Officers of the Kosovo Liberation Army and their backers, according to law enforcement authorities in Western
Europe and the United
States, are a major force in international organized crime, moving staggering amounts of narcotics through an
underworld network that reaches into the heart of Europe.
In the words of a November 1997 statement issued by Interpol, the international police agency, ``Kosovo Albanians
hold the largest share of the heroin market in Switzerland, in Austria, in Belgium, in Germany, in Hungary, in
the Czech Republic, in Norway and in Sweden.''
That the Albanians of Kosovo are victims of a conscious, ethnic- cleansing campaign set in motion by Yugoslav
President Slobodan Milosevic is clear. But the credentials of some who claim to represent them are profoundly disturbing,
say highly placed sources on both sides of the Atlantic.
On March 25 -- the day after NATO's bombardment of Serb forces began -- drug enforcement experts from the Hague-based
European Office of Police (EUROPOL), met in an emergency closed session devoted to ``Kosovar Narcotics Trafficking
EUROPOL is preparing an extensive report for European justice and interior ministers on the KLA's role in heroin
smuggling. Independent investigations of the charges are also under way in Sweden, Germany and Switzerland.
``We have intelligence leading us to believe that there could be a connection between drug money and the Kosovo
Liberation Army,'' Walter Kege, head of the drug enforcement unit in the Swedish police intelligence service, told
the London Times in late March.
As long as four years ago, U.S. officials were concerned about alleged ties between narcotics syndicates and
the People's Movement of Kosovo, a dissident political organization founded in 1982 that is now the KLA's political
A 1995 advisory by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration warned of the possibility ``that certain members
of the ethnic Albanian community in the Serbian region of Kosovo have turned to drug trafficking in order to finance
their separatist activities.''
If the drug-running allegations against the KLA are accurate, the group could join a rogues' gallery of former
U.S. allies whose interests outside the battlefield brought deep embarrassment and domestic political turmoil to
In 1944, the invading U.S. Army handed the reins of power in Sicily to local ``anti-fascists'' who were in fact
Mafia leaders. During the next half century, American governments also turned a blind eye to, or collaborated with,
the narcotics operations of Southeast Asian drug lords and Nicaraguan Contras who were allied with the United States
in Indochina and Central America.
In each case, the legacy of these partnerships ranged from global expansion of the power wielded by criminal
syndicates, to divisive congressional inquiries at home and lasting suspicion of American intentions overseas.
The involvement of ethnic Albanians in the drug trade is not exclusively Kosovar. It includes members of Albanian
communities in Europe's three poorest countries or regions -- Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania -- where the appeal
of narcotics trafficking is self-explanatory, even without a separatist war to fund.
The average 1997 monthly salary in all three communities was less than $200. In Albania, it was less than $50.
According to the Paris-based Geopolitical Drug Watch, which advises the governments of Britain and France on
illegal narcotics operations, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin costs $8,300 in Albania, which lies at the western
terminus of a ``Balkan Route'' that today accounts for up to 90 percent of the drug's exports to Europe from Southeast
Asia and Turkey.
Across the border from Albania in Greece, the same kilo of heroin can be sold for $30,000, yielding an instant
profit equal to nine years' normal income in Macedonia and more than a third of a century in Albania or prebombardment
The Balkan Route is a principal thoroughfare for an illicit drug traffic worth $400 billion annually, according
Although only a small number of ethnic Albanian clans profit directly from the trade, their activities have
cast a dark shadow on the entire Albanian world.
There is a growing tendency among foreign observers, says former Albanian President Sali Berisha, ``to identify
the criminal with the honest, the vandal with the civilized, the mafiosi with the nation.''
Those ethnic Albanians who have embraced the narcotics trade are extraordinarily aggressive.
Albanian speakers comprise roughly 1 percent of Europe's 510 million people. In 1997, according to Interpol,
they made up 14 percent of all European arrests for heroin trafficking.
The average quantity of heroin confiscated per arrest, among all offenders, was less than two grams. Among Albanian-speakers,
the figure was 120 grams (4.2 ounces).
Until the war intervened, Kosovars were the acknowledged masters of the trade, credited with shoving aside the
Turkish gangs that had long dominated narcotics trafficking along the Balkan Route, and effectively directing the
ethnic Albanian network.
Kosovar bosses ``orchestrated the traffic, regulated the rate and set the prices,'' according to journalist
Leonardo Coen, who covers racketeering and organized crime in the Balkans for the Italian daily La Repubblica.
