Police in Austria, Germany and Macedonia said they struck a blow against a major international heroin trafficking ring, the "Frankfurt Mafia."
Around 100 people are being questioned after their arrests in a coordinated three-country swoop targeting illegal drug trade stretching from the southern Balkans to Germany's financial capital Frankfurt.
The Macedonian-led trafficking operation moves the drug from Asia, through the former Yugoslav republic and onto traders in Germany and Austria for further distribution throughout Europe.
Viennese police picked up 69 suspects and police in the Macedonian capital Skopje said they arrested 29 people.
Three of those arrested in Macedonia -- Zoran Manaskov-Skrseniot, Spase Dimovski-Ajduk and Tome Dimovski-Tomce -- are believed to be the masterminds of the Frankfurt Mafia, police said. Several suspects owned properties in Vienna and Frankfurt.
"Those arrested will be brought before judges to determine whether they will stay in detention," Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.
The Macedonian arrests by around 350 police took place in Skopje as well as in the central city of Veles, Sveti Nikole and Gevgelija, several miles from Greece's northern border. Police said they raided the homes, restaurants and cafes owned by the suspects and confiscated large amounts of money, drugs and other items.
The three-country operation took place along what the United Nation calls "the Balkan Route."
The 2010 World Drug Report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, published in June, said corruption and insufficient regional cooperation in transit countries, including in the Balkans, is a major challenge facing the fight against drug trafficking.
Although the Balkans remains socially divided over ethnic lines since the end of the wars that broke up the Yugoslav federation in the mid 1990s, there is a large amount of inter-ethnic cooperation to smuggle drugs, especially heroin and cocaine from Afghanistan.
"It is estimated that 37 percent of all Afghan heroin, or 140 million tons, departs Afghanistan along this route, to meet the demand of around 85 million tons," the report said.
"Most of the heroin interdicted in the world is seized along this route: between them, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey were responsible for more than half of all heroin seized globally in 2008."
The report said "inadequate controls and poor cooperation in a region where high levels of unemployment and low salaries also create incentives for corruption."
The report found that some important networks are clan-based and hierarchical, especially within the Albanian communities in the southern Balkans. "This partially explains their continued involvement in several European heroin markets. Albanian networks continue to be particularly visible in Greece, Italy and Switzerland," the report said.
The report calls for greater support to developing countries to effectively help them crush the drug trades. There should also be more regional cooperation and enhanced border controls in the Balkan through organizations including the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative center in the Balkans.
Thirteen countries signed up to create SECI, a customs and police coordination organization, in May 1999 which began operations from its headquarters in Bucharest in November 2000.
Member states are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey.
Several task forces have been set up by the SECI to tackle problems including human trafficking, the trade and transport of illegal drugs and also commercial fraud. (c) UPI