United States: 37 arrested in Albanian crime-syndicate sweep

by Thomson Reuters

Federal law enforcement authorities on Wednesday charged 37 individuals in connection with an international drug-trafficking ring led by ethnic Albanians, whose operations are said to have netted more than $500 million during an 11-year run across three continents

The majority of the accused syndicate members were arrested early Wednesday in New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Florida, according to law enforcement officials. Several others were arrested earlier this month in connection with a drug-related shooting, and others are already in prison on related offenses. One of the accused ringleaders, Arif Kurti, was previously arrested in Albania on heroin trafficking charges. The U.S. is requesting his extradition.

According to court documents, the accused individuals are members of several interrelated Albanian family clans, known as fis. The syndicate's members included hundreds of members, associates, workers and customers who helped arrange for the importation and distribution of massive quantities of marijuana, cocaine, oxycodone and other illegal drugs across the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe, operating from 1999 until last month, officials said.

The group used a professional money-laundering organization in Canada to wash more than $15 million in drug profits, officials said. Federal officials are seeking a total of more than $500 million in what they say are ill-gotten gains reaped from the syndicate during its run.

Violent crimes

In addition to the drug-running and money laundering charges, officials said they suspect several defendants have been involved in drug-related violent crime, including kidnapping and attempted murder. Searches of syndicate-controlled stash houses turned up 18 firearms, millions of dollars in drug proceeds and hundreds of pounds of marijuana, officials said.

"As charged in the indictment, this syndicate spread its tentacles across continents, sending its ruinous product worldwide and reaping enormous profits," U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

The indictment unsealed in Brooklyn federal court collectively charges the defendants with eleven counts, including operating a criminal enterprise and conspiracies to import, distribute and possess substantial amounts of marijuana, cocaine and oxycodone. The defendants also face charges in connection with money laundering and using firearms in relation to drug-trafficking crimes.

If convicted, the three alleged ringleaders -- Gijavit Thaqi, Gjevelin Berisha and Kurti, accused of helping to run the crime ring from his Albanian jail cell -- face up to life in prison. Other defendants are facing sentences ranging from a maximum of 20 years to life in prison.

The defendants will be arraigned Wednesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Carter. The government will oppose bail for all except two defendants, according to court filings.