Combating Organized Crime in the Balkans
Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with David Binder, Correspondent for MSNBC and former New York Times correspondent, and Dr. John F. Markey, Director of Law Enforcement Assistance Programs and Coordinator of SECI at the U.S. Department of State.
David Binder provided a comprehensive examination of the bleak organized crime situation in the Balkans, while John Markey discussed the progress in combating organized crime that he has witnessed and fostered over the past ten years, focusing primarily on the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI). Binder emphasized that one of the ironical aspects of organized crime in the Balkans was its fostering of inter-ethnic, transnational cooperation among criminals, while Markey stressed the need for more official trans-border, transnational efforts to combat the growth of organized crime and terrorism.
Markey acknowledged that it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern between criminal and terrorist groups and stressed the need for a transnational response to organized crime efforts. He provided as an example direct links between Mujahadeen elements in Bosnia with known terrorists based in Tajikistan and other areas of Central Asia. Criminal groups today are more diverse, creating systemic forms of cooperation, infiltrating legitimate businesses, using the global banking system to further their efforts, and making it difficult for any government to develop an adequate response without assistance from other states.
David Binder identified trafficking of women, drugs, arms and contraband, and money laundering as the predominant activities of the criminal networks. He provided a guesstimate for the number of girls and women lured and bought into slavery at 200,000 annually and estimated revenue for Albanian drug smugglers at about $2 billion per year. Binder asserted that much of the success of organized crime groups in the region results from the large numbers of willing partners within the government, including members of the police, customs, border guards and the political class. In one example, Binder described a sweep of brothels in Bosnia-Herzegovina that was aborted in August 2002 when it was discovered that at least a half a dozen Bosnian police officers were patrons and protectors of such establishments and were able to "tip off" the owners.
On a more positive note, Binder acknowledged the significant progress that has been made, particularly over the past two years, in establishing cooperative efforts to combat organized crime. He specifically mentioned cooperative agreements recently signed by Albania and Italy and by the police chiefs of Serbia and Macedonia. In addition, the U.S. has spent millions to train, equip and support law enforcement in the region and has increased its involvement through agencies such as Customs, the FBI, DEA, INS and Secret Service.
Markey highlighted the work of SECI, a regional organization that pools resources to share best practices and combat criminal groups, as making a significant contribution to combating the efforts of organized crime. Within SECI there are three active programs: Trade and Transportation, Border Security, and the Law Enforcement Initiative. Within the Law Enforcement program, the regional anti-crime Center, based in Bucharest, Romania, began operations in January 2001. It provides numerous advantages over individual efforts by bringing together law enforcement experts from different branches of the governments of 12 member states and 12 observer nations to build regional enforcement networks, provide opportunities for shared expertise, and combine efforts on intelligence analysis and dissemination. The Center has also worked to overcome distrust between police and customs, a problem inherent throughout the region.
Among its successes, SECI can include the Trade and Transportation program's Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed by nine of its member states, to foster trade and reduce corruption and smuggling at border crossings. This MOU has resulted in a significant reduction in the waiting time at the border for trucks from five to two hours and a savings of approximate $45 per truck at each crossing. SECI as a whole has proven so successful in its anti-crime efforts that Belarus and Israel recently asked to join the organization and plans are also underway to replicate the program in Central Asia.
While both speakers acknowledged that organized crime has expanded in both scope and reach, they asserted that this phenomenon is not exclusively a Balkan problem and mentioned transnational criminal efforts that include groups from Latin America to Central Asia, many of which have links to criminal groups in the Balkans. In order to effectively combat these organized crime groups, Binder and Markey stressed the need for significant improvements in the economies and governance, political commitments from within and outside of the region, and multilateral assistance.