The killing of Albanian national Adriatik Tresa inside his luxury property in Ecuador has revealed details of his alleged criminal activities, painting a picture of how violent proxies of Albanian mafias operate in the Andean country.
Tresa, an Albanian national who had settled in Ecuador, was being investigated for drug trafficking at the time of his death in November 2020. His killing came months after he had spent a year in an Ecuadorian prison on illegal weapons charges -- in a case that ultimately never went to trial. Tresa also was accused of money laundering, and he allegedly figured in the killings of a fellow Albanian national and of an Ecuadorean journalist.
Tresa arrived in Ecuador in 2011 as Albanian-speaking crime syndicates began to make inroads in the country. Since then, emissaries of these groups have increasingly brokered cocaine deals between Colombian suppliers and various European syndicates, as well as negotiated their own shipments to be distributed by Albanian-speaking affiliates across Europe.
Their drive into Ecuador comes amid a wider trend in which the country’s ports are being used to ship massive amounts of cocaine to Europe.
But the Albanian groups in Ecuador have brought with them their own brand of violence, including contract killings.
Tresa appears to have been a victim of one. On November 20, three men dressed as police officers entered his high-security gated complex, claiming they had a search warrant. They shot him six times with a rifle, according to El Universo.
The Albanian Mafia's Beginnings in Ecuador
The fall of Albanian communism in the early 1990s, just like that of its Soviet counterpart, led to two important developments: the renewed role of cross-border trade and the dramatic empowerment of organized crime.
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The first Albanian nationals to become involved in drug trafficking came through Colombia about two decades ago. In 2001, three were arrested during "Operation Journey," a two-year, multinational investigation of Colombian maritime trafficking led by the United States' Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The same year, authorities in Albania arrested six members of the country’s first known trafficking group, which had links to the Medellín Cartel.
At the time, however, Italian mafia groups, particularly the Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta, were already establishing control of trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking, leaving the Albanians to act as isolated intermediaries.
Ecuador soon emerged as an attractive location for the Albanians and other European syndicates. It had porous borders, weak police and judicial institutions, and a dollarized cash-based economy, which provided easy money laundering opportunities. It also had a number of Pacific ports from which to smuggle drugs aboard ships bound for Europe.
In 2008 or 2009, Albanian national Arbër Çekaj established a banana-trading company in Ecuador, which he used to conceal drugs in cargo shipments, according to a joint-investigation by Ecuador's Plan V and Bosnia's Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
In May 2011, the director of DEA activities in the Andes, Jay Bergman, told Reuters that Ecuador was becoming a melting pot of foreign drug trafficking syndicates, saying “we have cases of Albanian, Ukrainian, Italian, Chinese organized crime all in Ecuador, all getting their product for distribution to their respective countries.”
Tresa first appeared in Ecuador around 2011. Albanian investigative journalist Artan Hoxha told news website City News Albania that Tresa was from the village of Baldushk, on the outskirts of the capital of Tirana. While Tresa had no criminal record in Albania, he had been convicted in Britain: a 2010 European Union report on visa regulations with Albania mentions the undated arrest of an Albanian criminal leader named Adriatik Tresa and the seizure of property he had purchased.
Once in Ecuador, Tresa established himself as the owner of a woodworking shop and pharmacy, according to Albanian press reports. He also settled into a luxury complex in Daule, just outside the port city of Guayaquil.
Tresa first appeared on the radar of authorities in Ecuador when he was arrested and named in connection with the 2013 murder of journalist Fausto Guido Valdiviezo Moscoso. Then-Interior Minister José Serrano alleged at a press conference that members of a drug trafficking and money laundering gang had been behind the killing.
Albanian organized crime groups made large inroads in Ecuador in 2014 and 2015, Mario Pazmiño, the former director of intelligence for Ecuador's army, told the OCCRP. This was highlighted by the 2014 arrest in Ecuador of international-fugitive and accused Albanian drug trafficker, Dritan Rexhepi, along with the seizure of 278 kilograms of cocaine.
