The last time police tried to enter the mountainside village of Lazarat near this historic southern city last summer, they prompted a ferocious firefight a local police commissioner describes as “very much like a real war.’
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being ostracized, he said he was part of a special forces operation during which sniper units occupied high ground as SWAT teams moved in to arrest a handful of people working in fields surrounding the village.
They were no ordinary fields: Lazarat is known as Albania’s drug capital, notorious for its cannabis and lawlessness.
The annual crop earns almost $6 billion, according to the Italian financial police.
Although local police dispute that figure, they admit that marijuana production is booming.
Last year’s raid didn’t last long. When officers began cutting down cannabis plants, 15 SUVs mounted with heavy machine guns materialized and started firing.
“We were drawing indiscriminate fire from 20 positions, including heavy machine guns and anti-tank missiles,’ the commissioner said. “I saw a 70-year-old grandmother shooting at us with a heavy machine gun. I thought I was going to die.’
Worried about civilian casualties, the police withdrew as snipers disabled the SUVs with explosive bullets.
They haven’t been back. The commissioner said that drugs traffickers have taken advantage of a political power vacuum during the formation of a government following national elections in June to invest large funds in the fields this year.
Law enforcement agencies have taken few preventive measures, enabling Lazarat’s illegal trade to flourish. Any moves against the village now could prompt a “bloody war,’ he added.
Instead, the police spend the better part of the summer stopping water trucks from entering the village and arresting migrant laborers headed there. They seize any cannabis shipments they notice coming out.
Last year, the haul amounted to nearly 15 tons of marijuana, while another 10 tons were seized at various borders.