Mark Townsend

The Observer - - News - Home Af­fairs Ed­i­tor

Some­thing had kicked off the night be­fore and the guys on the cor­ner were keen to of­fer ad­vice. “You don’t want to be hang­ing around here too long,” one said, re­fus­ing to elab­o­rate. They were stand­ing near Crispe House, a tower block on east Lon­don’s Gascoigne es­tate, undis­puted ter­ri­tory of Hell­ba­ni­anz.

The gang, an Al­ba­nian street crew of drug deal­ers, is known lo­cally for its vi­o­lence and more widely for a so­cial me­dia out­put fea­tur­ing Fer­raris, wads of £50 notes and gold Rolex watches to help en­hance its rep­u­ta­tion and re­cruit “youngers”. The Gascoigne es­tate, built in the 1960s and oc­cu­py­ing land that slopes south of Bark­ing town cen­tre to the Thames, is its home turf.

It was get­ting dark, an­other two men ap­peared and, when asked if they were Hell­ba­ni­anz, one said: “You should go.” The Ob­server was es­corted off the es­tate and told not to re­turn.

Hell­ba­ni­anz be­long to the “re­tail game” of the co­caine trade. They are the street deal­ers and en­forcers of the Mafia Shqiptare, the Al­ba­nian or­gan­ised crim­i­nal syn­di­cates who, the Na­tional Crime Agency be­lieves, are con­sol­i­dat­ing power within the UK crim­i­nal un­der­world and on their

way to a near to­tal takeover of the UK’s £5bn co­caine mar­ket.

The gang’s gloss­ily pro­duced trap mu­sic videos re­mind view­ers “HB are ready for vi­o­lence” and that they pos­sess the req­ui­site man­power and firearms. Yet, po­lice sources say, Hell­ba­ni­anz oc­cupy the low­est rung of the Al­ba­nian mafia.

To bet­ter un­der­stand the Al­ba­ni­ans’ re­mark­able rise in the UK one might climb to the 12th floor of the Gascoigne es­tate’s high-rise blocks. From there, the sky­line of Lon­don, where much of their co­caine will be snorted, stretches west. In the op­po­site di­rec­tion, sev­eral miles along the Thames, lie the mam­moth con­tainer ports where their co­caine is off­loaded in multi-kilo ship­ments. But it is across the At­lantic, to the jun­gles of South Amer­ica, where the story of the Mafia Shqiptare starts.

How Al­ba­ni­ans came to con­quer the UK’s co­caine mar­ket is a les­son in crim­i­nal savvy; the value of mak­ing friends with the world’s most dan­ger­ous mafias; and the ab­so­lute threat of vi­o­lence.

It be­gan with a busi­ness model that was sim­ple in con­cept, but suf­fi­ciently bold to sub­vert the ex­ist­ing or­der. For years co­caine’s in­ter­na­tional im­porters worked sep­a­rately from its whole­salers and the gangs. Pric­ing struc­tures var­ied, depend­ing on the drug’s pu­rity; the higher qual­ity it was, the more it cost.

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.

In­tel­li­gence ob­tained by Bri­tish ex­perts re­vealed that the Al­ba­ni­ans were procur­ing co­caine from the car­tels for about £4,000 to £5,500 a kilo, at a time when ri­vals thought they were get­ting a de­cent deal us­ing Dutch whole­salers sell­ing at £22,500 a kilo. The Al­ba­ni­ans low­ered the price of co­caine – and in­creased its pu­rity. More mas­sive con­sign­ments were brought into the UK.

Tony Sag­gers, the for­mer head of drugs threat and in­tel­li­gence at the NCA, who has spent 30 years analysing the rhythms of the global nar­cotics econ­omy, said: “What they have done, very in­tel­li­gently, is say: ‘OK, we’ve got these mar­gins to play with and we’re go­ing to give a good slice of that to the cus­tomer.’”

The Al­ba­nian ef­fect has pro­foundly shaped the use, pro­duc­tion and econ­omy of co­caine. The drug is at its

‘If they took this busi­ness model on Drag­ons’ Den, all the drag­ons would give them money’ Mo­hammed Qasim, drugs re­searcher

cheapest in the UK since 1990 and purer than it has been for a decade, which has caused record fa­tal­i­ties. The UK has the high­est num­ber of young users in Eu­rope. More broadly, far big­ger and more fre­quent ship­ments of the drug have been seized en­ter­ing the UK as co­caine pro­duc­tion in South Amer­ica has hit record lev­els - up 31% on 2016.

