May 15, 2011
By Ioannis Michaletos in Athens*
Information gathered by Balkanalysis.com from police sources, media reports and special field research in Athens indicates a steep increase in organized crime in Greece, a trend accompanied by the country’s ongoing economic crisis and marked by the involvement of transnational crime organizations and illegal immigrant groups. At the same time, the Greek authorities – with assistance from strategic foreign partners like Israel – are taking measures to combat the crime wave and reduce the power of criminal groups. Still, we expect the crime rate to increase in 2012 and into 2013.
The following report, which draws in part on exclusive information gathered by Balkanalysis.com, provides specific data about crime activity in Greece by category, concluding with a preview of measures to be taken by the Greek police in the coming months.
A Healthy Market for Illegal Weapons Trafficking
Organized crime syndicates in Greece have been expanding steadily over the past decade. The existence of an abundance of illegal firearms and illicit market for them, the concentration in certain locales of illegal immigration populations, and the severe economic crisis gripping the country have provided an ideal climate in which criminal groups are able to arm themselves, recruit “foot soldiers” and generally increase their clout.
Greek authorities estimate that some 1.5 million firearms exist in the country; however, the number of licensed owners of hunting rifles does not exceed 300,000 people, meaning that the rest of the weapons are illegally owned.
Over the past three years, police investigations accompanying the arrests of members of the so-called “neo-terrorist” groups Revolutionary Struggle and the Conspiracy Cells of Fire proved that terrorists were able to easily obtain weaponry on the black market. Weapons including pistols and ammunition are being imported by crime groups from Albania and the ex-Yugoslavia and ex-Soviet Union states, through a variety of illegal arms trafficking channels.
The Greek police estimate that currently some 300 gangs involved in trafficking weapons operate in the country. The main points of entry for them have been identified as the Greek-Albanian borders and the south coast of Crete (for weapons imported from the Middle East by ship).
The Security Directory of Police in the Attica region (which includes Athens) has issued over the years around 5,000 licenses for weapons for personal protection to citizens such as politicians, businesspeople, journalists and others who have proved their susceptibility to armed attack. All in all, only 10,000 pistols and revolvers are licences and are accounted for.
On the other hand, in the Attica prefecture alone, it is calculated that 100,000 arms are being held by citizens. The people trafficking weapons in Athens are mostly also involved in the drugs trade, racketeering and armed robberies. The black market is a very good source of a secondary income on top of their primal illegal activities.
The weapons being sold are divided into two major categories: the ‘clean’ ones, and the ‘dirty’ ones- which include those of unclear provenance. The first category includes weapons that have not been used in any previous criminal act, while the second category comprises weapons that have passed through several hands; thus, ownership of the latter becomes a risky proposition, as police may wrongly identify this purchaser with a crime, if the gun is associated with earlier robberies, homicides or other gun crimes of which the purchaser would not be aware.
On the black market in Greece, weapons prices vary significantly. For example, a Czech CZ pistol costs from a 1,000-2,000 euros, while an Austrian Glock 17 goes for up to 2.500 Euros. The equally famous Italian Berretta currently sells for around 800-1,000 Euros. Lesser value is registered for a Russian Tokarev (just 500-600 euros) and a Magnum 357 (500 euros). The prices are for used weapons; for ‘clean’ ones, prices can quadruple.
The black market for weapons exists in many areas in Athens, such as in the central Omonoia Square, and the Liosia region in the north-eastern outskirts of the city. Police note that the drugs trade and arms trafficking go hand in hand, and there have been numerous cases of barter exchange in criminal groups that sell heroin or cocaine for arms.
Robbery and other Violent Crimes on the Increase
In mid-2009, as the economy declined, a crime wave erupted in Greece. At that time, an estimated 216 burglaries were committed on a daily basis throughout the country, along with 14 armed robberies, 70 auto thefts and one homicide.
In the same year, a classified police report was leaked to the press that revealed a 42.6% increase in armed robberies compared to the previous year. Moreover, physical assaults on pedestrians for the purposes of theft increased by 83%, and robberies in super markets and groceries stores increased by 100%.
These events of 2009 represented by far the largest spike in criminal rates that Greece has ever seen. And the situation would only grow worse. In the last week of March 2010 alone, 145 armed robberies were committed in Athens. This gave Greece the dubious honor of being the EU ‘champion’ in terms of relative increase in crime rates, compared to all other member states during the period 2008-2010.
To provide a background example illustrating the contrast, a mere 80 robberies per annum were being registered in the whole of Greece back in 1980.
