Over the past two decades, Western Balkan criminal organisations have emerged as important players in the global drug trade. Balkan networks are active in trafficking heroin, cannabis, and cocaine from Latin America into the ports of western and southern Europe.
Although they keep ties to their native country, the majority of their operations occur outside of the Western Balkans. Dealmakers work near supply sources (e.g., in Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia); foot soldiers run distribution networks in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom; and the bosses maintain their distance – and their wealth – in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the process, they have amassed a substantial fortune, a powerful reputation, and a number of adversaries.
In September 2020, Europol launched a massive operation against an Albanian-speaking criminal organisation regarded as one of Europe’s most active cocaine traffickers. Investigations led to the arrest of twenty people from nine nations. One of them was Eldi Dizdari, a Dubai-based Albanian. Dizdari is one of the numerous Albanians accused of international drug trafficking who has taken asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Two-thirds of all Albanian criminal leaders are reported to be hiding in the United Arab Emirates.
It appears that purchasing real estate and participating in the local economy facilitates their capacity to remain in the nation. Major Balkan criminals purchase a haven by investing enormous sums of money in the nation and living extravagantly. The only regulation they must obey is that they cannot engage in drug trafficking or other illegal operations within the nation,’ revealed one Albania-based investigative journalist who requested anonymity. Numerous offenders feel so secure in the UAE that they ask their families to join them.
This Gulf state was beautiful to the criminal underworld because, until recently, it was extremely difficult to extradite wanted offenders. Dubai police captured five international drug lords from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Denmark in 2021; nevertheless, Italy has waited more than 18 months for a response to its request to extradite Dizdari. According to his Italian attorney, he is no longer being held in pretrial custody.
In the UAE, not only Albanian kingpins feel at home. According to local media reports, since 2019, Edin Gaanin, the boss of the renowned Tito and Dino cartel, has been residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Gaanin, a Bosnian man dubbed the ‘European Escobar,’ is suspected of being a significant cocaine trafficker whose supply network links Latin American production markets with Western European consumption markets. His revenues appear to have allowed him to purchase both land and protection since he has thus far eluded arrest despite being the subject of many investigations, including one by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The relocation of Balkan crime lords to the United Arab Emirates is part of a larger trend. EU law enforcement authorities report that the Emirates have proven appealing to kingpins from a number of European nations, including the United Kingdom. Dubai has been nicknamed by the British press as the new Costa del Crime, replacing Spain’s famed crime haven, the Costa del Sol. With so many gang leaders concentrated in a tiny area, the country is viewed as a refuge for criminals, a low-risk centre for coordinating illicit activities with outside agents, and a nice spot to mingle and make new deals.
The United Arab Emirates ranks 57th out of 193 nations in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Global Organized Crime Index 2021 for the overall crime.
However, it is one of the ten nations globally with the lowest grades for illicit markets and anti-money laundering regulation, with 4.00 out of 10. Weak screening of suspicious transactions emanates from criminal groups frequently concealed behind legitimate businesses and financial institutions.
The UAE was placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list in March 2022 due to concerns that it is not doing enough to combat unlawful financial transactions. According to this international organisation, the nations on this list should address strategic inadequacies in their anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist funding regimes. Similarly, the anti-corruption civil society organisation Transparency International described the United Arab Emirates as a “critical component in the global money-laundering puzzle.”
The practice of migrating to distant markets to launder illegal money demonstrates the growing expertise of Balkan criminals and demonstrates how adaptable and businesslike these organisations have become. Law enforcement authorities should collaborate with the UAE to combat this issue with a holistic and long-term strategy. In addition, more must be done to address the risks posed by the reintegration of overseas-laundered criminal earnings into the unstable political economy of the Western Balkans.