The Pioneering Albanian Trafficker Who Took Ecuador’s Drug Trade By Storm

Latin America

Around midnight on February 6, 2024, Ecuador’s National Police stormed a beige, two-story villa in a luxurious gated community on the outskirts of Guayaquil, the country’s biggest port city.

Inside, they found a mother with her young daughter, along with multiple firearms and ammunition. The husband, Albanian businessman Dritan Gjika, was nowhere to be found. 

The raid was part of a much bigger law enforcement sweep. That night, police in Spain and Ecuador arrested 31 alleged members of an intercontinental cocaine trafficking syndicate. 

Authorities accused the organization of smuggling tons of cocaine from Colombia through Ecuador to Europe, and linked the network’s members to seizures totaling over 9.5 tons of cocaine. Following the operation, authorities froze assets worth over $51 million. 

Gjika, the group’s alleged leader, is accused of building a sophisticated trafficking operation with the help of influential businessmen connected to the highest levels of government and protected by Ecuador’s chief of police. 

The operation revealed how Gjika became one of the most prominent Albanian traffickers, and his rise to taking a key role in Ecuador’s drug trade in recent years. And while much of his network seems to have been swept up in the bust, Gjika himself remains on the lam.

The Move to Ecuador

Beyond the fact that Gjika was born on December 28, 1976, in a town called Shkodër in northern Albania, there are few traces of his early life. In fact, there are few traces of him in Albania at all. 

“In Albania, there is no evidence indicating his involvement in any illegal activity. No criminal investigation or court case has been registered against him, and he has no property or business registered under his name,” Dorjana Bezat, an Albanian journalist who has investigated Gjika, told InSight Crime. 

Gjika first went to Ecuador in November 2009, when he was 33 years old. In 2013, he was granted citizenship and based himself in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s beating economic heart. It was there that he started to build his drug trafficking empire.

He was one of the first Albanian traffickers to set up shop in Ecuador, posing as a businessman. 

“Gjika is a pioneer in terms of going upstream and positioning himself as a key provider of cocaine,” Fatjona Mejdini, a researcher for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told InSight Crime. 

Gjika and another Albanian bought an export company called Cresmark S.A. in 2014, and Gjika set himself up as the general manager. The same year, he started a construction company with Ecuadorian businessman Rubén Cherres.

Cherres was no stranger to law enforcement. In 1999, he had been arrested on drug trafficking charges after a police raid led to the seizure of 108 packages of cocaine. He was acquitted the next year after several influential figures provided testimonies calling for his release, including Danilo Carrera, brother-in-law of the then-future Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso

Aside from his links to politics, Carrera was also well-connected with Ecuador’s business and political elites, making him a powerful ally for Gjika’s burgeoning drug trafficking scheme.

Though it is unclear exactly when Gjika began to traffic cocaine to Europe, it is clear he was in the right spot when, in neighboring Colombia, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) signed a historic peace agreement in 2016. When the FARC demobilized in 2017, dissidents of the FARC’s 48th Front kept their arms and territories on the Colombia-Ecuador border. Lacking contacts with international buyers, they forged an alliance with the Constru, a drug trafficking network that dominated routes into Ecuador’s province of Sucumbíos. The Constru connected the FARC remnants to international buyers, many from the Balkans, including Gjika.

SEE ALSO: Unmasking the Foreign Players on Ecuador’s Criminal Chessboard

According to Ecuadorian and Spanish police, Gjika’s organization initially trafficked cocaine in batches of hundreds of kilograms in containers belonging to Gjika’s company or other complicit companies. 

In 2018, Gjika seemingly tried to grow his business. He bought shares in a second export company, Agricomtrade, which shipped bananas to different European companies.

One of these – Albanian importer Alba Exotic Fruit – has been used to import cocaine in Albania, according to the Albanian public prosecutor. In total, Agricomtrade sent more than 150 shipments to Alba Exotic Fruit. 

Rather than getting his hands dirty, Gjika contracted out tasks to a vast network of operatives, communicating with them primarily through Skype. 

“He never touched a gram of drugs,” an Ecuadorian anti-narcotics police official, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told InSight Crime. “He was, as they say here in Ecuador, watching the bulls from afar.”

To keep his hands clean, Gjika worked with several coordinators who oversaw setting up companies and recruiting public officials.

The organization sourced cocaine from a supplier in Colombia, who delivered four tons of the drug each month to stashing centers in Ecuador, according to reports by the Spanish police. Payments for cocaine shipments were deposited using bank accounts belonging to a member of Gjika’s network, according to Ecuadorian prosecutors. Once the cocaine arrived in Ecuador, Ecuadorian subcontractors handled storage and transport. Gjika’s organization paid these subcontractors in cocaine, according to the anti-narcotics official. 

“They paid them 10 kilos of cocaine and those 10 kilos were not exported, but were redistributed locally,” he said. 

This way, Gjika largely avoided leaving paper trails which would link him to any drug trafficking activity.

Gjika the Invisible

Through his connections with some of Ecuador’s top businesspeople and government officials, Gjika built a network that protected his operations from prosecution. 

