July 22nd 2011 06:05:26 PM
Another one of these mass arrests of Our Friends the Albanians.
Kosovo is increasingly looking like a stimulus package for more jobs for the police, DEA and FBI.
In all the reports below, there is a reference to the drug operation functioning for “more than a decade.” Gee, what happened just over a decade ago that could have facilitated so many badasses from the Balkans?
One certainly wonders how Bronx Congressman Eliot Engel is planning on getting reelected if the entire constituency whose bidding he’s been doing is in jail?
NEW YORK (AP) — A ruthless syndicate of ethnic Albanians in the United States, Canada and Europe orchestrated a multimillion drug-dealing scheme spanning a decade, at times hiding shipments of cocaine in luxury cars and using gunplay and other violence to protect its turf, U.S. authorities said Wednesday.
An indictment unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn charged 37 people with multiple counts of conspiracy to smuggle and distribute massive amounts of high-grade marijuana and cocaine.
A strike force of agents and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the New York Police Department and other agencies arrested most of the defendants Wednesday during raids in the New York City area, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida.
U.S. authorities said one reputed ringleader named in the indictment, Arif “The Bear” Kurti, already is serving time in Albania for heroin trafficking, but has continued to give orders from behind bars using smart phones smuggled into prison.
Court papers filed in New York described the ring as a network of “several inter-related ethnic Albanian family clans” that spanned the globe in pursuit of illicit profits and used violence “for the specific purpose of intimidating, eliminating or retaliating against witnesses and law enforcement agents.”
Earlier this year, three of the defendants gave a “clean-cut” patron of a Bronx bar a vicious beating because they suspected he was an undercover officer who was following them, the court papers said. A dispute over a drug debt prompted two ring members to track down another victim June 4 at a busy Bronx cafe, where they pulled guns, chased him out the door and shot him in both legs, the papers added.
A four-year investigation found that the ring smuggled tens of thousands of kilos of marijuana into the United States from Mexico and Canada by hiding it in tractor trailers carrying legitimate cargo, court papers said. The drugs were stashed in warehouses in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx before being distributed throughout the city and suburbs.
The syndicate also smuggled cocaine inside hidden compartments in luxury sedans shipped by U.S. car dealers to Albania and elsewhere in Europe, authorities said. Last year, one of the ring’s couriers was caught at the airport in Lima, Peru carrying clothing saturated with 24 kilos of liquid cocaine, they added.
Raids in New York on Wednesday resulted in the recovery of 18 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, authorities said. Previous seizures in Manhattan netted nearly $2 million in alleged drug proceeds.
And yes, please do note that the CBS editor’s headline for the AP item above actually reads “Albanians” this time — as opposed to “former Yugoslavs” or “people from the Balkans.” Maybe someone’s catching on?
From the U.S. Attorney’s Office Press Release (37 ALLEGED MEMBERS AND ASSOCIATES OF AN INTERNATIONAL ETHNIC-ALBANIAN ORGANIZED CRIME SYNDICATE ARRESTED: Defendants Charged with Trafficking Cocaine, Marijuana, MDMA and Prescription Drugs, and Laundering Tens of Millions of Dollars in Narcotics Proceeds) we see that the syndicate is referred to as “the Thaqi organization.” Appropriately, the same name as the criminal Kosovo state’s prime sinister Hashim Thaci (alternately spelled Thaqi or Taci, and pronounced ‘Tachi’) — and of course other familiar last names, such as Berisha (Albania’s prime minister), also pop up:
…Most of the defendants were arrested earlier today in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Albany, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida…Two defendants were arrested last month following a drug-related shooting, and several others are already in custody for previously charged crimes. One of the alleged ringleaders was arrested by law enforcement agents in Albania, and the United States has requested his extradition…
DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Gilbride stated, “…DEA’s Strike Force and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners were successful in dismantling the Thaqi organization…”
If convicted, the three alleged leaders of the syndicate, Gjavit Thaqi, Arif Kurti and Gjevelin Berisha, charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise and using firearms in furtherance of their drug trafficking crimes, face a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment…
And a report from The Wall Street Journal (Oh thank you, Your Holiness, for deigning to report something negative about your beloved Albanians/”Kosovars”): Drug Ring Arrests
More than three dozen members and associates of an alleged Albanian organized-crime syndicate have been charged in a long-running scheme to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs into the U.S., as well as Canada and Europe, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
A federal indictment outlined the purported decadelong scheme - and revealed an array of colorful nicknames the defendants allegedly used: “The Bear,” “Juicehead,” “Fat Ange,” “Jo-Jo,” “The Kid,” “Lucky” and “Little Guy,” among others. Some echoed the monikers of Italian organized crime. A man named Faik Mehmeti was known as “Frank Nitti,” according to the indictment.
