Busted Albanian cocaine network run from prison in Ecuador

On 17 September 2020, Europol released information about a major international operation that took down the Kompania Bello, one of the most active Albanian-speaking cocaine-trafficking networks in Europe.1 More than 20 people were arrested following a five-year investigation led by the Italian police and involving law-enforcement agencies from ten countries. In the raids, nearly four tonnes of cocaine and over €5.5 million in cash were seized from what was described as a highly professional criminal syndicate.

According to Europol, the organization’s ringleader, a 40-year-old Albanian national based in Ecuador, used sophisticated encrypted communication technology to negotiate directly with South American drug cartels; arrange huge shipments of cocaine to major ports in Europe; and, with the help of accomplices based in Italy, the Netherlands and Albania, organize distribution of the drugs throughout Europe. The cocaine was smuggled across European borders concealed in vehicles equipped with elaborate hidden compartments. The criminals apparently laundered their proceeds using an underground alternative remittance system of Chinese origin, known as fei ch’ien, which is similar to hawala.

The Albanian media speculated that the kingpin is a man named Dritan Rexhepi.2 Interestingly, Rexhepi has been imprisoned in Ecuador for the past six years since his arrest in August 2014 for drug trafficking. Rexhepi has spent most of his adult life on the run. He is wanted for murdering two policemen in Albania after escaping pre-trial detention in 2006. After being arrested in the Netherlands in 2008, he was extradited to Italy. In April 2011, while serving a sentence for drug trafficking in Italy, he escaped from a jail in Pavia.3 A few months later, he was accused of bank robbery and arrested in Spain, but was later extradited to Belgium where he was wanted for drug trafficking. There he escaped from jail a third time, until he was arrested in Ecuador in 2014.4

That a notorious criminal could play a leading role in coordinating such a massive cocaine-trafficking operation from his prison cell in Ecuador shows not only the strength of the Albanian criminal networks operating outside of the Western Balkans, but also the weakness of the criminal-justice system in Ecuador.

A container cargo ship docks at the deepwater port of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

A container cargo ship docks at the deepwater port of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

© Shutterstock/Al’fred

A July 2020 GI-TOC report,5 ‘Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime’, describes how over the past twenty years, criminal groups from the Western Balkans, including from Albania, have moved up the value chain in several major drug markets to become big players, particularly in cocaine trafficking from Latin America to Western Europe.

Ecuador seems popular for criminal groups because the country is situated between Colombia and Peru, which together produce around 90% of the world’s cocaine. It is also easy to come and go: there is visa-free travel for up to 90 days, no national database of fingerprints or identity photos, and it is reportedly easy to change one’s identity and purchase fraudulent documents, such as ID cards and passports. Other vulnerability factors include a recent history of political instability, porous borders, a weak criminal-justice system, a cash-based economy (which makes it hard to trace financial flows and easy to launder money), and corruption in the judicial system. Ecuadorian prisons have a long history of corruption and insecurity,6 as well as gang-related violence.7 It is also worth noting that Ecuador has no law that provides for the seizure of assets from drug traffickers, and almost no cooperation, mutual legal assistance or intelligence exchange with the Western Balkan countries. It is therefore not surprising that the Ecuadorian National Anti-Narcotics Directorate estimates that between 2017 and 2019, 56 Albanians linked to illicit activities arrived in Ecuador.8

According to the National Service for Persons Deprived of Liberty in Ecuador, Rexhepi will be extradited to Albania after serving his entire 13-year sentence in prison.9 So far, he has completed about half of his prison time.

This case shows that improved law-enforcement cooperation within the Western Balkans or between the regional countries and Europol will be insufficient if criminals from the region are able to operate freely in Latin America, even after being arrested. To enhance drug control, a more effective triangular relationship will be needed between countries of the Western Balkans, Western Europe and Latin America, including mutual legal assistance, seizure and recovery of assets, extradition, intelligence-sharing and joint operations.


  1. Europol, Joint investigation team leads to dismantling of one of Europe’s most active Albanian-speaking networks trafficking cocaine into Europe, 17 September 2020, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/joint-investigation-team-leads-to-dismantling-of-one-of-europe%E2%80%99s-most-active-albanian-speaking-networks-trafficking-cocaine

  2. Si funksiononte karteli i kokaines? Hoxha: Dritan Rexhepi rrinte ne hije, niste ngarkesat nga burgu, ABC News Albania, 17 September 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cm8mY921Xv4. Another key player identified by the media is Eldi Dizdari, an Albanian national living in Dubai. 

  3. ‘Si u arratisa nga qelitë e Shqipërisë, Italisë dhe Spanjës’, rrëfimi nga burgu në Ekuador i Dritan Rexhepit, Gazeta Shqiptare, 11 February 2020, http://gazetashqiptare.al/2020/02/11/si-u-arratisa-nga-qelite-e-shqiperise-italise-dhe-spanjes-rrefimi-nga-burgu-ne-ekuador-i-dritan-rexhepit/

  4. Belgjike arratiset nga burgu Dritan Rexhepi, Tema, 2 October 2011, http://www.gazetatema.net/2011/10/02/belgjike-arratiset-nga-burgu-dritan-rexhepi/

  5. Walter Kemp, Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Western Balkan organized crime, GI-TOC, July 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Transnational-Tentacles-Global-Hotspots-of-Balkan-Organized-Crime-ENGLISH_MRES.pdf

  6. 21 detenidos por ingreso de armas en supuesta ambulancia a la Penitenciaría, El Universo, 17 February 2019, https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2019/02/17/nota/7194221/21-detenidos-ingreso-ambulancia-penitenciaria-litoral

  7. Desde la cárcel de Latacunga, un albanés dirigió un emporio de droga en Europa, Plan V, 21 September 2020, https://www.planv.com.ec/historias/sociedad/desde-la-carcel-latacunga-un-albanes-dirigio-un-emporio-droga-europa

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid.