One day in January last year, an Albanian entrepreneur who had made his home in suburban Surrey took an unexpected business call. A very unusual business call.
That the person rang him from the far side of the world did not make it noteworthy; Ndrek Prenga had any number of foreign contacts. Rather, it was the circumstances in which the call took place. And, perhaps most of all, the business deal that was then presented to him.
His caller was a drugs baron, convicted double murderer and armed robber who was speaking on an unauthorised mobile phone from his prison cell in Quito, the capital of the South American state of Ecuador, almost 6,000 miles away. Prenga received the call on his own illegal handset in his own jail cell in the UK, where he was serving an eight-year sentence for drugs trafficking offences.
Albanian gangster Gramoz Dritan Rexhepi, pictured, was in jail in Ecuador when he called rival mobster Ndrek Prenga who was in prision in England. Prenga’s gang had been accused of stealing a multi-million pound shipment of cocaine. As a result, Rexhepi’s gang kidnapped Prenga’s brother in Albania in revenge
Jak Prenga, a carpenter, was kidnapped on January 17, 2020 in Albania by the gang. He was murdered by the gang during his abduction
The transaction that the South American convict — a fellow Albanian — had to offer Prenga was brutally straightforward.
The Kompania Bello syndicate of which the caller was boss, wanted the immediate return of several million pounds worth of cocaine that one of Prenga’s brothers had ‘stolen’ from them after it had been smuggled into the UK earlier that month.
In exchange, the drugs baron said, a third Prenga brother who — unknown to Ndrek — had just been snatched off a street in Albania, would be released alive.
The hostage was a carpenter who led a quiet life and had no part in his brothers’ criminal activities in Britain.
But business is business.
And when it comes to Albanian cocaine cartels, a very brutal business it can be, too.
Last week, the Home Secretary Priti Patel spent two days in the Albanian capital Tirana, where she signed a ‘historic’ agreement with the government to ‘strengthen existing arrangements’ to deport Albanian nationals who have no right to be in the UK.
Chief among this target group are Albanian criminals, who by country of origin now make up the largest number of foreign national offenders in UK prisons — 16 per cent of the total according to Home Office statistics.
‘I am determined to fix our immigration system, clamp down on illegal entry, and remove those with no right to be in UK as swiftly as possible,’ Patel declared in Tirana.
The Albanian gang were involved in importing massive amounts of cocaine into the UK
‘Our New Plan for Immigration, coupled with this new agreement, will speed up the removal of Albanian nationals who have committed crimes in the UK and overstayed their welcome. I make no apology for removing dangerous foreign criminals to protect the British people.’
The Home Office claims that since April this year the state has removed 254 Albanian criminals from the UK as well as 85 other Albanian nationals without permission to be here.
Albanian sources told the Mail as many as six investigators from the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) — dedicated to fighting serious organised crime — now work out of the British embassy in Tirana.
Yet there remains scepticism both in Albania and at home that, for all Ms Patel’s bellicosity, the UK will commit sufficient resources and determination to take the fight to the tight-knit Albanian drug syndicates which now operate across several continents — the UK being one of their most lucrative markets.
Their operations have contributed to a spike in knife crime on our streets and the extension of the Class A drugs trade from the larger cities to the rural provinces via the so-called ‘county lines’ network. And there are few better demonstrations of their ruthlessness and reach than the disappearance of Jan Prenga.
This cocaine was seized by the US DEA and is believed to be part of a consignment controlled by Rexhepi who is establishing supply routes from South America to Europe
Using Albanian police and court documents and other sources, we can tell the extraordinary and chilling story of an innocent man who was very likely murdered in the Balkans over a drugs deal in the UK he knew nothing about, masterminded from a prison in the Andes.
Like so many of their compatriots, the five Prenga brothers left Albania in the late 1990s when the poorest country in Europe was suffering economic collapse and widespread lawlessness following decades of totalitarian rule.
The eldest, Jan, migrated with his wife Marija to Greece, but later returned to Tirana where he set up a furniture-making business. The couple had three children.
His other four brothers headed for the UK, where they eventually gained British citizenship.
Anton Prenga went into legitimate business here, as did another brother who does not play a role in this story. But two of the fraternity, Ndrek and ‘Veri’ (not his real name, for legal reasons) became involved with serious criminal networks within the Albanian diaspora.
Perhaps the most remarkable character Ndrek came across in this underworld was a man called Dritan ‘Gramoz’ Rexhepi.
The pair reportedly spent time in Italian custody together.