Prior to Wednesday’s arrests, the syndicate was allegedly involved in negotiations to obtain hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from South America, some of which would be shipped to Canada in exchange for high-grade hydroponic marijuana, prosecutors said.
A small New York press got the drop on all the media, though, months ago, preempting even the Feds’ press release — indicating that at least some in New York are finally waking up to the Kosovo in their midst. Check out this three-part March-to-July series on Albanian organized crime — and check out the picture. This is The Bronx, Folks. The threatening, blood-and-darkness Albanian flag is making its presence known as Kosovo lawlessness entrenches itself on our shores:
A graffiti mural in Albanian featuring the double-headed eagle, off Lydig Ave. in the Bronx.
An introduction to the New York-Albanian mob by Kevin Heldman (March 11)
It’s not every day that two weed dealers from New York City face the death penalty.
These two are a pair of Albanian-American brothers from Staten Island named Saimir and Bruno Krasniqi, ages 29 and 26. They, along with a 27-year-old partner named Almir Rrapo — who was a civil servant in Albania, working for a deputy prime minister at the time of his arrest — led a crew of 15 other men. The other members of their crew were Albanian, too.
I first heard about Albanians and the street in the mid 1980s. They tore through the Westchester County Fair at Yonkers Raceway with baseball bats over some type of beef. They were just beginning to make a name for themselves here for craziness. Do not fuck with the Albanians was quickly becoming conventional wisdom.
New York City has the largest Albanian population in the United States, and for 25 years a small number of them have been popping up in spectacular ways on the blotter: shooting up Scores strip club; putting a hit out on Giuliani and his prosecutor; employing an active-duty cop for crime jobs; muscling in on and pulling guns on the Gambino family during a sit-down at a gas station (allegedly); demanding John Gotti’s old table at Raos (allegedly). Plaurent “Lenti” Dervishaj, the most-wanted fugitive in his native Albania, the alleged head of an organized-crime syndicate, is on the federal authorities’ most-wanted list for New York City. (Among other things, he had rocket launchers.)
Albanian gangsters maintain a serious presence in Europe and a serious reputation among people who study transnational organized crime. They get shouted out in Grand Theft Auto.
We all should know this, but it has to be said: This is just one story about one aspect of a community, and a people. Mother Teresa was Albanian. So was the kind lady in the bakery in the Bronx who schooled me on burek and sudjuk, and so was the man who took me into his home when I rang his bell out of the clear blue at night after bouncing around Albanian businesses in Staten Island all day and depositing a long letter into the Krasniqi family mailbox.
[Notice that journalists don’t bother with these otherwise ubiquitous courteous disclaimers when writing negatively about Serbs.]
Walking through some sketchy urban blight I stumbled upon and into a large building housing the very substantial Albanian-American Institute.
Albania is a small country but special in some unfortunate ways, not least of which is the presence of a significant political-criminal syndicate within the government.
It’s a prime transit zone for heroin….The product goes from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey and then to the Balkans where “interception efficiency drops significantly…the route is exceedingly well organized and lubricated with corruption,” according to the The World Drug Report 2010, produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The report also notes that “…important networks have clan based and hierarchically organized structures. Albanian groups in particular have such structures making them particularly hard to infiltrate.” There is an old Albanian tradition of families and clans (fins, fares) and a code of honor (besa) that criminals appropriate and corrupt.
Albania also has been a very significant corridor for human trafficking (sex work) and smuggling of migrants. Ethnic Albanians are also heavily involved in the fake-passport industry.
There’s reportedly mass production of marijuana there; the government is considered to be statistically one of the most corrupt in the world. (Ilir Meta, the minister Rrapo worked for, recently resigned and is being investigated.) Close to 50 percent of Albania’s young men (the 15- to 24-year-olds, the prime age of lawbreakers) are unemployed. A significant amount of money made illegally by Albanians abroad is sent back home, where, according to reports, it can be laundered.
IN AUGUST 2010 THE U.S. ATTORNEY’S OFFICE IN MANHATTAN unsealed a 37-page indictment against the “Krasniqi Organization” (which is almost certainly not what they called themselves). The FBI, which has a standing Albanian Organized Crime Task Force, and the New York Joint Organized Crime Force conducted the operation…
In the indictment, the crew is alleged to have smuggled marijuana over the border from Canada into Detroit (significantly, they’re charged with operating in the Eastern District of Michigan; more on this later) and Buffalo and then couriered it to New York.
