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The life and crimes of a smuggler

By Mario Kaiser Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 15, 2000



VLORE, ALBANIA

His name is Dushan, and if you ask him what he smuggles, he will smile and tell you, "Whatever yields the highest profit."

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Dushan, who would only give his first name, was 16 when he was expelled from school for bad behavior. He started dealing cannabis. At 19, he bought his first speedboat and began smuggling guns, drugs, and people across the Adriatic, a business so profitable that it allowed him to support his nine siblings. It is the typical resume of a skafist, as Albanians call smugglers.

On this morning, Dushan is driving along the coast from Vlore to Radhima, where many of the smugglers hide and repair their speedboats during the day. "My father is a poor blacksmith," he says, "he cannot support our family." In Vlore, a city so poor that even manhole covers are stolen and resold, Dushan saw smuggling as the only career to provide him with a substantial income. "There is no other way to make a living here," he says.

By most measures, Albania is the poorest nation in Europe. One in 5 Albanians scrapes by on $20 a month. One in 7 has simply left the country. Out of the economic ruins left behind by Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who ruled Albania for four decades, organized crime has flourished.

Initially, Durshan lined his pockets by smuggling cannabis, but when the market saturated and prices dropped, Dushan changed his strategy. He started smuggling people. He teamed up with another smuggler and together they bought a speedboat for $90,000.

In the beginning, night after night, Dushan steered the boat across the Adriatic. But then a close friend was killed during a collision with an Italian police boat. Another smuggler friend disappeared during a crossing from Vlore to Otranto, Italy. His boat was never found. Dushan says the incidents left him so shaken that he couldn't steer his own boat anymore and had to hire a skipper. "I was 19," Dushan says, "my life was too precious." Asked about the lives of those who board his speedboat every night, he only says, "It is much more dangerous for the skipper. As long as we had passengers on board, the Italians never tried to hit us."

There came a time, not long after that, when Dushan wanted to get out of the business. He yearned for a quiet life and wanted to get married. How does a young skafist find a woman to settle down with? Durshan went to Macedonia and bought himself a young Moldovian woman for $5,000. She was 19, and he liked the way she looked.

The two went to Bari, Italy, hoping to start all over again. He began learning Italian; she started selling her body. It was supposed to be only for a while. But the girl started using cocaine, and it worried Dushan. It concerned him even more that she never made more than $125 a night. He took her back to Macedonia and returned to Vlore, alone.

At 22, Dushan's face still looks like that of a boy, too young for the many turns his life has already taken. He has sparse facial hair, as if he has not yet shaved, and his voice is high-pitched like a child's. The Marlboro Lights cigarette between his fingers seems like an awkward attempt to look manly in the company of men. And when he tells his story, it sounds more like someone else's story, perhaps that of an elder brother (which it is, in a way, as his brother is currently on trial in Italy for smuggling illegal immigrants).

But Dushan says he knows what he is doing and claims that he is only offering a service. "I am not a criminal," he insists, "this is just my way of living." The real crooks, he says, are shooting each other in the streets of Vlore.