NEWS: Italy battling a new wave of criminals

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Subject: NEWS: Italy battling a new wave of criminals
From: Jyothi Kanics (
Date: Thu Mar 18 1999 - 14:55:49 EST

Italy battling a new wave of criminals -- Albanians
Refugees are cutting into the Mafia turf.
Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 1999, page A1

 MILAN, Italy -- Agim Gashi left his family's crime business in Kosovo,
Yugoslavia, in 1992 and ended up in this fashion mecca, where police say he
became a boss in prostitution and heroin rings stretching from the ports of
Albania to the poppy fields of Turkey.

 He is one of hundreds of Balkan bad guys -- mainly ethnic Albanians --
reportedly moving onto turf long controlled by the Italian Mafia. Most of
Gashi's illicit profits fueled criminal enterprises across Europe. But
some, according to Western drug-enforcement agencies, were siphoned off to
buy night-vision glasses, Kalashnikovs and bullet-proof vests for the
Kosovo Liberation Army's war against Yugoslav troops.

 Gashi's crook-and-patriot tale will unfold this month in a Milan
courtroom. He is charged with conspiracy and trafficking in hundreds of
millions of dollars' worth of heroin. Italian authorities say Gashi --
arrested last fall in an international bust -- represents Milan's newest
scourge: well-armed and ruthless Albanian thugs.

 "The Albanian criminals were special from the beginning," said Francesca
Marcelli, an organized-crime investigator for the Italian government. "When
they started appearing here in 1993, they were much different than other
immigrants. They have strong motivations and are very violent. Some of them
actually pulled machine guns on the son of an Italian Mafioso.

 "To do that in Italy is unbelievable."

 It is that kind of tenacity, according to Italian officials, that allowed
Albanians to wrest a slice of the heroin-trafficking network in Europe from
the Turks and Kurds. It has also gained them respect among the stronger
Italian Mafia gangs, who now collaborate with Albanians on everything from
numbers running to smuggling refugees.

 Crime in Milan is daily punctuated by the big and small deeds of Albanian
gangs. Police recently broke up a child-slavery ring run from an abandoned
warehouse. Crime bosses had bought 20 children for $1,000 each from their
parents in Albania. The children, according to police, were hustled onto
rubber rafts and whisked to Italy, where they were beaten and forced to
work petty street scams, turning over earnings to their masters.

 "It's unrefined criminality and it's brutal," said Massimo Mazza, a Milan
police commander.

 The Albanian criminals prowling Milan have their roots in Albania and the
neighboring Yugoslav province of Kosovo. They are poor places with few
opportunities, and for generations, men left their families to work across
Europe and send money home. Many of the one million-strong diaspora found
jobs such as bricklayers, waiters and laborers. Others dabbled in stolen
cars, petty thievery and prostitution.

 The tenor grew more desperate in the early 1990s as communism collapsed
and the region spiraled into lawlessness. In 1997, Albania, the poorest
country in Europe, erupted into nationwide riots over failed pyramid
schemes that bankrupted most families. Thousands of citizens stormed police
stations and looted one million guns. The ensuing chaos fed Albania's
criminal gangs. They were already expanding across the continent while at
home the corrupt regime of President Sali Berisha permitted drug
trafficking to flourish.

 In neighboring Yugoslavia, ethnic Albanian crime families were also
looking to widen their drug, prostitution and weapons-smuggling rings. Some
clans, including Gashi's, dispatched their lieutenants to countries such as
Italy, Germany and Slovakia. Their criminal endeavors, according to Italian
police and prosecutors, would eventually intersect with activities of the
KLA, whose guerrillas have fought since 1998 for independence for Kosovo's
1.8 million ethnic Albanians.

 Police say some Albanian crime clans, although primarily motivated by
personal greed, also funneled money and supplies to the rebels.

 "When the war started in Kosovo, we noticed that some of the Kosovar crime
gangs in Italy, who were only interested in drug trafficking, suddenly
became interested in running weapons," said Carlo De Donno, a major with
the special Carabinieri undercover police forces.

 De Donno's unit headed a two-year investigation, including extensive
wiretaps, on a heroin-smuggling network that led to the arrest of Gashi and
124 other Albanians, Italians, Germans, Tunisians, Spaniards and Turks over
several days last fall.

 "Turkish [drug] trafficking groups are using Albanians, Yugoslavs and
elements of criminal groups from Kosovo to sell and distribute their
heroin," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in
Rome. "These groups are believed to be a part of the financial arm of the
[KLA's] war against Serbia. These Kosovars are financing their war through
drug trafficking activities, weapons trafficking and the trafficking of
other illegal goods . . . as well as contributions of their countrymen
working abroad."