The Krasniqis are supposed to have moved and distributed more than 100 kilos of marijuana. The authorities are seeking millions in asset forfeitures. Three of the crew were on unemployment.
THERE ARE ALBANIAN NEIGHBORHOODS ON EITHER SIDE of East Fordham Road in the Bronx: Pelham Parkway on one side, the Belmont section on the other. (There are smaller concentrations of Albanians on Staten Island, in Brooklyn and in Queens.) It’s an area where you can pick up copies of Illyria newspaper, where you see the double-headed eagle flag fly on rearview mirrors and the stickers proudly advertising “The World’s Newest Country,” Kosovo.
It’s where you walk into cafés and drink strong espresso in the middle of the day as strong-looking adult men do their social-club thing. It’s where the 40-something in a track suit schools me on the food and culture, where the younger Albanian homeboys with ball caps and sneakers talk about cars doing 180 m.p.h and their dreams of opening up a pizzeria one day.
These are the facts, according to the government: In 2005 Erion Shehu was shot and killed in a drive-by in Queens, allegedly by the Krasniqis and Rrapo. Nineteen shots, seven hits. Gambling receipts on his person and a gun in his car.
Six months after this (court records talk about the Krasniqi brothers’ habit around this time of sticking guns into people’s mouths to threaten them), the Krasniqis shot Erenick Grezda in the head and dumped him on the side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
In part of his guilty plea, Sejdaris said that he was in the car when Grezda’s murder took place (apparently his guns were used; court records indicate he was charged with possession of a machine gun). It was also Sejdaris’ car and it was torched to get rid of evidence. He was reimbursed for it. Sejdaris told the court that they used to call Grezda “Eri” for short; it seems they were friendly. They were all boys at one point.
They were such boys that they were together with the others in on the Shehu killing. Friends told the court that Grezda later laughed about it.
AROUND 2005, GREZDA WAS KIDNAPPED BY A RIVAL ALBANIAN gang the Krasniqis had ripped off. Bruno was kidnapped, too, by four masked men — the same ones who had taken Grezda.
They were driven to Michigan.
Grezda was beaten so badly he could barely walk. He gave up the Krasniqis as the robbers. He was left bloody and naked in downtown Detroit. A good samaritan put him on a bus to New York.
Meanwhile, Bruno called Saimir, who was living in Michigan at the time (the Eastern District) and told him that he had to pay a $350,000 ransom for his life. Saimir, supposedly in the crime game since 2003, and having just killed someone four months earlier (Shehu), called the FBI.
A news account from the time says that the Bureau mobilized 50 agents. Saimir cooperated in a sting and they arrested the bagman during the money drop-off. The bagman, a political asylum seeker and restaurant worker, Franc Shestani, refused to cooperate, reportedly saying “just go ahead and shoot me now.” Bruno was later dropped off in a gas station along I-75…
Around this same time, very near where Saimir was living in Michigan, rival Albanian gangs were terrorizing Oakland and Macomb Counties, hanging around a coffee shop named Goodfellows…making people beg for their life at gunpoint, planning at one point to ride in on motorcycles with AK-47s to settle a dispute.
The purported leader of one of the gangs, Ketjol Manoku, 26, used a nine millimeter to shoot four other Albanians in a minivan. (All this was going on literally in Eminem and Kid Rock territory…) Manoku and two other Albanian twenty-somethings are now doing multiple life sentences in Michigan state prisons…
Two months after the whole kidnapping, FBI sting went down in Michigan, the Krasniqis murdered their boy Erenick Grezda in New York in retaliation.
Bruno Krasniqi’s other attorney, Kelley Sharkey, politely told me to leave him alone…Sharkey has defended a Gambino hit man and has been publicly hated by a law enforcement association. She defended a Staten Island banger who killed two undercover detectives, one of them as he pled for his life. She asked a jury to show him mercy, mercy he himself didn’t show; she asked each of them to be a better person than her client was. The reporter in the courtroom wrote that her voice broke, and that she cried for a second. She wasn’t just doing her job, he said.
The trial for the drug charges is scheduled to start on May 23. A separate trial on the racketeering charges, involving both the Krasniqis and a rival crew, will begin in October. I’ll attend both.
Some people I’ve talked to in the course of reporting this story have asked, pointedly, why any of this is interesting, and why it’s worth writing about. There are tens of thousands of Albanians in New York working multiple jobs, raising children and going to church.
