Portholes: Exploring the Maritime Balkan Routes

The Balkans is known as a crossroads for trade, not least for the trafficking of drugs, contraband, people and weapons, and the smuggling of migrants. The traditional ‘Balkan route’ is across land, made up of transport corridors connecting east and west (particularly Türkiye with western Europe), as well as north and south (from the Mediterranean to central Europe). Despite the prevalence of trade over land, South Eastern Europe (SEE) also contains more than a hundred ports and 12 container terminals, which are important entry and exit points for trade in the Adriatic, Aegean, Black and Ionian Seas, as well as along the Danube.

This report reveals that there is also a maritime Balkan route bringing drugs into SEE through key commercial seaports: cocaine from Latin America and heroin via Türkiye and the Middle East. Other commodities being smuggled along this route include weapons, waste, counterfeit goods and cigarettes. In addition, it provides a glimpse of smuggling along the Danube. The case studies, which feature nine of the region’s commercial ports, are a central element of this report. The map below shows the ports (in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Slovenia) that form the basis of the analysis in this study. These ports were chosen to provide an overview of different types of ports (based on size, ownership, location and history of seizures) and to assess their vulnerability to organized crime.

The main findings of the report are as follows:

  • Over the past few years, there have been major seizures of cocaine and heroin in container terminals in SEE. Some of these shipments supply local drug markets, but many are transiting the region to supply markets in western Europe.
  • There do not seem to be highly organized levels of regional connection among the criminal groups involved in trafficking. Instead, larger criminal groups based abroad (including those with members from Western Balkan countries) seem to seek opportunities where they arise, and team up with local groups on a case-by-case basis, some of which are cells of a loosely connected Balkan network.
  • Criminal groups in landlocked countries use ports in their vicinity for trafficking. For example, criminal groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to use the ports of Ploce and Rijeka, whereas groups in Kosovo may use the port of Durres. Those in Bulgaria and North Macedonia have links with the port of Thessaloniki, and Serbs may use the port of Koper.
  • Cocaine shipments are almost invariably in containers with fresh fruit – particularly bananas – often from Ecuador.
  • Drugs are placed using two main concealment methods: the ‘hide-and-seek’ and the ‘rip on/rip off’ techniques (these are explained later in the report).
  • Seizures show that significant amounts of heroin have been smuggled through the ports of Koper and Varna.
  • Synthetic drugs meant to supply central European markets are increasingly being seized in regional ports (Constanta, Koper, Rijeka, Piraeus and Varna).
  • Smuggling of cigarettes both into and out of the region is a major problem, especially in Greece and Montenegro, although the government in the latter seems to be taking significant steps to address this issue at the port of Bar.
  • There is evidence of trafficking of waste, especially through Black Sea ports; this issue deserves closer attention.
  • The extent of trafficking goods on barges on the Danube seems to be underestimated by law enforcement officials: most major discoveries of contraband are made by accident.
  • China’s increasing penetration in the region, particularly through the port of Piraeus, seems to be increasing the risk of the import of counterfeit products from Asia.
  • SEE countries have made great strides in recent decades to improve port security in line with
  • the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, thanks to international support from organizations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Europol, as well as bilateral assistance. However, there are still lapses in security, for example due to insufficient scanners, and incentives for corruption in some ports.
  • Major drug seizures are often followed by arrests of the small fish, yet there are few prosecutions of the kingpins or attempts either to back-track the routes of the shipments or to carry out controlled deliveries to catch the big fish.

Hotspot approach
This report applies the ‘hotspots’ approach that has been used by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s (GI-TOC) Observatory of Illicit Economies in SEE to analyze organized crime in the Western Balkans as well as the activities of criminal groups from the Western Balkans in other parts of the world, as exposed in the earlier ‘Transnational Tentacles’ report.1

When researching hotspots of criminal activity in the Western Balkans and the activities of Balkan criminal groups abroad, it became evident that there were a growing number of seizures of cocaine and heroin in ports in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Slovenia.

These seizures deserved a closer look, so we decided to carry out an assessment of trafficking through ports in SEE. Although drugs are also being smuggled on pleasure craft like yachts, as well as on car ferries, it was beyond the scope of this study to analyze every port and marina in SEE. Rather, the focus is limited to container ports, as these seem to be the main entry points for major shipments of drugs – either cocaine from Latin America (mainly Colombia and Ecuador) or heroin from western Asia (Afghanistan, Iran and Türkiye).

Together with port security experts, we developed a methodology on how to carry out a risk assessment of ports. Among the issues to be covered by the port analysis were: port ownership; trade volume; security measures; major illicit markets; criminal actors; key law enforcement operations; and enabling factors of illicit activity (such as infrastructure, city governance and local corruption). These assessments were done on the spot in nine ports in the region between October 2021 and January 2022, and involved interviews with more than 100 port stakeholders, including security providers (representatives of customs, coast guard, police, prosecutor’s offices and private security companies); port users (owners and employees of shipping companies, warehouses and fruit and vegetable wholesale markets, as well as truck drivers); dock workers and their union representatives; representatives of the local chambers of commerce; and journalists reporting on maritime issues. The findings, make up the bulk of this report.

The report also provides a more analytical overview of security in ports, factors of vulnerability in SEE container terminals and how these vulnerabilities are exploited by criminal groups. In particular, it looks at how some ports in the region are crime magnets: places that, because of vulnerable governance or geographical position, attract criminality. Others are safe havens: not just for criminals, but for the political and business elites that provide protection for smuggling and who profit from the trade, including through money laundering. The report also explains the context of how container ports in SEE are part of a wider regional infrastructure that feeds into a network of trade corridors, particularly servicing the European Union (EU) and as part of the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative.

As opposed to some approaches to analyzing vulnerability of ports to organized crime, which focus on container security, or just port security, this report also looks at ports in the context of transnational illicit flows and smuggling by sea in relation to the ecosystem of adjacent local hotspots. In addition, it tries to get a sense of the criminal groups that are involved in the various trades and activities.