Beyond Athens, the past two-and-a-half years have also seen a dramatic increase in crime in the central Greece region of Thessaly. According to data from the Thessaly security police directorate, there was a 90% rise in criminal rates for the first six months of 2010. Similar trends were noted in Crete, Achaia, Korinthia, Messinia, Viotia and Thessaloniki.
Organized Crime in Greece: A Regional Nexus
The rapid growth of criminality in Greece, which is linked to the dramatic increase in illegal immigration and economic turbulence, also has a vital relation to the existence of powerful criminal groups in the Balkans.
Greece’s unemployment rate – 8% in mid-2009 – doubled in April 2011. The unemployment rate for foreigners with legal residence in the country exceeds 20% and the illegal immigrant population has more than a 50% unemployment rate. In simple terms, the legal market is unable to provide an income for a large number of the country’s residents.
Another issue is the existence of criminal networks in the wider Southeastern European region. A US State Department International Strategy for Narcotics Control report, released in March 2010, attested that Balkan countries remain major transit points for Afghan heroin, while the war against traffickers is hampered by corruption and weak state institutions.
According to the report, Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina are used by narcotics traffickers to move Afghan heroin from Central Asia to destinations around Western Europe. To a lesser extent, Romania and Montenegro are also considered as staging posts for traffickers.
Apart from being an important transit country for heroin and cocaine Bulgaria is, according to the report, also a producer of illicit narcotics. With its important geographic position on several Balkan transit routes, Bulgaria is vulnerable to illegal flows of drugs, people, contraband goods and money.
For its part, Interpol is quite specific in identifying the real importance of the Balkans in the present day European narcotics market. According to the research of that organization, two primary routes are used to smuggle heroin: the Balkan Route, which runs through Southeastern Europe, and the Silk Route, which runs through Central Asia.
The anchor point for the Balkan Route is Turkey, which remains a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets. “The Balkan Route is divided into three sub-routes: the southern route runs through Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy,” noted an Interpol report. “The central route runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and into either Italy or Austria; and the northern route runs from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland or Germany.” The organization confirms that large quantities of heroin are destined for either the Netherlands or the United Kingdom on these routes.
This whole situation has direct political repercussions as well. Since the Greek electorate blames the politicians for their perceived inability to deal with the rise in crime, this in turn is directly related to the absence of a coherent policy in deterring the flow of illegal immigration in the country, and thus of reducing the operations of transnational crime syndicates.
According to Greek police sources, foreigners were responsible for about 65% of crimes committed in the country in 2010- an increase of about 50% from the previous year. (It should be noted that foreigners account for around 10% of the country’s population). It also has to be pointed out here that many more crimes committed inside the migrant communities are never reported, due to the understandable misgivings of illegal immigrants to interact with the police. Thus the actual number of crimes committed is greater than the number officially stated.
Illegal Immigration and Alternative Finance
Moreover, in its recent report on Terrorism in 2009, the US State Department pointed out that “Greece is increasingly an EU entry point for illegal immigrants coming from the Middle East and South Asia and there was concern that it could be used as a transit route for terrorists travelling to Europe and the United States. The number of illegal immigrants entering Greece, especially through the Aegean Sea, increased dramatically in 2008 and 2009, with more than 100,000 illegal immigrants, nearly half of whom originated from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, arrested each year,”
Further, among the Wikileaks US diplomatic cables revelations, it was noted that a former American ambassador in Athens had held talks with Greek officials, pointing out the existence of Pakistani networks that smuggle immigrants into the country, and that are believed to be related with radical Islamist groups in Southeast Asia.
According to a detailed Kathimerini report in 2010, the number of unofficial mosques operating in Greece (excluding Thrace, where native Muslim populations live) is also increasing. By 2010, the newspaper attested, 75 unofficial mosques (compared to 68 in June 2009) were being used by immigrant communities. Some 23 of these had been founded by Pakistanis, and another 15 by Bangladeshi immigrants.
According to the same newspaper, the number of Muslim extremists reaching Greece through illegal immigration is also increasing. Currently, approximately 85 ‘illegal mosques’ (usually, based in private apartments) operate in Greece, while dozens of under-the-counter money transfer facilities exist. They are usually owned by illegal immigrants from Muslim countries, and facilitate a substantial money laundering operation in Greece. The hawala money transfer system is also widely used by the Muslim immigrant communities in Greece. The turnover of the illegal trade which takes place by illegal immigrants is estimated at between 7-10 billion euros, and results in a loss of about 2 billion euros in state income.
