North America.  Albania, just a short speedboat trip away from Italy across the Adriatic Sea, is one of the most convenient transit points to the West. 

In the decade since the Iron Curtain fell, the Balkan route has become one of the world's greatest heroin highways, the conduit for 80 per cent of Europe's heroin supply, according to police figures cited in a report last June from the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention. 

In the U.S., nearly 20 per cent of heroin seized in 1996 came from the Golden Crescent, Drug Enforcement Agency chief Donnie Marshall told Congress last year.  The portion had doubled in four years. 

And in Canada, 20 to 30 per cent of heroin comes from the Golden Crescent, estimated Det.  Sgt.  Brownell.  That number climbs to 50 per cent in Montreal and Toronto, according to Cpl.  Joe Tomeo, of the RCMP drug squad in Montreal. 

"The end of the Cold War had a fundamental impact on heroin trafficking," said historian McCoy.  "It used to skirt around the Iron Curtain and go through the Mediterranean.  Now, it's opened up with a vengeance in the Balkans.  It's essentially drugs moving westward and guns moving eastward."

The hub of the smuggling frenzy lay in Albania and the troubled corner of Serbia called Kosovo, 90-per-cent populated by Albanians.  Drug trafficking came to dominate this area so much that, in 1995, Jane's Intelligence Review dubbed Albania and Kosovo the Medellin of the Balkans. 

By 1995, tensions in Kosovo were at a boiling point between Albanians and Yugoslav forces.  The autonomy Kosovo had enjoyed in Yugloslavia for decades had been revoked in 1989, and after years of brutal repression by the Serb regime - including mass arrests, torture and killings - some Albanians were ready to turn to armed rebellion. 

On Feb.  11, 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army came out of hiding by setting off bombs at five Serb refugee camps in Kosovo.  The KLA needed arms and ammunition to fight for its goal of an independent Kosovo, and it turned to the same Albanian smuggling networks that already ran heroin and other underground goods. 

But war is expensive business, and the KLA also needed money - lots of it. 

Western governments, as much as they may have wanted to help, couldn't officially support armed separatists in a European country who assassinated police officers and civilians deemed to be traitors.  So the KLA also turned to heroin itself, according to narcotics experts in North America and Europe. 

After all, the trade already passed through the rebel group's own backyard.  And there wasn't a better money-maker around.  A kilogram of heroin that costs $1,000 in Thailand wholesales for $110,000 in Montreal, and has a street value of $800,000.  By contrast, a kilo of cocaine purchased for $1,000 in Latin America fetches a wholesale price of only $36,000 to $38,000 in Montreal and a street value of $80,000. 

Some of the KLA's funding did come from legitimate sources.  Donations poured in from the large and far-flung ethnic Albanian diaspora in Italy, Germany and Switzerland, each home to some 200,000 emigres from Albania and Kosovo, not to mention the 500,000 in the United States and 10,000 in Canada. 

Kosovar emigres were politely solicited for donations and, if that didn't work, KLA men "maybe used a little encouragement," as the U.S.  Defense Department source put it. 

"It was not necessary to threaten violence," said Naylor, the McGill economist.  "The threat of social or economic ostracization was enough. 

"In the tightly knit Albanian communities, not contributing means a business gets economically ostracized.  You'd lose all your business.  Children would get ostracized at school."

Faced with a withering Serb spring offensive this year, the embattled KLA called on Albanians living in Switzerland each to donate 2,000 deutschmarks a month (about $1,600 Cdn), according to a Le Monde Diplomatique report.  In France, Albanian immigrants were obliged to "donate" 50 per cent of their earnings. 

But such contributions were only part of the KLA's funding.  The German newspaper Berliner Zeitung, citing Western intelligence sources, reported last March that half of the $700 million raised by the KLA until that point had come from drug sales. 

The Criminal Underworld

In the early 1990s, thousands of young Kosovars left their homes, fleeing the economic and political troubles of the Balkans by heading west.  The vast majority of the immigrants were law-abiding.  Many were young men who found unskilled jobs and struggled to send savings back to their families in Europe's poorest region.  Virtually every family in the Kosovo capital Pristina came to depend on these so-called "Swiss funds."

But discrimination in the West and crackdowns on immigration prevented many from earning an honest living.  A small minority of Albanian emigres went underground. 

They hooked up with the Italian Mafia and Turkish crime bosses - known as "babas" - to run heroin and prostitution rackets.  The emigre Albanians kept up warm relations with Albanian smuggling tycoons back in Kosovo and Albania, who were slowly taking over the Balkan route from Turks. 

One of those who left Pristina in 1992 was Agim Gashi.  He settled in the northern Italian city of Milan, best known as the country's financial capital and Europe's fashion mecca. 

To police, Milan also has the dubious distinction of being the nerve centre for the world's $400-billion heroin trade and headquarters to the Italian Mafia's financial operations.  From here, heroin shipments flow out to the rest of Europe and North America, and narco-dollars flow back in, to be laundered through the city's many financial institutions and construction companies. 

Gashi quickly married an Italian woman and was soon living in high style.  He bought a luxurious villa in Milan's suburbs and came to own a chain of beauty parlors and perfume shops in London.  On the side, Gashi was described by police as the boss of the city's lucrative heroin and prostitution rackets. 

When Italian police arrested him in the fall of 1998 - along with 124 other drug traffickers - they said Gashi, then 35, had used some of his crime proceeds to buy Kalashnikov rifles, bazookas and hand grenades for the KLA. 

The KLA's alleged drug connection in Milan apparently hadn't escaped the notice of the U.S.  Drug Enforcement Agency.  In a March 15 report about Gashi in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the DEA's Rome office was quoted saying, "Turkish (drug) trafficking groups are using Albanians, Yugoslavs and elements of criminal groups from Kosovo to sell and distribute their heroin.  These groups are believed to be a part of the financial arm of the (KLA's) war against Serbia. 

"These Kosovars are financing their war through drug-trafficking activities, weapons trafficking and the trafficking of other illegal goods as well as contributions of their countrymen working abroad," the DEA told the newspaper. 

The DEA office in Rome refused a request for an interview for this article. 

With one foot planted in Western Europe and the other in the Balkans, Albanian crime bosses shot up the ladder of Europe's criminal underworld. 

Naylor, the McGill economist, shed light on the Albanian underworld in his recent book Patriots and Profiteers: On Economic Warfare, Embargo Busting and State-Sponsored Crime. 

"With their close family trust, underground financial institutions and language beyond the comprehension of law-enforcement agencies, the Kosovars were ideally placed to run heroin," Naylor wrote. 

Strengthened by their Mafia ties and the revival of the Balkan route, Albanian emigres emerged as the most powerful drug traffickers in Western Europe by the mid-1990s. 

So far, European police haven't had much luck reining in the Albanian underworld. 

Not long after the mass arrests in Milan last fall, the city was stunned by nine murders tied to Albanian organized crime in the first nine days of January this year.  The Italian government deployed an extra 800 police and 90 patrol cars to crack down on Albanian crime networks, but that wasn't enough to prevent yet another rise in cross-Adriatic smuggling after hostilities ended in Kosovo this summer. 

An Aug.  15 report by Agence France Presse said smugglers in Balkans contraband are becoming bold enough to move their goods in convoys of up to a dozen armoured 4x4 trucks with bullet-proof glass and puncture-proof tires.  The trucks have been used to run Italian police vehicles off the road.  The Italian Finance Ministry estimated it had lost $3 billion in taxes to the illegal cigarette trade alone. 

Europeans paid for the flourishing smuggling of contraband into and out of the Balkans in other ways, too. 

Greece was reeling from a rise in heroin consumption in the 1990s.  A chief of the Athens drug squad told the London Guardian in November 1998 that "around 95 per cent of the hashish and 75 per cent of the heroin entering this country comes from Albania.  The Albanians are now the biggest drug traffickers in Europe after the Turks."

At Hungary's borders, heroin seizures tripled in 1998 over the previous year.  Hungarian police believe Kosovo Albanians control 80 per cent of the heroin market in Budapest, the capital, the Paris newspaper Liberation reported last May. 

The same story played out across Europe - record heroin seizures coinciding with the ascent of Albanian crime gangs. 

Europe was not along in feeling the impacts of the heroin-smuggling frenzy.  Heroin addiction suddenly became a massive problem back in the Golden Crescent, too.  According to UN figures, Pakistan, for years the main thoroughway for Afghanistan's heroin, went from having a negligible number of heroin addicts in the early 1980s to having 1.5 to 2 million by the end of the '90s. 

In Canada and the U.S., according to the U.S.  Defense Department official who requested anonymity, authorities quietly launched a surveillance campaign of Albanian emigres in the past year because they were afraid the war in Kosovo would have a "spillover effect" - more drug sales. 

"There was considerable monitoring," he said.  "The spillover effect was something people were concerned about, particularly because of our knowledge that the linkage between guns and drugs was becoming closer.  There were some instances where the antenna went up regarding some Albanians who arrived here."

"Leery" Of Commenting

In Europe, narcotics experts warned explicitly of a Kosovar drugs-for-guns connection five years ago. 

