Heroin Trade and Illegal Immigration in Southeastern Europe

A Bulgarian customs officer tests one of 225 packages of high-purity heroin found at the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing with Turkey on July 11, 2002. (Photo: Reuters, Corbis)

The Heroin Balkan Route

Interpol is quite specific in identifying the real importance of Southeastern Europe in the present day European narcotics market. According its research, two primary routes are used to smuggle heroin: the Balkan Route, which runs through South Eastern Europe, and the Silk Route, which runs through Central Asia.

The Balkan Route is divided into three sub-routes: The southern route runs through Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy. Further, there is the central route that runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and into either Italy or Austria. Lastly there is the northern route that runs from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany. Large quantities of heroin are destined for either the Netherlands or the United Kingdom and from there they are distributed in neighboring markets such as Ireland or Scandinavia. The anchor point for the Balkan Route is Turkey, which remains a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets, mainly due to geographical reasons.

Historically, the Balkan route is the main overland connection between Asia and Europe. Every year this route is taken by about 2 million lorries, 300,000 coaches and 6 million cars, without counting the domestic motorway traffic. The most common way to transport heroin is in relatively small quantities of 10 to 150 kilos hidden in a lorry. Considering the scale of legitimate commercial trade on the Balkan route, combined with the fact that it takes some hours to a whole day to search a lorry, it is virtually impossible to counteract these activities through ordinary police and customs methods. For example, it is estimated that roughly only one out of 50 lorries is actually checked in the borders of most Southeastern European countries.

Hot spots of action

The customs post of Gurbulak in the province of Agri, the first Turkish village after crossing the border with Iran, is the main passage used by traffickers, as it lies on the AH1 highway, the huge thoroughfare linking the Far East to Turkey, and then, through the E80 highway, from Turkey to Bulgaria and to Europe. According to the Italian-based security researchers of the FLARE Network, the Gurbulak pass is crossed daily by thousands of vehicles, including about 20,000 trucks, the vehicles used most in heroin transportation. Moreover, the semi-autonomous Kurdish tribes residing in the tri-border region of Turkey-Iran-Iraq tend to collect dues for all illicit shipments being made there—either narcotics, fuel or people's smuggling—by facilitating such transport. In addition, local corrupt public officials work their way through the system to ensure a steady flow of heroin and collect commissions as an exchange.

Once the large shipments enter the Turkish territory coming mostly from Afghanistan, via Iran, they head towards the metropolitan region of Istanbul, an immense urban sprawl of more than 15 million people and the historical junction between Europe and Asia and between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

The illegal product is unloaded in secret in warehouses, and then it is routed towards Europe. It is estimated that 37 percent of all Afghan heroin, or 140 metric tons (mt), departs Afghanistan along the so-called Balkan route, to meet demand of around 85 mt per year. Most of the heroin interdicted in the world is seized along this route. Between them, Iran and Turkey were responsible for more than half of all heroin seized globally in 2008.

Once the shipments are stored in the Istanbul region, they are then re-exported either towards Ukraine and the port of Odessa, with the crucial assistance of mostly Ukrainian and Georgian criminal gangs, or towards Greece and/or Bulgaria via land routes using as a transport hub the city of Edirne and the help of local criminals. Smaller quantities travel via tourist boats to the Greek Aegean islands and lastly by air, from Atatürk International Airport, connected with the main European airports.

The persons responsible for the journey from Iranian borders up to the Balkans are the Turkish organized kingpins, known locally as "Babas," which means father, similar to "El Padron" figures in Latin America. The Babas are mostly based in the Anatolian high plains of Turkey and have access to a vast number of subordinates who work full time with them, either as drivers, logistics suppliers, warehouse owners, money laundering facilitators or other professions. News reports have estimated that about 25,000 people are full-time occupied in this illicit trade in the country and have a network reaching hundreds of cities and villages along the "heroin route."

Iran and Turkey do not have a visa regime between them, and border controls are in many cases lax, thus enabling a rather steady flow of heroin without probabilities of strategic interruptions. Other factors that play a crucial role are the Kurdish populations in the tri-border area between Turkey-Iraq-Iran that facilitate narcotics contraband in order to raise capital, and the widespread public-sector corruption in the Balkan countries that permits heroin smugglers to penetrate to an extent local security institutions. Furthermore, the presence of strong and transnationally connected criminal networks, such as the Italian Ndrangheta; the Montenegro clans; Turkish drug kingpins; Russian, Ukrainian and Caucasian criminal cells; and Serbian narcotics groups, should not be overlooked.

Wider implications

Narcotics contraband is also indirectly related to illegal immigration and weapons smuggling, therefore making it a multilevel illegal industry, one that is high in revenue and also linked to corrupted officials in these illicit sectors. It is not an issue that can be singled out by the rest of organized crime activities. Also it is important to note that illegal organized prostitution rings in the Balkans are directly related to narcotics, since police investigation in several countries have revealed over the years that the drug dealers first raise capital by illegal prostitution before venturing into narcotics trade, which is even more profitable. Rarely does a group of people become drug dealers (in a systematic, significant and organized manner) without being involved in either prostitution or goods smuggling previously.

On a wider level, it should be noted that narcotics contraband has international implications. For instance, in December 2009 the U.N. drugs and crime tsar Antonio Maria Costa claimed that illegal drug money saved the banking industry from collapse. He claimed he had seen evidence that the proceeds of organized crime were "the only liquid investment capital" available to some banks on the brink of collapse. Thus, the Balkan heroin route, apart from a multi-billion-dollar illicit trade path, is also one generating profits indirectly to corporations thriving in the legal market, such as banks, making the whole issue of combating drug trade an extremely complicated problem that cannot be addressed by conventional measures.

