Smuggled Albanians forced to be cannabis gardeners
Cavers stumble across vast cannabis farm – one of several sinister operations secreted across the country
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