Ri­vals to the Al­ba­nian gangs such as Hell­ba­ni­anz ini­tially strug­gled to com­pete be­cause they had an in­fe­rior, more ex­pen­sive prod­uct. Their only op­tion has been to buy co­caine sourced from the Mafia Shqiptare.

Sag­gers said: “They have shown that you don’t have to be greedy to dom­i­nate drug mar­kets. They’ve gone down the route of sus­tain­able prices, good qual­ity.”

Mo­hammed Qasim, a re­search fel­low at Leeds Beck­ett Uni­ver­sity who stud­ies drug deal­ers, de­scribed the Al­ba­nian busi­ness ap­proach as “fan­tas­tic”, adding: “If they were on Drag­ons’ Den with this model, all the drag­ons would be giv­ing them money.”

Yet for the Al­ba­ni­ans’ model to truly work it re­quired con­trol of Eu­rope’s ports. For that the Mafia Shqiptare needed to col­lab­o­rate with the ’Ndrangheta, the most pow­er­ful and glob­alised of the Ital­ian mafias, which con­trols main­land Eu­rope’s co­caine trade.

There is con­sid­er­able ev­i­dence that not only are the Al­ba­ni­ans work­ing with the ’Ndrangheta, but that they have formed the tight­est of al­liances. Sources say the Ital­ian mafia con­sider the Al­ba­ni­ans as equals. Sag­gers said: “There’s a strong Ital­ian-or­gan­ised mafia link with Al­ba­ni­ans now, Al­ba­ni­ans are work­ing with them – not in com­pe­ti­tion with them. Plus, his­tor­i­cally, the Ital­ians have good con­tacts in Latin Amer­ica.”

Rot­ter­dam is Eu­rope’s largest sea­port, with eight mil­lion con­tain­ers pass­ing through each year. Many ar­rive via the di­rect “Colom­bian ex­press” route be­fore cross­ing to Har­wich or Hull. The sec­ond busi­est Euro­pean port is An­twerp, which con­nects to the Thames port of Til­bury, 15 miles from Hell­ba­ni­anz ter­ri­tory.

Be­tween them, the Dutch and Bel­gian ports em­ploy 240,000 peo­ple, a co­hort of whom, po­lice in­tel­li­gence in­di­cates, work for the ’Ndrangheta and Mafia Shqiptare. “This gives the Al­ba­ni­ans based on the near-con­ti­nent di­rect ac­cess and con­trol of it [co­caine] at the ports,” said Sag­gers.

An NCA source de­scribed Bel­gium and the Nether­lands as “key nexus points of con­sol­i­da­tion and on­ward traf­fick­ing of il­licit com­modi­ties” and con­firmed Al­ba­nian groups were “ex­pand­ing their in­flu­ence up­stream” – po­lice-speak for strength­en­ing their grip on the global co­caine sup­ply.

Anna Sergi, a lec­turer in crim­i­nol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Es­sex who spe­cialises in mafia re­la­tion­ships, con­firmed Al­ba­ni­ans and the south­ern Ital­ian crime group have joined forces. “When­ever the ’Ndrangheta is ship­ping things over, they work a lot with the Al­ba­ni­ans,” she said.

Last month Op­er­a­tion Pollino, named af­ter the area of south­ern Italy where the ’Ndrangheta has its roots, ar­rested 90 sus­pects. An­ti­mafia pros­e­cu­tors de­scribed how the ’Ndrangheta re­lied on “per­ma­nent groups work­ing in ports and har­bours” along with Al­ba­nian crim­i­nal net­works.

In 2017 an Al­ba­nian co­caine dealer was caught at a Lon­don petrol sta­tion with false Ital­ian iden­ti­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments on his car and two ki­los of the drug hid­den in its boot.

The most vul­ner­a­ble point for drug smug­glers is the port of en­try. Se­cu­rity is tight, op­tions are fi­nite. Sources say that the ’Ndrangheta has out­sourced this el­e­ment of the sup­ply chain to the Al­ba­ni­ans.

