ALBANIAN CRIME STORY: HOSTAGE TO THE COCAINE SUPPLY CHAIN

What a kidnapping in Albania reveals about Europe’s growing cocaine habit.

There are two ways of interpreting the fact that the annual recorded seizures of cocaine in Europe have been hitting all-time highs every year for the last three years. The record-breaking hauls may, on the one hand, be taken as evidence that better surveillance and tighter international co-operation are helping law enforcement catch up with the law breakers. On the other hand, the ever-growing quantities of cocaine being intercepted in Europe can be taken as evidence of the far greater amounts that are entering the market undetected.

Europe’s cocaine trade has never been larger or more lucrative. The EU’s drug monitoring agency, the EMCDDA, valued the retail market for cocaine at 9 bn euros in 2017 – its most recent estimate. This figure represents a rise of 60% from its estimated value in 2013, when it was said to be worth just under 6 bn euros. While the market for all illegal drugs has been expanding, the agency’s data show cocaine’s share of the overall market has been growing faster than that of any other drugs. In a booming illegal drugs sector, cocaine has been the star performer.

If European seizures are at an all-time high, it also means that Europeans are getting higher than ever. With a glut of cocaine on the market, wholesale prices have gone down – and purity has gone up. Once a premium product reserved for the affluent, high-grade coke is becoming a mainstay of the dealer’s menu, a phone call away from the dinner party or the dance-floor.

The explosive growth of cocaine demonstrates the power of market forces – the laws of supply and demand – over the international laws that seek to constrain those forces. It also represents a triumph of international supply chain management: the means by which disparate criminal organisations, often working together, have grown their market share by linking the producers of cocaine with its consumers – by aligning supply with demand.

This is the story of a rare kink in the supply chain: a dispute over a shipment in the UK that led to a kidnapping in Albania. Criminal organisations from Albania have become major players in the UK market, playing “a significant role in the wholesale movement of cocaine”, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency, the NCA. A spokesperson for the agency said the Albanians were part of a broader trend in which gangs from the Balkans have been drawn to cocaine trafficking by its “higher profits” and to the UK by its “buoyant market” for the drug.

This story reveals how the European cocaine trade, once dominated by mafias from Italy and Spain, is being transformed by new entrants. And it shows how the cost of this transformation – in terms of chronic corruption and sporadic violence – is being diverted away from the market, to poorer countries such as Albania.

A former director general of the Albanian police force, Ahmet Prenci, said the country’s feuding criminals, based abroad, were choosing to settle scores “at home” – because they knew that any subsequent investigations there would not be as thorough as in West. What’s more, he said, there was “always the opportunity to corrupt the police and judiciary.”

In the UK, the popular image of Albanian gangsters has been skewed by press coverage of a single crew, the Hellbanianz. Based in London’s most deprived borough, Barking and Dagenham, and led by young men from the Albanian diaspora, the gang earned tabloid notoriety in 2018 over a social media presence celebrating drugs, money and weaponry. Such street gangs are one of many nodes in a diverse global network, and their Instagram-friendly image is at odds with the nature of the overall supply chain, where great care is taken to hide the product and the profits, and violence remains the exception rather than the rule.

“I can tell you that we see it as a job, just like any other job,” Arben, an established 45-year-old Albanian drug trafficker who asked not to be identified by his real name, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. “If you work honourably and with trusted people, there is no reason to worry.”

With the rampant demand for cocaine in Europe matched by surging production in Latin America, there has been relatively little violence within the supply chain; instead, it has quietly expanded to make room for entrepreneurial newcomers.

“Cocaine is so lucrative that everyone can get a piece of the market,” said Dr Anna Sergi, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Essex and an expert on organised crime. “It is the only product in the world that gains at least 30 times in value from production to delivery.” The market was impossible to control, she said, because it exploited international container shipping routes that were frictionless by design – “the most successful expression” of a globalised economy where everyone trades with everyone.

Arian, an experienced 47-year old Albanian trafficker who also spoke on condition that his real name was withheld, said he was more worried about rival gangs intercepting money or contraband than he was about law enforcement. “When a shipment is on its way, I get tense,” he said. “But I don’t shut myself at home. I run or go to the gym. Won’t lie to you, I’ve been to church too.”

