”MX” for Borderland Beat
Note to readers: This article covers the story of an Albanian drug lord who heads one of the largest criminal groups in Europe. His cartel is a federation of 14 Albanian gangs that smuggle cocaine from South America to Europe.
|From a prison cell in Ecuador, Dritan Rexhepi coordinated a sophisticated ‘transnational crime federation’ of Albanian drug traffickers, controlling the flow of cocaine from South America to Europe, from departure to distribution (photo: Interpol)|
Former police officer Arben Frasheri recalls interrogating Dritan Rexhepi in 2006 in the Albanian port of Durres, when the door to the holding cell was left open during a break in questioning. Reports say Rexhepi walked into the corridor and told the officer on guard,
“They’re finished with me.” He was allowed to leave. “Dritan Rexhepi benefitted from negligence,” recalled Frasheri, “and left the police premises.”
It was a costly lapse, giving rise to a career in which Rexhepi, now 40 years old, built an international crime syndicate that has funneled hundreds of millions of euros worth of cocaine from South America to Europe, even as Rexhepi has sat in a prison cell in Ecuador since 2014.
Fourteen years later, in September 2020, the police came knocking, arresting 20 suspects in coordinated raids in 10 countries in Europe and the Middle East to dismantle the Albanian crime syndicate, ‘Kompania Bello’.
According to Europol, the European Union’s police agency, cocaine importers have traditionally worked separately from the wholesalers and gangs distributing the drug, but Kompania Bello “ditched the model and controlled the whole chain.”
The operation to bring it down, codenamed ‘Los Blancos’, followed a five-year investigation led by Italian prosecutors in Florence and is considered, according to Europol, “the biggest of its kind ever against Albanian-speaking organised crime.”
According to court documents obtained by BIRN, Italian prosecutors have identified Rexhepi, 40, as “the undisputed ‘capo’” of Kompania Bello, with access to “endless quantities of cocaine”. Describing Kompania Bello as “a union of criminal operators,” an Albanian prosecutor involved in the Los Blancos operation told BIRN:
“It certainly poses a threat to public order and security in Albania as we’re dealing with a union of operators with huge criminal and economic potential.”
More Escapes Than ‘El Chapo’
Going by the name Gramoz, Rexhepi’s criminal career dates to the 1990s, a period of huge turbulence in Albania when he is suspected of working as a contract killer. In 2013, he was sentenced in absentia by a Tirana court to 25 years in prison for the 1998 murders of two people, one of them a police officer. Rexhepi has also been convicted of cocaine trafficking in Italy and armed robbery in Belgium.
Besides an extensive rap sheet, Rexhepi has also built up a ‘legendary’ reputation in the criminal underworld for the fact he boasts more prison escapes than the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as El Chapo.
After his holding cell walkout in Durres in 2006, Rexhepi was arrested two years later in the Netherlands and extradited to Italy where he had been sentenced to jail for cocaine trafficking.
In 2011, he and two other inmates escaped from prison south of Milan, using a saw to cut the prison bars and bed sheets as a rope to reach the ground. Picked up later that year in Spain, Rexhepi was extradited to Belgium but again escaped from prison in Antwerp.
Then in June 2014, Rexhepi was arrested in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, as part of a police drugs bust in which 278 kilograms of cocaine were seized. He is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence but is still wanted in Albania, Italy and Belgium.
|Some of the cocaine packages seized from Rexhepi’s group (photo: DEA)|
Albanian authorities accuse Rexhepi of ordering and arranging – from his prison cell – the abduction of a 49-year-old man in central Albania in February last year. The victim has never been found and is presumed dead. Italian prosecutors accuse Rexhepi of ordering at least two other murders while in prison, in Ecuador and Albania.
Responding to the abduction charge in February last year, Rexhepi, speaking from his prison cell, told veteran Albanian crime journalist Artan Hoxha that he had never been involved in kidnapping or contract killings. Recalling how he had enrolled to study law at university in Tirana in 2005, Rexhepi said he had been forced into drug trafficking to survive after being charged with murder and escaping jail.
“I had two options, to surrender to an unjust and rotten system in Albania, which would lead to life imprisonment, or to seek a second chance to do something else with my life,” he told Hoxha. “That’s why I got into drug trafficking.”
Via Dutch and Belgian ports
According to the Florence Prosecutor’s Office, Kompania Bello is a cartel made up of 14 Albanian crime organisations involved in drug trafficking and was in operation since at least 2014 in Ecuador, the Netherlands, Belgium, Albania and Italy.
Functioning as a ‘transnational crime federation’, the aim of Kompania Bello “was to extend control over international drug trafficking and exponentially increase the profits of federated members,” prosecutors allege. Benefitting from a privileged relationship with South American cocaine producers, Kompania Bello enabled its members to import and distribute large quantities of drugs from South America via Dutch and Belgian ports.
Also part of the syndicate were two major crime groups headed by suspects identified by prosecutors only by their Blackberry chat names ‘Gimi’ and ‘Reti’. Based in the Netherlands, Reti’s criminal group is described as a go-between between Rexhepi and lower-level Albanian crime gangs involved in drug distribution in Europe. Gimi’s organisations, another co-founder of Kompania Bello, also has direct links to drug cartels in South America.
Other players identified by Italian prosecutors include the brothers Gerti and Edmond Marku, who are accused of trafficking cocaine from the Netherlands to Italy, Germany and other European states, as well as Eldi Dizdari, whose group was involved in moving large quantities of drugs from Dutch ports.
|The picture on the left was released by the Interpol in October 2020.|
In an intercepted conversation between Rexhepi and his lieutenant in Europe, Jorin Llambro, the latter describes Dizdari – who was arrested in Dubai under the Los Blancos operation – as “No. 1.” “In one case, he extracted four tones,” Llambro told Rexhepi. Another of those arrested, this time in Albania, was Gentjan Manaj, whom prosecutors accuse of managing money transfers between various members of Kompania Bello.
