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Albania’s top police officer took to the stage in February 2018 to announce a milestone in his force’s fight against drugs: the seizure of 613 kilograms of cocaine hidden among bananas arriving from Latin America.
It was the country’s biggest-ever drug haul and a welcome public relations coup for Tirana, which has been fighting accusations of becoming a narco-state.
Prime Minister Edi Rama was quick to heap further praise on operation “Last Snow,” highlighting how Albanian police had cracked the case on their own. U.S. Embassy and European Union representatives in Albania followed with words of encouragement.
But an investigation by OCCRP and the Ecuadorian investigative journalism outlet Plan V has found that Arber Çekaj, the man arrested in 2018 for organizing the drug shipment, first came onto the radar of law enforcement in 2015, when he was charged in Ecuador with concealing 37 kilograms of cocaine — also in a banana shipment bound for Albania.
A litany of errors allowed him to evade capture and keep trading unchecked for years. Far from being a success, the case exposes major failures of justice systems in both Albania and Ecuador, several law enforcement officers say.
Just weeks after a warrant was issued for his arrest in Ecuador in 2015, his company even received over 100,000 euros of EU agricultural funding for a refrigerated warehouse that would later be used to hide the drugs.
Despite having been flagged as a fugitive in Ecuador and under investigation in Albania, he apparently spent years continuing to travel between the two countries, and organized another 137 exports of bananas along the same route using the same firm, which was registered in his own name. No evidence has emerged to indicate that any of these shipments contained smuggled drugs — but they show that, despite being a suspected drug trafficker, Çekaj was able to continue business as usual.
(Çekaj is in prison and could not be reached for comment, but during a court appearance in November, he declared himself innocent of all charges and said he had been set up by police and prosecutors.)
Using court and police documents, as well as interviews with family members, officials, and business colleagues, OCCRP and Plan V have pieced together a timeline of events leading up to Çekaj’s arrest that paints a damning picture of how authorities in both countries failed to keep track of him and his shipments.
In the end, Çekaj was caught only after a routine scan detected something unusual in one of dozens of banana shipments he had recently made from Colombia to Albania.
Ahmet Prenci, a former Albanian police chief, said the findings of this investigation exposed serious failings on the part of authorities in both Tirana and Quito. “[Çekaj] should have been the focus of the police on every road he takes,” he said.
An anti-narcotics police officer in Ecuador, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media, blamed the “deplorable, weak, and very permeable administration of justice” in his country.
The case comes amid a wave of drug seizures and gangland assassinations that have erupted in recent years in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil as Albanian organized crime groups have taken root there.
In September 2019, Albanian and Greek police made another significant seizure: 137 kilograms of cocaine hidden in bananas being sent from Ecuador to Durres, Albania’s largest port.
César Peña’s office outside the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, which still bears the marks of its former life as a Chinese reception hall, is a far cry from the opulent lifestyle of the high-spending drug smugglers he once pursued.
The prosecutor spent years leading investigations into the growing number of murders linked to Albanian gangs, who have become a driving force in the local cocaine trade. He said it is common for Albanian drug lords to rent mansions in the city’s most elite neighborhoods, complete with elaborate security systems.
“They go to gyms, luxury hotels,” Peña said. “They go to expensive bars. They receive money by bank wires. They have a lot of money.”
Guayaquil is a top departure point for cocaine headed to Europe from Ecuador, whose dollarized economy — sandwiched between leading producers Colombia and Peru — has made it a hub for drug gangs in recent years.
And business, it seems, is booming.
This year’s drugs report from Europol and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction noted that Albanian-speaking gangs are playing a growing role in the continent’s $10 billion cocaine market. European seizures in 2017, the last year for which data is available, reached a record high of 140 metric tons.
“The largest amounts of cocaine may now be smuggled into Europe hidden in cargo ships, especially in maritime shipping containers, departing South America, particularly from Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador,” the report read.
The growing trade has led to a wave of violence in Ecuador. In Guayaquil alone, homicides have surged by more than a third over the course of a year, increasing from 246 deaths between January and October 2018 to 338 over the same period in 2019.
Albanian gangs are suspected to be behind a wave of assassinations linked to the drug trade. They include the killing of Albanian Ilir Hidri in May 2016 and an attempted hit 18 months later on his nephew, Remzi Azemi, who was shot when his girlfriend opened the window of their armored sport-utility vehicle to smoke a cigarette.
Azemi himself was charged in an investigation into the kidnapping of convicted Albanian drug smuggler Fadil Kacanic and his Ecuadorian wife, who were abducted from their upscale villa in Guayaquil by men dressed as police officers.