Albania is neither a cocaine producer nor a major market, and its link to the trade is based on a tiny minority within a vast immigrant diaspora that has become engaged in the supply chain. Yet the country has a growing reputation as a narco-state and has been warned to clean up its act if it wants to fulfill its dream of joining the EU.

According to Julia Buxton, a professor of criminology at the University of Manchester and an expert on the narcotics trade, Albania is another victim of an “arcane” global drugs control system that has tried to “address the problem of demand” in wealthier countries by tackling the problem of supply in poorer countries. “What we’re seeing in Albania is what we’re seeing in Central America, it’s what we’ve seen in West Africa,” she said. In policy terms, she argued, international drug laws have led to an emphasis on security operations and seizures, without addressing the economic imperatives – the lure of steep profits against a backdrop of poverty – that compel people from all over the world to join the drug trade. “You never close down drug trafficking routes,” Buxton said. “You simply diffuse them.”

‘A quiet life’
Marija Prenga has not seen her husband since he walked out on a Friday morning 18 months ago, saying he would be back in half an hour. Jan Prenga was meant to have returned after completing his errands in town – but when Marija answered the door that afternoon, it was to the police. “They said Jan had been taken,” she recalled, fighting back tears in the living room of the home that she shares with her three children.

Marija had known Jan since he was a teenager. The eldest of five brothers from the mountain region of Puka, northern Albania, he had approached her family when he was 18 years old, requesting her hand in marriage. Three years later, after Jan completed his military service, the young couple tied the knot. It was the 1990s and Albania was in chaos. Half a century under a paranoid, repressive communist dictatorship had left the country isolated and impoverished. With the transition came waves of economic turmoil and civil unrest, prompting hundreds of thousands of Albanians to seek their fortunes abroad, mostly in Greece and Italy.

Marija and Jan joined the exodus, settling in the Greek port city of Patras. Jan went into the furniture business, putting his skills as a carpenter to good use. After 20 years in Greece and the birth of two daughters and a son, the family decided to return to Albania. They moved to Kamza, a satellite town bordering the capital, Tirana. A former slum, Kamza has undergone an irregular construction boom, fuelled by remittances from the diaspora. In an apparent nod to its international pedigree, the town recently renamed key streets after world leaders and cities. It is perhaps the only place in the world where you can turn off Tony Blair Street and on to George W Bush Street.

On the ground floor of a partially finished building of a kind typical of Kamza, Jan set up a furniture showroom. The family would occupy the apartment upstairs. Although not exactly rich – Jan drove an old Mercedes – they made a decent living, with Marija helping in the running of the business. Jan, she said, treated her as an equal partner.

On the morning of January 17, 2020, husband and wife went for a coffee at a local bar. A few hours later, Jan would pop out to visit the bank and a municipal office, and later still would come the knock on the door, informing Marija that the man she had known for more than 30 years – through marriage, parenthood, migration and return – had been taken.

Witness statements revealed that Jan had been accosted in town by four masked men. There was a struggle, he was forced to the ground and bundled into a white Range Rover SUV, leaving a pavement spattered with blood.

As with other Balkan countries, the tensions within the Albanian underworld occasionally spill onto the streets – but the men involved tend to be hardened criminals. While the abduction of Jan Prenga bore the hallmarks of a gangland operation, he was hardly a typical target. His only apparent link to the world of international organised crime seemed to be in the name given to the road where he was kidnapped: London Street. In rolling news coverage of the story, there was alarm and genuine bewilderment that an unassuming businessman should be abducted from a busy street. “We led a quiet life, we didn’t have any worries,” Marija Prenga said. “Jan was never involved in criminal activity.”

‘Knocking out the competition’
The motives behind the abduction are entangled in the supply chains of a huge cocaine trafficking scheme targeting the European market. The Kompania Bello syndicate is believed to have brought hundreds of millions of euros worth of cocaine into Europe over the last decade. The product was delivered via what has become the most popular method for trafficking the drug to Europe: concealed within shipping containers carrying fruit from Latin America. After the containers had been offloaded at any number of major ports across western Europe, the contraband would be discreetly retrieved and stashed within vehicle compartments for transport to a network of distributors.