Using encrypted communications networks and codes, Kompania Bello organised the exchange of drug couriers between members and the recruitment of drivers, while members exchanged information on police investigations and court cases and swapped ideas for future activities. The cartel facilitated cash payments and members benefitted from a network of corrupt public officials in charge of monitoring cargo in ports at various stages of a drug shipment’s journey from South America.
The Albanian prosecutor, who spoke to BIRN on condition of anonymity, said Kompania Bello boasted a solid hierarchy, with cartel leaders recruiting footsoldiers within the extensive Albanian diaspora community in the Netherlands and Italy. Loyalty was paramount.
“The leaders and promoters of the organisation, thanks to their operational capacities and capacity to intimidate, enforced a pact of silence in case any of the collaborators was arrested,” he said. “And if this unwritten pact was not respected, serious consequences would follow as they would take revenge against family members in the Netherlands, Italy or Albania.”
Rexhepi’s success rested on his relationship with Ecuadorian trafficker Cesar Emilio Montenegro Castillo, also known as ‘Don Monti’ and who is linked to the Colombian drug cartel Norte dell Valle and El Chapo’s Sinaloa in Mexico. Norte dell Valle grew in importance in the late 1990s following the fragmentation of the Cali and Medellin cartels in Colombia. Sinaloa is one of the largest drug trafficking organisations in the world.
“In direct contact with Rexhepi, the Ecuadorians organise the import of cocaine to Europe through well-defined rules – each shipment is organised with the 50:50 modality, meaning that for each load they sell to the Albanians they add another equal amount on their account, which on arrival is entrusted to criminal elements in the Netherlands for distribution,” Italian prosecutors wrote.
According to the court documents, Rexhepi ensured his good standing with Montenegro Castillo not just because of his proven abilities as a drugs trafficker but because he had managed to compete with Chinese criminal organisations in the transfer of drug money.
Generally, cash payments for cocaine in the Netherlands and UK are then paid to traffickers in South America by people linked to these Chinese organisations, without the physical transfer of money between Europe and South American. But the Chinese charge high rates of commission. Rexhepi sought to cut out the middlemen by using cash couriers and multiple small transfers via Western Union.
In one case, after a tip-off by Italian police, two Albanian couriers were detained at Ecuador’s Guayaquil airport carrying 350,000 euros in cash. “Rexhepi’s curriculum vitae undoubtedly shows his criminal drive, involvement and capacity to manage a major trafficking operation worldwide, despite his status as an inmate,” the Italian prosecutors wrote.
The ship has sailed
In January 2017, Rexhepi collaborated with Montenegro Castillo and a subordinate of the Ecuadorian trafficker known as Antrax to ship hundreds of kilos of drugs on containers from the port of Guayaquil to Antwerp. The floor of each container was opened, stuffed with packets of cocaine and insulated with foam.
The floor was then welded back into place. The drugs would then be extracted when the legal goods sitting on top arrived at their destination. Italian police, eavesdropping on their communications, notified Ecuadorian authorities to intercept the containers. The drugs, however, got through. Someone had tipped off the authorities about the cargo, Antrax wrote to Rexhepi on January 15, 2017.
“But everything went well,” he added. “They saw nothing and it has already sailed.”
The shipment was destined for an important group of Albanian traffickers, and Rexhepi and Antrax talked excitedly about what it might mean for the future. “Look friend, if we get along well with those people you won’t know where to stash the cash, believe me,” Rexhepi told Antrax.
A day after the ship sailed, Rexhepi and Antrax crunched the numbers. From their conversation, police learned that Rexhepi had bought 371 kilos of cocaine at $4,400 per kilo for a total cost of $1.63 million, $1.2 million of which was prepaid. The drugs could be sold on to wholesalers in Europe at between 22,000 and 24,000 euros per kilo, netting Rexhepi roughly eight million euros in revenues.
|Interpol Red Wanted notice information on Rexhepi.|
Estimating income from drug trafficking is notoriously difficult but, for the purpose of asset freezes, prosecutors estimated that the organisation led by Gerti and Edmond Marku distributed at least 50 kilos per week, resulting in an annual turnover of 70.2 million euros.
The true numbers may be even higher given investigators found that the group sometimes sold up to 50 kilos per day at 27,000 euros per kilo. Prosecutors believe the brothers’ group was active for at least three years, estimating its total turnover for that period at 210 million euros.
As for Rexhepi, prosecutors believe he trafficked at least 2,368 kilos of cocaine of 2016 and 3,654 kilos in 2017. With an average wholesale price of 23,500 euros per kilo, revenues for the two years are estimated at 141 million euros. While the profits can be huge, so can the losses, said the Albanian prosecutor involved in the Los Blancos operation.
“As for the real amount of drugs, I believe this could be higher, taking into account the quantities of drugs that the Italian authorities could not seize or document,” he told BIRN. “In this business there are large profits to be made, but the income calculation must take into account that the financial losses are also huge.”
Besides Rexhepi, Italian prosecutors have filed charges against 33 suspects in the case, most of them Albanian citizens living in the Netherlands and Italy. Some 84 other members of Kompania Bello were arrested in the preceding five years in Italy, Ecuador, the Netherlands, the UK, Switzerland and Germany.
Source: Balkan InSight
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