"Heroin shipment and marketing networks are taking root among ethnic Albanian communities in Albania, Macedonia and the Kosovo province of Serbia, in order to finance large purchases of weapons destined not only for the current conflict in Bosnia but also for the brewing war in Kosovo," the Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, a Paris-based institute that advises European police forces, said in a June 1994 bulletin. 

The OGD also said U.S.  priorities in the Balkans "dictate turning a blind eye to a drug trade that finances the arming of Kosovo Albanians," who were integral to the American strategy of putting "a brake on Serbian expansion."

U.S.  government documents have also warned of a growing Kosovar connection to trafficking in heroin and arms for several years. 

The DEA's 1996 National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee report, for one, named Albanian drug traffickers from Kosovo as "second only to Turkish groups as the predominant heroin smugglers along the Balkan Route."

The report continued: "Kosovan traffickers were noted for their use of violence and for their involvement in international weapons trafficking.  There is increasing evidence that ethnic criminals from the Balkans are engaged in criminal activities in the United States."

The U.S.  State Department, for its part, noted the importance of the country of Albania in drug smuggling in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued last February.  "Organized crime is making increased use of Albania as a transit point for drugs being smuggled to Western Europe, due to the strategic location of the country and the continued weakness of its police and judicial systems," said the report. 

In fact, Albania's corruption proved ideal for the KLA's purposes.  The lawless environment allowed the rebel group to set up training bases and smuggle whatever it wanted - guns in, drugs out. 

But not everyone in the KLA was comfortable with what the group was doing in Albania, according to a June 25 story in the New York Times. 

"The close relationship between (KLA leader Hashim) Thaši and the Tirana government, which has a reputation for corruption and has been linked by Western diplomats to drug trafficking, is one of the factors that disillusioned many former (KLA) fighters who were interviewed in Germany, Switzerland and Austria," said the report. 

The KLA's relations with the Albanian regime were overseen by a shadowy figure named Xhavit Haliti.  One of the group's founders, he was the rebels' head fundraiser.  Now he is a top lieutenant to Thaši and a member of the advisory council that assists the UN administration in Kosovo. 

He is also the provisional Kosovo government's ambassador to Albania, where he was said by ethnic Albanian and Western observers to have ties to the underworld, the London Guardian reported Sept.  3. 

He has also collaborated with Albanian secret police agents to silence dissenters in Kosovo, according to current and former KLA commanders and Western diplomats cited in the New York Times report of June 25.  The London Guardian also mentioned ties to Albania's secret police: it said the KLA's own spy service had been "aided" by Albanian and U.S.  intelligence services. 

Michael Levine, a 25-year veteran of the DEA who left in 1990, said he believes there is no question that U.S.  intelligence knew about the KLA's drug ties. 

"They (the CIA) protected them (the KLA) in every way they could.  As long as the CIA is protecting the KLA, you've got major drug pipelines protected from any police investigation," said Levine, who teaches undercover tactics and informer handling to U.S.  and Canadian police forces, including the RCMP. 

"The evidence is irrefutable," he said, explaining that his information comes from "sources inside the DEA."

Canadian and U.S.  government officials, however, either said they have no information on the issue or refused to comment. 

Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Valerie Nofte said the Canadian government has no knowledge of a connection between the KLA and drugs.  "No, we are not aware (of a connection)," she said. 

Patrick Hardick, an RCMP spokesman in Ottawa, said he couldn't comment: "The RCMP is really leery politically on giving out information of that sort - on international drug trafficking or anything of that sort.  Unfortunately, they don't like cooperating with such studies."

The head of the U.S.  State Department's Albania desk, Andrew Hyde, also wouldn't comment on KLA drug ties.  "I'd rather not say," he said.  "People make a lot of allegations in this part of the world (the Balkans)."

A Freedom of Information request was filed with the DEA for documents discussing Albanian organized crime or the KLA's links to drugs.  The agency responded in a letter it had no such records - despite the fact that the DEA's own web site offers its 1996 National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee report, a document that discusses Albanian organized crime. 

Benny Mangor, the DEA's attache in Canada, said American police don't think Albanian or KLA involvement in the drug trade is a priority.  "It hasn't raised a blip from a U.S.  law-enforcement perspective.  I'm not going to dispute it might be happening.  Is this a great concern at this time? No, it is not."

Albanian community representatives, for their part, hotly denied that the KLA got money from drug sales. 

Joseph DioGuardi, a former U.S.  Congressman who heads the Albanian American Civic League, said the reports of a KLA drug connection are part of a smear campaign by the "Serb propaganda machine." Amilda Dymi, spokeswoman for the New York-based Kosova Office, which represents Kosovo's provisional government, said, "I'm aware of the fact that they have continuously accused the KLA of using dirty money, drug money.  But I don't think that's the case.  The KLA is open about its accounts."