“You need the best peo­ple to get it out of port. If you are good at mov­ing things then you stay ahead of your com­peti­tors – and the Al­ba­ni­ans are good at this,” said Sergi.

Yet even the most se­nior Al­ba­ni­ans are caught some­times. Klod­jan Copja, 30, who ran a £60m co­caine im­ports syn­di­cate, was jailed in 2017 af­ter his couri­ers were in­ter­cepted meet­ing drug-laden lor­ries ar­riv­ing in Kent. One strik­ing facet of what the NCA term the Al­ba­ni­ans’ “in­creas­ing promi­nence” is their hav­ing – so far – avoided be­com­ing em­broiled in

tit-for-tat feuds with ri­vals. The lat­est UK crim­i­nal threat as­sess­ment says that the Al­ba­ni­ans are un­usu­ally skilled at de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships and “forg­ing links with other OCGs [or­gan­ised crim­i­nal gangs]”.

Such re­la­tion­ship-build­ing has left Liver­pool as the only part of Eng­land not rou­tinely sell­ing Al­ba­ni­an­sourced co­caine. Not only has the Mersey­side port its own di­rect ac­cess to South Amer­ica, Sag­gers says that its turf is jeal­ously guarded by the city’s own crim­i­nal gangs.

Also work­ing in the Al­ba­ni­ans’ favour is their rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lence. Sag­gers says the back­drop of the Kosovo con­flict has given them a swag­ger com­pa­ra­ble to that of Ir­ish crim­i­nals dur­ing and af­ter the Trou­bles.

“They are charis­matic and known to pri­ori­tise re­la­tion­ship-build­ing rather than com­pet­i­tive feuds. Also, when you come from a coun­try where there’s been con­flict and you have a rep­u­ta­tion for ruth­less­ness the charisma is un­der­lined with an el­e­ment of, ‘Ac­tu­ally, we do need to get on with these peo­ple’,” he said.

Qasim also points to how the Al­ba­nian are re­garded in crim­i­nal cir­cles. “They are so­phis­ti­cated, pro­fes­sional and they do what they prom­ise. They al­ways de­liver,” he said.

This has much to do with the Al­ba­nian code of besa – “to keep the prom­ise” – but Sergi adds that the rep­u­ta­tion of the Mafia Shqiptare must also be viewed through the an­ces­tral code of ka­nun, the right to take re­venge: that blood must pay with blood. You most trust the ones sim­i­lar to you,” she said. The con­cept was meant to keep things in­ter­nal, close.

Then the younger gen­er­a­tion be­gan mak­ing flashy videos and wav­ing money around, and along came Hell­ba­ni­anz.

The Gascoigne es­tate is bor­dered on its south and west by the A13 and the North Cir­cu­lar roads, ur­ban bul­warks against neigh­bour­ing gangs such as Ne­wham’s Beck­ton Black Squad. In the mid-1990s the es­tate was run by white work­ing-class crime fam­i­lies. “If you were black and went there you’d come out in an am­bu­lance,” said David, a for­mer res­i­dent.

De­pri­va­tion and drugs blighted the es­tate long be­fore a Ja­maican gang run by Del­roy “the King” Lewis started a ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient 24-hour op­er­a­tion on the es­tate, sell­ing crack co­caine and heroin.

Lewis was jailed in 2004 at a time when the es­tate’s Al­ba­nian pop­u­la­tion was grow­ing through a new refugee cri­sis fol­low­ing fresh un­rest in Kosovo, five years af­ter the war there brought the first ar­rivals. By the time of the 2011 cen­sus, Al­ba­nian was the sec­ond lan­guage on the es­tate.

Soon af­ter, Hell­ba­ni­anz took over. Rook­wood House, a five-minute walk from Bark­ing Abbey, be­came their no­tional head­quar­ters. Linked by in­ter­lock­ing walk­ways and lim­ited ac­cess points, the tower block was easy to de­fend from po­lice and ri­vals. It was seen in the video for Hell­ba­ni­anz’s trap track Hood Life. But five months ago Rook­wood House was knocked down as part of a sweep­ing re­gen­er­a­tion project.