Twenty senior figures within the syndicate were arrested last September after a five-year international investigation, described by the European Union’s police agency, Europol, as the largest ever probe into Albanian organised crime. The arrests were carried out by security agencies acting in concert in 10 territories, including Italy, Albania, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Dubai. However, the authorities did not have to look far for the alleged lynchpin of the syndicate – a 42-year-old Albanian career criminal, Dritan Rexhepi.

A convicted double-murderer, armed robber and drug trafficker, Rexhepi has been in a prison cell in Ecuador since 2014. Throughout his incarceration, prosecutors say, he has been brokering deals between Latin American cartels and his associates in Kompanio Bello, relying on encrypted mobile phones for his remote working set-up.

A former law student, Rexhepi embarked on his criminal career in Albania in the lawless 1990s, reputedly working as a contract killer. He graduated to the European stage, picking up convictions, foreign languages and a reputation as an escape artist by fleeing prisons in Tirana, Milan and Antwerp. That an ambitious Albanian gangster should eventually end up in Ecuador – he was arrested there over a 275 kg cocaine haul – is symptomatic of a broader trend that has reshaped the drug market in Europe.

Organised crime groups from the Balkans have become an increasingly visible presence “upstream” in the cocaine supply chain: in other words, their representatives have been buying directly from the Latin American cartels that control production. The resulting savings have been passed on to distributors in Europe, contributing to lower wholesale prices for cocaine in major markets such as the UK and the Netherlands, and to the higher purity of the product being offered to consumers.

The advantages of moving up the supply chain are hardly a business secret – groups from Serbia and Montenegro, among many others, have also been buying directly from the cartels. The tactic was pioneered by the ’Ndrangheta, the mafia from the southern Italian region of Calabria that, along with organised crime groups from Spain, historically dominated the European cocaine market. By following in the ’Ndrangheta’s footsteps, the Albanians are believed to have capitalised on a relationship that dates back to the 1990s, when Albanian criminals were recruited as footsoldiers by the Calabrians and the stretch of sea between them was a major smuggling route.

Experts emphasise the dynamic, highly collaborative nature of cocaine supply chains. Like other big players from Serbia and Montenegro, traffickers from Albania have readily forged partnerships wherever there was a strong business case for doing so. “This myth from the Balkans that people would be fighting each other on the basis of ethnicity – that does not manifest itself that much in terms of these organised crime operations,” Walter Kemp, from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, GITOC, an independent, Geneva-based civil society organisation, told BIRN.

The most efficient drug markets, experts say, tend not to be violent. The product travels smoothly from producer to consumer because all the links in the chain – from customs officials to port workers, police and politicians – have been secured. However, the threat of violence does play a vital role in illegal markets, deterring potential thieves and rivals in the absence of industry ombudsmen. It is here that the Balkans’ history of armed conflict becomes an asset for the region’s gangsters, equipping them with a reputation for brutality that may, paradoxically, keep violence in check.

“To be credible, you need the threat of violence,” Kemp said. “Groups from the Western Balkans have a reputation for being violent, but you don’t see or hear a lot of that violence, which suggests that they are quite efficient and getting along with their local partners as well.” Where groups such as the Albanians “were able to knock out the competition”, he added, it had been “through the business model more than through violence”. They simply offered the same product for less.

The business model adopted by Kompania Bello seemed to have relied on highly integrated supply chains. According to Europol, the syndicate operated multiple nodes along the chain, “from arranging huge shipments directly from South America to the distribution throughout Europe” – a contrast to the traditional model where importers, street distributors and wholesalers worked separately. The make-up of the syndicate seems to have helped, bringing together complementary skills. According to the Italian prosecutors that led the investigation, Kompania Bello functioned as a “transnational crime federation”, comprised of 14 Albanian-speaking gangs.

‘Distorting the system’
In January 2020, a shipping container bearing a consignment of cocaine was offloaded onto the docks in the English city of Portsmouth. According to court documents based on wiretaps and surveillance recordings, the container was driven away by an Albanian group that had been sub-contracted to retrieve smuggled shipments from the dock. The group was paid a commission based on the size of the consignment – a standard arrangement in the supply chain.

