Coffee bar restaurant, Albania. 2015. Photograph by Enri Canaj, Magnum.
The takedown happened over five days in the chilly spring of 2009 in suburban New Jersey. The main targets: the two ringmasters of a 26-strong Albanian organized crime gang—Kujtim Lika, a baseball cap-wearing gambler who went by the name Timmy, and Myfit “Mike” Dika, who sported a conspicuous tattoo of a bald eagle on his left bicep and the words “Death Before the Sun” on his right.
Jim Farley, a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI, likes to describe his role as similar to that of Joe Torre, former manager of the Yankees baseball team—to keep his team focused and happy; “Make sure the players were really doing the job.” But if Operation Black Eagle failed, the buck stopped with him. And as the largest undercover infiltration of Albanian organized crime in the FBI’s history, Farley knew failure wasn’t an option.
This was the culmination of a four-year investigation into Lika and Dika’s gang’s plan to smuggle over 220 lbs of heroin from Albania into the port of New Jersey in shipping containers, under the guise of a front company that sold furniture. During those four years, Farley’s agents infiltrated the Albanian gang, buying heroin, marijuana, oxycontin, steroids, counterfeit sneakers, guns and jewelry. Like the Italian-American mafia, Albanian organized crime gangs were tight-knit and hard to penetrate. But what made it even harder was that there was little evidence of any real structure or hierarchy.
What Operation Black Eagle brought into sharp relief was just how much of an outsized impact such a tiny country in the middle of Europe had on organized crime abroad. Today, Albanian organized crime is the fastest-growing criminal threat in Europe, responsible for distributing up to 40 percent of the heroin consumed there, and it has tentacles in the United States, Australia and the Middle East.
But how and why did this happen?
Following World War II, Albania, a mountainous country consisting of just 11,000 miles square in the Balkans, with coasts that hug the Adriatic and Ionian seas, became a Communist state under autocrat Enver Hoxha.
To his supporters, the receding Hoxha was responsible for rebuilding the country, improving its infrastructure and national electricity grid, constructing its first railway line and raising the literacy rate. To his detractors, his goons carried out extrajudicial killings, used labor camps and installed the Sigurimi or “secret police” to target opposition.
In a 2003 paper on organized crime in Albania, political theorist Eno Trimçev called Hoxha’s government the most repressive totalitarian regime in Europe; one that embarked on a social engineering project that “destroyed many of the age-old moral values and norms that provide the basis for community life.” The regime, Trimçev wrote, attempted to build a new type of citizen, which it termed the “New Man.” In 1967, it outlawed religion, and “through sheer terror, [it] slowly but surely undermined the moral principles that had been built by tradition, national pride and self-respect…Through sheer terror, the regime slowly but surely undermined the moral principles that had been built by tradition, national pride and self-respect.”
What’s more, Albania was isolated internationally and its economy was in ruins. It was under this burden that, after the collapse of Communism, it entered the post-Cold War era, embarking on a shaky transition to democracy in 1992.
Albanian criminal gangs were formed by groups of men who’ve known each other since childhood.
With that transition came a politics of clientelism—the exchange of goods and services for political support—that massively undermined its fledgling democracy.
On the right was the Democratic Party, which came to power in 1992 and was fiercely critical of Communism, demanding sweeping political and economic reforms. But five years later, the country’s first flirtation with democracy was on shaky ground. During the 1990s, with a beleaguered financial system of its own, Albania was beset by a vast pyramid scheme enterprise, in which two-thirds of its citizens invested in financial schemes that offered seemingly fantastic returns.
But as with any pyramid scheme, many of the companies offering these returns were insolvent from the start and the schemes ultimately collapsed, with the majority of investors losing everything. At their peak, the value of the schemes’ liabilities amounted to almost half of Albania’s GDP. The result: rioting leading to 2,000 deaths and a country on the brink of civil war. In 1997, the left-wing Socialist Party, which was far less critical of the Communist regime, came to power and remained there for the next eight years. But like the Democratic Party, Socialist politicians also relied on clientelism to keep them in power. It was pay-to-play politics.
In the midst of this political and social maelstrom—a heady mix of political instability, high levels of unemployment and a weak (and corrupt) justice system—organized crime networks began to emerge. Poverty and opportunity were fertile ground for drug dealing, prostitution and theft: get-rich-quick crimes of the street.
But it doesn’t take long for street criminals to get organized, and soon, the gangs weren’t just operating within Albania. Many Albanians left the country in search of work, sending money back to their families. Some who migrated to Italy forged alliances between the Sacra Corona Unita, a mafia-style organized crime outfit in the south of the country, and former members of the Sigurimi secret police back home. Elsewhere, former members of the secret police established criminal enterprises outright themselves. They were willing to get involved in anything that made money, from drug trafficking and money laundering to people and weapons smuggling.
Arben was introduced to me by an underworld contact as someone who could give me a glimpse into Albanian organized crime
Meanwhile in Albania, cannabis cultivation was quickly becoming a lucrative part of the so-called “gray economy“—a product untaxed and largely untouched by the government and readymade for export to Western Europe. For many, it was the only means of survival.
Geographically, Albania was perfectly located between countries such as Afghanistan and Turkey that were producing harder drugs like heroin and the countries that consumed those drugs in the West. And a more lucrative drug trade demanded more organization among criminal groups.
“The communist regime left us extremely poor, both economically and spiritually,” Arben tells me one day over WhatsApp, the encrypted text messaging service. “So, when the borders were opened, we were very hungry.”
Although Arben originally trained as a police officer in Albania, the life of a cop wasn’t for him. Instead, he became involved in organized crime—“a little of everything” is all he’ll admit to. “But I understand that world. I know that world.”
Arben was introduced to me by an underworld contact as someone who could give me a glimpse into Albanian organized crime and how it became established in the years following the collapse of Communism. Arben refuses to use his full name and will only communicate via text.
He says Albania’s emergence as a force in organized crime is very much related to its history. “During the last centuries, we have been attacked like a lamb to the wolves. We have seen the Balkan states being created by [countries] invading our territories and our population being massacred and forced to leave. So much blood was shed to protect our homes, our children; we have grown up in wars. But we have never attacked others, we have just tried to protect what’s ours. So we have seen injustice winning, but we’re still a nation that wants to live in peace with our neighbors, despite the bloody things they did to us in the past.”
The country’s nascent organized criminal groups exploited corruption in Albania. While the Communist secret police did not give birth to the Albanian mafia, some former Sigurimi (and, following the collapse of Communism, former and current police officers like Arben) saw opportunities to make large sums of money in organized crime.
Arben says that while there are similarities between Albanian crime families and the more famous Italian mafia-type clans, there’s a fundamental difference: “There’s a kind of equality among Albanians. It’s hard to have the hierarchy that the Italians do. Violence is definitely a key component, but I would say also there’s an honesty in the way we do business.”
There’s a scene in The Godfather in which Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone, takes a seat at a large dining table with the other heads of the crime families of New York and New Jersey. “How did things ever get so far?” he says in an effortless, gravelly whisper. “I don’t know. It was so unfortunate, so unnecessary … I swear on the souls of my grandchildren,” he concludes, “that I will not be the one to break the peace that we have made here today.”
The scene in the movie takes place in 1948, but seven years later, Corleone’s son and heir Michael exacts revenge, having four mob bosses summarily executed and thus consolidating his family’s power. “It’s very hard to think that an Albanian would do the same after promising peace,” Arben says.
Honesty. What at first may sound like an attempt to romanticize the world of organized crime bears much closer scrutiny, for honesty may hold the key to the outsized success of Albanian organized crime internationally.
Besa is a term used frequently in Albania. Usually translated into English as “faith” or “trust,” a more accurate interpretation is “to keep the honor.” The word has been around since at least the 15th century, when it appeared in the Kanun—a set of traditional Albanian laws originally passed down through word of mouth and which governed everything from marriage to land rights. Besa was the highest authority. Even today, it’s sacrosanct, a pledge of honor as solemn as a blood oath.
Shqiptarët vdesin dhe besen nuk e shkelin: Albanians would die rather than break besa.
Albanian criminal gangs were formed by groups consisting mostly of men who were related or who had known each other since childhood. Besa was what bound them for life; betrayal was almost unthinkable.
But over time, as they branched out from organized crime within Albania to organized crime abroad, they were forced to forge new ties with criminals in other countries. Initially, these were with neighbors like Greece, Macedonia and Kosovo, then with Italian organized crime groups like Sacra Corona Unita and the Sicilian mafia, and then with heroin traffickers in Turkey.
There was never one “Albanian mafia,” just a number of separate clans dominated by numerous powerful families. And the traits linking them all was this honor that bound them— and the level of violence they were willing to inflict, used both to control their victims and to intimidate police and judges.
In order to assess the kind of crimes these gangs were involved in, researchers in Tirana, Albania’s capital, analyzed 3,793 pages of legal decisions between 2006 and 2014 from the country’s Serious Crimes Court of First Instance. They found that drug trafficking accounted for 42 percent of cases, weapons trafficking 18 percent, human trafficking 17 percent, smuggling of migrants 9 percent and extortion 8 percent.
Arben says that today, human and weapons trafficking and prostitution are a small part of Albanian organized crime. “The Albanians are number one at drugs,” he says. “They’ve kicked everyone else out. We’re very violent and don’t think about it too much; we go straight to the point. It’s all or nothing. Today, we get heroin from Turkey, as it’s not possible to go directly to Afghanistan. We have gotten it directly from Latin America for many years already, and the Albanians communicate directly with the producers in those countries.”
“We’re very violent and don’t think about it too much; we go straight to the point. It’s all or nothing.”
Albanians began arriving in New York in large numbers in the 1960s, settling in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. According to Jana Arsovska, an expert on Albanian organized crime, it was after the country’s near financial collapse in 1997 that Albanian crime groups rapidly expanded in the US.
In a 2016 research paper on Albanian organized crime in New York City, Arsovska wrote that Europol, the US State Department, the FBI and INTERPOL reckoned Albanian organized crime groups constituted a major threat to the Western world because of their extreme levels of violence, secrecy and the fact that they had graduated from acting as drug mules and hit men to working “within the highest echelons of international organized crime.”
According to the United Nations, today there are about 1.2 million Albanians living abroad—equivalent to almost half of the population currently living in Albania. Albanian organized crime groups are global players in drug trafficking, arms, cybercrime and money laundering. In 2004, the Albanian “Rudaj” organization was labeled the sixth crime family in New York City—joining the five traditional Italian-American mafia families: the Genovese, Gambino, Bonanno, Colombo and Lucchese. It was named after Alex Rudaj, who immigrated to the US in the 1980s and started the organization in the early 1990s, had ties to the Gambinos, and was sentenced to 27 years in prison on racketeering and other charges in 2006.
In 2019, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported how the Albanian mafia had seized control of the country’s £5 billion (USD $6.3 billion) cocaine trade. For years, it said, there was a separation in the cocaine trade between importers, wholesalers and the gangs who distributed it on the street.
“The Albanians ditched the entire model. They began negotiating directly with the Colombian cartels who control coca production. Huge shipments were arranged direct from South America. Supply chains were kept in-house. … The Albanians lowered the price of cocaine—and increased its purity.”
John Alite reckons that the Albanians are more and more respected in the American underworld because they’re hungry—and they never betray one another. As a former Gambino crime family associate, Alite was once a hit man for John Gotti, Jr. (He later turned against the powerful Italian-American crime organization when he says they betrayed him.) But because Alite’s parents are both Albanian (his father was born in Albania; his mother in the United States), he was never formally allowed to become a “made man” in the American mafia. Today, he’s a motivational speaker, writer and host of The Johnny and Gene Show podcast, which discusses the mafia’s past, present and future.
“Today, the Italian mafia has become complacent,” he tells Stranger’s Guide. “Yes, they’re in the stock markets, the unions and sea ports. But they’re making room for the Albanians because they have no choice. It’s either that or there’s violence.” The Albanian mob isn’t particularly sizable, he says, but that’s not the point. “The Italians are losing their respect because there’s no violence. And without that and without the structure, you’ll lose your place on the street.
“With the Albanians, it’s the quality, not quantity,” Alite says. “I’d rather be with 20 men than 1,000 cowards. And even if we lose, we’re coming back and you’re going to have to put us down for good if we’re going to stop. Think of it like a soccer team: if you have a field of players, why do you need 20 other guys who suck on the bench? You just need two or three decent reserve players and you have a hell of a team.”
Albanian gangsters, he says, are making massive amounts of money both illegally and legally. “Now they’re in every fucking country. And your blood runs true when you can stand with the handful, rather than majority. “Albanian organized crime is not run like the Italian-American mafia. There’s no loyalty with the Italians. Albanians, on the other hand, have a connection between family and friends,” Alite says. “Through besa, we don’t betray each other.”
