Albanian Girls Trafficked For Sex

In the tiny and very poor village of Fushara in northern Albania, the girls are disappearing.

Frane Bicaku's teenage daughter, Valentina, vanished from their home more than a year ago. She hasn't been heard from since.

Gjin Lleshi lost two daughters: one was 15 and the other 17. He says they were taken by men who promised to marry them. Instead, the girls wound up as teenage prostitutes on the streets of Italy, smuggled there by the Albanian mafia.

It happens almost every day, in just about every village and town in Albania.

"They are kidnapped mostly," says Lydia Bici of the International Catholic Migration Commission. "The minors are mostly kidnapped from discos or bars or the streets [and] even from the schools."

In some villages, families have stopped sending their teenage girls to school, fearing they could be kidnapped and taken to a world they can hardly imagine.

"A majority, it seems like, of the women who are trafficked are under 18 years old," says Sophie Mosko of Save the Children. "They're demanded younger and younger in the sex trade because there's less fear of AIDS."

There are now about 30,000 Albanian prostitutes walking the streets of Europe. In a country of only about 3 million people, that is almost 1 percent of the Albanian population. It is believed that most of these prostitutes were trafficked into Europe as children.

Forced Into Prostitution

Two years ago, 15-year-old Mariana Lleshi was lured away from her home by a local shop owner who said he wanted to take her to Italy and marry her. For three weeks her parents heard nothing from her.

Then they received a horrifying letter, in which Mariana told her parents she had first been driven to the northern Albanian city of Skhoder, where the man who had promised to marry her said there would be no marriage. His true plan, he said, was to sell her as a prostitute. When she resisted, he took out a knife and forced her to go with him.

For Mariana, there was no escape, as she was driven south through Albania's heartland. Those who have been lucky enough to get away from their captors say the traffickers are ruthless and often violent.

Like most of the future prostitutes smuggled out of Albania, Mariana was taken to the southern port city of Vlore, the epicenter of the country's smuggling industry. From there, it is only approximately 70 miles across the Adriatic Sea to the Italian coast. With their high-speed boats, traffickers can cover that distance in less than two hours.

According to Albanian police, the boats can carry more than 40 people at a time. And when they reach Italy, the girls and young women are sold to a pimp. Their value is then determined by their age, beauty and experience.

"I mean a young virgin-like girl, by the time she gets to Italy could be worth as much as $10,000," says Degan Ali of the International Organization for Migration. "She's a real investment."

Many prostitutes work for nothing. One former prostitute who was kidnapped at the age of 17 told ABCNEWS that even though she made about $500 a night, her pimp took it all. One night when he found money tucked in her underwear, he drugged her and beat her until she was unconscious.

"The next time I saw myself, I was stark naked on the bed," she recalls. "A friend of mine helped me to get up. I was covered in blood."

With Mariana trapped in Italy, back in Albania tragedy was striking the Lleshi family once again. Mariana's 17-year-old sister was also kidnapped, and this time a third sister, Marta, told police who did it. Shortly after that, her father says, Marta was brutally killed. Her dismembered body was found in a bag by the river. The killers have not been caught.

Auctioned Off Like Slaves

A private shelter in the Albanian capital houses a group of girls and young women who have managed to escape their captors. One young woman, Elizaveta, says as she was sold from one criminal syndicate to another, she was auctioned off like an animal for prospective buyers:

"The clients would come to the house and the owner would tell us to undress, to put on some makeup and to just let the clients see us to see that we didn't have any tattoos or marks. We were in our underwear or completely naked. Then after a few days they would come back to either buy girls or not."

Ali defines it as slavery. "[When] it's forced, and you're not earning any income from your labor, and you're being sold from one trafficker to another, yes, I would classify it as slavery. I think it has all the elements to classify it as slavery."

Corruption Runs Deep

How Albania became a source for prostitution has a lot to do with its history. For 46 years, Albania was a strict communist state, almost completely cut off from the outside world. Its leader, Enver Hoxhe, was so paranoid of subversive forces both inside and outside the country he broke off almost all relations with the outside world including China and the Soviet Union.

When the communist era came crashing down in 1991, the people of Albania were left with almost nothing. Organized crime quickly rushed in to fill the vacuum and the Albanian mafia quickly developed a reputation as a ruthless smuggler of weapons, drugs and women.

"I think the Italian mafia did an excellent job of teacher training for the Albanian mafia, and they became very powerful very quickly," says Mosko. "Trafficking for prostitution is the easiest trafficking to do because there's no investment involved.

"It's just cheap," she adds. "You don't have to buy drugs, you don't have to buy guns. You just kidnap girls."

And you pay off the judges, the politicians and the police. In the first three months of this year more than 50 Albanian police officers were thrown off the force for taking bribes from the mafia. Some are even directly involved in trafficking.

The corruption runs deep, as the police are even known to sell the girls who fall into their hands.

"I have to sadly admit there have also been policemen who are corrupted and who have been involved in this kind of trafficking," says Ilir Gjoni, the Albanian Minister of Public Order. "They are part of the criminal society."

Today, the Albanian and Italian police patrol the Adriatic Sea together. Occasionally, they arrest some of the traffickers but that is of no solace to the families of the Albanian countryside who mourn the loss of their daughters and pray they will see them again.

ABCNEWS' Andrew Morse contributed to this report.