The assassination of a suspected Albanian drug trafficker in Ecuador is another reminder of the increasing presence of Balkan trafficking groups in the South American country.
In the last five years, three Albanian nationals have been killed in or around the port city of Guayaquil, a major cocaine exit hub. The latest to be murdered was Ergys Dashi, an Albanian citizen reportedly active in the Ecuador drug trade who was gunned down at a restaurant in late January, El Universo reported.
Prior to his death, Dashi had purportedly become an important liaison between South American drug traffickers and Balkan criminal networks, which have steadily gained a foothold in the region and now contest lucrative cocaine smuggling routes.
He previously operated in Italy, where he was detained in 2014 on suspicion of drug trafficking, according to Albanian media.
Below are three takeaways from Dashi's assassination.
A 'Fresh Start' in Ecuador
Ecuador has become a hotspot for low to mid-level Albanian traffickers, many facing criminal charges and looking to restart their careers outside Europe.
"[Dashi] was denied entry in many European countries, so what do you do? You go to another place on another continent for a fresh start," said Fatjona Mejdini, the coordinator for the Balkans at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
While the leaders of Albanian networks usually operate from their home country or from Dubai, traffickers with a criminal record in Europe often relocate to Ecuador as "they believe that they can find fortunes there," Mejdini told InSight Crime.
Ecuador authorities have previously investigated several Albanian nationals on suspicion of drug trafficking in Guayaquil, including some wanted by INTERPOL.
Though some Albanians work for a specific Balkan network, Dashi appeared to operate as an independent broker between Ecuadorean traffickers and large-scale Albanian networks operating in South America.
"He was independent, but he had clients and networks [in Ecuador] since this is the way in which they work there," Mejdini told InSight Crime.
The Italian Connection
Over time, Albanian drug networks have made a name for themselves throughout Europe and have also partnered with groups in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. Part of this growth stems from alliances forged with the Italian mafia.
Some members of Albanian criminal syndicates have collaborated with the infamous 'Ndrangheta – one of the world's most powerful mafias based in Italy. Albanians initially managed the group's low-level work while gradually gaining criminal expertise and access to lucrative drug routes that have helped them expand operations in South America and elsewhere.
The Albania-'Ndrangheta partnership, dating back to the 1990s, was initially a big brother-little brother dynamic, explained Artan Hoxha, an expert on Albanian organized crime. "Albanian groups used 'Ndrangheta infrastructure, their connections, their air and sea routes and paid their fee to the Italians to do so," he told InSight Crime.
"But as time passed, it seems the [Albanians] have earned their respect and are trusted in more operations," he said.
The extensive contacts and experience gained from this partnership have allowed some Albanian traffickers to operate independently in Ecuador and elsewhere in South America, in turn raising the status of Balkan mafias in the cocaine trade.
Dashi's death is part of a complex panorama in Guayaquil, with competition between Balkan networks involved in the drug trade sometimes descending into conflict.
In January 2021, an Albanian national investigated for drug trafficking in Ecuador was gunned down at his home just outside Guayaquil. In 2017, another Albanian citizen linked to the narcotics trade was shot dead in Guayaquil by two assailants on a motorbike.
The mafia-style killings come amid shifting power dynamics in Guayaquil's criminal underworld. One of the most powerful Albanian crime syndicates with a presence in Ecuador, the "Kompania Bello," suffered a major setback in 2020 after EUROPOL arrested 20 of its members, paving the way for other Balkan networks to enter the fray.
But the group is now making a comeback, according to Hoxha, and its resurgence could ignite tensions between the other drug networks operating in Ecuador. Hoxha told InSight Crime the group is eager to reassert itself in the South American nation.
"We can see that the [Kompania Bello] is not beaten or destroyed," he told InSight Crime. The group is "using a lot of cash to regain their position and forming new partnerships in Europe to sell their products."
The Kompania Bello has long operated in Guayaquil, functioning as a horizontal alliance between top Albanian cocaine trafficking networks rather than as a traditional cartel, according to Hoxha.
"This alliance delivers cocaine in the UK...the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy," Hoxha said.