One person who knows more than most about organized crime in Albania is Driçim Çaka, one of Albania’s foremost investigative journalists. Over the last decade, Çaka has observed Albanian gangs becoming stronger abroad, particularly in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Spain. Perhaps ironically, Albania is now Italy’s main supplier of cannabis—not the Italian mob. Çaka estimates that 95 percent of drugs produced or transiting through Albania end up in Europe.
“They’ve also become more violent. They are involved in killings and threats to control their territory,” Çaka says. Through his work reporting on the Albanian mafia, Çaka found that they cooperate with organized crime outfits in other countries. Their weapon of choice is the Kalashnikov, which Arben calls a “gift from the communist state.”
One of the cases Çaka has documented is that of Klement Balili, known as the “Escobar of the Balkans.” Balili was a former public official whose website, Balkan Insight, said became a symbol of state failure to deal with organized crime. In May 2019, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for international drug trafficking, membership of a criminal organization and other crimes. Greece accused Balili of masterminding drug smuggling operations worth hundreds of millions of euros, but it said Albanian authorities had failed to arrest him, initially refusing to even acknowledge he was on the lam from Greek authorities.
Çaka says while Balili faced 15 years in jail, after he surrendered to police, he came to an agreement with Albanian authorities and ended up with a reduced sentence. Accusations began to swirl about his political connections. Balili’s case shows that today, not much has changed. In the late 1990s, organized criminals in Albania worked with foreign crime outfits, largely with impunity. Now, they’ve grown in power, are less reliant on those foreign criminals, and yet still operate largely with impunity.
Albania joined NATO and applied for European Union membership in 2009. A decade on, Freedom House, a US non-profit that researches political freedom and human rights, says democracy in the country has deteriorated and notes a rising authoritarianism and “a dysfunctional system of mechanisms to check and balance government powers.”
In 2019, the country saw mass protests and parliamentary boycotts. Opposition parties resigned en masse from Parliament, accusing the ruling party of widespread corruption and using organized criminal networks to manipulate the country’s elections.
You could be forgiven for thinking the new Albania looks a lot like the old Albania.
Back in the spring of 2009, Jim Farley’s FBI Operation Black Eagle was in full swing. His agents had found it hard to infiltrate Timmy Lika and Mike Dika’s 26-strong Albanian organized crime gang in New Jersey. With the Italian-American mafia, the FBI could start with low-level informants—“get to the soldiers,” as Farley says, “intercept, find out who the bosses are.”
But with the Albanians, it was difficult for Farley’s agents to find common ground. “I’m half Irish, half Italian. I can talk to an Italian mafia guy about dinner, baseball. Do you put cheese on all your pasta dishes? We can connect as regular guys. With the Albanians, it’s a different culture. But we had good sources,” Farley says, “and slowly, we were able to get close, find what their weakness was and where they wanted to expand their footprint and make money quick.”
Undercover agents began to offer their services, laundering money for the gang or smuggling cigarettes. “The FBI are creative,” he says. “Any time undercover agents would meet with them at a restaurant, they’d try to get closer to them. We don’t supply drugs—we can’t do that— but normally, we’ll do the opposite; we’ll take drugs from them, tell them we can launder money for them and ask them to launder ours.”
Twenty-six people were ultimately charged with a laundry list of crimes, including narcotics and firearms trafficking, money laundering, interstate transportation of stolen property and criminal conspiracy.
As with the Italian mob, cutting the head off the snake does little to really dent the organization.
Farley’s agents recovered more than $500,000 in cash and property, including two airplanes used to import the drugs. “We took a couple of cars, a Bentley, we took a little bit of everything,” Farley says. “That’s the real way to damage them: take their assets.”
But in the 2009 operation, only 22 members of the gang were arrested. Among the four the FBI failed to capture that spring were Timmy Lika and Mike Dika. Dika remained at large until 2010, when he was arrested in Canada by the Toronto Fugitive Task Force; Lika was captured two years later, also in Toronto, in a joint operation between the city’s police force and the Canada Border Services Agency.
But, as with the Italian mob, cutting the head off the snake does little to really dent the organization. When you take out the kingpins, the guys lower down the ladder will step in and take control. “But the lack of a defined hierarchy helps the Albanians to some extent,” Farley says. “There’s no obvious son or cousin ready to step up and take over the family, so it’s hard for us to keep a foot on the pedal.”