March 3, 2022
Youssef Hassan Holgado
For fifteen years they have been learning from their masters, evolving from smugglers into sought after drugs suppliers and avoiding violence to rely on the creation of a strong network of alliances. This is the modus operandi of Albanian criminal organisations, which, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA), the British national security agency, manage a large part of the cocaine market in the country, for a total of about six billion pounds according to the British Ministry of the Interior.
According to the NCA, Albanian criminal groups have also favoured the creation of the so-called “county lines”; capillary networks used to move drugs that run throughout the United Kingdom, moving drugs from large cities into the coastal and inland provinces. These commercial routes are not only used by Albanian criminal groups, but also by local and foreign ones. During October 2021 alone, the police carried out a series of raids that led to the arrest of 1,468 people across the territory, seizing drugs and cash for the value of more than 2 million pounds, and confiscating an arsenal consisting of 49 guns.
According to government data, organised crime costs around 37 billion pounds every year to the UK’s national economy. However, this number depicts only a partial image of the phenomenon, since it does not take into account the money which has been laundered and thus placed in the legal economy through the sale of a series of goods.
But how did the Albanian mafia manage to carve out a prominent place in the UK criminal landscape? The history of their settlement can be traced back to the 1990s and is often associated with the Kosovo war; a conflict in which over 1 million people were displaced between 1998 and 1999. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovars left the country and sought refuge in neighbouring and European countries; and a large majority settled in Tirana, Albania. However, according to British investigators, during those years many of the refugees that reached the British border seeking asylum Albanian citizens who identified themselves as Kosovars to receive preferential welcoming treatment.
Today, there is no univocal number of Albanian citizens residing in the United Kingdom. In 2019 the national statistics office released a rough estimate: claiming that about 47,000 Albanians are residing in the country and 29,000 Kosovars. However, according to the British government databases, in the year of the pandemic alone 3,071 citizens of Albanian origin requested political asylum in the country.
“What they have done is that they have created an Albanian-speaking satellite community in the United Kingdom, parallel to the one established in other neighbouring states, such as in the Scandinavian countries after the Kosovo crisis,” says to IrpiMedia Tony Saggers, former head of the anti-drug section of the National Crime Agency. From such satellite communities, Albanian criminal groups have then started recruiting new fellow citizens among the newly arrived in the UK who were experiencing social marginalisation and were struggling with economic resources being exploited in the agricultural, construction or industrial sectors. Cocaine, prostitution, and human trafficking are the illicit businesses that helped the Tirana bosses build their empires.
The downside strategy for cocaine
“The Albanian criminal groups have enriched themselves patiently. A typical British drug dealer wants to make money as fast as possible and at any cost” explains Tony Saggers. “Instead, Albanian criminal groups have learned that the profit margins are high enough to allow them to halve the prices of the substance at the sale, without decreasing the quality.”
The UK drug market is one of the most thriving in Europe. Before the pandemic, it generated around 30 billion euros in profit. A huge amount that every criminal group wants to get their hands on. Ten years ago, a kilo of cocaine was sold for about 40,000 euros; while in years right before Covid-19 the price had also dropped below 30,000 euros. Albanian organisations have forced their competitors to adapt to the new fares in order not to lose ground in the market. Their profit then increased as they began to look at Latin America, where, despite the historic domination of the ‘Ndrangheta brokers, they found contacts and opportunities.
The Albanian citizens at the top of the criminal landscape have managed to settle in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama. Those who can buy cocaine at 4 thousand dollars a kilo in South America then sell it for 30 thousand euros once it reaches European ports, helped by a dense network of corrupt port officials and operators in the most important maritime commercial hubs in Europe.
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Especially in Rotterdam, Antwerp and Algeciras, the Albanian mafia has been able to place its collaborators in key positions inside the ports, which allow them to easily bypass security checks. However, operations are not always unchecked. In April, the Belgian police managed to intercept and seize a shipment of 27 tons of cocaine from South America which, sold at an average of 30,000 euros per kilo, would have brought in a turnover of over 800 million euros. This is the most important operation carried out in the history of the country to counter drug trafficking. Since April, investigators have been trying to arrest those responsible for the drug shipments, and some Albanian families, as reported by local media, are being investigated for the matter.