Two young men are dead, two more men might be executed. At least 16 other young men will spend years, maybe the rest of their lives, in cages. There are surely many mothers and fathers crying, girlfriends and wives devastated, families wrecked.
It happens all the time, I’ve been told. It’s a valid point.
My answer is that not to bother to try to explain why and how it all happened is like not having a proper funeral service for the dead, and that telling the story is a way of showing we’re better than those who don’t or can’t give a damn about their own lives, or other people’s. […]
To understand the story of Albanian organized crime in New York City, where the murder and drug-trafficking trials of the notoriously violent Krasniqi brothers and their associates got underway this week, I had to go to Michigan.
For five hours in a prison on the Canadian border, I sat across a table from Ketjol Manoku. He’s in for murder — 10 felony sentences. His latest motion had been denied the day before I arrived.
He’s 200-plus pounds and six feet tall, with a shaved head and a Viking beard. I told him he looked pretty hard…The only thing that was missing from the classic profile was a tattoo; his corrections sheet stated that he had none. But of course during the interview he pulled up his sleeve and there it was: A prison tat of the doubled-headed eagle, maybe 8 inches tall on the top part of his arm, representing Shqiptar [Albanians] everywhere.
He told me matter-of-factly that prison is too easy. It’s like high school. In Albania, he said, he was once beaten by police until his grey shirt was bright red and the cops were paid off the next day and he was let go. He said he fired his first gun at age 11 — a Russian version of a .45.
He and his friend once saw two men get shot in front of them…A lot of his friends from back home are dead now…
Manoku didn’t like school, and left at 16 or 17. At 19 he did a year in the army, which he described in carefully vague terms as something like special forces. He didn’t say much about the training, other than it taught him how to be good at being violent.
He went to Greece, got involved in some crime there, including counterfeiting money, and was deported back to Albania. He had five different passports.
He came to America in 2001 looking for a new life. He snuck in through Mexico, speaking no English.
He had family in Michigan (in Macomb and Oakland counties). He worked in restaurants, and lived in a ghetto area at first…He did security, helping organize concerts featuring Albanian singers in Michigan, and had a small cleaning company. He was also involved in some muscle work, persuading people to pay debts to criminals. So, say, an Albanian would be smuggled into America for a fee of $12,000; he’d pay $8,000 up front but once he’s here in America he wouldn’t want to pay the rest. Manoku would be the guy sent to convince him to settle up.
…He hung in the Albanian coffee shops in the Detroit area and met the infamous Krasniqi brothers there. Another Albanian gangster named Elton (Tony) Sejdaris introduced them.
He talked about a good Albanian friend getting murdered at a Michigan concert, and about going to New York to visit the Krasniqis and checking out mobster Paul Castellano’s house. He talked about two Albanian friends who went to Chicago on a drug deal with some Latinos and were killed and had their bodies burned. He said he went there to look into it. There were no arrests.
The Krasniqis are his friends, he said. Sometimes they translated for him.
Sejdaris, who is cooperating in the New York trial and has pled guilty, is definitely not a friend. Manoku called Sejdaris a coward, and said he always thought he was the weakest link in his network. He has the same dislike and contempt for a man who took a plea deal — Florjon Carcani, eight years — and testified against him and his two co-defendants: Edmond Zoica, life sentence, and Oliger Merko, 8 life sentences, two aliases. Manoku blames Carcani for lying in exchange for leniency, and for destroying his life.
There was apparently some friction between two groups of young Albanians. It was about north versus south Albanians, or perceived disrespect, or something to do with a woman, or a physical fight, or all of the above. When I pressed for details Manoku offered a lot of “let’s leave it at that.”
Manoku said he called for a peace meeting after an altercation and hands were shook and the beef was supposedly finished.
A week later two north boys jumped his boys. Manoku said he made phone calls and the other crew didn’t yield; they basically said that was how things were going to be.
He said two nights later, on July 17, 2004, at around 11:30 p.m., he was hanging in the parking lot of an apartment complex with his friends…Manoku said a van rolled into the parking lot with five people in it. He called out, “What’s up.”
Manoku said an A.K.-47 was pointed out the window of the vehicle. He said he went under a bush where a nine-millimeter was stashed and pulled it out and said, “Put the gun down.”
Manoku said the car accelerated toward him, and he fired, hitting four of the five young men in the van. One of the men, Marikol Jaku, 20 years old, died; the others were injured. (One of the victims injured that night, Ilirjan Dibra, pled guilty in Macomb County four years later to assault with intent to do great bodily harm.)