War And Heroin Linked

The KLA's apparent heroin connection is part of an old pattern of Western governments furthering strategic interests by backing rebels connected to drugs, often in the world's poorest countries, narcotics experts say. 

McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin, said the Afghan mujahideen rebels were one of the first U.S.-backed rebel groups to get into the heroin trade in a big way.  The anti-communist mujahideen were backed by the U.S.  in their opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  They started exporting massive amounts of opium to raise money, with the knowledge and protection of the CIA and Pakistani intelligence, according to McCoy. 

"That produced a massive traffic in the '80s to Europe and the U.S.," he said. 

Another U.S.-backed rebel army, the Nicaraguan contras, raised money for its war against the leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s by flooding U.S.  cities with crack - all with the knowledge and assistance of the CIA and the DEA, according to the book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb.  Webb's allegations were initially denied by the CIA, but a CIA inspector-general's report in October 1998 revealed that 58 contras were linked to drug allegations. 

U.S.  intelligence officers must operate in the same circles as criminals in order to do their jobs, said Harry E.  Soyster, a retired lieutenant-general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  "I think if they're not operating in those circles, we shouldn't pay them."

The DIA is the intelligence arm of the U.S.  Defense Department, and has twice the employees of the FBI and DEA combined. 

"If you deal with people who feed pigs, you're going to have to stand around where it smells.  If you think you can have everybody in a nice office in Washington and find out what's going on in the world, that ain't the way the world is," said Soyster, who is now vice-president of a military consulting firm with contracts in the Balkans. 

Sgt.  Roy Bergerman, an RCMP intelligence officer in Vancouver who specializes in drugs and organized crime, said it can be awkward for a police officer to learn that officials in his or her own government have supported groups linked to drugs.  "Here you've got a so-called colleague, and they're working at cross-purposes," he said. 

Bergerman said the RCMP has no information on the KLA, but "any time you get a war you get heroin.  That's the fastest way to finance your weapons," he said.  "In Afghanistan, the Americans had their fingers caught in the cookie jar.  The CIA was giving tacit approval to the drug trade.  They were doing it in Asia when the Vietnam War was going on.  That's in the public record.  Also with the contras."

The U.S.  Defense Department official who requested anonymity went one step further, saying that drugs - especially heroin - have joined guns as an indispensable ingredient of post-Cold War warfare. 

"It's so pervasive it's global.  The KLA is just one case afflicting Canada and the U.S.  They are certainly not the only group engaged in this," he said.  "When people need money, they tend to market things that pay off big.  There's one market that pays off big more than any other, and that's drugs."

The official said the era of states slugging it out in conventional wars is coming to an end, and predicted that drug-financed guerrilla warfare will be the primary type of conflict in the 21st century. 

"It's a story of the diminishing role of the state and the changing role of warfare," he said.  "It isn't a story just about the Albanians.  That's a micro-issue that pales in comparison with why drugs and guns have been linked around the world."

Nor does the drug connection always come to an end when the conflicts are over, said McCoy.  In fact, the reliance of the former belligerents on drug profits can itself become an addiction, growing stronger at the war's end. 

War zones have to be rebuilt, usually at enormous expense.  Returning refugees have to be reintegrated, despite an often-comatose economy.  Drugs, as one of the world's most lucrative commodities, are often one of the only sources of financing available to help war-torn societies get back on their feet, said McCoy.  A lawless environment can encourage drug trafficking even more. 

"Once the covert operations are over, paradoxically the involvement of our covert-action allies with the drug trade usually expands," said McCoy. 

Gordon Bardos, a professor at Columbia University who specializes in the Balkans, said the same pattern is emerging in Kosovo.  Much of Kosovo and neighbouring Albania remain "lawless country," despite the efforts of the UN administration, he said.  Many relief agencies have pulled out because it's too dangerous. 

"This is an ideal situation for smuggling groups to do business.  All hell has broken loose in Kosovo now.  Criminal gangs in Albania have been able to expand operations," said Bardos. 

The result: The West's ongoing heroin craze may be providing the kind of financial relief for Kosovo that international agencies can't afford. 

Michel Koutouzis, a Balkans expert at the Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, said drug sales that once funded an armed rebellion against the Serbs are now financing sorely needed public-works projects in Kosovo. 

"It's true that in Kosovo they used money from drugs to buy arms.  But also for roads, electricity lines and so on," said Koutouzis.  "When the objective is peace, (drugs are used to) finance peace.  When the objective is war, they finance war."