Albanian police descended on a town whose residents grow billions of dollars worth of weed, resulting in a four-day firefight with villagers and a search of more than 500 homes.
The town of Lazarat, in southern Albania, is one of the most lawless places in Europe. Countless residents who grow, process, and sell marijuana had turned the town into an armed fortress.
It took about 800 police officers to storm Lazarat, starting June 15, and most of the town wasn’t under government control until June 18. A four-day gun battle broke out on the first day of the siege.
Police Meet Gunfire
Officers on their way into Lazarat encountered heavily armed men with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells. They stopped police outside of town and held them there.
But the officers eventually broke through and swept into the town. Three villagers and an officer were wounded during the gunfight.
Lazarat produces nearly 1,000 tons of cannabis each year, with the drug distributed to users through European criminal networks. On June 23 police said they had already seized 43 tons of weed and 133,000 cannabis plants.
They said they also found as many as 26 heavy guns, 218 light guns, ammunition, RPGs, explosives, and other weapons. Five days into the sweep of the town, 23 people had been arrested.
Cannabis Is Central to Lazarat
Pot is Lazarat’s primary source of income, and most residents are connected to it, if not directly involved. The town is located in an area where drug production is common, and Albania is a major stop as hard drugs make their way to Europe.
Lazarat is heavily dependent on the marijuana trade, and has long been an armed camp. Police and government officials essentially left the town alone for years out of fear of what would happened if they moved in.
As police moved toward town, a plume of smoke was rising from Lazarat. Some observers said villagers were burning their plants before officers arrived.
The weed Lazarat produces is valued at more than $6 billion annually, almost half of the country’s entire gross domestic product.
Residents of Lazarat did give the government another choice. They petitioned for special status allowing them to continue growing marijuana, legally. But the government rejected that proposal and took a hardline approach.