Smug­gled Al­ba­ni­ans forced to be cannabis gar­den­ers

Cavers stum­ble across vast cannabis farm – one of sev­eral sin­is­ter op­er­a­tions se­creted across the coun­try

The Sunday Telegraph - - Front page - By Steve Bird and Wil Crisp

A NEW breed of ruth­less Al­ba­nian crim­i­nal gangs are forc­ing peo­ple they smug­gle to the UK to pay off their debts by work­ing in a net­work of au­da­cious drug pro­duc­tion dens, The Sun­day Tele­graph can dis­close.

In­creas­ing num­bers of Al­ba­nian il­le­gal mi­grants have been dis­cov­ered in re­cent months work­ing as lowly “gar­den­ers” at se­cret cannabis fac­to­ries.

A se­nior Al­ba­nian de­tec­tive fight­ing or­gan­ised gangs from Ti­rana, the cap­i­tal, has told how crim­i­nals are tar­get­ing Bri­tain to take con­trol of co­caine and cannabis mar­kets.

Min­istry of Jus­tice statis­tics show that in 2010, there were 154 Al­ba­nian pris­on­ers in Eng­land and Wales. How­ever, that fig­ure rose to 726 by Sep­tem­ber 2017. A free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest has re­vealed that two thirds of those pris­on­ers were con­victed for drug of­fences.

The Al­ba­nian de­tec­tive said: “The money made re­turns to Al­ba­nia or is in­vested in busi­nesses or Lon­don prop­erty.”

Tony Sag­gers, the for­mer head of drug threat for the Na­tional Crime Agency, said that Al­ba­nian crim­i­nals had de­vel­oped tech­niques to cul­ti­vate po­tent strains of cannabis.

“The de­mand for high po­tency cannabis in the UK is sig­nif­i­cant, and although prices of £3,000 per kilo­gram do not com­pare with £30,000 for co­caine, the scale of the mar­ket of­fers real po­ten­tial for Al­ba­nian-speak­ing groups to edge in, be­come es­tab­lished and po­ten­tially dom­i­nate,” he said, adding that those in­volved in smug­gling co­caine were ob­tain­ing a purer and more com­pet­i­tive sup­ply.

Mo­hammed Qasim, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at Leeds Beck­ett Univer­sity, said: “Al­ba­nia is ge­o­graph­i­cally placed along well es­tab­lished co­caine trade routes. They are ruth­less, highly or­gan­ised and are tar­get­ing the UK purely be­cause of surg­ing de­mand and higher prices for their prod­uct.”

WHEN a group of cavers ven­tured 150ft down into the tun­nels of an aban­doned Wilt­shire quarry, their great­est fear was get­ting lost alone in the pitch­black labyrinth.

At first they were struck by how un­usu­ally sweet smelling and warm the air seemed. But as they went deeper into Bethel Quarry, in Brad­ford-on-Avon, the ex­plor­ers re­alised they were any­thing but alone.

The mine, con­sist­ing of 10 acres of cav­erns once used by Heinz to grow mush­rooms for tinned soup, had been trans­formed into a so­phis­ti­cated and vast il­le­gal cannabis fac­tory.

It was the lat­est drugs “farm” thought to have been mas­ter­minded by Al­ba­nian or­gan­ised crime gangs op­er­at­ing in Bri­tain. Packed within 14 agri­cul­tural black tents were hun­dreds of plants grow­ing un­der spe­cial­ist light­ing and a pow­er­ful heat­ing sys­tem.

A nearby plas­tic swim­ming pool stored wa­ter for the crop, banks of prop­a­ga­tors nur­tured seedlings, and a dry­ing room housed the har­vest. The “gar­den­ers” even had a gym­na­sium next to their bed­rooms.

The cavers fled when a base-ball­wield­ing guard stepped from the shad­ows to ac­cuse them of tres­pass­ing on pri­vate prop­erty. Once safely above ground they alerted po­lice who raided the fac­tory in Oc­to­ber.

