By Emma Naylor
The Balkan Route – once the world’s most prolific drug highway – appears to be flourishing again. Although Croatia does not, according to available records (which are admittedly patchy upon the topic) have a major drugs problem, this nonetheless presents a major problem for the Croatian authorities and people. Furthermore, it could easily lead to more substantial substance abuse issues in the future. The Balkan Route passes right through Zagreb, taking $20 million of heroin from the opium fields of Afghanistan to the veins of Western Europe via Croatia. Along the way, some gets snapped up by some either for personal use, to sell on, or to use as a method of controlling others (pimps, for example, often get their prostitutes addicted to drugs as a method of ensuring that their focus is always upon earning for the pimp, who is also their dealer). This causes dependency, addiction, and a whole host of other problems which can seriously impede both the life of the individual and the state of society.
A Ripening Target
The Balkan Route runs from Afghanistan, through Iran or Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia – specifically Zagreb – before making its way into Western Europe. It’s a well-trodden corridor, and flourishing due to the improvement of relations between nations and the subsequent relaxation of border controls. Although the major market for the heroin is Western Europe, much gets sold along the way to people within the transit nations. It is estimated that Croatians inject over three tonnes of heroin a year, and heroin is the most widely used drug within the nation after cannabis (which is also shipped along the Balkan Route). Rising economic prospects for Croatians also puts them at greater risk of becoming a more viable target for the traffickers who use Zagreb as a heroin corridor. While previously seen as lacking the financial resources to become viable customers, economically stable Croatians now make ripe prey for drug dealer looking to punt more substances and build drug empires within Croatia itself. Being a transit nation opens Croatia up to the prospect of becoming a big drug consumer nation in a manner which it may perhaps have escaped had it not already been on the drug cartels’ radar by virtue of being on their trade route.
This process has been observable within the other transit nations upon the Balkan Route. Bulgaria and Serbia in particular suffered greatly from heroin abuse issues due to their location upon the Route, and are still struggling to defeat the menace of heroin addiction within their populations. In Greece, austerity measures and the relative cheapness of readily-available trafficked heroin has led to a spike in heroin use, while Pakistan – right at the start of the Balkan Route – often appears to be fighting a losing battle against heroin addiction. Croatia already has an estimated 26,000 heroin users, and the revitalization of the Balkan Route is likely to bring a lot more. In 2009, just after the Route showed its first signs of picking up speed again after a slow patch during the conflicts and turmoils of the nineties, Zagreb became the fourth city in the world to drug-test its population through the analysis of wastewater. Zagreb alone was found to consume a substantial amount of heroin per year – and that’s not taking into account drug use in the other Croatian settlements along the Route. Analysts were not slow to point out the correlation between Croatia’s relatively high use of heroin in comparison to other drugs (and nations) and its crucial position on the Balkan Route.
Policing the Balkan Route more effectively would be an excellent way to reduce the problem – but this is easier said than done. Not only does it require a degree of police co-operation between nations, but keeping the Route well-policed enough to present anything like a real threat to drug traffickers would require a degree of manpower and police prescience which is simply beyond the resources of many. The key to preventing Croatia from falling into the grip of the drug traffickers may be improved education upon the dangers of heroin addiction – and the development of a culture which discourages drug-taking in a more effective manner than Croatian culture currently does. If the people can choose for themselves not to take heroin, the dealers will lose interest in the nation and turn their attentions elsewhere. The alternative – a nation struggling to fight the growing groundswell of heroin addiction – is not a pleasing prospect. Not only would addicted individuals, the Croatian health service, the Croatian police force, and Croatian society in general be afflicted – but the economy may also suffer from a lack of tourist input. After all, nobody wants to visit a nation known to have a problem with heroin. It is time to act now, before the problem becomes too ingrained to eradicate.