The group, however, suspected that it was being short-changed by its client, described in court documents as a British citizen. Its members decided to hold onto the contraband from the Portsmouth container – some 260 kilograms of cocaine – in lieu of the money they believed were owed. Jan Prenga’s younger brother, Astrit, was a central figure within this group. Having left Albania as a young man, he had become involved in organised crime, along with another Prenga brother, Ndrek, who was serving time in a British jail on charges of supplying cocaine.

Two weeks after the Portsmouth shipment was intercepted, Ndrek Prenga received a phone call in prison from an inmate on the other side of the planet – Dritan Rexhepi. The two men knew each other, having served time together in Italy. According to court documents, Rexhepi asked Ndrek to pass on a message to his brother, Astrit: the shipment must be returned. “Don’t make the mistake of touching the load,” Rexhepi said, “it’s our stuff.”

Soon after the two men spoke, Jan Prenga was abducted from Kamza. In a further phone call after the kidnapping, Rexhepi told Ndrek Prenga that Jan would be returned in exchange for the missing cocaine.

Experts say it is entirely possible that Astrit’s group had been unaware of who ultimately owned the cocaine from the Portsmouth container. A single shipment may contain contraband intended for several organisations that have pooled orders to save on transport costs. According to Dr Anna Sergi from the University of Essex, effective organisations such as Kompania Bello do not simply move their own shipments. They also offer a courier service for groups that cannot collect their own shipments, giving them “a much wider take, as they get paid for delivery”.

The typical supply chain is moreover made up of highly compartmentalised segments, performing strictly defined functions. From the port workers that load contaminated containers to the hauliers that extract them, it is neither necessary, nor advisable, for individuals in any one segment to know too much about the other segments. Even within supply chains dominated by a single entity such as Kompania Bello, experts say, the leaders maintain an arm’s length distance from daily operations and sub-contractors are often in the dark about whom they are serving.

“Somebody could be identified as a ‘ringleader’ of a criminal group, but may never be in the same room where drugs or drug money are present,” John Livanis, an Athens-based country attache for the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, told BIRN. “Others could be in charge of transportation but may never talk directly to the ringleader.”

The use of family members as hostages is also common practice in the drug trade, according to traffickers and law enforcement officials. Arben, the Albanian trafficker, told BIRN that gangs in some cases provided hostages upfront – as collateral to guarantee shipments. “A close person is held, a family member, a nephew… and if things turn sour, his life will be in danger,” he said. Generally speaking, Arben added, the rule of thumb is that if “the load is seized by the state, you have no obligations. However, if the load disappears, it’s stolen or something happens, then you are obliged to pay.”

The DEA’s John Livanis confirmed the use of hostages was widespread, and not limited to Albanians. As illegal drug deals “are not finalised with signed contracts – they are done with a handshake,” collateral helped to guarantee that business was completed, he said.

Albanian prosecutors believe the abduction of Jan Prenga was ordered by Dritan Rexhepi and sub-contracted to a local group in order to secure the return of the cocaine stolen in the UK. The abduction reflects a tendency among Albanian organised crime groups operating internationally to use the “home country” as a stage for settling scores. The risk of arrest and prosecution remains far lower in Albania than in the wealthy European economies that are the main market for the drugs.

Money from organised crime has been coursing through the Albanian state for decades, corroding it from within. The country lies along the so-called “Balkan route” used by gangs trafficking illegal migrants and heroin. It is also a regional hub of outdoor cannabis production, despite a recent crackdown. The former interior minister who led that crackdown, Saimir Tahiri, was himself charged with drug trafficking in 2017 after Italian police wiretaps appeared to implicate him in a huge cannabis smuggling scheme. Tahiri denied the charges and is currently awaiting retrial, after the verdict in an initial trial – clearing him of the most serious charges – was annulled by an appeals court.

The runaway profits from cocaine have had a conspicuous impact on Albania’s capital and coastline, where lavish construction projects and luxury vehicles – worth more than the average home – are an increasingly common sight. Albania’s prosecutor general, Olsian Cela, told BIRN that the threat from the drug trade was “considerable” and extended far beyond the obvious danger to rule of law and public safety. “It encourages corruption on different levels and heavily distorts the economic system, seducing people from all walks of life because of its huge profits,” he said.