Last month, two Al­ba­ni­ans ar­rested in that quarry – Alk­sander Shyti, 46, and 39-year-old Altin Deda – joined the grow­ing ranks of their coun­try­men lan­guish­ing in English and Welsh prisons on drugs con­vic­tions. They were jailed for 18 months for cannabis pro­duc­tion, although the judge ad­mit­ted they were “cogs” in a “far larger ma­chine” thought to have been op­er­at­ing for three years.

Shyti in­sisted his £100-a-day wage helped pay the £5,000 he owed peo­ple smug­glers who brought him to Bri­tain. He is one of many Al­ba­ni­ans here il­le­gally who has in­sisted he has been put to work in drug fac­to­ries to set­tle debts to gangs from his home­land.

For years, Al­ba­nia was Europe’s big­gest pro­ducer of out­door grown cannabis. Farm­ers aban­doned tra­di­tional crops in favour of the drug, in part be­cause their agri­cul­tural land had the per­fect sunny dis­po­si­tion. When the au­thor­i­ties launched a crack­down on the £4bil­lion-a-year in­dus­try – two mil­lion plants were de­stroyed in 2016 af­ter ae­rial anal­y­sis iden­ti­fied ma­jor pro­duc­ers – crim­i­nal bosses set about mov­ing op­er­a­tions in­doors.

They de­vel­oped hi-tech meth­ods to cul­ti­vate the strong­est va­ri­eties of mar­i­juana in dis­used ware­houses and caves. Crops were grown in “black­out tents” meant to pre­vent light and heat be­ing spot­ted by po­lice surveillan­ce planes fit­ted with in­frared sen­sors.

But crime bosses soon re­alised prof­its could be boosted by cut­ting ship­ping costs if pro­duc­tion was moved to the very coun­tries where de­mand was great­est. A se­nior Al­ba­nian po­lice source, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, said a “new breed” of gang­ster then came to Bri­tain, re­plac­ing older crooks, many of whom ar­rived af­ter the mil­len­nium pre­tend­ing to be Koso­vans flee­ing the war.

“Those who ar­rived af­ter 2000 took con­trol of broth­els. But they were old fash­ioned – they drank and gam­bled,” he said. “Since 2007, the new ar­rivals didn’t have such vices, but they were hun­gry for money.

“They planned with bosses to en­ter the cannabis, then co­caine mar­ket, from 2009.” Last year, the Na­tional Crime Agency (NCA) warned that Al­ba­nian gangs had a “high-pro­file in­flu­ence within UK or­gan­ised crime” and were wield­ing “con­sid­er­able con­trol” over drug traf­fick­ing. Three years ago, they were the sixth largest or­gan­ised crim­i­nal group, ac­cord­ing to the NCA. Last year, they moved into third place, over­tak­ing Ro­ma­ni­ans.

A raid in July on an in­dus­trial es­tate near Nor­wich Air­port found Shkelzen Har­runi, 29, cul­ti­vat­ing 1,000 cannabis plants. He was jailed for just six months be­cause it was ac­cepted he was smug­gled from Al­ba­nia to Bri­tain and or­dered to work in the fac­tory to pay off debts. Last month, Neim Bakia, 23, and Adel­jan Oshafi, 31, told a court they had debts in their na­tive Al­ba­nia and were brought to Bri­tain be­fore be­ing co­erced to work in a cannabis fac­tory above a beauty par­lour in Glouces­ter.

Jail­ing them each for 20 months, Judge Ian Lawrie said: “The great re­gret is that the peo­ple who or­gan­ise, struc­ture and fi­nance this are not be­fore the court. I am left with the foot sol­diers.”

A for­mer care home in the Wir­ral was re­cently found to have been turned into an in­door cannabis farm. Again, two Al­ba­nian im­mi­grants were dis­cov­ered tend­ing the crops for just £100 a week wages. Four months ago, Cris­tian Demi­raj, 22, in­sisted his role as gar­dener at a Mid­dles­brough house con­verted into a cannabis fac­tory was sim­ply down to him ow­ing money to “some peo­ple from Al­ba­nia”. He was jailed for eight months.