Rexhepi is serving a 20-year jail term in Ecuador
Originally from the port city of Vlora, Rexhepi has committed significant crimes across continental Europe, being convicted of cocaine trafficking in Italy and armed robbery in Belgium. But he usually managed to stay one step ahead of the law, escaping from prison or police custody in three different countries.
He appeared on a Scotland Yard ‘most wanted’ list in 2013, when it was believed he was hiding in the UK. That same year he was convicted — in absentia — in Albania of the murder of a police officer and another man and the wounding of a third, in a 1998 shooting.
But by then Rexhepi was most likely in South America, on his way to becoming the ‘undisputed capo’ of Kompania Bello, which he developed into one of the most successful and innovative drug cartels operating in Europe.
The syndicate reportedly comprised 14 Albanian criminal organisations. Rexhepi oversaw the operation from Ecuador, a country that was described in 2019 as one of the world’s ‘cocaine superhighways’.
It has long been a favoured seaborne embarkation point for much of the narcotics from neighbouring Colombia, the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, on its way to the U.S. and European markets.
According to Europol, what set Rexhepi’s syndicate apart from others was the way in which it controlled the entire supply train, from exporting at source, to wholesale, to selling on the European street, rather than specialising in one link.
He employed sophisticated communication technology and a money transfer system based on cash and mutual trust, which while primitive left no electronic trace of transactions. Perfect for laundering. It hardly seemed to matter, businesswise, that in 2014 Rexhepi himself was arrested in Quito and sentenced to 13 years for trafficking.
Europol believes these two men, brothers Altin and Emiljan Hajri were involved in the kidnapping of the innocent carpenter
He merely carried on his global empire from his cell, negotiating with Colombians and sending a growing number of tonnes of cocaine to Europe each year.
The sometime law student claimed to have been forced into drug trafficking by the ‘unjust and rotten’ justice system in Albania, which had wrongly — he said — accused him of murder.
As a wanted man, narcotics trading was his only ‘chance to do something else with my life,’ he told an Albanian journalist last year.
The interview was carried out by phone from his Ecuadorian prison cell. Rexhepi had a handset connected to the highly encrypted Encrochat network, much used by criminals until it was infiltrated by a recent Franco-Dutch police investigation. It was probably the same phone Rexhepi used to call the brother of Jan Prenga.
The train of events that led to Jan Prenga’s kidnapping and presumed murder began in September 2019 in the Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil, when a cargo ship carrying bananas set sail for the UK.
But besides the fruit, one of the containers held 260kg of cocaine, worth £15-20 million.
The vessel docked in Portsmouth, Hampshire in late December.
Albanian prosecution case documents and police interview transcripts seen by the Mail state that Veri Prenga and two associates were hired by British and Iranian-born intermediaries to recover the drugs from the port on behalf of two Albania-based criminal gangs. They did so successfully in early January. But then they switched the plan, with fatal consequences.
The Albanian couriers and the intermediaries had allegedly fallen out over a previous payment.
Festim Bexhdilli, pictured, has been charged with kidnapping and dumping the body of Jak Prenga.
Maybe the couriers simply got greedy when they opened the container. Whatever the motive, Veri Prenga and several of his associates decided to retain the cocaine and divide it up among themselves. Albanian sources suggest they might not have known at that point that the drugs were connected to the notorious Dritan Rexhepi.
A week after the drugs were taken, Veri Prenga was called by a senior member of one of the Albania-based crime gangs.
He wanted his cocaine back. Three days later the man called again, saying ‘Do not make a mistake. The drugs belong to me and they must be returned.’
Shortly after this, Rexhepi made his first phone call to Ndrek Prenga in his UK prison cell. According to prosecution papers, the drug lord, who introduced himself as ‘Gramoz from Vlora’ told Ndrek ‘Do not play about with these things (the drugs), because they are our things.’
To no effect. Communication continued over several days until Veri Prenga was called by one of a Kompania Bello gang boss in Albania and told they had ‘given up’ on this kind of negotiating.
Given the men and the amount of money involved, this could only be regarded as ominous.
On the morning of January 17, 2020, Jan Prenga, 49, had coffee with his wife and afterwards went to run errands, a trip that took him along ‘London Street’ in the city of Kamza.
According to witnesses, his abduction there was carried out with extreme violence by four masked men, leaving a trail of blood as he was bundled into a stolen white Range Rover and driven off. Several hours later, the police informed his wife.
As we know, his brother Ndrek was informed of the development by Dritan Rexhepi from Ecuador. ‘You have my word, your brother will be freed (if) Veri returns the cocaine,’ the capo allegedly told him.