Illegal Immigration, the Illicit Trade in Tangible Assets, and Forgery Concerns
According to a financial police source speaking for Balkanalysis.com, a special task force created by the Greek tax service uncovered seven illegal warehouses between October 2010 and March 2011. Stashed within these facilities were illegally traded goods such as clothing, apparel, bags and furniture, with a value of over 30 million euros. Illegal trade undercuts the turnover of legal merchants and shop-owners that sell garments, leather goods and travel accessories, thus contributing to the continuation of adverse economic conditions for the legitimate economy.
The majority of the trade in contraband goods is controlled by specific ethnic groups. Chinese nationals are involved with clothing and Georgians with tobacco, while Nigerians are well known for pirated compact discs. Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are involved with selling various other items.
Another visible trend involves Iraqi immigrants, who began arriving in Athens in larger numbers during the turbulent years following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This tight-knit group has set up specially designed shops in the center of Athens, trafficking in stolen items, mostly gold. The thieves who provide these items for resale are usually Moroccans and Algerians, police believe.
There is also a widespread forging industry for travel documents, with most networks originating from the Syrian and Pakistani communities, security sources attest. In a significant February 2011 raid, the Greek special police recovered around 500 fake travel documents and even stolen official stamps belonging to such groups.
Forgery of official documents is a vital concern for counter-terrorism officials, since terrorist groups often need multiple sources of false identification to travel internationally and successfully evade governments which may have blacklisted them.
Major terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have long relied on the services of expert forgers to facilitate the international travel of cell members. With the ongoing crises in North Africa and the Middle East exacerbating an exodus of desperate migrants fleeing to Europe, the trade in fraudulent or doctored papers represents a major ‘growth industry’ for criminal groups involved with human trafficking in Greece today.
“Sectors of Influence”
Today, the city center of Athens is actually being divided into ‘sectors of influence’ by several criminally-involved immigrant groups. Arabs have influence in the Metaxourgeio area, near the country’s major railway station (Larisa Station), while Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups congregate around the streets Menadrou and Sofokleous. Afghanis and some Arabs are active in the area of Agios Panteleimonas, while illicit activities in the area around Fylis Street are controlled by Somali and Algerian groups.
Kurdish groups are most involved with the area immediately around Victoria train station, while Nigerians hold sway in Areos Park. In addition, the longer-established (and non-Muslim) Georgian groups are area active around Mitropoleos Street. Generally ‘multicultural’ networks conduct interrelated business in many other areas of Athens.
All in all, almost a quarter of the Athenian city centre is now considered off-limits by night for those unwilling to risk their valuables and, in some cases, their personal security. Athens has become arguably the worst city in the European Union (especially the Eurozone countries) in terms of personal safety. Remarkably, this deteriorating situation has happened relatively quickly – over the past 5 years – and has been accompanied by a parallel influx of illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa.
The Narcotics Trade in Greece
The illicit trade in narcotics is another focal issue. In 2001, it was recorded that up to 90% of the heroin sold in Greece was managed by Turkish and Albanian syndicates. Greek police today estimate the involvement of these two groups at 97%. The bulk of heroin produced originates from Afghanistan and is transferred to Greece via Turkey or Bulgaria.
A major issue here is the low street price of heroin in Greece nowadays- less than 20 euros per gram. This is the lowest current street value in Europe for heroin. The reason for this depreciation is the 500% increase in Afghan opium production since 2001, coupled with the increased concentration of Albanian groups in that field.
The high visibility of Albanian groups in this trade may quite conceivably have implications for the general tone of public discourse in Greece, and thus even political ramifications internally. Another dimension of the drugs trade with possible political ramifications is the fact that over the past 15 years, there has been a 1,800% increase in the number of overdose deaths in Greece. These have mostly been registered among young people aged 18-35 years old.
In addition, cannabis is currently being illegally imported into Greece in large quantities from Albania: some 70% of the local cannabis trade is of Albanian origin, police attest. While street prices are low for Albanian cannabis, users also consider it to be of low quality in comparison with the local Greek production or that of the Middle East.
Countermeasures: International Cooperation
Due to the severity of the general crime situation, the Greek state has started to react, albeit at a slow pace. First of all, a police directorate responsible exclusively for financial crime and money laundering has been created. Equipped with high-tech tools and effective training, it has been created to work with the SDOE-special tax service. Greek authorities hope this new directorate will make a breakthrough in the war against crime.