While the cocaine trade typically attracts young men from deprived backgrounds, its recruits have also included members of the middle-class and elite. Most notable among these was a grandson of the former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was arrested in 2015, along with two Colombian citizens, following the discovery of a cocaine processing laboratory in central Albania.

The underlying challenge for countries like Albania, according to Dr Julia Buxton at the University of Manchester, is one of job creation. “There simply isn’t the capacity within the national economy to generate the types of jobs” that offered anything comparable to the revenues from the cocaine and cannabis trade. Ultimately, she said, the profits from drugs are so high that criminalisation itself fails as a model – “it simply incentivises continued engagement in this trade.”

Asked what motivated young men to join the business, Arian, the 45-year-old trafficker, answered with a single word: “money”.

No closure
After the kidnapping of Jan Prenga, the group linked to his brother, Astrit, followed the instructions for securing his release. According to the Tirana prosecutor’s file, they returned roughly half the cocaine from the Portsmouth shipment to a go-between in London, nominated by Dritan Rexhepi, along with hundreds of thousands of pounds to cover the value of the remainder of the shipment. However, the kidnappers in Albania failed to keep an appointment for handing Jan Prenga back to his family.

Back in his British prison cell, Ndrek Prenga received another phone call from Rexhepi. As the kidnappers had not kept their word, Rexhepi explained, he was obliged to pass on their names to the Prenga family, allowing them to take matters into their own hands.

Equipped with the names of the kidnappers, Jan Prenga’s family turned to the “kanun”, a centuries-old medieval code that is still used to resolve vendettas in mountainous northern Albania. The Prengas enlisted a prominent “blood feud” mediator to contact the kidnappers and negotiate the hostage’s safe return, but his efforts proved unsuccessful. While foreign press reports are fond of linking the exotic-seeming “kanun” to Albanian organised crime, experts tend to be skeptical about its influence. “The reputation is there,” said Walter Kemp, the GITO analyst, but the logic of an eye-for-an-eye and the use of mediators were also “quite normal for the way criminal groups operate”.

While the Prenga family was trying to contact the kidnappers, the Albanian police were combing through hours of CCTV footage to track the movements of the white Range Rover involved in the abduction. The vehicle was eventually traced to the Golden Kompleks, a neo-baroque villa near the port of Durres, outside Tirana. The opulent white marble building, set amidst palm trees and fountains, belongs to two brothers from northern Albania, one of whom has been convicted of drug trafficking in Italy. Their villa is advertised as a venue for wedding parties, but it would serve a macabre function on 17 January 2020.

On the day that Jan Prenga was abducted, most of the security cameras in the villa’s underground car park had been disabled. The sole camera left running, seemingly by mistake, filmed the arrival of a white Range Rover at around 1230 on Friday afternoon – half an hour after Jan Prenga had been abducted in Kamza, 30 km away. A group of men were filmed removing a body from the vehicle and transferring it, with shovels and a pickaxe, into another vehicle in the car park.

Albanian police believe Jan Prenga died in the Range Rover as a result of injuries sustained while resisting his kidnappers. Of the five men initially arrested for his murder, only one remains in prison. Six other suspects are being sought. The body has still not been found.

The UK’s National Crime Agency confirmed that it was aware of Jan Prenga’s murder, believing it to be the result of “a drug dispute”. In an emailed statement to BIRN, a spokesperson said the agency “continues to work with the Albanian authorities in respect of this incident” – but did not provide any further details.

On April 1, 2021, seven months after the international police operation against Kompania Bello, Albanian customs officers intercepted 49 kg of cocaine at the port of Durres. The shipment had come from Ecuador and, according to prosecutors, was ear-marked for Kompania Bello. With booming demand and steady supply, “the cocaine market as a whole does not change,” said Dr Anna Sergi from the University of Essex. “Only the routes that the cocaine takes to market change.”

In the apartment above the furniture showroom in Kamza, a world away from the luxury cars and glitzy resorts of the new Albania, Marija Prenga said she would not accept that her husband was gone forever until his body had been found. “Half the day I cry as if he were dead,” she said. “And for the other half of the day, I hope that he will return.”

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