LAZARAT, Albania (AP) — Plumes of pungent pot smoke rose above the small but prosperous Albanian village of Lazarat on Wednesday as police sought to drive out the gangs that have turned it into Europe's largest illegal marijuana producer.
Until 10 years ago, Lazarat was a regular farming community. Now it rakes in billions of euros every year from the plants that are openly cultivated in fields and house gardens.
Set in a green plain overlooked by high hills, this sprawling village of 5,000 is believed to produce about 900 metric tons of cannabis a year, worth some 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) — just under half of the small Balkan country's GDP.
The lucrative business has left its mark. Flashy cars and expensive homes dot the village, where many residents were left unemployed after the political purges that followed changes of government in Albania in the late 1990s. Ironically, many had previously worked for the customs service, policing nearby border crossings with Greece.
The marijuana-farming has grown constantly since then, encouraged by strong demand in neighboring Greece and Italy. Albania itself has become a major transit point for other drugs coming in to Europe from Asia and Latin America.
Authorities use to leave the drug gangs pretty much to their own devices, as police visits tended to be met with gunfire. But the new Socialist government came to power last year aiming to stamp out the marijuana economy as it keeps trying to seek membership in the European Union. The country's application for candidate member status in the 28-nation bloc has been turned down three times, with organized crime and corruption always cited as a stumbling block.
In the government's most ambitious effort so far, hundreds of police were deployed this week to Lazarat as part of a nationwide anti-drug operation— only to be met by dozens of heavily armed men firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and heavy machine gunfire.
With local television broadcasting the events live, police and the Interior Ministry urged residents to stay indoors and warned others to stay away from the area, some 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of the capital, Tirana.
Police chief Artan Didi told reporters police were targeting a "very well-structured and organized criminal group that is keeping the village in its claws."
By late Wednesday, some 800 police had brought nearly half the village under control, gingerly advancing into gang-defended areas. So far they have seized and burned 11.3 tons of marijuana packed in sacks and 70,000 plants and destroyed two marijuana laboratories. Police also seized considerable amounts of ammunition from the more than 30 houses searched.
Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri vowed to persist until "every square centimeter in Lazarat is under state control."
Smoke from burning marijuana rose above the village — allegedly from fires set by locals to burn their plants as the police closed in.
Despite the heavy gunfire, casualties were light, with one policeman and three villagers suffering light gunshot wounds.
The alleged gang leader surrendered to police after protracted negotiations, authorities said in a statement Wednesday. A further eight people were arrested on suspicion of attacking and robbing a television news crew.
Police said continuous gunfire was still coming from one house, where they believed more than ten gang members were holed up.
Albania, a small mountainous country on the Adriatic coast opposite Italy, has just over 3 million people. It was for decades Europe's most isolated country until a student uprising toppled the communist regime in 1990 and Albanians emigrated en masse to Greece, Italy and other western countries.
Another uprising in 1997 led to the extensive looting of military installations, flooding Albania with weapons.
The former ruling Democratic party issued a statement saying that, while they support the anti-drug operations, the government's response was too heavy-handed in the village.
The ruling Socialists say Lazarat — a Democratic party stronghold — previously had benefited from links with the country's political elite.
"Time is over for the links of the world of crime in Lazarat with parliament, with politics, with those they exploited," Tahiri said. "What you are seeing today is the best example of our determination to install the rule of law in every corner of Albania."
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana.