On Europe's 70 m.p.h. smuggling route

Tomorrow: Profile of an Albanian smuggler.

He arrived early this morning on the ferry from Brindisi, Italy, as the night faded and a pallid mist rose from the sea. As the Europa I dropped anchor and its tailgate opened with a thunder, Andon Kokthi's mother stood on the pier shrouded, in a black dress, waiting for her son. He rolled down the ramp in a black station wagon. The mother opened the door and kissed her son's coffin.

Every morning, as the Albanian port city of Vlore awakens to the light of day, the sea returns its reckless sons. Those with well-maintained engines and quick hands materialize on the horizon and slice the surface of the sea in their high-powered speedboats. Those who make a mistake in their race across the black Adriatic Sea don't return alive.

Organized crime syndicates from China's Fujian "snakeheads" to Nigerian prostitute traffickers to Iraqi blackmarketeers all rely on human-cargo carriers like Andon Kokthi to navigate this major smuggling route, a slender, 42-mile stretch of water between Albania and the Italian coast. As many as 1,000 people leave from this southern port every day, bound for Italy illegally. Once inside the borderless European Union, they can easily travel north to countries desperate for cheap labor.

In the past two to three years, this stretch of the Adriatic has become the European equivalent of the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border.

But Kokthi made a mistake two nights earlier. Near the shore of San Foca di Melendugno, off the Italian coast, he pushed a group of Kurdish refugees overboard. As he sped back into the open sea, he suddenly stared into a searchlight of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian police force charged with stopping smuggling. He tried to escape and the two boats, speeding at an estimated 50 m.p.h., collided. Now his photograph is posted on a wooden board on Vlore's Independence Square, next to his death notice. And his comrades are whispering revenge.

Andon Kokthi was only 32, but already a respected "entrepreneur" in Vlore. Like a drug dealer in East Los Angeles, young boys here admired him. They watched in awe when he cruised the city streets in his stolen Mercedes, still flashing German license plates, and gunned his speedboat across the Adriatic Sea. They knew that this was the way he had made his fortune. They saw the haggard people sitting on the beach night after night, clutching their belongings wrapped in plastic bags, climbing into Kokthi's boat as the sky blackened. Kokthi, the ferryman, had a job and the golden rings to prove it.

Albania's speedboat "entrepreneurs," or skafisti, run their businesses strictly according to the rules of market economy, providing services where demand is high and competitors are weak - or part of the family.

Vlore's skafisti are major players in a global people-smuggling trade that is not yet as profitable as trafficking narcotics, but it has become the fastest-growing branch of organized crime. Worldwide revenues from immigrant smuggling now top more than $6 billion annually, according to the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

Thanks to the formation of the European Union, borders between most member countries have now virtually disappeared. But the EU is also finding that, like the United States, it is having to reinforce its outside borders against the emergence of a highly skilled army of people smugglers.

They operate from behind the facades of hotels, pizzerias, jewelry stores, and night clubs, arranging illegal journeys to any destination if the price is right. In Albania and Macedonia, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, Poland and Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia, smugglers have set up offices along the most popular routes to wealthy European countries.

Like travel agents, the people smugglers move clients around the globe, offering fares - economy, luxury, and family discounts - tailored to their customers' means.

And there's no lack of paying clientele. In September, Italian security officials estimated that some 50,000 Chinese were in the Balkans waiting to be smuggled into Italy.

Restrictive asylum and immigration laws adopted by many European countries in recent years have created a new market for immigrant smugglers, and dictators like the recently deposed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have provided them with a constant flow of customers. Nearly 300,000 illegal immigrants crossed the borders into the European Union last year, according to estimates by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development in Vienna, and more than half of them were guided by professional smugglers.

Every night, somewhere a truck is rumbling on a street in the Czech Republic, a train is running between Bucharest and Prague, a speedboat is racing across the Adriatic Sea.

* * *

The sea will be kind tonight. In the Bay of Vlore, a calm wind is stroking the water's smooth and silver surface. Five speedboats, recognizable in the moonlight by their mighty outboard engines, are gently rocking near the shore. The skippers, hunched over the engines, complete last-minute repairs, the cigarettes dangling from their lips glowing with each pull. They wait for tonight's passengers. A van stops on the beach. Two men open the backdoors and start carrying gasoline cans to a small wooden boat. They row out to the pontoon speedboats, called gommoni, and distribute fuel for tonight's operation.

A group of young men is sitting cross-legged on the beach. They look gaunt, shipwrecked even before they have boarded the boats. A lone woman is rocking a baby in her arms. She is wearing a T-shirt adorned with palm trees and a red sun rising over a place called "Haway." They stare at the sea, waiting for a signal to get ready for the most dangerous leg of their journey. It will be a cold, grueling ride. Salty water will rain on them and the winds will chill them to the bone. Their spines will be pounded as the gommoni violently hit the surface of the sea at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h. Some of them may fall or be pushed overboard; they will be left to drown.

Anastas Goga, the supervisor of Vlore's harbor, is standing on the platform outside his office, looking through binoculars. He is counting the people on the beach. It is all he can do for them - radio the rescuers how many people they should look for when a boat capsizes. He can't stop the smugglers; he doesn't even have a boat to follow them. And Mr. Goga knows that if he interferes with their business, the repercussions could be deadly. He has a wife and children. "This is Albania," Goga says bitterly, observing the scene unfolding before his eyes. "This is how things work here."

The smugglers' bosses arrive. A procession of dark Mercedes cars moves slowly along the beach and stops in front of the men and the woman sitting in the sand. The drivers get out, and immediately they are surrounded by their customers. Some pull bundles of dollar bills out of their plastic bags. The fare for Albanians is $600, with a $100 discount for those who have been recommended to the smugglers by friends or family. The Kurdish refugees among the group have already paid $6,000 upon their arrival in Istanbul, Turkey, where they received fake passports and a guarantee to be transported to various destinations in Western Europe.

* * *

Suddenly, a whistle. The passengers grab their plastic bags in which they carry a set of proper clothes. They will put them on once they have reached the Italian shore, hoping not to be recognized as illegal immigrants. Most will be met by an Italian smuggling organization.

Now the first group climbs into a speedboat. Sixteen men and one woman holding a baby board a boat designed to carry a maximum of six passengers. The baby cries. The skipper starts the engine and steers full speed into the open sea. Within moments the boat vanishes in the darkness, leaving a silvery tail shimmering on the surface of the sea.

"God bless them," Goga says as he watches the boat disappear. "They are putting their lives in the hands of teenagers." Many of the skippers are indeed still in their teens. The owners of the boats prefer them to be so young; the boys will take greater risks to escape the Italian police patrols.

Sometimes the skippers push passengers overboard in order to slow down the police, forcing their pursuers to stop and rescue passengers first. The Italian police have changed their strategy accordingly; they now wait for the smugglers to drop their passengers on or near the Italian shore before they give chase. The smugglers in turn have responded by purposely trying to collide with police boats, hoping they will back off. For Andon Kokthi it was a gamble that proved deadly.

*Tomrrow: Profile of an Albanian smuggler

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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