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Feature Articles


November 2012
The Heroin Trade In Bulgaria

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

     Where the state does not function, there are impulses toward anarchy.

     The immediate result of the collapse of Bulgaria as a totalitarian state, in 1989, has been burgeoning gray and black economies, followed by a precarious combination of legal and shady businesses operated by the post-communist elites. This propagated the emergence of organized crime. Bulgaria has lacked the capacity to confront either organized crime or high level corruption. Of the former communist states, Bulgaria has been the most hard-hit by its crime wave.

     The gray economy comprises activities that are not prohibited by national law and typically constitutes administrative violations of regulations. For example, the trade in spirits is a legal activity and turns gray as long as the excise taxes are not paid. The black economy covers activities prohibited and punishable by law. For example, the drug trade is a black market activity with no legitimization within the existing legal framework.

     With a population of over seven million, with Sofia as its capital, Bulgaria is located in southeastern Europe bordered by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east.

     With the absence of total state control, Bulgaria experienced an outbreak of drug use. Foreign and local racketeers came together to form drug networks, allowing drug trafficking to proliferate, starting in the 1990s. The consumption of heroin, marijuana, cocaine and synthetic drugs saw a steady increase. The traffic developed linkages with other black markets operated by crime figures, including prostitution, contract killings and human trafficking. In addition, drug trade laundering schemes flourished in collusion with various authorities and government bureaucrats.

     Of the abused drugs, the heroin market was the most highly structured. Heroin was imported and distributed mostly by Middle-Eastern traffickers; with the development of in-country criminal structures, by Bulgarian operatives. Heroin spread first from Sofia to the smaller cities and then to the countryside. The cooperation of corrupt law-enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges facilitated the smooth flow of drugs. Territorial monopoly was assured through intimidation. If negotiation was unsuccessful, brutality was the second option. Drug market profits, payoffs and the like were distributed by “black lawyers,” who served as counselors to the drug barons.

     Schools represented a fast growth market for marijuana. The growing popularity among students became an alternative to alcohol and tobacco. The systems of distribution in school areas were well-organized with racketeers employing youthful pushers to sell to students, backed by suppliers and distributors working for that segment of the drug traffic.

     In the 1990s, crime bosses and their associates were virtually untouched by law enforcement. There was no rule of law. Convictions were rare. The nascent nation was going through a period of lawlessness. The major issues for the racketeers were inter- and intra-clan disputes and rivalries.

     Two avenues existed in the heroin trade: the first involved contacts with heroin wholesalers in Turkey. Mules (carriers) would bring in up to 15 Kg directed at small markets. The organizers were regional bosses who dominated a territory and worked with close compatriots. The second path was part of the exportation into Central and Western Europe. The system worked as follows: an importer purchased heroin with a 60 to 80 percent content of diamorphine (the active ingredient in heroin) from Turkish laboratories at a specified price per kilo. The nationals involved in this trafficking were persons of Albanian, Serbian or Turkish origins. Quantities ranged from 20 Kg to 50 Kg. The purity was below the average European level and cost lower.

     The heroin would undergo three or four levels of adulteration and was earmarked for a designated area or city. One kilogram was reduced to two kilos. Thus the diamorphine was reduced by 30 to 35 percent.

     At the next level, there was delivery to the drug chief. The shipment is adulterated by one-half, bringing the active substance in the heroin down to 15-17 percent. Further adulteration was done by weight dealers. Cutting continues until the active substance reaches 7 to 9 percent. At the street level, the street dealers, who buy two to three grams at a time, continue to reduce the potency. When finally sold to the addict, the diamorphine falls to 4 to 7 percent per dose. The jugglers, or pushers, could not adulterate the drug further (to increase their profits) because it was packaged by the street dealer ready for sale.

     While street dealers had much exposure and could be sacrificed, weight dealers were at the higher levels of the drug bureaucracy and got protection with access to lawyers and the trust of the bosses. They were a part of the crime organization, yet they had the freedom of operating as small entrepreneurs.

     “Free riders” stood outside the existing drug networks. They were outliers with no affiliation with the drug combines; they used other channels to receive their product. Free riders were Arabs and traffickers from neighboring Balkan countries who initially imported drugs for their own consumption. Their interloping could not be tolerated. If caught they were treated harshly with beatings and maiming.

     The Bulgarian drug picture was complex. Simple generalizations obscure the variations and changes over time. In one typical distribution system, a trio of street dealers would purchase from a weight dealer a few times during a day and sell to the jugglers. Coded phone messages were used to agree on delivery time. There was no hand-to-hand contact of narcotics or cash. Both were placed in secure locations. Jugglers only carried ordered drugs. If stopped by the police, they could claim personal use only.

     When cell phones were introduced in 2001, the sales schemes changed. They were no longer fixed to a certain place. Rather, dealers made appointments with addicts at locations that were constantly changed to avoid police surveillance.

     With the increase in enforcement of the drug laws, bribes became the cost of doing business. To keep the authorities at bay, street dealers paid weekly to drug enforcement officers at police precincts. Dealers paid the lower-level dishonest cops and bosses gave envelopes to the higher-level authorities. Such regular bribes ensured a smooth operation. When arrests were made, there were additional payments for incriminating evidence to be misplaced and procedural errors made to impede the legal process. Cash was also given to corrupt officials to cover their restaurant bills, vehicle maintenance and incidentals. Bosses would be asked to sacrifice street dealers to show a successful arrest record. Protection was expensive.

     No narcotics system can work without official corruption. Sometimes it is a senior person, sometimes a subordinate. When an abuse of office occurs, such men would be transferred to other precincts or moved to a different post in the same precinct.

     The “black lawyer” specialized in serving arrestees, so-called because of his wily tactics. The criminal justice system was attacked at several levels, at every step, from pretrial to the proceedings, using legal trickery. Black lawyers were usually retired enforcement officers, even former judges. Such persons networked, partnering and swapping cases. When a top boss went to trial, the case was entrusted to popular lawyers, while the black lawyers performed supporting functions such as pressuring witnesses, arranging the disappearance of crucial evidence, engaging in “black” deeds, in general mucking up things.

     The “punitive brigades” kept order. They were important to the integrity of the closed territories, the control of drug shipments, and they levied punishment to rule breakers. Each boss had at his disposal a carload of three or four toughs who were game at breaking heads. They policed the drug cartels. The punitive brigades also had the function of interest payment collections and the punishment of pimps and non-cooperative restaurant owners. Punishments for deviance ranged from increasing degrees of beating, cutting of ears, stabbing; and for recalcitrant cases the breaking of bones, which do not readily heal, such as elbows and knees.

     The top-level bosses kept their hands clean and by many layers were removed from everyday activities. They were not involved directly in black market operations, remaining aloof of the ranks. What preoccupied the bosses was that the drug revenue would continue flowing up the chain of command uninterrupted.


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