On the regional level, the cooperation of the Greek Police with their Bulgarian, Albanian and Serbian counterparts is increasing. This is a good sign, since regional cross-border crime is a shared danger of paramount importance, and very difficult to be contained or tackled unilaterally.
Police cooperation with agencies beyond the Balkans is also being stepped up. In recent years, agencies such as the American DEA and FBI, Britain’s SOCA, and various French, German and Italian security services, have established liaisons within their diplomatic missions in Athens, and directly with the Greek Police and intelligence services. The role of EUROPOL and Interpol has been increasing as well.
On the judicial front, the Greek authorities are also taking more active measures to rein in organized crime groups presenting a threat to the economy and public safety.
Countermeasures in 2011: Arrests and Repatriation Schemes
In March 2011 alone, the Greek judicial authorities issued 217 warrants for the arrests of organized crime suspects. These individuals were linked by police with four main organized crime groups operating throughout Greece, which have accused of 19 assassinations, extensive money laundering, loan sharking, human trafficking, arms trafficking and running protection rackets in some 200 private businesses.
The majority of the accused are Greek citizens, though foreigners (including Albanians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Arabs, Iranians, and Romanians) were also arrested. Their revenues were estimated at tens of millions of euros per annum.
Moreover since March 2011, special police sweeps have been made in several parts of Athens resulting in hundreds of arrests, covering all types of criminal activities. Likewise, measures are being taken that will result in the repatriation of thousands of illegal immigrants over the next few months, along with the creation of special detention centers in several parts of the country as Greece grapples to deal with the explosion of illegal immigration sparked by chaotic or volatile situations in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
For the moment a special program of the International Organization of Migration (IOM), with the assistance of the Greek Ministry of Citizen’s Protection, has been enacted that provides free air tickets plus 500 euros to any immigrant wishing to return back to his country of origin. Also, a similar measure is being prepared specifically for those immigrants residing in the center of Athens, though the ‘departure bonus’ is reduced in this case to 200 euros.
Technological Upgrades and System Development
The Greek security services, are also upgrading their technological equipment by procuring surveillance devices capable of monitoring thousands of telephone lines, mobile phones and e-mails simultaneously, while they are also considering the acquisition of urban-area drones equipped with cameras.
Further, despite Greece’s severe economic crisis, the authorities are making plans to recruit yet a few hundred extra “special guards,” a police body mostly responsible for urban security. There is also a new cadre of internationally experienced police officers working as criminal analysts to provide support. Quite a few of the latter are specialized in the use of software packages that make tracking criminal networks far easier and simpler, thus promoting the mapping of cumulative criminal activity within the country. Tools such as these have been procured already by the USA, UK, Israel and other countries.
The Greek investment in security technology does not seem to be ending there, however. According to highly reliable sources from the Greek security services, the country is planning to procure a small UAV fleet in order to monitor the situation in the Evros region bordering Turkey, where the EU’s FRONTEX mission has already joined forces with Greek police in attempts to counter the flood of illegal immigration.
According to the officials, these UAV’s will be operational within the wider framework of the C4i system, which Greece currently uses (based on the Olympic Games 2004 model). With the assistance of a certain Israeli company, Greece is thus in the beginning stages of creating a nationwide C4i system that will encompass the armed forces, intelligence service, coast guard, fire service and police capabilities for a thorough monitor of any asymmetrical threats against the country with a special focus on illegal immigration, weapons trafficking and terrorism.
Final Estimate: Summer Operations to Tackle Crime, Immigration Concerns
To date, the Greek police has demonstrated a fairly good record in terms of solved cases, such as homicides (75% solved cases) and armed robberies (40% solved cases), rates that are considered favorable compared to international levels. However, there is more work to be done in order to confront the record crime wave gripping the country today.
And so, despite the country’s ongoing economic and fiscal problems, we can expect to see a large-scale crackdown on crime unfold in Greece in summer 2011, to be centered on the main urban areas (Athens and Thessaloniki). This crackdown should involve the mobilization of some 20,000 police officers and special agents, along with the preparation of a specially designed and secure system of moving illegal immigrants through flights back in their homeland.
For the latter purpose, a substantial amount of money is required, since it has been estimated that a repatriation flight containing 50 immigrants must, for safety reasons, be accompanied by at least as many police officers, as well as a small medical team. Funds are also needed for other, related procedures. Recent information, which cannot be fully verified for the moment, indicates that Greece has secured approximately 100 million euros for this immigrant repatriation program by the EU.
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