Valentina recalls the hours she spent at the police station in 2017 as the worst in her life.
Under interrogation, her blood pressure rising, the 72 year-old suffered a heart attack.
“I couldn’t even raise my head to look the police chief in the eye”, Valentina [not her real name] told BIRN. “He kept repeating: ‘Tell the truth; you’ll be released and your son will be charged.’”
Valentina cuts an unlikely criminal, yet, according to data from Albania’s General Prosecutor’s Office, she is one of 8,328 Albanians prosecuted for cultivating or trafficking cannabis between 2013 and 2019 under a police crackdown to break the back of what had become a major illegal industry in the Balkan country.
Some 3,739 were convicted, including Valentina, but her brush with the law hasn’t stopped her. Valentina’s persistence is testimony to the deep roots of cannabis cultivation in rural regions of Albania, where poverty is rife and cannabis is seen as a financial lifeline. Police collusion also remains common. Experts warn it will take more than police raids and prosecutions to eradicate the phenomenon.“Dealing with this issue in a sustainable way will not only require a law enforcement response and steps to tackle corruption”, said Kristina Amerhauser, an analyst with the Global Initiative Against Organised Crime.“It also needs a more strategic development approach, and measures to reduce the vulnerabilities that drive and enable certain communities to grow cannabis.”
“Higher quality, more expensive”
Large-scale cannabis cultivation in Albania dates to the early 1990s, not long after the fall of the country’s communist dictatorship, when the parlous state of the Albanian economy led to widespread civil unrest in 1997.
Penetrated by ever more powerful criminal gangs, the industry reached a peak in 2016, when Albania was one of the biggest producers in the world.
“For years, Albania has been considered the largest producer of outdoor-grown cannabis in Europe and the geographic position of Albania – its proximity to Greece and Italy – has stimulated the cultivation of cannabis over the years”, said Amerhauser.
With the aid of Italian aerial reconnaissance flights between 2013 and 2019, authorities identified 613 hectares of land planted with cannabis.
For a long time, cultivation was concentrated in and around the southern village of Lazarat, once known as “Europe’s cannabis capital”, until a massive police raid in 2014 dispersed production to other parts of the country.
A second crackdown in 2017 made inroads, but failed to eradicate production, again pushing it to even more remote areas and helping drive up prices.
The price of a kilo of cannabis hit 1,500 euros in 2020, according to a study by the Global Initiative Against Organised Crime, compared to 300-350 euros in 2016.
“Lately, we have noticed a trend towards more indoor cultivation of higher quality and more expensive cannabis, both in Albania and by Albanians abroad, closer to lucrative markets”, said Amerhauser. “And there is growing competition for cannabis dealers as more cannabis is being produced in other countries in the western Balkans.”
No need to hide
It was the 2017 crackdown that landed Valentina in the police station in the southern coastal region of Vlora.
A mother of four sons, three of whom lived abroad, Valentina, her son, friends and relatives began growing cannabis in 2000.
“In those days, the police were more part of it, rather than enemies”, she said.
At harvest time, the family would hire women from the village for between eight and 12 euros a day over a period of six to eight months.
“It was planted openly; everybody worked, everybody made money”, Valentina said. “There weren’t many expenses because you didn’t have to hide.”
Then in 2017 Italian police arrested two of her sons for drug trafficking. Tipped off by their Italian counterparts, it did not take long for Albanian police to turn up in Valentina’s village looking for the one son still living there. They seized a large amount of cannabis in the house.
“We were able to warn our son and tell him to not come”, said Valentina. She recalled an officer asking, “whose weed is this, grandma”. Valentina said it was hers. Her son escaped.
Hospitalised after her heart attack at the police station, Valentina was eventually given a suspended prison sentence of three years and eight months. Staying out of jail did not come cheap, however.
“The lawyer wanted money, the judge wanted money; without the proceeds of the drugs this wouldn’t be possible”, Valentina said. “We spent 11 million lek [almost 90,000 euros under current exchange rates] and I was left with the shame and could not bear to go outside my house.”
Women hired for manual labour
The tacit support or complicity of police, as well as corruption in the judicial system, helped the industry thrive.
Amerhauser said sometimes it enjoyed political support too.