 But war was years away on Jan. 22, 1992.

 That is when Gashi, whose clan in Pristina, Kosovo, ran a drug-running
business fronted by beauty salons and real estate offices, arrived in
Italy. He married an Italian woman and settled in Bisceglie, a neighborhood
controlled by the Calabria Mafia on the outskirts of Milan. Other Albanians
eventually followed, many crossing the Adriatic Sea in rubber rafts with
kilos of marijuana wrapped in plastic. They joined a population of about
100,000 illegal immigrants entering northern Italy in recent years from
Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

 "What really impressed us was Gashi's rapport with the Ndrangheta [the
Calabria Mafia]," De Donno said. "He was a foreigner, but he stayed on very
good terms with them. Gashi began buying drugs, and his market widened. He
was much like the Turkish criminals who moved into Milan in the 1980s."

 But Gashi did not limit himself to Italy, according to police and
prosecutors. He opened a beauty salon in London to launder money and had
interests in Hungary, Germany and Norway, said De Donno, adding that
authorities from each of these countries cooperated in his investigation.
As Gashi was expanding his enterprises in the mid-1990s, other Albanian
names began appearing on Milan's police blotters.

 Two of them were Kosovar brothers Adem and Avni Igrhista, who in 1995
began a shipping business with the cover of importing nuts and cotton
T-shirts from Turkey.

 "Hidden inside their imported crates were packets of heroin," said
Marcelli, the Italian investigator. "This case showed us that the Albanians
were becoming stronger. For example, the brothers used Italians as their
runners to pick up the crates at Leonardo da Vinci Airport [in Rome].
Before, it was the Albanians who were the runners."

 Authorities say Gashi controlled Milan's most powerful Albanian gang and
stayed connected to Ekrem Gashi, another relative of the Gashi clan in
Kosovo. Ekrem, who ran drugs throughout the Balkans, was murdered two weeks
ago when several men brandishing Kalashnikovs sprayed his Mercedes with
bullets in front of a Pristina cafe. Police say the murder was ordered by a
rival clan.

 Special undercover police forces and court records say Agim Gashi was part
of a network that operated like this: Albanians acquired heroin and cocaine
from clans inside Turkey. The cache would move west to the capitals of
Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. From there it was dispersed into smaller
amounts and sent across Europe by couriers -- mostly Germans driving BMWs
and Mercedeses.

 "Every day cars with 10 to 15 kilos [22 to 33 pounds] of heroin would
cross the border into Italy," De Donno said. Much of the heroin fell under
the domain of the Ndrangheta and other Italian gangs. Cooperation between
small Albanian gangs and the powerful Italian Mafia has run smoothly, but
some investigators say the Albanians' penchant for control may upset things.

 "What we're seeing now," said Maurizio Romanelli, an anti-Mafia
prosecutor, "is North Africans and other immigrants selling heroin on the
street for Albanian bosses. It shows a hierarchy is developing among the

 The Albanians have been fighting among themselves over the last two years
for larger shares of the drug and prostitution markets. In August 1997,
Albanian boss Naim Zyberi was killed execution-style.

 Zyberi, who ran drug and extortion rackets in the Albanian capital,
Tirana, had come to Milan to get a stake in the heroin trade.

 "He tried to impose his rules, but the clans opposed him, so he tried to
find his own gang," homicide detective Nicola Lupidi said. "He then went to
another Albanian group and stole 50 million lire [$28,100]. The group came
after him, and there was a shoot-out. Zyberi was shot in the leg and taken
to a hospital. Days later, two hit men were sent from Albania and they
finished him off in his hospital bed."

 "It was amazing," investigator Marcelli said. "Like something out of a
Scorsese movie."

 By the spring of last year, however, the battles among the Albanian clans
cooled when they united behind -- and took advantage of -- the KLA's war
against the Serb forces in Yugoslavia. When the war began 13 months ago,
many KLA rebels carried only single-shot rifles. They are armed today with
everything from satellite phones to antitank weapons.

 "When the war started, these feuding clans came together," De Donno said.
"They became unified. All they ever talked about was weapons and money.
They were very interested in night-vision glasses and bulletproof vests.
All the things you'd need to fight a guerrilla war. . . . Some of them were
even motivated by patriotism."

 Gashi was sending money and materials back to Kosovo for other endeavors,

 "He built a big villa in Pristina," De Donno said. "All the marble and
stone was imported directly from Italy."

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