Prosecutors say Merko, the friend of Manoku, later tried to retrieve $2,000 and two guns and two boxes of ammo he gave to a friend. He wanted the weapons to kill witnesses [Hello, Kosovo, USA!], the state charged. The friend had turned in the weapons to the police the day of the shooting; Merko ended up assaulting him. Merko’s wife-to-be and family sold their house and business and fled the state; prosecutors say he told them if they talked or went to the police he’d blow up their house. (Manoku disputes this account.) Merko fled to Worcester, Mass. and then to Paterson, N.J., where United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the F.B.I. tracked him down and arrested him about seven months later.
He read the list of the indicted people involved in the upcoming New York trial. He knows the people; he said there are people he and his associates had beef with from Michigan. He wouldn’t speak on it though.
He believes in a god, though he said he’s not really religious. He reads the Koran and the Bible.
The F.B.I. has a task force for organized Balkan crime, in Kew Gardens, Queens. The unit had been dissolved, but it was reconstituted two months ago.
There’s an Albanian double-eagle flag draped over one of the cubicles. The supervising agent, Lou DiGregorio, worked on the Italian mafia for 20 years. He told me a few times that the guys in the Albanian crime game are vicious.
DiGregorio keeps a copy of the Kanun [primitive Albanian honor code] on his desk…He’s right about the desperation of the Albanians, which they seem to take with them, however far they get from the homeland. The Albanians were locked away from the rest of the world during Communism; they went through a genocidal purge [say what?] and an economic collapse. Their children got guns and shot at each other in the streets. They suffered from a horribly corrupt government.
I interviewed the scholar Jana Arsovska, a professor at John Jay College who used to work for Interpol and is an expert on Baltic and Albanian crime. She is working on a book about the kingpins — Acik Can, and the Dacic brothers, Hamdija and Ljutivia, Naser Kelmendi — and their huge networks and business empires; the Chinese immigrants who use Albania for smuggling; and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which produced lots of young men who know how to kill and no longer have a war to fight.
In the book, she documents huge amounts of cocaine seized in ships, and identifies godfathers of the people who inhabit the most-wanted list, with their clubs and hotels and business and government connections. Men like Princ Dobrosh, who had plastic surgery on his face and escaped from prison, and Dhimiter Harizaj, who was arrested in March on charges of involvement in international drug trafficking…
The Krasniqis are small-time, in her estimation, as she considered the weight they moved in the indictment. And they’re not sophisticated. But she allowed that they’re all connected, the Krasniqis and the Detroit players and a recently busted operation in New Jersey.
Of course, some connections to Albanian criminal culture are more real than others.
You have the rappers — the young guns all over YouTube with the Lamborghinis and the rims, posing in parking lots in the Bronx or Yonkers or Staten Island or 15 Mile Road outside of Detroit, wearing double-eagle bandanas stick-up style, brandishing A.K.s or pretending to, smoking weed and calling out real and fake Shqiptar. There are hip-hop groups like The Bloody Alboz, TBA, Uptown Affiliates, and Unikkatil whose names ring bells with young Albanians in the streets and clubs.
“It’s the red and the black, got the warrior blood in my veins
“I got a lotta brothas, terrorists, killaz, mafiaz, drug dealaz
And most of them soldiers, they used to be rebels, living by the mothafuckin gun, so if you
ever even think about fuckin with Albanians, I swear to god you gotta’ run”
Then you have the middle-aged business men, connected and associated with Italian mafia: Alex Rudaj and his Corporation types. Rudaj is still stoic in prison, the F.B.I. says; he won’t say a word. He made his money, then was duly locked up as part of the F.B.I.’s Trojan Horse operation.
You have the middle-management, little sloppy kingpins with their diversified gang members. In 2009 two aging pilots were caught flying 10 kilos of cocaine from Florida to Ocean City Airport in exchange for $15,000. They were caught as part of a four-year-long sting investigation into Balkan criminal enterprises. At least 26 people were charged with distributing and intent to distribute heroin, cocaine, weapons, methamphetamine, ecstasy, Xanax, Oxycodone, Percocet, crystal meth, contraband cigarettes, ketamine (Special K), anabolic steroids and counterfeit sneakers.
The network was headquartered in Paterson (where Merko from Detroit fled and was arrested), and it had ties to Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Canada, the Netherlands, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
…The F.B.I. infiltrated and purchased over 30,000 ecstasy pills, 2.5 kilograms of heroin, a 9 mm handgun, two assault-style weapons and stolen jewelry. Wiretaps and video surveillance at the Royal Warsaw Restaurant and Bar in Elmwood Park and the Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City led to the arrests.