“At different times in the past, the government has taken robust steps to crack down on cannabis cultivation and trafficking”, Amerhauser told BIRN. “But at other times, politicians at different levels of government have either turned a blind eye to the problem or even allegedly profited from it.”
Cannabis consumption in the western Balkans and Europe is constantly growing. But at the grassroots, the way of life is not necessarily an easy one.
“Planting, guarding, picking and producing cannabis is not such a glamourous life”, said Amerhauser. “Let’s also not forget that many people doing the tough manual labour are women, as well as people from marginalised communities.”
Fifty year-old Arta [not her real name] is among them. Living in a village in the Vlora region, Arta said she started working in the cannabis fields in 1996-97 along many other women in her village hired to trim cannabis plants. A day rate of roughly 17 euros was a lot at the time, she said.
“There are women who are currently in prison and others who are being prosecuted”, she told BIRN. “I have been lucky and have not suffered any consequences.”
A mother of three, Arta described cannabis trimming as delicate work carried out with small scissors similar to those used to cut yarn.
“It’s not a difficult process for women”, she said. “There also men who do this job very well, but there are not too many of them.”
In 2015, Arta tried to strike out on her own, planting a cannabis plot on her land. But the police destroyed it. “I didn’t have an arrangement with the state”, she said.
More recently, the work of processing has been moved away from prying eyes in the villages.
“They take us to the mountains, to the forest, depending on where they build the hut”, Arta said. “It is out of the question to do this work near residential areas anymore.”
Fast boats, easy money
Experts say various factors contribute to the endurance of cannabis cultivation in Albania – socio-economic vulnerability, the promise of quick and easy profits and the fact that for some young Albanians, criminals flaunting the trappings of wealth and power have become role models.
Renato, a drug trafficker from Vlora, said he started out poor, but he progressed.
“My speedboat is scary”, Renato [not his real name] told BIRN. “It has three engines and I have built it like that because I don’t like surprises. I like adventures with adrenaline and euros.”
Renato owns a small fleet of dinghies which he bought ostensibly for tourists and then modified for illegal drug runs across the waters of the Adriatic.
According to him, it costs 250 to 300 euros per kilo to smuggle cannabis to Italy. For a shipment of 1,000 kilograms, Renato pays the driver of the speedboat 25,000-30,000 euros and his or her helper 5,000-10,000 euros. The prices differ if the destination is Malta or Turkey.
Once on the Italian coast, the cannabis increases in value to between 1,500 and 1,800 euros, Renato said, or 2,200-2,500 once it is in Rome or another major city.
On the day he spoke to BIRN, Renato said three of his smugglers were due in an Italian court after being caught three months earlier by police on the coast at Lecce.
But, he said, “when work goes well, money flows, there is welfare, happiness.”
“At the moment there’s not much cultivation in Albania, not in large quantities, so the value has increased, but not to its maximum.”
Describing the trip, Renato said his boats tend to set off when the sea is rough and it is harder for radar to detect them. When the sea is calm, he said, they sail in “minimo” – at minimum speed – to keep the wake down, at least until they leave Albanian waters. The trip takes up to three hours, provided they are not intercepted by the Guardia di Finanza.
Renato said he used to smuggle his own cannabis, transporting it by SUV from the villages around Vlora to the Vjosa River estuary, where he and his crew would work through the night to press the drugs. They would leave their mobile phones wrapped in aluminium foil in a car parked at a distance.
“When I made my first trip, I only had an old compass and the experience of an old boatman”, he recalled. “I knew neither the shores nor the rules of smuggling.”
“We can’t make a living otherwise”
Today, Renato smuggles only cannabis produced by others, using untraceable smart phones to exchange coordinates and liaise with associates on the Italian coast who keep a look out for police.
“But just as our way of smuggling has become more sophisticated, the police have not lagged behind in technology”, he said, citing the use of drones by Italian police.
According to Renato, the cardinal rule is to get the drugs onto the market.
“For us, a trip gone bad is not when people are caught”, he said. “A trip gone bad is when the drugs are caught, because the drugs on the market also get people out of prison.”
In her village in Vlora, Valentina has some 7,000 to 8,000 cannabis plants in the ground, this time working with her daughter-in-law.
“We were involved in agriculture all our lives”, said Valentina, who worked on a collective farm under communism. “We can’t make a living otherwise.”