Mario Pazmiño, a former director of intelligence for the Ecuadorian Army, said Albanian organized criminal groups started arriving in the country in 2014 or 2015, drawn by the opportunity to make direct contacts with cartels from Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and other parts of South America.
He described his country as vulnerable to infiltration by foreign criminals because of its dollarized economy, which makes it easier to launder U.S. currency, and widespread corruption that allows the purchase of fraudulent documents, including passports.
“It’s very permissible for organized crime to function” in Ecuador, he said.
Born in a small village in Albania’s remote northern highlands, Çekaj moved with his family to the port city of Durres at the age of 17 in 1997, a time when Albania was convulsed with unrest after the end of decades of communist rule.
There he studied for a law degree and emigrated to Germany soon after graduating. Çekaj’s uncle, Faslli Çekaj, a retired judge, said his nephew returned to his homeland with a new surname, Jansen, after marrying a German citizen.
“The marriage was to secure German papers. But he came back because his parents refused to live in Germany,” Faslli said in an interview at his office in Durres. Once back home, Çekaj married an Albanian woman — though it remains unclear if he ever divorced his first wife — and began splitting his time between the two countries.
He registered his banana import-export business, Arbri Garden, in May 2012, and soon began shipments from Ecuador to Albania. The company grew rapidly. In 2013, he shipped 1,000 tons of bananas; a year later, that had increased to 1,600 tons.
Faslli said his nephew had been focused on work — and interested in fruit trading — from a young age. “Even when he was a child, he was able to sell apples bought from the village to the town, at Bajram Curri [in northern Albania]. This surprised all of us.”
“You never saw him with other people in a cafe, apart from his relatives,” Faslli added.
On April 4, 2015, Çekaj drove an SUV along a dirt road flanked by towering banana palms to La Rosita, a tiny village in Ecuador’s southwestern banana-producing region of Guayas.
It was a trip he had made frequently over the past eight months to visit what was then his main banana supplier, Banana World Green. But this time he was accompanied by a woman, later identified to Ecuadorian prosecutors by plantation workers as “Sara.”
According to court testimony from one of the plantation’s employees, Çekaj pulled up early that morning and asked to inspect the quality of the bananas being packaged. As he walked through the estate, the worker saw the woman add four boxes of bananas to a container that was ready for export.
When the employee asked what was going on, Çekaj told him not to worry about it.
Another of the plantation workers recalled how the woman offered to give employees $100 to buy soft drinks and mortadella sandwiches. “No one does that,” the worker told Plan V, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
“When I finished and closed the container, I even remember that we heard him saying, because the box had a monkey logo: ‘The monkey has left! The monkey has left!,’ like a crazy person,” the worker said. “He clapped both of his hands euphorically when the container was driven away.”
Çekaj’s excitement was short lived, however. One of the plantation’s employees had surreptitiously removed one of the suspicious boxes from the container and discovered what looked like narcotics inside. When the truck left, staff reported it to the owner, who then contacted the driver, telling him to pull over and wait for the police.
Plantation administrator Alex Mejía told the prosecutor’s office, “We found the unpleasant surprise in the box: The bananas were on top, and inside there was a package that we later learned contained drugs.”
The police found an additional 28 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside three banana boxes in the truck and arrested the driver, who was later released. But Çekaj, who had been following the vehicle in his SUV, fled the scene. By the time prosecutors summoned him for an interview on April 24, he had already flown to Albania.
Çekaj was summoned to appear in an Ecuador court on June 25, 2015, to face allegations of drug trafficking. When he failed to appear, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
“Something bad has happened to me, they have done something bad to me. So I don’t know what to do,” Çekaj wrote to a friend on Skype soon after the seizure, according to information found on his computer after his arrest in 2018.
His friend, identified only as Anodire, responded: “I know you are innocent.”
In December 2015, Albanian police passed information about the drug seizure in Ecuador to prosecutors. They began to investigate Çekaj, but made little progress because they never received key information they had sought from authorities in South America, according to a source in the office.
In a statement to OCCRP, the Albanian Serious Crimes Prosecution Office said that the 2015 investigation into Çekaj was still ongoing.
Despite being on the run from the law in Ecuador and under investigation in Albania, business was booming for Çekaj, and he appears to have continued to travel freely between the two countries.
In May 2015, not long before his court summons in Ecuador, Arbri Garden received 19 million Albanian lek (around $152,000 at the time) from an EU agriculture fund administered by the Albanian government. The money was used to build a refrigerated warehouse to store bananas.