The ringleaders were Myfit (Mike) Dika, 44, arrested in an Albanian restaurant in Toronto; Kujtim (Timmy) Lika, 45, still at large (F.B.I.’s Most Wanted in Jersey and supposedly the cousin of the Lika who put a $400,000 hit out on a Giuliani prosecutor); and Gazmir Gjoka, 56, who was arrested in Albania. The group also included a man named Rodan Kote who surrendered to the FBI at Newark’s Liberty Airport.
This was a global operation but it was also ridiculously local. The John Jay professor said that a number of her Albanian students have indictments, charges, connections, warrants due to connections or affiliations with members of the Jersey organization.
You have the lone wolves and freelancers, who are a frightening combination of highly capable and totally unpredictable. This type is exemplified by Din Celaj. Now 27, he started a life of crime at age 10, building up to a sheet that now includes extortion, gun sales, drug sales, burglary, stealing and selling luxury cars, hostage-taking, bank fraud, insurance fraud, credit-card fraud, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest, home invasions, discharging a weapon on the Hutchison River Parkway during a car chase, and shooting out a traffic camera on a highway in the Bronx after he ran a red light.
When Celaj was 16, a bouncer refused to let him into Scores, the strip club. He called some friends, who stopped traffic on the Queensboro Bridge while Celaj leaned across the railing with an Uzi and put six bullets through the windows. In 2009 he recruited an active duty New York City police officer, Darren Moonanto, to help him rob drug dealers.
I’ve gone into seemingly every Balkan bar, café, bakery, and social club in the Bronx and Queens, Staten Island and Detroit. I sent a letter to an Albanian man who was being extorted by two Albanians, who came to his front door with guns, threatening to rape his wife. Both were Krasniqi soldiers. The man shot one dead and injured the other (whose brother is most wanted by the FBI). I’ve called so many disconnected numbers, seen so many Balkan aliases, misspelled and differently spelled names and social security numbers linked to multiple people. I’ve been threatened with violence. I’ve been thrown out and hung up on…
I’ve been asked why I care about Albanians; repeatedly, I’ve had beefy guys ask me “who gives a fuck about the Balkans.”
I’ve talked to a tatted up, patched up, vested up Albanian biker at 3 a.m. while he was hanging with twenty other bikers on a curb in Queens. His cousin turns out to be one of the men under indictment in the upcoming NY trial. He’s from the Bronx and has the Albanian Eagle patch on his vest [so much to be proud of!] not far from his RIP patch…
I met the kindest sweetest old man, an Albanian shop owner in the Bronx named Gjin Noku…Noku said his wife was disabled from 9/11 cleanup, and that his son has somehow gotten caught up in crime. He was an innocent young boy, Noku said; a doorman and a student at Fordham. The son, Spartak Noku, was arrested — something to do with Ecstasy. The father said he wrote to Michael Bloomberg to help clear the son’s record, but didn’t get a response. He asked me for help, and said his boy is innocent. Now Spartak is depressed and wants to do accounting work but this record comes up and he’s not allowed. He gave me an Albanian flag, a beautiful Pristina snow globe, and a statue of the anti-Ottoman warrior-hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who every Albanian knows [and unfortunately whom the Albanian Nazi division was named after].
Before the shopkeeper there was an anonymous tipster who sent me a message with names of unarrested criminals. And after that I met an Albanian criminal who said he’s the owner of six cafes and has been arrested six times.
The criminal has a bullet wound and carries a money clip with 100 dollar bills. After a while of back and forth — I can’t tell you that, I shouldn’t be telling you that — he decided to tell me that he’s working for the F.B.I. as a confidential informant.
I’ve been lied to on this story before over the simplest of things. A 50-something owner of a restaurant in Detroit said he didn’t know any Albanians anywhere in the area, and never heard or saw anything related to Albanians; an hour later I found out his restaurant was across the street from where Manoku shot up the car. The first people I ran into in the nearby housing complex were Albanian, and I found six Albanian cafés and clubs within a two-block radius.
The C.I., a gregarious, back-slapping goodfella, told me that he helped set up one of the meetings between the Gambinos and the Alex Rudaj operation. He mentioned two cafés: Tony’s and Shelia’s. He told me that in an act of violence and disrespect, Rudaj stripped Joe Gambino and maybe some of his men naked. Albanians aren’t scared of an Italian mafioso, he said. They’re only scared of another Albanian, maybe.
He said he’s not scared of anything either, except one thing: He’s scared for his child’s health. He touched the Christian symbol hanging from his rearview mirror…He knows Gjovalin Berisha, a defendant in the upcoming trial, who he says owned a café down the block from a café I’d been at earlier…The C.I. also told me that the owner of a bar I had been in earlier was a major drug dealer, and that his brother is a driver for a minister in Albania.
He gave me two names that seemed to check out: Gjelosh Krasniqi and Ened or Edward Gjelaj. One is in prison in Albania for war crimes; the other, an associate of the Genovese crime family, was in federal custody and now is in a New York prison. The C.I. had them doing way more than they’re in prison for, and named two of their crime partners who are still free.
He said a large bust was coming soon in New York, of up to 50 people, Albanians and Italians. [Probably the one that opened this post.]
I asked him if he could live his life over again what he would do. He didn’t miss a beat: he would be an F.B.I. agent. He loves the agency.
There was a fairly popular Albanian singer named Anita Bitri who had her first hit when she was 16, and who came to the United States in 1996 to make music here. She lived on Staten Island. In 2004, in a tragic accident, she, her mother and her small daughter died from carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time, Anita happened to be dating an Albanian man by the name of Parid Gjoka.
Gjoka wants to write a book about it, and other parts of his life. He’s already written 375 pages.
Gjoka himself is already famous, in a way. He’s not on any of the scores of databases a reporter might check to find out about him. But one aspect he’ll cover in his book is that for years he’s been the most criminally active Albanian felon there is.
Gjoka, 33, came to the United States when he was 17 on a 3-to-6-month temporary visa with no intention of returning to Albania. He said he came for a better life. He did some construction work, valet parking and roofing and hung out in Albanian coffee shops in Ridgewood, Queens. That’s where he met Kujitim Konci, a homeboy from Tirana, who he said had a reputation as one of the biggest gangsters in Albania. Gjoka wanted that lifestyle. From 2000 until his last arrest in 2008 all he did, everyday [sic] he said, is commit crimes.
He’d drive to Michigan to pick up 40 to 50 pounds of weed from Canada and he’d take it back to New York City, Konci tailing him in case he got pulled over. (The emergency plan was for Konci to smash into the police car and say he fell asleep at the wheel.) He said he was trafficking 50 to 100 pounds of marijuana every 10 days. He’d meet a female contact in rest stops near Buffalo and Syracuse, get into her back seat and drop thousands of dollars in a compartment, and she’d drive it across the border to pay the suppliers in Canada. He’d sit in dark cars, negotiating drug deals worth more than $100,000, sometimes with people he’d robbed in the past. These guys would demand to see each other’s families and to be shown where they lived before they did business together, so they’d have leverage.
Gjoka had a crew, and the Krasniqis had a crew, and the two of them worked together obtaining and distributing hundreds of pounds of marijuana from Canada. In 2005 a fight broke out between the crews in a bar. Someone pulled a knife on Gjoka. Gjoka didn’t man up and fight back…The Krasniqis don’t play. They sensed weakness and they were going to take over. They started causing mayhem at Gjoka crew hangouts. A war was on.
The Gjoka crew, which included Erion Shehu, Skender Cakoni, Cela, Gentian Cara and a man named Visi, strapped for combat…The Krasniqi crew killed Shehu…The Krasniqis won. They’d pretty much cornered the weed business. Two members of the Krasniqi crew went back to Albania. One was Almir Rrapo, the civil servant to an Albanian minister. Another was Gentian Kasa, who was later shot to death in Brooklyn in 2007, one of the two soldiers who showed up on that doorstep threatening to rape someone’s wife.
Muscled out of the weed game, Gjoka and others branched out into alien smuggling and ecstasy distribution, in addition to straight-up stealing.
Then there was an arson request for a factory in Jersey by a man named Louie, followed by two other arson jobs.
I heard a defense lawyer say that Gjoka will have spent $180,000 on him, and that he’ll wind up getting a new name, a new identity, and a spot in a special witness-protection program.
The first New York Albanian-mob trial started this week, in a federal courthouse on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. Originally there were nine to 11 defendants; Six have since pled guilty….Also pleading was Gentian Nikolli, 34, who came from Albania when he was 21, had guns and…had a reputation in the community for stabbing, punching, kicking people in the face, and committing other acts of violence a “remarkable” number of times. (He assaulted his own father.)…
On May 13, 2011, the U.S. Attorney requested that a plea deal for the Albanian civil servant, Almir Rrapo, be unsealed…The 28-year-old Rrapo, holder of a Masters degree in political science, pled guilty to nine felony counts and agreed to provide assistance to the U.S. government. He said that from 2003 to 2010 in Manhattan, Queens, Detroit and elsewhere, he was part of an operation that distributed 100 kilograms of marijuana (street value $3 million), robbed a marijuana dealer, kidnapped a rival drug dealer, conspired to murder a marijuana supplier, murdered Erion (Lonka) Shehu. Rrapo also copped to possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute, and to supplying guns to others, including one with a silencer…Two men connected to the case are still at large: Dukajin (Duke) Nikollaj and Visi (last name unknown). The Canadian kidnappers, assaulters and drug suppliers are still free.