The prospects don't look especially optimistic. The current financial crisis and the widespread corruption in the Balkans will ensure that there is going to be plenty of "human capital" readily available to "invest" into narcotics smuggling. Narcotics are a lure for criminals because they are fast moving objects with extremely high yield and return on investment.

Illegal immigration

The basic human trafficking principle in Southeastern Europe is, you enter from Iran, you exit from Greece. Trafficking people to Europe via Turkey is based on a Ford-type assembly line, says the Turkish security specialist and academic Professor Icduygu, and it involves small groups of traffickers (the so-called kacakcilar), each of whom ensures the passage of migrants from one border to the other, from one city to the next. In addition, the Greek police and its organized crime analysis directory have in the recent past analyzed the multitude of human trafficking networks operating in the country and regionally and concluded that all of them are interrelated through several persons or small groups that operate as information hubs and facilitate trafficking. In turn, those people are related to prominent figures in several countries, and thus they are able to influence political or economic spheres and in many cases evade the law.

In 2011 the Greek press leaked a secret report by the Greek intelligence service that identified a network of people connected to the illegal immigration industry who even financed pro-immigration NGOs in order to manipulate public opinion into accepting the mass introduction of illegal immigrants in the country. The report mentioned a web of illicit monetary transactions aimed to control specific sectors of the local economy and penetrating stratums of the society so as to gain clear political influence. In short, the illegal immigration industry in Southeastern Europe is primarily based on an extensive web of interpersonal relations between individuals involved in transport, logistics and real estate, along with prominent smugglers of narcotics and weapons who are also involved in the mass immigration of undocumented aliens.

Since 2008, Greece has been the main entrance point for illegal immigrants from Asia into the European Union. The human traffickers have also a division of labor and pay special attention to two sectors: document forging and housing. The first sector is a booming illicit market in Southeastern Europe whereby fake passports and IDs change hands on an hourly basis for significant amounts of money. Routinely tourists are snatched not for the value of their possessions, but mostly for the passports they carry, who are then forged and sold to bidders.

The housing market is also a hugely profitable one, since hundreds of thousands of immigrants are stashed in decaying building in several Balkans countries and pay their accommodation per head on a per diem case to the persons renting the apartments, who mostly belong to the traffickers groups or are related to them as acquaintances. A 40 square-meter apartment in a 50-year-old decaying building in the center of Athens, whose rent would not be more than 100 to 150 euros per month—if rented to one person—generates 100 euros per day when rented by traffickers to a group of 20 immigrants each paying 5 euros per day. One billion dollars is the estimated income for illegal immigrant trafficking just in the Greek-Turkish borders for 2010 alone by calculating the capital they paid for their "journey." More income is generated by the exploitation of immigrants after their entry in the target country. That includes their housing needs and most importantly their use as a conduit of illegal actions, such as narcotics dealers, undocumented street vendors and similar activities.

Greece as a regional epicenter

Approximately 400,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants from Asian and African states are in Greece currently, and most of them want to move to Northern Europe. If Bulgaria and Romania enter the Schengen free movement in the E.U. agreement, huge traffic of these people is expected in the Greek-Bulgarian borders. Already attempts by traffickers to test the border control system in these two countries has been made. In Serbia the local authorities unofficially estimate that 20,000 people, mostly of Afghani and Pakistani origin, have been "trapped" in the territory, not allowed to move towards Western Europe and unwilling to repatriate back. The issue is steadily becoming a societal one for the whole of the Balkans.

Over the past three years, Greece, especially Athens, has become the coordinating center for the transporting of Asian illegal immigrants from the Balkans to Europe. Sophisticated methods of operations are used by the criminal networks. Central European nationals, such as Slovakians or Hungarians, act as "intermediates" for criminal groups, rent houses in Athens or shops, and then proceed to recruit Asians who want to be transferred with the collaboration mostly of Greek and Albanian criminals.

The Central Europeans belong to Schengen countries, which is a crucial point. Also, since they are not at the moment well known to the authorities of the Southeastern European countries, they have more room to move and cross borders without fearing surveillance. In many cases young women from those countries marry (white marriages) in order to create legal papers for Nigerians, Iranians and Pakistanis especially, who pay 4,000 to 8,000 euros each.

Since 2010, diplomatic missions by Central European countries have alerted the Greek authorities of the aforementioned and pointed out well-coordinated criminal networks that have even taken control of local "missionary churches" that, although they seem to have no followers, are able to issue hundreds of marital documents per year to persons of specific nationalities and for the reasons explained previously. It can be safely assumed that the vast majority of marriages being made in Greece and other Balkan countries over the past few years between Asian and African immigrants and European citizens have been for the purposes of illegal immigration to Europe.


The issues of heroin trade and illegal immigration in Southeastern Europe have alarmed both local and international authorities, such as Interpol and Europol but also the U.S. DEA, U.K. SOCA and various other security agencies. Because of the complicated nature of the issues and the difficulty of cooperation between so many countries, no authority has been able to contain effectively the problems at hand. Several initiatives include the creation of joint police teams for analysis work and the establishment of periodic international security forums. Little, though, has been done on a political level, and little attention has been paid from a holistic perspective, understanding that narcotics, weapons, prostitution and illegal immigration markets are all related. Judicial, security, intelligence, police, military and social agencies have to combine efforts.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Ioannis Michaletos.