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Drug Market and Organized Crime in Bulgaria: One Year Later
In December 2003, the Center for the Study of Democracy presented its report The Drug Market in Bulgaria. The report analyzed the origins and structure of drug distribution in Bulgaria, the markets cartelization, the hierarchy in the drug networks and the role of organized crime for developing these markets. The present policy brief analyzes some of the developments that have transpired since the publication of the report.

The main developments that captured the attention of the policy and law-enforcement communities in 2004 included:

• Changes in the patterns of drug-trafficking through Bulgaria.
• Changes in the patterns of drug-distribution and drug-usage.
• Penal Code amendments that criminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs, normally termed for “personal use”.

In order to understand the current state of Bulgaria’s drug-market and the organized crime structure that control it the following issues should be considered:

1. The patterns of international drug-trafficking through Bulgaria changed. Drugs and precursors trafficked through Bulgaria’s territory are undoubtedly worth billions of dollars. After 2001 there was a gradual reduction in the amount of heroin transiting Bulgaria, the main reason being the establishment of alternative drug-trafficking routes. The first such route, through the Greek-Turkish border, was marked by major seizures of heroin trafficked by ethnic Albanians. The second route passed through the Turkey-Italy ferry lines. The third route, evidence of which are the record-high drug seizures in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, passed through the former Soviet republics. Another factor that contributed to the reduction in the heroin traffic is the decreased demand for heroin in Western Europe and growing “popularity” among drug-users of cocaine and synthetic drugs. In light of the above facts, the US Department of State’s recent estimate that 80% of the European heroin traffic passes through Bulgaria, appears to be rather high.

2. After a period of violent turmoil in the first half of 2004, the model of heroin-distribution changed while the heroin market shrunk. The report The Drug Market in Bulgaria showed that while at the national level a number of prominent crime figures partitioned the drug market, the drug-distribution districts in Sofia coincided with police precincts. The report made public for a first time the names of many individuals involved in drug-distribution at various levels. It described the key figures in the drug markets such as district bosses, suppliers, dealers, “hit-squads”, and “black” lawyers. During 2004 the majority of the crime-figures, described in the report, were arrested or murdered by rival criminals. Although there were signs that various events might transform Bulgaria’s heroin market into a model much closer to the Western European one, where not district-control but free competition is the determining distribution principle, the old model was preserved. In Sofia, for example, new drug-bosses emerged, the quality of heroin improved, and the city was split between two rivaling drug-distribution groups. Nevertheless, the heroin use was at lower levels and the drug-distribution networks were “looser” and less organized.

3. Heroin continues to be the most problematic narcotic for the Bulgarian society and for law-enforcement agencies. Until 2002 the cannabis and amphetamine markets were separate from the heroin one. The seizures in 2004 indicated that street dealers were involved in all three markets. The most important trend, though, is the sharp increase in the amphetamines, which, since the summer of 2003, were widely offered by street dealers. Some reports indicate that the demand for amphetamines is now greater than the one for heroin.

4. A broad-based approach is needed to effectively fight drug-related crime groups. Studies in the US and Western Europe have shown that the drug-market is marked by periods of ups and downs. Thus, the decrease in the heroin-use in Bulgaria in the past three years should not be taken as a stable trend. The country remains an important part of the heroin route between Afghanistan and Western Europe. The police counter-narcotics operations that result in the arrest or breaking of crime groups often simply create a temporary vacuum that is quickly filled by other criminal actors. The Bulgarian authorities could use the strategies of the UK Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), whose Director General, William Hughes, recently pointed to the need for a much more comprehensive approach to dealing with organized crime, particularly limiting the opportunities for money-laundering of drug profits.

5. The treatment of drug-users continues to be ignored by the government, although it is a key instrument in the fight against drug-distribution and general crime. Unlike the UK, where the government aims to spend more on drug-use reduction programs than on repressive measures, Bulgaria spends only 100,000 euros on such programs. It is estimated that at least 5 million euros need to be invested in drug-use reduction programs in Bulgaria. Methadone programs currently involve only 300 individuals, although the demand is at least 10 times higher. The inclusion of around 3,000 individuals into methadone programs (which cost around 35 euro cents per person per day) could have at least two major positive effects. First, it would reduce the demand for heroin and cut the revenues of drug-crime groups. Second, it would bring about the reduction in various crimes, such as thefts, burglaries, or robberies, around 1/3 of them are estimated to be committed by drug-users.

6. Changes in the Penal Code, regarding the criminalization of the “personal-use” dose, did not have the expected positive effects. Although it is too early to draw conclusions about the effect of the Penal Code changes, it is clear that they put before the judiciary and the law-enforcement agencies a daunting task. These institutions are forced to divert significant resources in investigating and trying numerous small-scale cases, where individuals, often high-school students, are arrested and tried for possession of a joint of cannabis, or persecuting heroin drug-addicts, instead of providing treatment to them. The unrealistic broad scope of the penal code provisions creates a situation where the judiciary and law enforcement agencies often try to circumvent the liberal application of the law. It also creates conditions for corrupt practices by the police or magistrates.

March 2005
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