Feature: Lazarat & the Albanian Drug Trade
While the Albanian tourist board might prefer the world to focus on Albania's glorious mountain scenery and shimmering Mediterranean coastline, the international news media often prefers to focus on the country's problems with organised crime, mafia and cannabis production. Until 2014 the small town of Lazarat, just 6km to the south of Gjirokastra, was renowned as being at the heart of cannabis production in Europe. At its height up to 900 tonnes of cannabis with a value of around US$4.5 billion (at the time this was almost the equivalent of half the GDP of Albania) was produced annually in and around Lazarat. The town was patrolled by heavily armed mafia and drug groups and the central government had little control or authority here. In 2014, though, a massive police operation was launched against Lazarat. It's reported that locals responded with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds. After five days the government finally retook control of most of Lazarat. However, few arrests were made and none of those arrested were considered kingpins in the drug trade. Since then the government has continued to destroy ever larger quantities of cannabis plantations, but at the same time experts say that drug cultivation has spread throughout Albania and that more cannabis than ever is being produced and smuggled out of the country.
A word of warning: even though Lazarat is now largely under government control, the drug trade still flourishes here and mafia and other organised crime groups continue to pull the punches. Outsiders are not welcome and it is not safe to try and visit Lazarat.