The life and crimes of a smuggler

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

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.

Indeed, the Vlore smugglers are on edge, and not because of the police. At lunch time, they sit next to Italian police officers on the sun-drenched terrace of the Hotel Bologna, the toniest address in town. The smugglers, wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses and open white shirts revealing their chest hair, come for the pasta at the hotel restaurant. The police officers, stationed in Vlore to restore order, also like to watch the smugglers' girlfriends. From the hotel terrace they have a beautiful view of the sea and the ostentatious villas the smugglers have built along the promenade, in colors matching the bikinis of their girlfriends. Not all of them, however, get to finish building their dream homes. The villa of a famous smuggler known as Tozo stands on the sea front like a monument to the short-lived business, half-built and deserted. Tozo was assassinated.

And tension in the city has been palpable ever since a recent shooting in front of the club "Chateau." Vlore's boss of bosses lost his best man in the shooting and took a bullet himself. The man - known as Zani and worshiped by his cronies as "the sultan" - survived the assassination attempt by a rival gang, but a few days later his brother's body was found in the woods outside the city.

He was executed in such gruesome fashion that even the people of Vlore, who have seen more than their share of cruelty, shuddered. According to the coroner's report, the killers shot Zani's brother 18 times in the chest. Then they put a rope around his neck, tied it to a car and dragged him through the forest. Then they mutilated his body. Now the city is bracing for Zani's revenge.

"It is frightening," says Eric Filipink, who monitors the situation in Vlore for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Criminals have become mythical figures in this town. And people admire them. They envy them for their golden necklaces, their cars, their drugs, their women." The smugglers have created a shadow economy of businesses that depend on them: guest houses where their customers stay, cafes and bars where the smugglers arrange deals, skippers who navigate their speedboats, drivers who deliver gasoline for the boats. "They claim that all they do is take people to the country of their dreams," says Filipink. "I say they are parasites who suck the blood out of desperate people."

Police estimate there are about 150 speedboats, worth up to $100,000 each, in and around Vlore. The fleet, they say, is one of the biggest private investments in Albania. Last January, the new Vlore police chief, vowing to crack down on immigrant smugglers, confiscated nine of the boats. In turn, the smugglers confiscated the police chief, held a gun to his head, and asked him if he would care to live a little longer. He nodded and returned the boats as soon as he was released. He left the city a few days later and hasn't returned.

Such is the spasmodic nature of the enforcement effort. In late July, after two Italian policemen died when their boat was rammed by an Albanian smuggler, the prime ministers of both countries met in Tirana to bolster antismuggling efforts. Afterward, Albania's Prime Minister Ilir Meta cited the 170 smugglers captured to date this year and promised to pass new legislation to tighten regulations on the boats used for smuggling. Italian Prime Minster Giuliano Amato noted that the number of refugees has dropped significantly from last year (thanks largely to the end of a "bubble" of Kosovars fleeing Serb "ethnic cleansing" in 1998). He vowed that Italy would continue its logistical support to the Albanians and to maintain the joint Albanian-Italian crews on its police boats. But Italian police say more needs to be done, and want to change the rules of engagement so they can fire on the smugglers.

Often when immigrant smugglers from Eastern Europe talk about their countries, they mourn the loss of law and order upheld by the iron-fisted rulers of the past. Dushan says he still admires Enver Hoxha. The Communist dictator died in 1985, but during his rule he kept Albania in virtual solitary confinement. Dushan still remembers the heroic songs they had to sing back then. "We were even poorer than today," he says, "but at least there was order. No crime, no prostitution, no drugs." A case in point, Dushan says, is the day he was arrested for drug dealing by the security police of Mr. Hoxha's successor, Sali Berisha. The agents beat him badly, and that was expected. But what happened next, he says, would have been unimaginable under Hoxha. "We bribed the judge, and he let me go."

Dushan slows down the car and turns into a narrow gravel road. Passing rows of cedars and orange groves, he drives halfway up a hill. He has bought a piece of land here, with a beautiful view of the turquoise sea. He says he would like to build a hotel here someday, when tourists will dare to travel to Albania. As the car reaches the end of the road, it becomes obvious that a flock of particularly reclusive guests is already staying here. A fleet of speedboats, eight altogether, is parked on trailers behind the cedars. Shirtless men, tanned from days of working in the Albanian sun, are bent over the boats, repairing damaged hulls, servicing engines. A Kalashnikov rifle leans against a trailer tire.

The sun has begun to set, and the skafisti, sleep-deprived, are yawning. Their bodies have adapted to the rhythm of the smuggler's life; they are creatures of the night. A tall, red-haired man with a protruding belly and a cigarette dangling from his lips slouches toward Dushan. They kiss each other on both cheeks and then take a walk between the boats, touching hulls and engines along the way. They are talking about Kokthi, the smuggler killed in a collision with a police boat. "We'll make them bleed for it," says the red-haired giant, referring to the Italian police. Kokthi's death must be avenged, he says and suggests sending poisoned heroin to Italy. He tells Dushan that a comrade of Kokthi's was badly injured during the collision and is said to be in critical condition in an Italian hospital.

For a moment, there is a distant look in the giant's eyes. He pulls on his cigarette. He will go out on the sea again tonight. Getting killed is part of the game, he says, but so far it has always been somebody else's turn to lose. He shrugs. Then he drops the cigarette in the dust and extinguishes it with his bare foot. "The sea gives," he says, "and the sea takes."

The next day in Vlore, the city seems frozen in prayer, staring in silence as a black hearse slowly rolls through the dusty streets. Behind the windows, in a sea of fresh flowers, Kokthi is lying in his open coffin. A motorcade of various Mercedes models and several buses filled with mourners follows the hearse. People on the sidewalks crane their necks, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead. As the motorcade approaches the outskirts of the city, it moves up a steep hill toward the cemetery. The hearse passes through the gate of the cemetery and comes to a halt. A group of young men wearing dark suits and sunglasses lift the coffin, now closed, and rest it on their shoulders. As they carry Kokthi to his grave, they pass a row of 89 tombstones decorated with white flowers. They are the graves of refugees who drowned two years ago when their overloaded ship capsized off the Italian coast. In death, Kokthi the ferryman returns to the victims of his trade.

The skafisti have brought a wreath for their fallen comrade. "Shokut te paharuar" reads the words on the red ribbon, "for our unforgettable friend." Kokthi's mother, kneeling before the coffin, is holding on to it, not wanting to let go. Then the coffin is lowered into the earth. Fresh flowers rain onto it. The skafisti put on their sunglasses and return to their cars. One by one they speed back to the city. Down by the sea, tonight's passengers are waiting.

Tomorrow: Ride of the refugees.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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