Traffic, Tirana-style

A top law-enforcement official has been charged in connection with an ambitious plan to turn this once stalwart communist country into a European hub for trafficking in heroin and cocaine. Authorities, who made several important arrests in February after an exhaustive two-year investigation, describe the makings of a major drug cartel, with connections in Colombia, Spain, Italy, and Greece.

The cartel was preparing to set up a processing center for cocaine and other drugs on the outskirts of Tirana, the capital. It already had annual cash flow of $400 million, according to reports.

Sokol Kociu, the chief investigator in the Prosecutor General’s Office, was arrested on Feb. 18 and charged in connection with the alleged drug operation. His accomplices, according to police, include Frederik Durda and Arben Berballa, two Albanian businessmen arrested in early February.

The investigation has caused a sensation in Albania, with new twists in the scandal reported daily. “The people on the street have turned into curious and astounded spectators of this Albanian tragicomedy, where the star roles are played by administration officials,” Anila Rama writes in the leftist Koha Jonë, the country’s biggest daily (Feb. 23).

Writing in the opposition Rilindja Demokratike (Feb. 23), Astrit Patozi commented: “An odd silence has seized the most talkative institutions of the state and theprotagonists of the daily press conferences. In fact, this quiet face is the false silence that usually precedes a storm. Almost all state mechanisms are affected by these scandals, and most of them are trying to evade the consequences.”

The Socialist Party’s Zëri i Popullit quoted the head of the Ministry of Public Order, Ilir Gjoni, as saying that no ministry employee was involved in the scandal (Feb. 28). The daily added, however: “Minister Gjoni did not exclude the possibility of involvement by rank-and-file police officers.”

The authorities’ silence has raised suspicions about the extent of the scandal. Kociu has said that his former ally, Prosecutor General Arben Rakipi, favored the brother of one of the traffickers, awarding him a $1-million contract for a computer network in his office. “Such accusations were accompanied by published photos of the Kociu, Rakipi, and Berballa families partying in Greece,” wrote Ferdinand Dervishi, a reporter for the right-wing magazine Klan (Feb. 26).

Mustafa Nano, in his Feb. 23 column in the centrist Shekulli, commented: “It is not yet clear why there is no public statement from the government....It is also unclear why Sali Berisha, chairman of the biggest opposition party, is not taking advantage of this incident.”