In 2018, Albanian prosecutors dropped a money laundering probe into Ylli Didani. Less than two years later, he was arrested in the US on charges of trafficking significant amounts of cocaine to Europe and laundering the proceeds.
At first glance, Michigan resident Ylli Didani was a successful businessman with stakes in companies in the United States, Albania and Kosovo, where he enjoyed a business relationship with a former security aide to ex-Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.
United States authorities say this was just a façade, however.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, 43 year-old Didani led a double life, ostensibly mining for minerals while in fact smuggling cocaine from South America to Europe and laundering the proceeds.
Drug trafficking is the chief source of ‘dirty money’ penetrating Albania’s meagre economy, according to authorities, helping to finance political corruption, sway elections and win protection from prosecution.
But while a six-year investigation in the US resulted in Didani’s arrest on April 1 in North Carolina, prosecutors in his native Albania dropped a probe in 2018 into suspicious bank transfers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The case was handled by Alket Mersini of the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office, who was dismissed in December last year by an independent body created to weed out corrupt judges and prosecutors, ruling that Mersini had failed to explain the origin of his wealth.
Reached by phone, Mersini told BIRN: “I don’t remember the case. I’m taking some time off.”
A lawyer representing Didani could not be reached for comment.
‘That’s ur house’
The DEA says Didani headed an organisation dealing in “large-scale cocaine trafficking and money laundering”, which designed an amphibious drone for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Europe and had financing from Michigan telecommunications CEO Marty Tibbitts, until Tibbitts died when he crashed his Cold War-era RAF fighter jet in Wisconsin in 2018.
Just in the last two years, authorities in the US and Europe seized nearly 3.5 tonnes of cocaine allegedly trafficked by Didani’s group from South America to Bilbao in Spain, the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Belgium’s Antwerp.
He now faces charges of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, conspiracy to distribute controlled substances on board a vessel under US jurisdiction and money laundering.
According to the DEA, Didani’s organisation had links in North America, South America, Albania, Turkey, Germany, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.
As far back as 2015 and 2016, US authorities knew they were onto something when two separate searches of Didani’s iPhone during border checks at Chicago’s O’Hare airport yielded photos featuring large bundles of US dollars and Didani toting firearms.
Two of the photos were time-stamped July 9, 2016 and geolocated to an apartment in Macomb Count, Michigan. The apartment at the time was rented to a person identified in court documents as CC-1. Investigators saw Didani at the apartment on several occasions during the summer of 2016.
According to the DEA, Didani and a contact named in his iPhone as ‘Dan Dan’ – whom agents say is CC-1 – exchanged Viber messages in July and August 2016 discussing illegal money transfers, receipt of FedEx packages, falsifying passports and the sale of large quantities of cocaine.
Didani also sent a picture of a red duffle bag containing multiple rectangular packages wrapped in red and yellow and which DEA agent Brandon Leach said were consistent with kilogram bricks of cocaine. The photo was accompanied by the message, “That’s ur house,” which Leach said meant that the profits from the sale of such a quantity of cocaine would be enough to buy a house.
On July 19, 2016, Didani wrote to CC-1 asking to meet with “Marty as soon as possible.”
He then sent a picture of his Blackberry screen showing a conversation about finding someone to help move “100M euros” from Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, Germany, to a bank in Dubai without the bank reporting the transactions.
The DEA identified ‘Marty’ as co-conspirator CC-2. Albanian court documents go further, however, identifying him as Marty Tibbitts of Macomb County.
Tibbitts was the CEO of a telecommunications company called Clementine Live Answering Service and the founder of the World Heritage Aviation Museum in Michigan.
As part of the money-laundering investigation, the DEA found that in 2016 and 2017, CC-1 received a number of large cashier’s checks from Tibbitts totalling $860,000, which he cashed in a gold shop and a pawn store.
“Through training and experience, I am aware that drug traffickers often utilize these types of businesses, instead of official banks, to launder drug proceeds in an attempt to remain undetected by law enforcement,” DEA agent Leach wrote in his statement.
The first two checks, totalling $100,000, were cashed by CC-1 on June 9, 2016, the same day that the photos of cash bundles – subsequently found on Didani’s phone – were taken at CC-1’s apartment.
Then on December 21, 2017, after cashing checks from Tibbitts, CC-1 flew with him to Washington D.C. to meet Didani, giving him the cash that evening.
The DEA says that, besides the Washington cash handover, Tibbitts was involved in a series of wire transfers worth $1.8 million from a bank in Tirana to a member of Didani’s organisation for the purpose of financing cocaine trafficking.
Albanian investigation dropped
In Albania, Tibbitts visited a Tirana branch of Raiffeisen Bank on September 5, 2017, saying that he wanted to transfer $500,000 from his US bank account to invest in Albania, perhaps in telecommunications, manufacturing, fishing…
The transfer went through the next day; the money was then transferred to Didani in the form of a 12-month interest-free loan under a notarised agreement between the two men.
