When the topic of discussion is organized crime, Albania seldom comes to mind. But that country’s mafia is notorious for its complexity and the diversity of its criminal enterprises. Its reach spreads far beyond the Albanian border, with branches highly active in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and South America. Activities include trafficking in drugs, arms, humans, and human organs. Interpol reports that the Kosovo chapter alone runs heroin markets in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Norway. And Italian mobsters are said to hate dealing with the Albanians because they’re too violent and too unpredictable.
Like many organized crime groups we loosely refer to as “mafia”, this one grew out of the chaos following the breakdown of government. When communism failed, Albania collapsed into economic dysfunction and the criminal element stepped in to take advantage of the chaos. It wasn’t long before they gained a foothold in the hotbed of mafia activity in the United States.
As The New York Times reported in January of 2006, “Beginning in the 1990s, the Corporation, led by a man named Alex Rudaj, established ties with established organized crime figures including members of the Gambino crime family.”, but they wanted more. Soon, they were battling the Lucchese and Gambino families for territory in Queens, the Bronx and Westchester County
In 2001, seven Albanian mobsters stormed a Gambino hangout in Astoria, tearing the place apart, firing weapons and beating the manager bloody. Gambino leader Arnold Squitieri demanded a “sit down.” The two groups met at a gas station located in a rest area near the New Jersey turnpike. Rudaj found himself and his six crew members outnumbered by twenty armed Gambino mobsters. When Squitieri issued an ultimatum and tension was at its highest, crew members on both sides drew their guns, but the Albanians ended the discussion by threatening to blow up the station and everyone in it.
By 2006, all the main players involved in this “sit down” were in prison. In October of 2004, the FBI arrested 22 members of the Rudaj Organization in New York on indictments covering a wide range of racketeering and gambling charges. Rudaj and his main lieutenants were tried and found guilty. Rudaj, by then 38 years old, was sentenced to 27 years in prison. Arnold Squitieri was convicted in an unrelated racketeering case and went to prison for seven years.
Fred Snelling, head of the FBI’s criminal division in New York, once described the Albanians as a sixth crime family, characterizing the Albanians as similar to the Italian mafia in its early days, before it became more business-like. The Gambino family even once hired Albanians to do their killing for them. When they first expanded into Italy, local justice officials were amazed that the fearsome Albanian criminals were prepared to take on the local mafia.
Many Albanians are Muslims, and some are thought to be Al Qaeda sympathizers and have links to that organization. Evidence exists that shows their support for terrorism, according to the FBI and other sources. The Kosovo Liberation Army has been targeted as a recruiting ground by Al Qaeda and more militant forms of Islam are moving into the country.
Currently, more than 15 mafia families operate in Albania alone, functioning as hybrid groups involved in both criminal enterprises and local political activities. Although it’s not on most people’s radar, the Albanian Mafia, in its entirety, ranks as one of the prolific groups in the world in terms of generating crime.