A safe haven in the Gulf: Balkan criminals and their money are hiding in the United Arab Emirates
Over the past 20 years, criminal groups in the Western Balkans have become key players in the global drug trade. Balkan networks are involved in heroin trafficking, cannabis production and trafficking, as well as cocaine trafficking from Latin America to ports in Western and Southeastern Europe.
In doing so, they amassed considerable wealth, a formidable reputation – and a number of enemies. Although they maintain ties with their homeland, most of their operations take place outside the Western Balkans. Negotiators work close to sources of supply (eg Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia); infantrymen manage distribution networks in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom; and the bosses are keeping their distance – and their money – in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Criminal migration to the UAE
In September 2020, Europol announced a major operation against an Albanian-speaking criminal group considered to be one of the most active in cocaine trafficking in Europe. Investigations resulted in the arrest of 20 people from nine countries. One of them was Eldi Dizdari, an Albanian living in Dubai. Dizdari is one of many Albanians accused of international drug trafficking who have found refuge in the United Arab Emirates.
It is believed that around two-thirds of all Albanian criminal bosses are hiding in the United Arab Emirates.
Their ability to stay in the country seems facilitated by the purchase of real estate and investment in the local economy. “The big Balkan criminals buy their stay safely by investing large sums of money in the country and spending a lot, maintaining a luxurious lifestyle. The only rule they have to follow is not to engage in drug trafficking or other criminal activities in the country,” explained an investigative journalist based in Albania who chose to remain anonymous. Many criminals feel so safe in the UAE that they invite family and friends to join them.
The country has also proven attractive to the underworld as, until recently, it was very difficult to extradite wanted criminals from this Gulf state. In 2021, Dubai police arrested five criminal international drug lords from the US, UK, France and Denmark; nevertheless, Italy has been waiting for more than 18 months for a response to its request for Dizdari’s extradition. In the meantime, his period of pre-trial detention has expired, according to his Italian lawyer.
It’s not just Albanian kingpins who feel at home in the UAE. According to media reports in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the leader of the notorious Tito and Dino cartel, Edin Gačanin, has been using the country as his home base since 2019. Nicknamed “the European Escobar”, Gačanin, a Bosnian, is accused of being a major cocaine trafficker, whose supply network links production markets in Latin America to consumer markets in Western Europe. His profits appear to have allowed him to buy property as well as protection, as he has so far evaded arrest despite being the target of several investigations, including by Drug Enforcement. US administration.
The new Costa del Crime
The decision by Balkan crime bosses to move to the United Arab Emirates is part of a wider trend. EU law enforcement say the Emirates have become attractive to kingpins from a number of European countries as well as the UK. The British press has dubbed Dubai the new Costa del Crime – replacing Spain’s notorious crime haunt, the Costa del Sol. With so many gang leaders in a small place, the country is considered a haven for criminals; a low-risk platform to coordinate illicit activities with emissaries abroad; and a good place to socialize and do new business.
The United Arab Emirates has 57and out of 193 countries worldwide in the overall crime rankings of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021 of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.
However, it is among the ten worst performing countries in the world for criminal markets and scores poorly on anti-money laundering regulations, with a score of 4.00 out of 10. Screening suspicious transactions from criminal organizations that are often hidden behind companies or financial institutions is weak.
In March 2022, the global watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force, placed the UAE on its gray list, fearing it was not doing enough to tackle illegal financial activity. According to this intergovernmental body, countries on this list should strive to fill strategic gaps in their anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing regimes. Similarly, anti-corruption civil society organization Transparency International said the UAE was a “key piece in the global money laundering puzzle”.
The tendency to move to distant markets to launder the proceeds of crime shows the increased sophistication of Balkan criminals and is an indicator of the flexibility and business orientation of these organisations. Law enforcement should work with the UAE to address this issue, taking a holistic and long-term approach. In addition, more needs to be done to address the dangers of reintegrating proceeds of crime laundered abroad into the fragile political economy of the Western Balkans.