The testimonies in front of prosecutors of two confessed assassins, which BIRN has seen, shed shocking light on the scale of murders-for-hire in Albania’s seamy business world.
Two businessmen – brothers in the southern port of Vlora – faced a demand from racketeers late in 2013. They had to pay up to avoid being targeted by a gang. Instead of denouncing the gangsters to the police, however, the two brothers chose a safer option: hire another gang to protect them.
“I stood guard with a machine gun for ten days at the brothers’ house,” Ndricim Gjokona, a former member of the now dismantled gang who carried out assassinations for hire, told prosecutors.
The trial on he and other members of his gang has just begun in the Serious Crimes Court in Tirana.
Since January 2014, Gjokona has been a justice collaborator. He repented together with another former gang member, Julian Sinanaj – accused of a number of assassinations.
Together, their testimonies shed valuable light on a number of crimes carried out in Tirana, Durres and Vlora in the last two years.
The two were considered the armed branch of a criminal organization composed of a total of five members, who are accused by the Serious Crimes Prosecutor’s Office of murder-for-hire, terrorist acts, trade in explosives and participation in a criminal enterprise.
The suspects are accused of murdering two businessmen and of bomb attacks against two government officials, Ardian Kollozi and Besnik Dervishaj.
The gang are also accused of planning the assassination of two construction businessman in Vlora and of preparing an assassination attempt against a liquefied gas importer, Pirro Bare.
The men’s testimonies to prosecutors have provided fresh insight into the underworld of organized crime in the Vlora and into the transformation of a number of individuals with a criminal past into businessmen.
The depositions, a copy of which was obtained by BIRN, provide evidence of the involvement of organized crime in the business world, particularly in the fields of construction, real estate and money laundering.
The testimonies also shed light on the bloody warfare between these underworld businesses and on the threats made to local officials who turned down their requests for construction permits.
Crises fuels assassination business:
Construction has accounted for a strong share of Albania’s gross domestic product, GDP, during the past decade.
According to Central Bank data, until 2008 it accounted for 15 per cent of the country’s GDP. Following the onset of the global economic crisis that hit Albania in 2008, the value of the sector dropped, however – to 12.3 per cent of GDP by 2013.
The crisis hit the construction business hard and many businessmen turned to assassins like Sinanaj and Gjokana to settle scores.
Apart from Gjokona and Sinanj, prosecutors have charged five other people. They include three other members of the gang, Genis Mehillaj, Erjon Mehillaj and Albin Mexhaj and two businessmen, Marion Mitro and Ilir Karcini.
Before they were charged, cousins Genis and Erjon Mehillaj were known as construction businessman. Mitro was an official in the municipality of Vlora with shares in construction companies, while Karcini was in the liquefied gas business.
According to prosecutors, the cousins Mehillaj, Karcini and Mitro used the services of Sinanaj and Gjokona to settle scores with rivals.
Sinanaj said he received four orders for assassinations related to property disputes or to conflicts in the construction sector in Vlora.
One was to assassinate two well-known businessmen.
“The two businessmen I was asked to kill had a conflict over a pathway, which was close to some flats that the Mehillajs were building,” Sinanaj recalled in his testimony.
“I did not agree to carry out this assassination because they had not paid me for the murder of Sokol Veizaj,” he added.
Veizaj was the owner of a seaside bar in the town of Orikum, who was killed by Sinanaj in 2012.
The testimonies of Sinanaj and Gjokona also implicate other suspects who have one foot in the world of crime and the other in the business world.
These suspects turn out to have been convicted of drug trafficking in Italy after which they laundered the proceeds of their criminal activity in the construction sector in Vlora.
Gjergj Buxhuku, head of the union of Albanian industrialists, Konfindsutria, says the laundering of dirty money in the business sector has created unfair competition and has made assassination an increasingly common means of settling disputes.
Buxhuku agreed that the crisis in the economy in the last few years had helped to underpin the hike in criminal activity generally.
“In crisis conditions, many businesses that are unable to survive in the market have turned to unlawful means to destroy their rivals – from classic corruption to physical elimination,” Buxhuku told BIRN.
Assassinations in the business world are often paid for informally, through property.
Sinanaj was sometimes paid for his assassinations and bomb blasts with real estate and at other times with apartments in the coastal town of Orikum.
According to prosecution documents, Erion Mehillaj promised Sinanaj 1,500 square metres of land on the Karaburun peninsula as payment for killing Sokol Veizaj.
However, after Sinanj killed Veizaj in August 2012, he refused to transfer the deed of the land.
Internal disputes between gang members and late payments are reasons why a number of businessmen who were on the target list for murder escaped death.
Problems in the construction business related to difficulties in securing permits or to receiving payments from subcontractors secured Sinanaj a stream of offers for assassinations between 2012 and 2014.
In his testimony, he recalled a conversation with a builder from Orikum who wished to pay Sinanaj to threaten a local official.
“He had a problem with the mayor of Orikum over a construction permit,” Sinanaj said. “He asked me to scare him by shooting in the air, or through an explosion,” he told prosecutors.
Political analyst Fatos Lubonja said the scale of the involvement of organized crime at this level was yet another sign that Albanian society required a thorough cleansing process, starting from the top.
“Politics should be cleansed of crime first; it should serve the public interest and not be a business to enrich certain individuals,” Lubonja said.
“This cleansing process will then be reflected in society in general,” he added.
Economy awash with dirty money:
Another charge in the prosecutors’ dossier against the gang of assassins concerns the preparation of an assassination attempt against the businessman, Pirro Bare.
Bare is the biggest businessman in the liquefied gas sector in Albania. However, his success was seen as bad news for one of his rivals, Ilir Karcini, who was facing bankruptcy.
“He scored a goal against me worth 500,000 euro,” Sinanaj cites Karcini as saying during a conversation, when he allegedly asked him to kill Bare.
Karcini apparently paid Sinanaj 50,000 euro for the assassination, while Sinanaj expected another 100,000 euro after completing the execution.
Police arrested Sinanaj a few days before he planned to kill Bare. Karcini – who has denied ordering the murder to judges – also finished in handcuffs.
The discovery of the case has shocked the public, who seldom know the reasons behind the many attempts on the lives of local businessmen in the last few years.
According to data from the prosecutors’ office, the crime of extorting protection money from business people has risen in the last five years. According to the General Prosecutor’s office, 132 such cases were registered during this period.
A few months ago, the prosecutors’ office arrested a former member of the Republican Guard and ex-bodyguard to Prime Minister Sali Berisha, accused of exhorting 100,000 euro from an Albanian-American businessman.
But, other businessmen have not been so lucky. According to police statistics, five businessmen have been killed during the last 12 months.
The highest profile case was the murder in Tirana of banker Artan Santo, CEO of Credins Bank.
Money laundering is another phenomenon that the prosecutor’s office is struggling to deal with.
Prosecutors investigated 174 cases between 2012 and 2013. But this is considered only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the dirty money circulating in the economy.
Many local businessmen are still turning to extra-legal means to secure their safety. One is the payment of protection money to gangs. Few of them turn to the police.
Lubonja said the existence of so many protection rackets is a sign of lack of confidence in the ability of the police to deal with the crime wave that the country is experiencing.
“We are all aware of crime because it has captured society as a whole,” he said. “In this condition, the struggle against it is very difficult,” he added.