Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Gone To Pot

"We are afraid that if we enter [the village] and respond to the shooting, we may cause casualties."
"Moreover, [they] have all the weapons and equipment we have."
Special Police officer, Lazarat, Albania

"Time is ogver for the links of the world of crime in Lazarat with parliament, with politics, with those they exploited until yesterday."
"What you are seeing today is the best example of our determination to install the rule of law in every corner of Albania."
Albanian Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri

Albania has a new socialist government. And it continues to seek membership in the 28-country European Union. Its application for candidate member status has been turned down so far, on three occasions. The stumbling block? Organized crime and corruption. There are plenty of illegal weapons in the country. An uprising in 1997 led to looting of military installations. Most of the weapons have never been found.

The sprawling settlement surrounded by high hills of the town of Lazarat with its population of five thousand, has had beneficial links to top leaders in the Democratic party of Albania. It had been in power until last year when elections led it to defeat. But in the time that politicians and criminals had found a common purpose, the town was transformed from a farming community to become Europe's largest illegal marijuana producer.

Plants were being openly cultivated in fields and gardens, and have been, for the last ten years. The town is said to have produced about 900 tonnes of cannabis annually with a value of over $6.1-billion, representing just under half of the country's gross domestic product. But it's a product that isn't taxed because it takes place beyond the eye of the law.

Expensive homes have been built throughout the village 230 kilometres distant from the capital Tirana. Where many of the residents who once worked for government lost their jobs after politically-motivated purges with a change in government in the late 1990s. Many of those government positions had been in the customs service which policed nearby border crossings with Greece.

A strong demand in neighbouring Greece and Italy furnished the impetus for marijuana farming to grow exponentially in Lazarat. Other drugs moving from Asia and Latin America to Europe find their way transiting Albania as well. Earlier governing authorities had left drug gangs out of their purview and for a fairly sound reason, since police attempting to enter would be hailed with gunfire.

The new Socialist government has determined a change is in order. They're intent on stamping out the marijuana economy. A main motivator is the wish to join the European Union. In the latest attempt to settle the issue, 500 police officers were deployed in an effort to impose law and order in the town, part of a sweeping nationwide anti-drug purge. Their welcome to Lazarat was punctuated  by rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and heavy machine gun fire at the outskirts of the village.

This action taking place with local live television broadcasting of the event. The danger inherent in the volatile situation led police to warn residents to remain protected indoors. On the second day of the assault police numbers had swelled to 800 when control of a quarter of the village was achieved. Officers seized "considerable quantities" of marijuana, ammunition and drug-processing machinery. A day later police advanced into gang-defensive areas, seizing and burning ten tonnes of marijuana.

Smoke plumes rose above the village purportedly from fires set by locals themselves, burning plants as the police came closer. Casualties were slight; one policeman and three villages suffered light gunshot wounds. The situation came to a head when the gang leader surrendered to police after negotiations, and seven others were arrested on suspicion of taking part in the shooting, of attacking and robbing a television new crew.

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