On February 28 the police arrested in Maminas two persons transporting a container filled with Colombian bananas, under the floors of which 620 kilograms of cocaine were found. The police assessed the value of the shipment at €180 million.
The container belonging to Arbri Garden shpk had been awaiting customs clearance in the Durrës port since the 19th, along with two other containers belonging to companies that imported exotic fruits. Meanwhile, it came to light that South American shipments had been transported into the country on the behest of Arbri Garden on 76 occasions.
According to police sources, the operation was carried out in its entirety by the State Police and Customs with no information provided by international partners whatsoever, and the shipment was detected after a risk appraisal at the Customs, followed by a search using “detection dogs” and disassembling the container.
Arbër Çekaj – the company’s owner, also the head of a few other companies – has a warrant out for his arrest. Two years ago he was under police investigation on money laundering charges, but his file never made it to the Prosecution Office.
Çekaj left the country on February 27, after closing down the secondary tax number of the warehouse where the drugs would later be transported to. According to a press statement by one of the Deputy Ministers of Interior Affairs, international partners warned of Çekaj’s criminal past in their countries.
Surprisingly, one of the arrested, the driver of the vehicle transporting the container to the warehouse, lists his occupation on Facebook as “transporting flour for the partisans,” referring, most likely, to an old communist film where weapons intended for communist partisans were covertly transported in a flour shipment, where they were intercepted by a nationalist group.
The confiscation of the largest amount of hard drugs ever intercepted in Albania drew many public reactions.
The first being that of Minister of Interior Affairs, Fatmir Xhafaj, who broke the news on Twitter, congratulating the Police and international partners on their successful collaboration.
The opposition’s reactions were harsh, reminding the public of Italian Antimafia Prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho’s affirmations that the Albanian drug problem does not stop at marijuana trafficking and Albanian criminal groups continue expanding their hold on the cocaine trade.
After a long wait, Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke, bragging of the fact that the operation was executed exclusively by the Albanian police with no international intel or help.
The Prime Minister’s position clashed visibly with Xhafaj’s earlier tweet, sparking, thus, a public debate on whether or not outside help facilitated the operation or not. That evening, Xhafaj clarified his statement, saying that international partners were called upon after the cocaine was discovered, in order to begin investigations on the persons involved.
On that same evening, an unusual clarification also was issued, apparently as a result of a request from Tirana, by the Italian Antimafia Director, who congratulated Albanian institutions and made clear that Italian authorities had no role in this operation. His statement was complemented by congratulations from the UN delegation in Tirana and the United States Embassy, even though the latter stressed the fact that trafficking is on the rise.
Yet, the interception of such a massive amount of drugs raises a lot more questions than those made public by the opposition.
Who are the true “partisans” for whom this “flour” was intended?
Right away, anti-government rumors in Tirana began to swirl around a hypothesis focusing on the heads of the Partizani football team, which include Rama’s brother, and speculating that “partisans” was a euphemism for the heirs of communist leaders. Perhaps to silence these whispers, mentions of “partisans” were quickly erased from many news sites close to the government.
Considering the remarkably high value of the shipment, one might wonder who might have financed an operation of this level and, most importantly, who is powerful enough to be able to guarantee it protection from the law?
The police valued the shipment at €180 million, nearly €300 thousand per kg, much higher than cocaine’s actual going price in the European market – which is €50 thousand per kg. One can infer from this that we are speaking of a product of high purity that would have needed to be cut (mixed with other substances) at least 6 times before being sold, which would imply the existence of a processing laboratory in Albania.
Yet, again, one wonders when exactly did the analysis determining the drug’s purity take place, seeing as the police’s statement seems to have been issued within a few hours of the confiscation? Is the value given by the police perhaps a mere boutade intended to inflate the operation’s importance?
According to the police statement, the shipment of bananas was flagged as “unusual” during the risk appraisal at the Durrës Customs.
To clarify, risk appraisal at the Customs is based on the country and company of origin, the transporting company and its itinerary, the importing company, and information included in the Customs Declaration Statement and the transporting ship’s papers. If the shipment is coming from unknown or suspect countries, companies, or routes, or is being imported by suspicious companies, then it is considered high-risk (there are several risk levels).
Preliminary risk assessment is meant to decrease the number of physical checks, focusing them only in high-risk cases. Per this system, if a shipment is assessed as a high risk – which, in the Albanian Customs, is the case for 50–100 shipments a day – then it must undergo a physical control by Customs officers, which consists of unloading and thoroughly inspecting the shipment.
How come, in this case, the Customs failed to perform a physical check, notifying immediately, instead, the police, who, in turn, put the shipment under surveillance? How come the police didn’t put under surveillance the two other shipments belonging to the same company?
According to various outlets, the same company has seamlessly brought Latin American shipments through the port of Durrës 76 other times. One could, rightly, hypothesize that, before transporting such a large amount of cocaine into the country, Arbri Garden must have attempted to push through previous, smaller shipments, to test the grounds, as it were. How many other times have the shipments of this company been flagged as high risk and undergone the same control? Have they ever done so?
On the other hand, the container, although refrigerated, contains product that, normally, as a perishable, must be given priority. How come, then, that its owners left it in the port for at least a week? Not to mention the fact that, as they were aware, the chances of a shipment filled with drugs being intercepted only increase with the time it spends in a port.
According to Deputy Minister Julian Hodaj, the company owner’s drug trafficking history has been continually reported to the Albanian police for several years. Is this not international help and intelligence? How come Rama, in his statement, clarifies that there has been no cooperation with “European,” rather than “foreign” or “international,” partners?
How come Minister Xhafaj’s morning tweet praises the drug bust as a product of international collaboration only for him to declare 12 hours later, after the opposition’s discussions and guesswork, and, most importantly, mere minutes after De Raho’s denial of involvement, that the operation was exclusively Albanian?
Finally, Çekaj fleeing the country after the container had arrived in the port but before it had left it, and, at the same time, cancelling the Maminas warehouse’s tax number, can make one think that he had the forethought or, more likely, awareness that something was brewing.
It seems this confiscation was not a mere coincidence, or, even less, a triumph of risk assessment at the Customs, but, rather, a result of the political need to look good in front of our European allies, before the negotiations for EU membership begin.
Yesterday’s statement from the Colombian Navy affirming that they, in cooperation with other international partners, informed the Albanian authorities of this shipment, in addition to their assessment of the cocaine’s value at $36 million, six times less than the Albanian police’s assessment, only serves to further reinforce this suspicion.