Connect to share and comment
Part III: Allegations of sexual slavery reach the highest levels of the Kosovo government.
PRISTINA, Kosovo — The man in the black leather jacket preferred to speak about his past in the security of a car parked in a distant, rural part of Kosovo.
“The big guys don’t take a cut in this business — they run it,” said the man, who gave his name as Luan and acknowledged that he previously made his living from trafficking women and girls into Kosovo against their will so that they could be forced to have sex with paying customers. “The system is highly organized and there’s no police or anything to stop it. Everything is corruption from top to bottom.” Every day, an enterprise of trafficking women thrives in this country.
In the aftermath of the U.S.-led war in Kosovo in 1999, this nascent democracy, born of an international effort to protect human rights, has become a hub of the global trade in human beings, according to human rights investigators who monitor human trafficking.
This industry, which operates in a shadowy underworld where former members of armed militias have turned into murderous enforcers in a criminal enterprise, nets an estimated $32 billion globally every year and is widely considered by international human rights’ investigators to be the fastest growing criminal activity in the world.
According to an International Labor Office (ILO) report, a single female held for sexual exploitation yields an average of $67,200 annually in Western Europe. In a three-month investigation, GlobalPost has uncovered mounting allegations that the highest levels of the U.S.-backed Kosovo government are involved in this human trafficking.
The victims of the trade are typically teenage girls who are recruited, seduced and often forced into what amounts to sexual slavery. There is prostitution in Kosovo that services the international community, the U.S. and NATO military forces and the U.N. and aid workerts who operate here. But more frequently, investigators say, Kosovo is a trafficking hub for women sold into prostitution rings in the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Western European capitals and elsewhere. Much has been written about these victims, but less has been written about the men who carry out the trafficking.
In the course of its investigation, GlobalPost gained access to several men, including Luan, who say they were directly involved in the trade. The detailed information they provided helped to assemble an impressionistic picture of how the trade works here in Kosovo and beyond. And their statements combined with several intelligence reports and the findings of ongoing criminal investigations into organized crime in Kosovo reveal how the syndicate that carries out this trafficking does so with the complicity — and in some cases direct involvement — of the very highest levels of Kosovo’s political leadership.
Sources point to the top
The United States and its NATO allies, and the United Nations, have said publicly for some years that corrupt officials within Kosovo’s government and police have at times taken part in the illegal trade of women and girls for sex.
“Trafficking-related corruption continued to hamper the government’s anti-trafficking efforts,” the State Department writes in its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, citing experts in trafficking. “Foreign trafficking victims often arrive in Kosovo with valid documents and employment contracts stamped by Kosovo officials who may be aware that the document holders are trafficking victims.”
But the privately discussed rumors that have circulated for almost as long among American officials, Western diplomats and ordinary people in Kosovo are much worse: that the corruption goes beyond low-level officials, all the way to high-level politicians.
No senior Kosovar official has ever been charged in relation to human trafficking in Kosovo. GlobalPost reporters, during the course of a wider investigation into allegations of broad criminality by former senior Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commanders and their ties to the United States and other Western countries, interviewed three men involved in sex trafficking in Kosovo, two Albanians and Luan, a Kosovar Albanian. All three men insisted that some senior political figures, specifically former KLA commanders, were indeed involved in the trafficking of women and girls. Furthermore, GlobalPost has obtained several intelligence reports from NATO military and intelligence services that also claim senior former KLA commanders have been involved in the sex-slavery business. Further bolstering the claims, various well-informed people, including a former NATO intelligence official who worked in Kosovo and a Western diplomat with experience in the region, all say that it has been common knowledge in American, NATO and U.N. circles for years that the former guerrilla commanders — many of them now in positions of great power in Kosovo — are believed to be linked to sex-trafficking.
Luan said that officials in the parties of two former KLA commanders are closely tied up in the trade. The parties are: the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), whose leader is the current prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci; and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), whose leader is Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister who is currently in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague as he awaits trial on charges of war crimes.
“The whole thing, as well as any other illegal business, is controlled by the state both in Kosovo, Albania and all of former Yugoslavia,” said one of the Albanian men, who called himself Rexhep. “No one can do [smuggle] drugs, women, cigarettes or anything without blessing from above. I mean, you can try but you’ll be found in a ditch somewhere after many days already half-eaten by worms and dogs, which has happened to some.”
The three traffickers who made the allegations against the former KLA commanders are self-described criminals and their stories could not be independently confirmed. They insisted on anonymity, saying they did not want to face retaliation from other criminals or arrest from law enforcement officials. Two GlobalPost reporters have for many years interviewed criminal figures in the Balkans and in every previous case the stories of the criminals have held up to scrutiny. The three traffickers agreed to be interviewed because they trusted the intermediaries used to arrange the interviews and the reporters, who have been working in the region for many years. The traffickers do not know each other; GlobalPost reporters found them through separate channels.