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IN TIRANA, I RENTED A CHEAP MOTEL ROOM in a part of town called Selvia, and rented a car that I drove on highways that are pitch-black at night and have no speed limits.
I went through cities where the traffic lights are suggestions, weaving through the chaos of donkey carts, overloaded motorcycles and pedestrians crossing everywhere.
I met a body guard who said he once worked for David Beckham and kept his bulletproof vest under the back window of his car, who ended up helping me chase down prison officials and persuade them to give me access to their facilities.
I met with police, gangsters, lawyers, journalists, reformers, snitches; went into clubs, prisons, casinos, mosques; crossed shaky bridges in the countryside, wandered though city streets in the middle of the night taking photos of coffin shops, jails and graffitied walls; helped out a woman who was hit hard by a car as she rode her bike in night traffic; lost 25 pounds.
Every night I walked Tirana streets with garbage everywhere, old ladies sweeping with medieval brooms, and roaming packs of wild dogs. There were no sidewalks. The crumbling walls of many of the buildings were covered by gang tags: graffiti that said fuck this and fuck that, a picture of a smoking spliff on one wall, the phrase "criminal boys" tagged, in English, on the wall of a prison.
One night, a car flew by down a narrow street at about 80 miles an hour when the driver suddenly hit the brakes and intentionally drifted out down the road. Another night, on another narrow road, a man on a motorcycle, driving top speed, popped a wheelie and rode it down the road, no helmet.
The streets that had businesses on them were lined with coffee shops, casinos, and one pharmacy after another that sold drugs like Xanax and Ambien over the counter.
In a bleak, run-down cement apartment building, "Toni Montana" was graffitied on a hallway wall outside. I went there to visit a divorced mother who was fighting cancer, who lives with her mother and her young adult son who has to hustle to pay under the table for medical treatment. I ate a home-cooked Albanian meal and drank Grandma’s homemade wine.
I met a street-food vendor who used to work in restaurants in New York and lived in Jackson Heights. He told me he got to America by going to Spain, then going to Mexico, where he camped out in the forest for six months in a sleeping bag before he got smuggled across the border. He went back to Albania because his parents were sick. He said that so many Albanians hook up with Mexicans either to traffic drugs or to smuggle people into America that they joke that Mexicans and Albanians are brothers.
I helped five men carry a 20-foot roll of carpeting through narrow streets and across busy roads to their mosque. I met Russians, Chinese, and two young French men roughing it through the country, who told me they'd heard gunshots when they were outside the night before. I met conference-goers from nearby Balkan states who were eager to tell me how much they hated America. (I never heard that once from an Albanian.)
In downtown Tirana I watched kids sliding down a massive, crumbling pyramid-shaped monument to the late Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who kept Albania remarkably isolated and oppressed even by the standards of other Communist dictatorships.
I told an Albanian reporter I was with I couldn't believe young children were allowed to do something so dangerous right there in front of everyone. He laughed and said, “It’s nothing, this is Albania.” He said the same thing when I reacted with surprise to a story about how he used to blast away with his father's gun at some windows across the way from his apartment when he was nine years old, in 1997.
Everybody had guns, he said. Everybody shot.
The bored, forlorn-looking girls in one of the drugstores lit up, happy for the chance to practice their English on me, and were incredibly welcoming, like almost everyone I met in Albania. One of them said she wants badly to go to the U.S. and has been trying and failing for years to win a visa through the Albanian lottery system. She said she's given up hope of ever getting to America, and of doing anything with her life.
IN THE COURSE OF REPORTING A SERIES OF ARTICLES LAST year for Capital New York on Albanian crime in America, I had encountered a surprising level of generosity and helpfulness from within the emigre communities from New York to Michigan, once I got past the suspicion. But that didn't prepare me for the hospitality I encountered from the people I met in Albania, who consistently summoned immense kindness from amid dire and often dangerous circumstances.
I met a 32-year old woman named Drita Mezini who I became close to and who helped me out in Albania tremendously. She worked as a clerk in the small hotel I stayed in, fetching coffee for the men who come in.
Drita is well-read and speaks good English. But her education, like that of so many other children in Albania, was interrupted because of widespread violence in the 1990s. (Often they couldn’t go to school and were told to watch "educational" television at home instead. Some of them, when they did go to school, had to use clear plastic bags instead of backpacks so they couldn't conceal any weapons or bombs.)