Tony Saggers has been investigating an extensive number of cases throughout his career and has witnessed various ingenious methods of drug concealment. “Albanians usually carry cocaine hidden in products such as bananas, pineapples and dried fruit, but also metal or wooden objects. Cocaine is a malleable product that is easy to extract, clean and store once it reaches Europe”, he explains.
Kompania Bello, the Albanian drug cartel that ended up under the lens of investigators with the Los Blancos operation of September 2020, and is active in several European countries, used two specific methods for the transport of drugs: the “system” and “the dry ”, as investigators define them.
In the first case, it was necessary to have a refrigerated container and a loading surface that could be lifted and welded again after hiding the cocaine. The commodity was then collected once the company receiving the loaded container would unload the goods present inside it (generally fruit or fish). In the second case, however, a simple container was needed, in which the commodity was inserted much faster. In both cases, the cargo was recovered after customs clearance, outside the port, and the companies involved (both the one sending and the one receiving) had to be controlled in some way by the drug traffickers, or at least the latter must have had safe access to the warehouses where the container is loaded and unloaded.
There is also another method that seems to be used, and it is referred to as the “Rip-off”. The commodity is loaded inside suitcases or bags and placed behind the container doors. The goods are then collected either at sea or during a stop in one of the ports. In the latter case, however, the criminal groups need to have trusted people or collaborators within both the outgoing and incoming ports who can evade controls. This method does not require the complicity of the companies involved in the shipment but presents greater risks as it is more easily intercepted by scanners or other control systems.
Those who import cocaine into the UK usually ship to Dutch or German ports, but in some cases, the shipment is sent directly to the UK. “Over the years we have seen the use of yachts that dock during the summer season, especially in the ports of the south coast of the country. It often happens that a group decides to deliver two tons of cocaine to Rotterdam and five hundred kilos in British ports where the substance also arrives hidden in cars”, explains Saggers.
This method is not only used by Albanian criminal groups, but also by indigenous groups. On 27 August 2019, two British citizens of Liverpool, Gary Swift (53) and Scott Kilgour (41) were intercepted half a mile off the coast of Wales by border police with a shipment of cocaine that would have yielded 60 million pounds. In 2020 they were sentenced to 19 and a half years and 13 and a half years respectively by the Swansea court, on charges of importing around 750 kilos of premium cocaine from South America to the UK. The drug was hidden in the Sy Atrevido, a yacht bought in Mallorca, Spain, in 2018, for £ 50,000. In the operation, other four people between Liverpool and Loughborough were found connected to the crime.
“I have been monitoring drug trafficking in the United Kingdom for over twenty years and I was expecting to see a conflict, a war between the various criminal organisations with the arrival of the Albanian criminal groups. But there wasn’t. They came with charisma and a clear message: we want to be your cocaine suppliers but you have to respect us. There is always a friendly tone and a threatening undertone when they talk business” says Saggers.
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The business in Great Britain is usually managed by the lieutenants of the bosses present in continental Europe. In recent years, however, there is a new generation of Albanian gangs that are trying to impose their domination in the English capital. They call themselves Hellbanianz and their economic power is shown in their social media profiles where they exhibit, hidden by balaclavas, sports cars, Rolexes, expensive bottles of sparkling wine and wads of banknotes.
Their headquarters are in Barking, East London. In 2016, three of them were sentenced to 42 years in prison. One of the gang bosses, Tristen Asslani, received a 25-year sentence for several crimes, including drug trafficking and possession of a firearm.
“The older generations of Albanian organised crime have a low profile, they don’t like to attract that level of attention in the UK,” says Saggers. According to British investigators, these changes could create friction and conflicts between the older generation that acts less visibly and the new generation that likes to appear on social networks, flaunting their power. “We will probably see a new criminal generation of Albanians capable of even using firearms on our streets,” said Saggers.
According to Fatjona Mejdini, coordinator of the Albanian section of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, “Albanians are present in the cocaine market in the United Kingdom, but it is an exaggeration to say that they are dominating it. There are also Italian, Dutch, Nigerian organisations and many others. Certainly, there is also some truth in the growth of Albanian gangs, but some tabloids have created a climate of stigmatisation towards the entire community. The Albanian prison population in the United Kingdom does not exceed 10%”.