After Anton Prenga was told of what had happened, he met his brother Veri in a London cafe. In a later statement to Albanian police, Anton said Veri told him the reason for the kidnapping was that he had taken a cocaine shipment. Some of the drugs he had already sold, Veri admitted.
The following day Anton flew to Albania. The recovery of his brother was a delicate matter as far as the police were concerned. After all, it concerned a dispute over a huge amount of cocaine.
But in Albania there is another way of dealing with such problems — the kanun. This is a medieval code of Albanian law, based on the concept of besa — personal honour. It sets out what can or should be done for reparation in the event of theft and murder. The blood feud, a legitimate concept under the kanun code, is very similar to the Italian vendetta and is said to have caused thousands of deaths since the 1990s, when the state’s own rule of law broke down.
Anton told police he met with relatives of the Albanian gang bosses and began negotiating via a kanun mediator.
But back in the UK the hostage stand-off seemed to have already come to an end.
According to Anton’s police statement, on January 22, Veri and an Albanian associate handed over 106kg of cocaine — their share of the stolen drugs — to Polish intermediaries sent by the drug cartel.
They also paid £700,000, which covered the drugs they had already sold. The same day, Rexhepi called again from Ecuador to tell the Prenga brothers that Jan would be released ‘within two hours’.
But he wasn’t. More calls took place between South America and Europe. The drug lord assured the Prengas that Jan was healthy and about to be freed.
Again he wasn’t. Eventually Rexhepi phoned Ndrek Prenga and told him the men who had taken Jan had not kept their word and as a matter of besa, he was obliged to give the Prenga family the names of the kidnappers, so that they may do with them what they wished. Which he did.
Or at least the names of men whom he said were involved.
Meanwhile the Albanian police — helped by NCA personnel — had been making progress. Through CCTV footage and other evidence they traced the journey of the Range Rover from London Street to the underground car park of the Golden Resort — an enormous luxury wedding venue on the Adriatic coast 30 minutes away.
Further CCTV footage from the car park showed a large black bag being transferred from the stolen car to a minivan.
Men could be seen loading shovels and picks and wiping blood traces from the scene. The minivan then drove off to an unknown location. The Range Rover was later found burnt out.
Police believe the black bag contained the body of the unfortunate Jan Prenga and that he had been fatally injured — probably unintentionally given that he was a bargaining counter — in the initial kidnapping.
A spokesman for the Albanian police said: ‘Our investigation has concluded that Mr Prenga was hit hard and died due to loss of blood. The kidnapping took place after Mr Prenga’s brother was involved in criminal activities in the UK.’
Anton Prenga told police: ‘We as a family and my other brothers have no problems with any other citizen. The incident of my brother Jan Prenga being abducted came only as a result of my brother Veri Prenga stealing narcotics in England.’
A flurry of arrests were made. But eighteen months later, no one has been convicted of the kidnap and killing of Jan Prenga.
Only one man, allegedly seen holding a shovel in the underground car park, remains in custody. Jan’s wife Marija told the Mail this week she is ‘very disappointed’ by the way the authorities pursued the case. And with the absence of a body she is torn between grieving and hope that somehow he is still alive.
Last year Europol announced that after a five-year Italian-led multinational police operation, Rexhapi’s Kompania Bello has been ‘smashed’.
There had been more than 100 arrests in countries across Europe, the Middle East and South America, including the UK. No one involved in the Albanian justice system is sanguine enough to believe other organisations will not take its place.
The Albanian authorities believe it was Rexhepi, 42, who ordered the kidnapping from his Ecuadorian prison cell. He denies any part in the affair. ‘I call on anyone who knows where the victim’s body is hidden to notify the authorities so that his family can have some comfort from their pain,’ he said in his Encrochat interview.
When he has served his sentence in South America, he is likely to be extradited to Albania to serve his murder term.
The Italians also want him for drugs-related killings. Does the ‘King of Escapers’ have another trick up his sleeve?
Albanian security sources say that Ndrek Prenga has been released from jail and remains in the UK. ‘He is a British citizen now. It will not be easy to throw him out,’ said a source in Tirana.
A National Crime Agency spokesman said last night: ‘We are aware of this shipment and Jan Prenga, and believe his death to be a result of a drugs dispute.
‘We continue to work with Albanian authorities in respect of this incident. We are unable to confirm or deny the arrest of his brother Veri.’
Priti Patel has her work cut out.
Source: Daily Mail UK