Tony Sag­gars, for­mer NCA head of drugs, said Al­ba­nian-speak­ing gangs set­ting up cannabis farms here have ac­cess to a read­ily avail­able work­force. “They are no­to­ri­ously linked to the cheap labour in­dus­try of car washes, com­monly pop­u­lated by mi­grant work­ers, and they are ac­tive in peo­ple smug­gling across Europe,” he said.

Home Of­fice statis­tics showed last year that twice as many Al­ba­ni­ans have been caught as stow­aways at UK ports than any other na­tion­al­ity. A to­tal of 981 “clan­des­tine mi­grants” from the Balkan coun­try were found at UK en­try ports from 2008 to 2016.

In Au­gust, Ar­tur Nu­taj, 39, and Sabah Du­laj, 24, were jailed for be­ing in ca­hoots with a Kent-based group try­ing to smug­gle their fel­low Al­ba­ni­ans from France to Eng­land’s south coast.

Mr Sag­gars said that the gangs were also now ship­ping in “co­caine at the cheapest Euro­pean prices” which they sell com­par­a­tively pure, to “de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion”. Their “busi­ness model” cul­ti­vates slow growth and is not overly greedy, he added.

The Al­ba­nian gangs’ in­volve­ment in co­caine was il­lus­trated starkly last year when Klod­jan Copja, a drugs boss mas­ter­mind­ing a £60mil­lion sup­ply ring, was jailed for 17 years. Five po­lice forces mon­i­tored his op­er­a­tion for two years. It is be­lieved he smug­gled in 1,200lb (540kg) of co­caine which was sold on to gangs in Lon­don, Birm­ing­ham, Le­ices­ter and Not­ting­ham.

Mean­while, Erald Mema, 33, was jailed for 25 years in Oc­to­ber for run­ning a pre­dom­i­nantly Al­ba­nian gang in which a fur­ther 19 peo­ple were jailed for distribut­ing high pu­rity co­caine across the Mid­lands. That same month, five Al­ba­nian men were jailed for a to­tal of 67 years for deal­ing 265lb (120kg) of co­caine in Brighton and Hove. Ear­lier, seven mem­bers of an Al­ba­nian drug car­tel were jailed for sup­ply­ing 72lb (32kg) of co­caine, worth more than £3mil­lion and up to 93 per cent pure.

Some of th­ese gangs revel in their con­tempt for the ju­di­cial sys­tem. Tris­ten As­llani, serv­ing 25 years, posted pic­tures from his Wandsworth jail cell claim­ing that the only thing he missed was “whores”. Two years ear­lier, the 29-year-old lead­ing mem­ber of the gang “Hell­ba­ni­anz”, crashed his car into a Lon­don shop af­ter a po­lice chase. He was found with 46lb (21kg) of co­caine and a sub­ma­chine gun.

An NCA spokesman said more than 70 per cent of mem­bers of or­gan­ised crime groups in the UK are Bri­tish, and that it had a strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship with part­ners in the Balkans.

A Home Of­fice spokesman said all forms of or­gan­ised crime cost the UK £37bil­lion a year, adding: “As part of our Se­ri­ous Or­gan­ised Crime Strat­egy, we are work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with in­ter­na­tional part­ners, in­clud­ing those in the Western Balkans, to en­sure we leave no safe spa­ces for th­ese kinds of crim­i­nals.”

‘Those who ar­rived af­ter 2000 took con­trol of broth­els. But they were old fash­ioned – they drank and gam­bled’

‘The peo­ple who or­gan­ise, struc­ture and fi­nance this are not be­fore the court. I am left with the foot sol­diers’

Foren­sics of­fi­cers, top, at the Bethel Quarry in Brad­for­don-Avon, be­low. Pic­tured above, from top, Tris­ten As­llani and Klod­jan Copja, who are both serv­ing jail terms

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