Days later, Didani made two withdrawals totalling $65,000 from Raiffeisen Bank, signing a declaration that he would buy a fishing boat worth $500,000 from an Albanian citizen named Ahmet Masha, who, according to Albanian prosecutors, has a 2015 conviction for oil smuggling.
Two weeks later, on September 21, 2017, the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office issued a sequester order for Didani’s bank accounts and security deposit at Raiffeisen Bank in Tirana following a referral made by the Albanian General Directorate of Money Laundering.
Contacted by BIRN, Masha denied being involved in any transaction with Didani, saying he had only met him briefly in 2017.
“I only knew him for two hours at Il Gambero beach,” he said, referring to a restaurant with umbrellas and sunbeds for rent in Lalzi Bay on Albania’s Adriatic coast.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Albanian prosecutor familiar with the case said Masha had in fact travelled abroad with Didani three times. According to the prosecutor, the boat Didani said he would buy for half a million dollars was worth one million Albanian lek, or some $8,000.
BIRN also learned that Didani was the target of a sequester order from the Vlora Prosecutor’s Office in southern Albania for $513,000.
Months earlier, in June 2017, Tibbitts signed for the purchase of a property from an Albanian named Amarildo Ademi for $1.3 million, to be paid in instalments.
On June 19, Tibbitts transferred the first instalment worth $329,907 to Ademi’s account in Credins Bank. Albanian prosecutors say that the following month, $250,000 of this money was transferred by Ademi to Didani. In August, Tibbitts wired another $499,915 to Ademi’s account.
On November 22, 2017, Tirana Prosecutor Ylli Pjeternikaj issued an order seizing the account and registered criminal case No. 9539 for laundering the proceeds of crime.
Contacted by BIRN, Ademi said he was no longer in touch with Didani. “I am a businessman and I was involved in property transactions,” he said by phone. “I have closed this issue.”
Indeed, when Pjeternikaj was transferred from the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office to Albania’s General Prosecutor’s Office in June 2018, the case passed to his colleague, Mersini, who officially dropped it on July 31, 2018.
According to business registers, Didani had two US-registered companies, one of which has closed, and links to two firms in Albania, both registered in the southern town of Selenica.
He was also a shareholder in two companies registered in Kosovo in early 2018 – Urban-F Group Sh.p.k and Urban-FA Group Sh.p.k. His fellow shareholders in the companies included Arif Ahmetxhekaj, chief of security for Haradinaj when he was prime minister.
Urban-F Group Sh.pk had a share capital of 1.5 million euros and Didani had invested 450,000 euros in the company. Contacted by BIRN, Ahmetxhekaj said he had had no contact with Didani since he closed the company in 2018.
after the names of the shareholders were published in the media.
‘Torpedo’ drug drone
Tibbitts, it appears, did not limit himself to financing Didani’s operations.
He also helped draw up plans for an amphibious drone designed to hold drugs and attach itself to the hull of a cargo ship travelling from South America to Europe. The plan was for the drone to detach itself 100 miles off the coast of Europe and transmit a signal for traffickers to locate it.
Between May 2016 and June 2018, investigators intercepted multiple conversations between Didani and Tibbitts in which they discussed payment to a company for the development of the drone, which they referred to as ‘torpedo’. According to their communication, the company built a prototype, for which it was paid $12,000, but investigators say the firm had no knowledge of the drone’s intended purpose.
The project stopped after Tibbitts, who had communicated with the company under the name Dale Johnson, died in July 2018 when the British post-war de Havilland DH 112 Venom that he was piloting crashed into a barn shortly after takeoff in Wisconsin.
Deprived of his chief financier, Didani embarked on an international travel hunt for a replacement, from Spain to Dubai, Ecuador to the Dominican Republic.
On February 8, 2019, as he was about to board a flight to Ecuador, Didani was arrested at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on suspicion of money laundering. He was freed a week later after paying a fine and resumed his trip.
In Ecuador, he had meetings to discuss the trafficking of large quantities of cocaine to Europe via import-export companies and shipping containers, according to the DEA.
From there, he flew to Dubai on July 22, 2019. Investigators were able to confirm that Didani’s organisation began receiving large sums of money from a new financier to arrange cocaine imports from South America to Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium.
On August 11, 2019, Dutch authorities in the port of Rotterdam seized 753 kilograms of cocaine in a container of bananas shipped from Ecuador; on February 22, 2020, again in Rotterdam, port authorities discovered 16 large duffle bags containing 644 kilograms of cocaine on a cargo ship.
Authorities linked both hauls to Didani. The DEA was also able to link his organisation to 1,000 kilograms of cocaine seized on April 7, 2020 in the Netherlands, shipped from the port of Paita in Peru, and a second shipment of 1,000 kilograms seized in the Spanish port of Bilbao two weeks later.
Together, the cocaine had a wholesale market value of more than 80 million euros.