In 2015, exporter Arbër Çekaj was charged in absentia with trafficking 37 kilograms of cocaine in an Albania-bound shipment of bananas, yet, undeterred, he made several more visits to Ecuador and exported another 137 shipments along the same route.
Cocaine Flows to Albanian Groups
In 2016, as Colombian cocaine production skyrocketed, trafficking to European countries picked up amid increasing demand. Italy's 'Ndrangheta, while continuing to dominate European cocaine distribution, could not manage these huge quantities alone, and Colombian suppliers began seeking additional partners, including the well-positioned Albanian groups.
Research from a previous InSight Crime investigation into cocaine trafficking from Ecuador revealed that Balkan syndicates sourced cocaine in Ecuador’s department of Sucumbíos, which borders Colombia. An alliance between the Colombian crime group La Constru and former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) controlled drug smuggling into Sucumbíos from the Colombian border department of Putumayo, with La Constru charging international traffickers depending on the delivery point. An ex-FARC leader in Putumayo was also reported as supplying traffickers from the Balkans with four to six tons of cocaine every month.
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Of the 160 Albanians who entered Ecuador in 2018, at least 20 were potential drug traffickers, according to an Ecuadorian counter-narcotics agent cited by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Meanwhile, cocaine seizures in Albania increased. In 2018, authorities made their largest haul when more than 600 kilograms were discovered in a banana shipment from Colombia. Months later, the man who had organized the shipment was finally arrested: the same fruit exporter, Arbër Çekaj, whom authorities had convicted years earlier.
Yet Çekaj's fall did little to stem the flow of drugs. In May 2019, a cocaine trafficking group was dismantled in Ecuador’s coastal province of El Oro. The group later turned out to be Albanian-led. Four months later, at Albania’s port of Durrës, 137 kilograms of cocaine were discovered in shipping containers from Ecuador.
Most recently, in September 2020, EUROPOL announced the dismantling of “Kompania Bello,” a transnational Albanian-speaking crime syndicate whose leader was based in Ecuador. EUROPOL declared it one of the most active cocaine trafficking organizations in Europe and declared the investigation the largest ever into an Albanian drug group.
Almost two decades after the first Albanian traffickers emerged on the scene, Albanian syndicates now control a significant portion of Europe’s wholesale and retail cocaine networks, using street-gang affiliates to deal drugs in The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, among others. Its members have also collaborated as equals with the Italian ‘Ndrangheta.
Mafia Killings Come to Guayaquil
In recent years, as its power and influence in Ecuador grew, the Albanian mafia left a trail of blood around the bustling port city of Guayaquil.
In May 2017, Ilir Hidri, one of the Albanians arrested with INTERPOL fugitive Dritan Rexhepi, was shot in the back by two assailants on a motorbike. In November 2017, Remzi Azemi -- an Albanian-Kosovar national who was Hidri’s nephew -- was wounded when a gunman fired four bullets through the open window of his armored SUV.
Albanian press reports alleged that Adriatik Tresa was a close friend of Hidri's, while both the Albanian and Ecuadorian media have reported that he was a prime suspect in Hidri’s murder and arrested after a gun was found in his apartment. Tresa’s suspected accomplice in the killing was Azemi, who was reported as having been under investigation in his uncle's shooting.
According to the OCCRP, Azemi was later charged in the March 2018 killing of Fadil Kacanic, a convicted Albanian-Montenegrin drug trafficker who is said to have been a relative of his. Kacanic and his Ecuadorian wife were escorted out of their home by fake police officers claiming they had a warrant, in a crime echoing what would later happen to Tresa. Both husband and wife were found executed on the outskirts of Guayaquil.
As for Tresa, his murder occurs within a context police suspect he would have found familiar: with record homicides rocking Guayaquil in 2020 as abundant cocaine flows surge through it.
The Albanian syndicates, however, will likely easily find an agent to replace him in Ecuador.