With its mountainous landscape concealing remote valleys, indented coastline and position between Europe's east and west, the Balkan Peninsula has all the makings of a smugglers' paradise. Add to this widespread poverty, a history of conflict and, these days, weak institutions and rule of law in many parts, and it is easy to see why the region is plagued by organised crime.
The problem was brought sharply into focus on January 29 as 1,200 Europol offices made simultaneous raids in ten countries, swooping to arrest 103 people in the biggest operation against a migrant smuggling network in EU history.
The EU's law enforcement arm was acting against suspected members of a criminal network based in Kosovo, with strong links to Turkey's underworld. The raids, in Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Turkey and Kosovo, involved 117 properties. More than €176,500 in cash, as well as computers, mobile telephones and a rifle with ammunition were seized.
Europol said that those arrested were suspected of involvement in smuggling illegal migrants into and within the EU from countries including Libya, Iraq and Syria, via Turkey and the Balkans. "They were often smuggled in inhuman and dangerous conditions, such as in very small hidden compartments in the floors of buses and trucks, in freight trains or in boats," the agency said.
Officials said that the organisation had been "significantly disrupted", and that around 20 remaining unknown members would be tracked down.
The grim fate of many trafficked migrants is no secret. The deaths of 16 who drowned in the River Tisza while attempting to cross from Serbia into EU member Hungary in 2009 highlighted the issue; in 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found suffocated in the back of a lorry at the British port of Dover. The majority who survive often work in dreadful conditions for miniscule wages, exploited by employers; some women are forced into the sex industry. There are also concerns that jidhadist terrorists could use the Balkans as a conduit to Europe, and there are allegations that training camps exist in some of the more remote areas, particularly in predominantly Muslim regions - though there is scant evidence of substantial operations. Last year, Russian media claimed that Syrian rebels were being trained in Kosovo.
"It tells us that the Turkey and Western Balkans remain an important route for illegal migration into the EU as well as a sort of a soft underbelly of Europe," Dimitar Bechev, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Sofia, tells bne. "The in-between position of Southeast Europe, halfway inside the EU but outside too (for example, Turkey hasn't yet signed a migrant readmission agreement), provides opportunities for cross-border criminal networks. In the Balkans, in particular, they are known for cooperating smoothly across ethnic lines and state boundaries. The other key point is that the Western Balkans and Turkey are now primarily transit countries, not countries of origin, as far as migrants are concerned."
While people trafficking can be one of the most saddening aspects of organised crime in the Balkans, it is far from the only one. Drugs, contraband cigarettes and sometimes weapons cross borders with relative ease.
The Balkan region's geographical position is of course a key factor - it lies between countries from which people want to emigrate due to poverty and instability and the wealthy, stable countries of Western Europe. It also lies between major narcotics producers and big European markets.
But the volume of trafficking and other organised crime in the region is also attributable to other factors. In the power vacuum after the fall of Communism criminal networks, some linked to the old elites, were able to establish themselves. The wars in Yugoslavia created a nexus between organised crime and conflict, with some becoming very rich in the process. Weak governments too often accommodated organised crime, sometimes with lucrative results for the politicians involved.
While criminals do not operate with the same impunity now as they once did in the 1990s, there is little doubt that the Balkan region still has an undercurrent of crime and corruption. Governments have limited administrative capacity to deal with the issue, and officials are sometimes compromised, from senior politicians taking kickbacks to border police taking bribes.
Anti-corruption purges have had some success - Romania's under Justice Minister Monica Macovei in the last decade, and Serbia's current drive led by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic have certainly proved popular - but have been incomplete and challenged by allegations of political bias. Allegations have just surfaced in Serbia of links between Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and a senior organised crime figure, though Dacic's Socialist Party claims these are politically motivated smears.
The scale of the Europol swoop indicates what a problem organised crime is in the Balkans, and the concerns that European authorities have about it. The fact that the large smuggling gang implicated in last week's bust was apparently based in Kosovo is perhaps no coincidence. The country is located at the heart of the Balkans, has weak institutional infrastructure, exists in a international legal limbo, is scarred by recent conflict, is relatively poor and has senior politicians who have been implicated in serious crimes.
Most of the region is not in such a parlous state, but no countries therein have been able to shatter the criminal networks that stretch far beyond their borders.
There is a silver lining to be found in all this, say some: the problem is pushing nations that have not traditionally cooperated into working more closely with each other. The latest raids are a case in point, but actually continue a growing trend of such cooperation. Europol on February 4 announced it had uncovered an extensive criminal network across 13 European countries, including several in the Balkan region, involved in football match-fixing that generated over €8m in betting profits
Fighting Balkan gangs is now a collaborative continent-wide operation, in which the various actors work to their strengths. In Croatia, for example, the French and Italians have better connections than the British do, while the UK focuses on the Albanians and Serbia.