1- The ad hoc roadblock for villagers, shepherds and the parishioners
“Why do you care? Mind your own business!” – R. Aga, the deputy police director at the Dibra regional police advised a local acquaintance of his in local dialect, when the citizen expressed concern over the plots massively planted with hemp in the surrounding mountains from Maqellare to Muhur and Cidhen.
During the past week I was in the villages of the Luzni area every day supporting the mayoral campaign of Sherefedin Shehu, the opposition Democratic Party candidate for the Dibra municipality and the above-mentioned concern was re-voiced to me even during talks with villagers of Hotesh and Lishan i Poshtem. They couldn't and maybe did not even have the courage to go to the police station and talk to the police chief about it. Even their concern was not mainly related to public interest as in the case of the Peshkopia citizen whom I cited on condition of anonymity. The Luzni villagers complained that this year they couldn't do what they always used to: go to the mountains to collect tea and medicinal plants as well as firewood. Or even go farther to visit friends and in-laws in the villages of the former Selishte commune. Whoever attempted to do so, had been forced back immediately by gunmen (according to the Luzni people, they spoke in Tirana and Vlora dialect) guarding the plots planted with cannabis in the Prat meadows, between the Mount Arapit raising over Luzni and the Selishte mountain further to the west.
As a Member of Parliament I am supposed to have enough civil courage and commitment for public interest so that in such a case, which at least is usurpation of territory by armed gangs, I had to report it to the responsible public authorities, i.e. with the police. But since the Democratic Party, which I represent in Parliament, in early August publicly denounced the director and the deputy director of the Dibra regional police calling their names, along with several other similar ones nationwide, as shareholders and custodians of the planted cannabis, I thought the most normal thing in a normal situation and state, in my case, would be an exercise in futility. Even though it is likely that Mr. Aga would have spared me the advice to "mind my own business."
That is why I consoled the villagers in Hotesh and Lishan i Poshtem that their problem would be tackled, if not immediately, for sure next year, and sat down to write down these lines. I didn't tell them I had read on the paper that 15 km down to the south the armed guys had seized and deviated the water spring leaving the local villagers without drinking water and irrigation for their crops.
Last May, during a meeting with DP officials in Ballsh town, southern Albania, I was told by the Mallakastra Mayor that he had gone to protest against cannabis planting close to a reservoir in some hills half an hour drive away from his office (and the police station). He went there with his (unarmed) municipal police but faced resistance while still far away from the plots, through a hail of Kalashnikov bullets, fortunately shot in the air and without wounding anybody. The regional police chief , who was immediately asked to help, hung up his phone, and after the standard notification, a police car appeared after several hours and everybody went back to town without troubling the cannabis plants or their guards. Senior police officers had later contacted the mayor advising him "What's up with you? Mind your own business,” this time in the Tepelena dialect.
I reported this episode in my Parliament speeches three consecutive times deviating from the daily agenda, hoping that I could trigger any reaction, even a verbal one, from those in position of responsibility. I saw the majority MPs yawning uninterested, but maybe also powerless. The Interior Minister happened to be behind my back only once, and my colleagues told later he was talking on the phone all time.
The year 2016 will likely be remembered as the first time in history when transhumance has been generally disrupted. It has been documented in these territories for more than two millennia and has regularly happened each year untroubled by wars, uprisings and banditry. Shepherds take cattle on a grazing trip on the verge of summer from fields and valleys with a mild winter to mountain lawns, always under their possession despite the government and ruler in power, so that they can graze and breed in fresh, cool air. This year the armed guys of the cannabis plantations did not take risks in allowing shepherds nearby, annoying witnesses they could be, and cattle that could carelessly and to their detriment eat the priceless leaves. This way, they forced them backward and left, both the cattle and shepherds, in their winter lowland barns.
In the Peshkopia coffee bars I also heard the half- conspiratorial version that the hunting ban of 2014 was not motivated by care for wild animals and birds (passionately narrated by Jonathan Franzen in the National Geographic magazine) as explained to us in Parliament by the supporters of this initiative. No! - they insistently told me. It was the elimination of wandering hunters as annoying eyewitnesses. This time through the letter of the law and not at gunpoint.
What the villagers and shepherds faced was also experienced by some parishioners in the country's northwestern regions this summer, on their way to hold the Sunday Mass in the remote mountain villages. The gunmen in over there forced them back. The message they received was "The word of God can wait. When we have collected and packaged our plants, then you can also have your liturgy”. It is an interesting cycle in a country where half a century ago, the state with a criminal ideology banned freedom of religion and now the criminals with state connections still ban it when convenient.