Lo­cals say Hell­ba­ni­anz has moved op­er­a­tions north, to a prime spot near the Kings Lounge pub. “They gather at 9pm, same faces, same lot,” one said. Some might recog­nise the faces from YouTube where Hell­ba­ni­anz posts footage to try to lure “fal­cons” – fresh re­cruits – with shots of scant­ily clad women, wheel­spin­ning Bent­leys and the ubiq­ui­tious wads of money.

Sag­gers said: “The re­tail mar­ket is the get-rich-quick en­vi­ron­ment. If they’re im­port­ing ki­los for a few thou­sand dol­lars, imag­ine how much money those young­sters are turn­ing over if they’re sell­ing at £40 a gram?”

Be­fore its ac­count was closed in Novem­ber, Hell­ba­ni­anz had 115,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers. The video for Hood Life, which opens with a drone shot of the Gascoigne es­tate, has been watched more than 7.5m times. The gang’s lyrics dis­cuss de­fend­ing Bark­ing with “kallash” (AK47s)– and dish­ing out threats to ri­val Al­ba­nian out­fit OTR (On Top of the Rest) and a fair few oth­ers. Their lat­est video, re­leased in late Oc­to­ber, states they are “ready for war”.

One res­i­dent called Hell­ba­ni­anz the “stab­bers”. Re­quest­ing anonymity, he said: “You’d be walk­ing home and feel a lit­tle prick on your leg and later you re­alised you’d been stabbed by one of the Al­ba­nian kids.”

Such dis­re­gard was ev­i­dent in the case of Hell­ba­ni­anz mem­ber Tris­ten As­llani, who in 2016 lost con­trol dur­ing a high-speed po­lice chase in Crouch End, north Lon­don, and ploughed into a shop. In the crum­pled car, of­fi­cers found a suit­case full of co­caine and later, at the 29-yearold’s home, an­other 21kg of the drug and a Sko­r­pion ma­chine pis­tol with a si­lencer.

Such an­tics help ex­plain why Al­ba­ni­ans are the third largest for­eign na­tion­al­ity in UK prisons. The fig­ure is even more star­tling when con­sid­er­ing the tiny num­ber of UK or­gan­ised crim­i­nals the NCA be­lieves are Al­ba­nian – 0.8%.

Hell­ba­ni­anz’s high life – the bling, the vi­o­lence – has fos­tered ten­sions within the Al­ba­nian com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly the goad­ing of po­lice. The Hood Life video shows gang mem­bers sur­round­ing a Met pa­trol car.

“This goes against the Al­ba­nian cul­ture. Some of their higher end drug deal­ers, in­ter­na­tional traders, don’t like this be­hav­iour. It ex­poses their ac­tiv­i­ties. They want to be low-key, mak­ing prof­its with­out be­ing caught,” said Qasim.

On Lon­gridge Road in Bark­ing, home to Al­ba­nian res­tau­rants, some scowl when the gang or names of prom­i­nent mem­bers are men­tioned. Oth­ers deny its ex­is­tence.

An­other reper­cus­sion of the Al­ba­nian model has, say some, helped fuel knife crime and drug dis­putes by mak­ing co­caine af­ford­able to smaller, younger street gangs. A re­cent re­port by the Lon­don bor­ough of Waltham For­est said gangs were mov­ing from post­code ri­val­ries to com­mer­cial en­ter­prises fo­cused on deal­ing co­caine. Last Tues­day, 14-year-old Jay­den Moodie was killed in the bor­ough dur­ing a tar­geted at­tack, though his fam­ily say he had no gang in­volve­ment.

Mean­while, so long as Mafia Shqiptare keeps de­liv­er­ing their co­caine, re­cruit­ing teenagers to the Hell­ba­ni­anz gang­ster life has never been eas­ier.

Pho­to­graph by Ro­mas Fo­ord

PA Getty

BE­LOW A Cus­toms of­fi­cer ex­am­in­ing a seizure of co­caine. The price of the drug in the UK has plunged in re­cent years. LEFTA coca field in Colom­bia. Al­ba­nian gangs have es­tab­lished di­rect links with the pro­duc­ers of the drug.

LEFTA drill rap video shot on on the Gascoigne es­tate in Bark­ing, east Lon­don, heart of Hell­ba­ni­anz ter­ri­tory.

ABOVEA still from My Shqipez by Vinz, one of Hell­ba­ni­anz’s drill rap videos on YouTube.

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