``The Kosovars had a 10-year head start on their cousins across the border, simply because their Yugoslav passports
allowed them to travel earlier and much more widely than someone from communist Albania,'' said Michel Koutouzis,
a senior researcher at Geopolitical Drug Watch who is regarded as Europe's leading expert on the Balkan Route.
``That allowed them to establish very efficient overseas networks through the worldwide Albanian diaspora --
and in the process, to forge ties with other underworld groups involved in the heroin trade, such as Chinese triads
in Vancouver and Vietnamese in Australia,'' Koutouzis told The Chronicle.
On assignments in Kosovo and Macedonia between 1992 and 1996, a Chronicle reporter frequently encountered groups
of ethnic Albanian men -- ostentatiously dressed in designer clothing and driving luxury cars far beyond the normal
means of their community -- at restaurants in the Macedonian capital of Skopje and near the Kosovo frontier.
The men were quite willing to speak about politics, confirming that they were Kosovar, and asserting their determination
to bring down Milosevic. But when asked how they earned their livings, they uniformly answered ``in business,''
declining to provide any details.
The rise of Kosovar bosses to the pinnacle of the drug trade -- and the sudden, simultaneous appearance of the
KLA -- dates from 1997, when the Berisha government fell in Albania amid nationwide rioting over a collapsed financial
pyramid scheme that destroyed the savings of millions and wrecked the economy. In the unchecked looting that followed,
the nation's armories were emptied of weapons, explosives and ammunition.
In June 1997, Berisha was succeeded as president by Rexhep Mejdani, who unlike Berisha was openly sympathetic
to a separatist rebellion in Kosovo.
Last year, a NATO official in Brussels quoted by Radio Free Europe cited intelligence findings of ``the wholesale
transfer of weapons to Kosovo'' in 1997, destabilizing the precarious balance between ethnic Albanians and Serbs
in the province and undercutting the position of pacifist Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova in autonomy negotiations
A U.N. study found that at least 200,000 Kalashnikov automatic assault weapons stolen from Albanian military
armories wound up in the KLA arsenal. So many, according to reliable sources, that KLA operatives were themselves
exporting guns to overseas black markets at the start of 1999.
In effect, the KLA's armed insurgency, escalating at a time when U.S. and Western European diplomats were seeking
a peaceful solution to the crisis, provided a pretext for Milosevic to press for a nationalist solution to the
Then came the failed Rambouillet talks, the NATO bombing decision, and with it what Koutouzis calls ``the militarization''
of the Kosovar drug trade.
``Narcotics trafficking has been a permanent part of the Kosovo picture for a long time. The question is where
the profits go,'' Koutouzis said.
``When Rugova held sway and the object was a peaceful settlement, the drug proceeds of Kosovo clans were at
least invested in growth, in things like better housing and health care. It was a form of social taxation in a
sense, and the more illegal the activities, the more that their `businessmen' were expected to pay.''
But with the outbreak of war, Koutouzis adds, ``the investment is only in destruction -- and the KLA's first
effort was to destroy the influence of Rugova, and no one in the West did much to help him.''
Nonetheless, NATO military officers and diplomats have always been troubled by the murky origins and financing
of the KLA, which materialized for the first time in Kosovo on Nov. 28, 1997, outfitted in expensive Swiss-manufactured
uniforms and equipped with the purloined Albanian Kalashnikovs.
The mistrust is reciprocated. According to Veton Surroi, the widely respected editor of Kosovo's Albanian-language
daily newspaper Koha Ditore, U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke had a Kalashnikov held to his head when he arrived
for a meeting with KLA officers during one of his shuttle missions to Kosovo.
As recently as February 25, U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill, another of the negotiators, said, ``The KLA must understand
that its members have a future as members of political parties or local police forces, but not in the continuation
of armed struggle.''
The eruption of war changed almost everything. Since the bombing campaign opened, NATO has had little alternative
but to rely on the KLA for intelligence. Its guerrilla units inside Kosovo are the only eyewitness sources of information
on Serb troop movements.
Solid intelligence about the KLA itself is nearly impossible to nail down. NATO estimates put its forces at
15,000. Avdija Ramadom, the organization's official spokesman, claims that the KLA has more than 50,000 men.
In addition to alleged drug receipts, the group is said to be funded by a war tax of 3 percent imposed by the
People's Movement of Kosovo on the earnings of 500,000 ethnic Albanian emigrants in Western Europe, a population
that is soaring with the immense exodus of refugees. Half of the prewar immigrants have settled in Germany, according
to the International Migration Organization, and a third in Switzerland.
A single fund-raising evening in Switzerland earlier this year is believed to have raised $7 million from ethnic
Albanian immigrants, much of it earmarked for the KLA struggle against Serbia.