The tipster also mentioned a “big-time mafioso” responsible for multiple killings in France, Canada and the U.S., who was arrested in Chicago in 2008 and let go eight months later…He mentioned another two Albanians out of Chicago (trafficking 600 pounds of marijuana a week for 10 years, he said), and another Albanian who before 9/11 was bringing kilos of heroin into the U.S. and kilos of cocaine from the U.S. to Europe.
“What you got is just kids,” the tipster told me. “The real gangsters never get caught … the FBI knows it all, they have cut deals with these people and let them work and commit crimes as long as they give somebody from time to time, that’s the way it works… I have just lost faith in the American justice system. They catch the small fish and the big ones are out while everyone knows who they are.” […]
And the last part of the series: The verdict: Feds chip away at the New York-Albanian mob, with bigger battles to come (July 6)
I spent about ten months reporting on Albanian organized crime, all leading up to three weeks in a New York federal court house for the first trial of a group Albanian-Americans with ties to the organized international drug trade.
The jury decided the case in one day.
I was called in by the clerk for the verdict on June 23. Six of the defendants in the case had pled out. The two defendants who didn’t plead out — Plaurent Cela and Skender Cakoni — were convicted on both the counts they were charged with: Narcotics conspiracy, for possession with intent to distribute 100 kilos or more of marijuana; and the possession and use of a firearm in relation to a narcotic trafficking conspiracy. They’ll be sentenced on Sept. 23.
The trial, the first of two involving a large group of Albanian-American organized-crime figures, was the culmination of years of investigation and case-building by the feds…The second trial will take place in October, when two brothers named Bruno and Saimir Krasniqi, the alleged ringleaders of a particularly brutal crew (which warred over turf with Cela and Cakoni’s gang), will be tried along with two or three of their associates. They’ll be facing a RICO trial, for more severe crimes: murder, racketeering, narcotics conspiracy, kidnapping, interstate robbery and extortion…
The trial of Cela and Cakoni was a riveting spectacle, for whoever cared to watch. (Media coverage, other than me, amounted to a Daily News reporter who showed up for half of the first day and never came back.)
And there was an F.B.I. intelligence analyst with a Master’s degree who has spent five years, on and off, charting cell-phone frequency patterns on spreadsheets, studying subscriber sheets and pen registries of guys who used to make pizza or fix roofs but had drifted into drink and drugs and clubbing and, eventually, organized crime.
Elsewhere, the cat-and-mouse game between Albanian-American organized-crime figures and federal law enforcement continues. I was told by the F.B.I. that the kingpin who started all these young men off, Kujitim (Timi) Konci, was arrested in Dallas and is currently in federal custody under the name Kujitim Gonxhe, awaiting trial. (I did some research and found out he’s actually being held as Shpetim Konci.)
Franc Shestani, a bag man arrested by the F.B.I. for the 2005 kidnapping of Bruno Krasniqi (snatched from the Bronx, brought to Detroit), made bail and, according to a New York agent, “has disappeared.”
Meanwhile, sources with connections to the New York-based Albanian-American criminal underworld continue to feed me names (19 of them, at last count) of people they say are still at large and mixed up in serious criminal activity…
Plaurent Dervishaj, Albania’s most wanted criminal and a prominent figure on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list, shared the same exact address in Ridgewood, Queens with a man named Gentian Kasa. Kasa was a major figure in the Krasniqi crew, and his name came up repeatedly during the trial. Kasa shared the same exact address with Saimir Krasniqi when they lived in Michigan. Kasa was shot dead in 2007 when he and Plaurent’s brother, Redinel Dervishaj, showed up with guns at the Ridgewood house of a man named Lulzim Kupi, threatened his family and demanded extortion money. Kupi had his own gun and there was a firefight in the streets.
Across the ocean in Albania, in March of this year, the Albanian press reported that “two hundred kilograms of cocaine has ‘disappeared,’ together with evidence against all the people implicated in issuing the orders, and seizing and later dealing with the largest cocaine haul ever seized in our country.” Law enforcement agencies in seven countries were in the loop tracking this cocaine as it made its way from Colombia. […]