When she was 18, Drita said, she heard gunshots every night. There wasn't enough food. She was sent to Greece to stay with her father (her parents had divorced). But it was a bad situation and Drita snuck away and got back on her own to Albania, not even knowing the way, scared to death. She says she cried so much in 1997 her eyes still hurt now.
Drita gave me food, translated for me, helped me with directions, rode with me on reporting trips and generally looked out for me when I was headed toward trouble. She didn’t want or ask for any money for the help she was giving me. Once I had explained to her that I was over there to write about the origins of Albanian crime, she said she just believed that it was a useful thing I was doing, and that she wanted to help.
Thimi Samarxhiu, a 24-year old crime reporter for an Albanian newspaper, was also very generous, and helped me a great deal. He introduced me to a criminal lawyer who told me all about the major players there, like the huge heroin trafficker who used to live in the United States and had been killed just two months earlier in Albania; the inmate shot to death in the exercise yard from 300 meters away by a sniper; the judge who was killed earlier in the year with C-4 explosive; the anti-drug agent who was killed a month ago by an unknown assailant. The lawyer told me the Albanian murder rate is 10 per 100,000 people, compared to the European Union’s 1.2 per 100,000.
While I was there, Samarxhiu was assigned to cover a probable gang-related killing of one of the owners of the Rock and Roll Bar in Tirana, shot to death by a gunman with a silencer.
I tried to arrange an interview with Arif Kurti, an Albanian man who was indicted in federal court in Brooklyn, charged with being one of the kingpins of a huge drug syndicate. U.S. prosecutors said he had been running syndicate activities from behind bars with a smuggled Blackberry and cell phones, and they want him extradited to New York.
An Albanian prison official told me that Kurti was in Lezha prison, about two hours north of Tirana.
I set out for the prison with an Albanian-English dictionary in my car. I stopped several times for directions, but the place was impossible to find. I finally stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant whether he would be willing to help me. After a while he agreed. He hopped into the car and we took off.
We still couldn’t find it. He finally told me to stop on the highway and he got out and ran across a farm field to knock on the door of a small house to ask directions. We eventually turned off the main road and went down a barely existing bumpy dirt road, past numerous inactive construction sites, huge piles of dirt, a crane with a sleeping operator in the cab. Finally, in the middle of nowhere, there was the prison.
After a lot of drama and arguing and pleading—the gas-station attendant translated for me, and I raised Thimi on my cell phone, which I passed to prison officials through the gate—they finally told me that Kurti wasn't there anymore. He’d been transferred to another prison.
I asked them about Kurti’s co-defendant, who he was arrested with on a heroin trafficking charge. This guy had been his running buddy, who authorities in New York told me they think may be guilty of crimes, but who they didn't have anything solid on. (I was told by another source that this man had killed somebody.)
The guard whistled and said with a smile, in English, “Bye, Bye.” He'd been released.
I tracked down Kurti in the higher security Peqin prison, two hours south of Tirana, where visitors rolled up to the front gate in donkey carts. The prison authorities hadn't wanted to help me get access, so I just showed up. The second time, I showed up with Drita, and we managed to get the officials to take us inside and answer some questions. We were finally able to convince them to give Kurti a letter.
WHILE I WAS IN ALBANIA I REACHED OUT TO ANOTHER SOURCE, a person who said he had a past association with some of the Albanians involved with organized crime in the U.S., who had given me a lot of information that turned out to be correct. He told me he'd changed his mind, that it was too risky for him to meet me. Besides, he told me, the city he lived in was a long way from Tirana, where I was.
I decided to go see him. Drita went with me.
When we got close, we picked up a hitch-hiker who said he was from the city and would direct us to the center. At the center of town I scoped out a mall, where I found an internet café and sent this source a message asking him to meet me in the washing-machine section of the mall, which seemed pretty remote and safe, for his purposes.
Two hours later, while I was sitting at a restaurant in another part of town, I got a message that he would meet me.
I left Drita sitting in the restaurant, grabbed my backpack full of files, raced into a cab and managed to direct the driver to the mall in broken Albanian.
He was a tough-looking guy. He made a point of telling me that he had taken someone else’s car. He said he still wasn’t sure if I was F.B.I. or if I was being followed, or whether he could trust me. I jumped in his car and started talking to him.
More by this author:
- Takeout story: Behind bulletproof glass and out on a bike for a Chinese restaurant in Mott Haven
- No Seinfeldian glee at the temporary storm shelter at John Jay