The new facility was put to good use. Çekaj’s company, Arbi Garden, made 137 shipments of bananas, totalling almost 3,000 tons, from Ecuador to Albania. All took place between April 2015, when an investigation had already been opened against him for alleged drug trafficking in Ecuador, and May 2018, when he was arrested in Germany. The company also made 91 banana shipments from Colombia to Albania, and a firm owned by Çekaj’s father made another 17, according to figures from the Import Genius trade database.
Çekaj’s last banana container left Colombia on March 13, 2018 — two weeks after his name had made international headlines for the massive seizure of 613 kilograms of cocaine in Albania.
Faslli said his nephew also continued to travel to Ecuador for business throughout this period. He said this should stand as proof of Çekaj’s innocence.
“Yes, I know that a quantity of drugs was found in a container that would come to us [the family firm],” he said. “Investigations were launched, but Arber was not found to be involved. Even after this event he traveled to Ecuador.”
Khaled Barakat, manager of Ecuacedros S. A., a banana export company that did business with Çekaj until January 2018, described him as a well-educated professional who made his payments on time. He said he was surprised when Çekaj disappeared.
Their last business deal involved a container bound for Albania, Barakat said, but Çekaj cancelled it because he claimed the fruit would arrive at its destination too late. Barakat said he called Çekaj several times, but he didn’t answer.
He said the Albanian told him he planned to switch to buying bananas from Colombia, because Ecuadorian fruit was becoming too expensive.
Çekaj’s luck ran out in February 2018, when Albanian police found drugs in one of his banana shipments. It turned out to be the country’s biggest cocaine haul to date, and it ultimately led to his arrest.
Albanian court documents show the two containers arrived in Durres on Feb. 19, 2018, where they sat for nine days before the drugs were discovered during a routine scan.
Arlind Madani, an employee of Alba Shipping, which Çekaj had hired to handle the shipments’ paperwork, said that on Feb. 27, the company’s manager visited him to say that Arbri Garden’s containers needed to be cleared that day.
He said the scan found an issue with one of the containers, prompting Albanian authorities to physically search the cargo that evening. Customs officials discovered the cocaine and notified law enforcement.
Documents show that, after being alerted by local police, three undercover police teams were sent to Durres. The manager and a company truck driver were put under surveillance along with the containers, which were driven away from the port just before midnight to Çekaj’s warehouse.
Police then swooped in on the shipment, arresting the manager and truck driver on suspicion of drug trafficking. An international warrant was issued for Çekaj, who was arrested months later near Dusseldorf, in western Germany, and later extradited to Albania.
At a court hearing in Tirana in November 2019, the prosecution presented messages from Lushaj’s phone in which he and Çekaj allegedly discussed concerns about the police search of the shipment.
Police estimate the seized cocaine had a street value of about $223 million. Authorities also confiscated $38,000 and more than 10 million Albanian lek (about $90,000) from the bank accounts of Arbri Garden and EcoAlmax, the company owned by Çekaj’s father.
While it is unclear whether any of Arbri Garden’s other shipments concealed drugs, records provided to Plan V by Ecuadorean anti-narcotic police show that three of the 19 companies Çekaj worked with in Ecuador also had cocaine seized from their shipments.
In an interview with Plan V, an Ecuadorian anti-narcotics officer spoke candidly about authorities’ failure to find Çekaj and monitor his business.
He blamed weak rule of law and lax enforcement in Ecuador, noting that there are no even any scanners to check shipments at Ecuadorian ports. He said he was not surprised that Çekaj had managed to evade capture for three years.
“In our country it is very easy” to cross borders illegally, he explained. “So far this year we have seized some 60 tons of drugs, which all went to Ecuador from Colombia illegally. Sixty tons. So what is one person?”
Ecuadorian prosecutor Patricio Toledo, who investigated and indicted Çekaj in 2015, blamed “a bureaucratic issue” and a lack of cooperation from the police for his office’s failure to take action.
He said he only learned of Çekaj’s arrest in Germany after he was contacted by Plan V journalists, and that he did not know whether Ecuadorian police had ever searched for the Albanian. Plan V sought comment for this story from the anti-narcotics police, but did not receive a reply in time for publication.
Albanian prosecutors and police did not respond to OCCRP’s requests for comment for this story. The country’s customs service said it was unable to comment due to the ongoing criminal investigations.
However, Ahmet Prenci, a former Albanian prosecutor, director of state police, and later director of tax investigations until 2015, said the evidence uncovered by the joint investigation reveals a massive failure by law enforcement.
Investigating the origin of such large quantities of drugs, he said, requires serious commitment from all levels of government, starting from the top. “There is no political will to fight crime,” he said. “We need to catch drug bosses and then punish them.”