2. Normalization of the evil as a social plague
Two years after the antidrug police operation in Lazarat, strange of its kind because there was nobody wounded or killed and a ridiculous minimal number of people facing criminal charges, cannabis grows everywhere in Albania where feasible land somehow out of the public eye. Cannabis is not only tolerated but also protected by senior police officers who are not so sleeping shareholders of this green operation as witnessed by opposition data, part of the media, reports by Albanian intelligence services and numerous eyewitnesses.
The social effects are already being felt. In the quickly impoverished Albanian society, many have run to make quick money. For example, where traders regularly supplied villagers with oregano seeds, now there is nobody accepting this offer. "There are other seeds much more profitable," they tell the trader. Farmers in the communes of Berat, my constituency, once shook their heads in sign of disapproval when the Lazarat hemp was mentioned. For them, it was something evil and illegal. This year there are no scruples about this.
But even when there's resistance, young men no longer follow their farming fathers in the fields and ironically mention that "the other plant" can earn 10-fold compared to corn and tomato. If this culture is rooted in the society I am not sure who will make the Herculean efforts to uproot it.
3. The omnipresent cannabis shareholders and custodians
Few people now remember that an investigative parliamentary commission initiated by the Democratic Party in the first year of this government's term unveiled that many of the new appointees in senior police posts were people with a criminal convictions or serious administrative offences in their past. The public remembers more the Interior Minister's proven connections with these policemen and real gangsters and regularly denounced by the opposition. These connections are based on family, region and friendship ties.
As for the above, the government has in general remained silent. Under the faded laurels of the Lazarat operations, it has repeated the slogan of the opposition flinging mud and avoided every substantial explanation even like the ridiculous assertion that the Albanians who massively flocked to Germany a year ago were migrants in Greece. Most recently, under pressure, they are talking about antidrug operations by the central police as segments of the local police have been compromised. Again, as before, we watch TV operations with cannabis being uprooted or burned, as a rule, in cannabis plots out of their protection or where the protectors' deal has gone awry. Now there are also scapegoats, minor ones understandably, such as a policeman in Kolonja or a local government employee North of Shkodra. There is also spinning through tweets where the minister poses with foreign journalists (note: inverted roles!) in front of a bush on fire and behind policemen with Kalashnikovs.
4- Eye in the sky from Italy
In the meantime, a report by the Italian police based on aerial surveillance of the cannabis plantations is expected to be presented initially to the internationals in early September. The Italian assistance which has been provided for years was refused by the Rama government and resumed only after insistence by the Democratic Party in Tirana and Rome (Lulzim Basha specially met in Rome government officials and MPs asking them to launch the operation as soon as possible). However, with the resistance of one that has something to hide, the government allowed the aerial surveillance of only 18 percent of the potential land surface. But even with this little, informed sourced over the report talk about the "green carpet." It would be of great help if this report didn't dust in the government drawers, but is submitted to Parliament and the President. The current national emergency situation completely justifies this; so it could become a topic for public debate. This way, we would have greater awareness and hopefully stronger reaction.
5. The Latin American narco-state models and the headquarters on the way out of Peshkopi
By reading about narco-states in Latin America, we notice the Mexican model where cocaine cartels sometimes find the common language with government officials and police/military officers and when the government changes and starts going after them there extreme extreme barbaric violence. Another model is that of Panama under Manuel Noriega where the government itself was the unique drug cartel. It is up to the readers themselves to find out which model Albania is going closer to. Another detail from the electoral campaign I mentioned at the beginning of this article can help. In Peshkopi, there is not only M. Rama of the Socialist Party running. Behind and along him, and increasingly in front of him, there is also an organized criminal gang headed by experienced ex-prisoners who have borrowed the seal and the emblem (even the latter with a leaf) of a junior coalition party and has been stationed at the outskirts of the town. There, they bring together the local tough guys and sent them up and down to scare the people, there, they decide on scandalous municipal appointments (they have made about 200) and invite their former inmate colleagues from everywhere in the country and walk them to the boulevard. It is a place where also the shareholders and custodians of the hemp plots from Maqellare to Muhur and Cidhen who wear no uniform do congregate. With the clear intention of getting and controlling (even) the Dibra Municipality.