This number is also confirmed by the data of the Ministry of Justice: there are about 1,500 inmates of Albanian nationality in the English and Welsh prisons, which are the most present foreign population. Precisely for this reason the government signed an agreement with the Albanian government at the end of July 2021 to transfer some prisoners to the Land of Eagles and conclude their sentence there.
The criminal portfolio of the Albanian mafia is varied and involves different methods that they use to launder their money. This makes tracing their assets very complicated. “They keep them well hidden from our eyes,” says Saggers. According to British investigators, the most common method that they use consists in exporting cash abroad, especially “at home”. To do so, they rely on common money transfer services such as Moneygram or Western Union, which make it easy to send money without sharing sensitive information.
“Often the workers running the money transfer service are bribed and hundreds of thousands of pounds can be converted into small volumes of euros which are then smuggled out of the UK,” explains Saggers.
But to invest money in South America in real estate or other assets, organised crime relies on a series of professionals that work to hide the money.
Again, Dritan Rexhepi’s organisation has set the standard. To transfer the money to South America, among other places, Chinese criminal associations used (a practice already observed by Saggers himself) the same method used by the most important narcos of the new generation of the ‘Ndrangheta, including Giuseppe “Maluferru” Romeo. Cash to pay for the commodity (cocaine) was sent to Europe, mainly in England and the Netherlands, to a contact person of the Chinese organisations. Then, the same sum was delivered to the traffickers in South America by the on-site contacts of the same organisation, for a specific fee. The payment, in this way, takes place without a physical or electronic transfer of money between the two continents and it is therefore almost impossible to trace the exchanges; as there is no financial trace. The sum does not leave from a specific account. It is a system based entirely on trust, on a network of contacts that extends all over the world.
Recent investigations conducted in the United States have identified a similar system being used by Mexican narcos to launder the money earned from the sale of cocaine in North America.
The operation is simple and is explained in a Reuters article: the cartel identifies the Chinese financial broker residing in Mexico. The latter gives the drug traffickers a code word, a telephone number to call and the unique serial number of a genuine 1 dollar bill. The cartel then hands over the data to its emissary in the United States who contacts the phone number and gives him the secret word. The two meet. The courier receives the money and the man from the cartel receives the dollar bill as a “receipt”. The money thus ends in the hands of the Chinese courier who delivers it to a merchant of the same nationality based in the United States but who has an account in China. The latter keeps the money but sends a bank transfer with the equivalent amount to a bank account provided by the courier himself.
There are then two options for bringing the money to Mexico. The first one involves a payment to a businessman residing in the Latin American country who will then change them into pesos and deliver them to the intermediary cartel. The second one, on the other side, involves the purchase of consumer products which are then exported and sold in Mexico. The final proceeds end up in the pockets of the cartel.
A perfect cover-up
On the streets of London and in the British hinterland it is easy to come across semi-empty car washes. According to the latest data that Saggers had available before leaving the anti-drug leadership to NCA, Albanian criminal organisations are the owners of hundreds of them. “We often found six or seven people working in semi-abandoned gas stations. It is a cover to launder money but it is also used to recruit new people”, explains the former investigator. “If you pay someone below the minimum wage every day to work in a car wash and then offer them £500 to be a courier for a load of cocaine, you might tempt them.”
Faithfulness, great economic resources, violence and ruthlessness when needed, but also direct contacts with South American producers show that Albanian criminal organisations have the right skills to impose themselves in the geopolitics of organised crime. But how far can they go? According to Tony Saggers, this will also depend on the effects of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. “If Brexit forces a change in trade routes and Albanian criminal groups import directly into the UK without passing through the other European hubs, we could see corruption and violence soar in our seaports as it happened in Belgium and Holland, where, in recent years, there have murders and shootings in the streets of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp”.
Youssef Hassan Holgado
In partnership with
Centro di Giornalismo Permanente
Camden Town, a popular touristic area in London
(Youssef Hassan Holgado)