Three high-ranking police officers in Albania face charges of drug trafficking, in a case with deeper political significance for a member of NATO and EU membership aspirations.

Minister Tahiri and the Habilaj cousins

In November 2017 the Albanian prosecutor general issued arrest warrants for three former police directors: Sokol Bode, Jaeld Cela, and Gjergji Kohila. They are accused of drugs trafficking. All three regional officers were appointed by the former Minister of Interior, SaimirTahiri.

The arrest did not happen and the three officers evaded arrest. Last week, the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, offered reassurances of a full investigation. “Everyone involved in the investigation will be scrutinized,” Rama said. But, there are reasons to doubt the integrity of any future investigation as the challenge at hand appears systemic.

The link of the three career officers with a career politicians is not in-itself incriminating, except Italian authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Tahiri in October. The Italian police has amassed incriminating evidence that establishes a direct link between the former minister and Member of Parliament for the ruling Socialist Party with drug trafficking.

Drug dealing appears to be a family business.

Mr. Tahiri’s cousins, Moisi and Florian Habilaj, have been apparently exporting marijuana and assault rifles to Sicily, in association with local criminal groups. Mr. Tahiri initially denied any association with his cousins. But, the so-called “Habilaj dossier” put together by Italian investigators includes intercepted communication in which the former minister discusses “business” with his cousins.

The question arising is whether this is a case of a single corrupt politicians or the tip of the iceberg for a political system that offers political protection to criminal networks for a price. There is evidence of the latter case. In fact, there are at least three reasons to suggest there is political responsibility if not association between the ruling party, members of government, and drug smugglers.

Three direct links to the government

The first is that although Albanian police has requested lifting Tahiri’s parliamentary immunity, the ruling Socialist Party did not dare to allow his arrest and prosecution. Sources from both the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition have told New Europe that Tahiri is in effect blackmailing the government. The suggestion that he could “speak” begs the question what does he know.

Earlier this month, Albanian police arrested a 25-year old self-pronounced businessman, Orest Sota, finding €863,000 in his car and two boat licenses under the name of former Minister Saimir Tahiri. Albanian media speculate that this sum might have been escape money.

The second reason to suggest there is a link between the government and drug smuggling is the failure of radar systems to disrupt trade from Albania to Italy and Greece. Italian investigators have intercepted communication between Tahiri and the three police officers that discuss how radar systems could “fail” to stop specific vessels.

Given that the radar system falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, the question now becomes whether another Minister of Defense, Mimi Kodheli, is also implicated in the cover up, directly, or by failing to intervene. The former member of cabinet has not been prosecuted.

The failure to prosecute or to “follow the money” is third and most significant challenge for Albania.

The implication of two members of the previous Edi Rama cabinet with drug trafficking suggests a systemic challenge. Government sources in Athens suggest that the biggest drug lord of Albania, Klement Balili, wanted by the Greek police, has been evading arrest with significant political support.

Last week, the Greek police intercepted a load of 1,6 tons of cannabis linked to the drug lord, probably transiting via Greece to Turkey. The police also arrested a 63-year old Greek businessman whom investigators link to the Balili network which, authorities believe, exports cannabis from Albania and imports and distributes heroine from Turkey.

In February 2017, the head of the OSCE in Albania, Bernd Borchard, was on the record claiming that €2bn of drug money could buy significant political influence in Albania. The Habilaj brothers alone are estimated to have had a turnover of €300 million, which apparently secured influence if not association with government agencies.

What members of the Albanian Parliament are willing to say behind closed doors, the US Ambassador to the OSCE, Harry Kaiman, has said on the record. From Vienna, he made clear that Tahiri is linked to drug trafficking and that this case suggests that “corruption and criminality continue to remain obstacles to Albania’s development.”