Heroin mainly enters the EU at land border-crossing points in Bulgaria and Greece, according to the EU Drug Markets Report 2019, compiled by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addication and police agency Europol.
The route from Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey and Balkan countries represents the shortest distance and the most direct land route to European consumer markets, and it has continued to be the key corridor for the trafficking of heroin to the EU and for other drugs and acetic anhydride in the other direction, the report sai.
Turkey is crucial to the Balkan route, and Istanbul is a key location for the orchestration of heroin shipments to the EU. In 2017, Turkey seized the largest quantity of heroin in the last decade, following a period marked by a significant decline in seizures, probably caused by both external and internal factors.
Heroin may be shipped from Turkey to EU markets using three branches of the Balkan route, the report said.
The southern branch runs through Greece, Albania and/or Italy, using both sea and land transportation. The central branch runs through Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, and into Italy or Austria, essentially by land. The northern branch runs from Bulgaria and Romania to Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland or Germany, essentially by land.
In some cases, heroin is temporarily stored in warehouses in the Balkan region before being transported onwards.
“Bulgaria and Greece appear to be increasingly important transhipment points along this route,” the report said.
Iran is an increasingly significant hub for the trafficking of large quantities of heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the EU via Turkey along the Balkan route using road transportation.
Iran is also more frequently used as a departure point for large heroin shipments smuggled to the EU in maritime containers, in an effort by organised crime groups to avoid more strictly controlled land routes via Turkey.
The increasing trade in recent years between Iran and the EU and others may have contributed to this increase in trafficking activity from Iran, as the greater volume of trade provides more opportunities for smuggling.
Iranian trucks driven by Iranian drivers carrying hundreds of kilograms of heroin have also been detected more frequently on the Balkan route.
On this route, the trucks travel via Turkey to enter the EU chiefly across the Bulgarian-Turkish border. From there, the heroin shipments are transported to distribution hubs in the EU. Although the Balkan route is considered the most active smuggling route for heroin, the interdiction rate is quite low along the portion of the Balkan route located in Europe, relative to the large quantities of heroin seized in Iran and Turkey.
“This suggests that heroin trafficking through the Balkans is well organised, but may also benefit from poor enforcement and even possibly corruption among law enforcement officials.”
Trafficking and distribution of heroin is a mainstay activity for some specific organised crime groups, which rely on well-established routes, contacts and infrastructure in the EU.
Overall, a two-tier structure in the heroin trade in the EU remains prevalent, the report said.
Europol intelligence suggests that Turkish organised crime groups continue to be the main importers and facilitators of heroin distribution in key regions of Europe as they orchestrate the wholesale supply of heroin and maintain control over various links in the supply chain, including key connections to suppliers in production countries.
“They have established legal businesses in key locations along the trafficking routes in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, the United Kingdom and Western Balkan countries, in order to facilitate their smuggling activities.”
Nevertheless, Turkish organised crime groups may also outsource some activities, such as the transportation of heroin from source countries to the EU, the laundering of criminal profits or the perpetration of violent crime.
For example, Iranian organised crime groups manage shipping and transportation companies used to traffic heroin, while Turkish organised crime groups typically manage front businesses used to receive the heroin shipments. Turkish organised crime groups have also gradually expanded their activities to other drugs such as cocaine and synthetic drugs.
For many years, Albanian-speaking organised crime groups have also been identified as being involved in the supply and distribution of heroin in the EU, controlling sections of the Balkan route.
“Albanian-speaking organised crime groups, as well as Serbian and Bulgarian groups, procure heroin from Turkish organised crime groups and cooperate with other EU-based crime groups.”
Recently they appear to have been expanding their involvement in heroin distribution in EU Member States, especially the United Kingdom, and becoming more involved with local distribution. In some cases, they have displaced other players, including Turkish organised crime groups, in wholesale heroin distribution.
Organised crime groups involved in the intra-EU trafficking of cocaine use various methods to manage the risk of discovery by law enforcement agencies. They rely on fraudulent documents to conceal the nature and origin of their loads, employ advanced technologies and use sophisticated means of concealment in motor vehicles.
“Organised crime groups continue to specialise in providing services related to particular stages of the cocaine supply chain. For instance, Bulgarian and Romanian criminal groups increasingly invest in road transport businesses in order to facilitate intra-EU trafficking of cocaine and other drugs,” the report said.