“He was somebody really calculated and heavily invested in the business world,” Mejdini said.

His most important contact, authorities say, was Tannya Varela, who was the head of Ecuador’s police between March 2021 and January 2022, and is under investigation by Ecuador’s prosecutor in relation to Gjika.

Ecuadorian lawmakers alleged that Varela started working with Gjika when she was posted at an airport in the province of Guayas. She help Gjika by placing trusted police officers in key locations to facilitate his drug trafficking operations, they believe.

To ensure cocaine was received in Europe, Gjika worked with Mario Sánchez Rinaldi, an Argentinian-Italian businessman based in Spain’s Costa del Sol. Rinaldi played a key role in laundering the organization’s profits, according to Spanish and Ecuadorian authorities. Together, they had end-to-end control over a cocaine route from Colombia to Europe. InSight Crime contacted Rinaldi’s lawyer but did not receive a response.

The First Cracks

As law enforcement pressure on his illicit operations grew, Gjika adapted, changing his smuggling methods when necessary. 

In 2020, Dutch police seized a shipment of 1.1 tons of cocaine allegedly belonging to Gjika. In response, Gjika seemingly switched from using his own companies to mostly using a method known as rip-on rip-off, in which shipping containers of non-complicit third parties are opened and drugs added. Once the containers arrive at the destination port, the drugs are removed by gang members, often aided by corrupt port workers.

Gjika’s knowledge and contacts in the export sector were allegedly key in this transition. His organization had access to port infrastructure in Ecuador and privileged shipping data, according to Ecuadorian and Spanish police.

SEE ALSO: Albania’s Largest Cocaine Seizure Points to New European Routes

On a single day in June 2021, Gjika and Cherres founded eight companies, most in the construction sector. Six have since come under investigation for money laundering. Between 2015 and 2024, the organization laundered at least $31 million through these and other companies, according to Ecuador’s public prosecutor. 

However, in mid-2021, Ecuador’s anti-narcotics police launched an investigation that identified Gjika as the head of a cocaine trafficking scheme that involved Cherres and other Ecuadorian businessmen. 

Varela, then the chief of police, appears to have saved them from prosecution. She took the investigators off the case in September 2021, and reassigned them to zones across Ecuador. The case was closed months later in January 2022, just after Varela was removed from office by then-President Lasso. 

In May 2024, public prosecutor Diana Salazar revealed the existence of an investigation into Varela and two other police generals for assigning personnel and leaving criminal acts unpunished. 

Varela denied allegations connecting her to the criminal structure in February. InSight Crime was unable to contact her.

The Empire Crumbles

Gjika came under increasing scrutiny in early 2023 when a flurry of media reports mentioned his name in relation to a high-level corruption scheme. 

On January 9, 2023, the Ecuadorian newspaper La Posta released details surrounding a graft scheme headed by Carrera and Cherres. Lasso, meanwhile, affirmed his support for Carrera.

Then, on February 13, 2023, La Posta published the leaked 2021 police investigation that linked Cherres, and by extension, Carrera, to Gjika and his drug trafficking network. This revealed Gjika’s operations to the public, and led to the reopening of the police investigation closed in January 2022.

SEE ALSO: ‘Clan Farruku’ Arrests Highlight Albanians’ Latin America Cocaine Connections

And, finally, on February 23, 2023, a group of lawmakers led by journalist and then-congress member Fernando Villavicencio published a report with more details on Gjika’s connections to drug trafficking. The report also provided details on the alleged relationship between Varela and Gjika and claimed that Lasso had known about the ties between Carrera, Cherres, and the Albanian drug trafficker since July 2021.

The subsequent national uproar placed Lasso under intense scrutiny over the alleged activities of his brother-in-law and his government’s efforts to cover them up. The investigation into Carrera was reopened, and the possible links with Albanian drug traffickers contributed to a political scandal that culminated in an impeachment proceeding against Lasso. Villavicencio was murdered months later during his political campaign for the presidency.

Escaping the Heat

Gjika reportedly left Ecuador on January 9, 2023, the same day as the first release of information by La Posta. 

Since then, it is unclear whether he has continued his drug trafficking operations. In March 2023, his long-term business partner Cherres was killed. Cherres had been a key witness in the judicial procedure against Gjika’s drug trafficking network. Carrera is under investigation by Ecuador’s Attorney General for running a corruption network together with Cherres. He did not respond to InSight Crime’s request for comment.

Wiretaps released in March 2024 suggest Gjika may have wanted Cherres dead over an unpaid debt.

It also appears Gjika has dumped shares in several of his other companies, including Agricomtrade, onto members of his criminal organization. These members have since been charged with money laundering for Gjika’s organization through illicit transactions using these companies.

The joint operation in February 2024 dismantled much of Gjika’s alleged trafficking infrastructure, as many high-ranking members of his organization were arrested. They are currently facing trial over drug trafficking and money laundering charges in Ecuador. 

Nonetheless, Gjika’s economic activity in Ecuador has continued despite his absence. In October 2023, he founded the company Riomel Gold Corporation, dedicated to trading in precious metals. Riomel Gold is still active as of today, according to Ecuador’s business registry. InSight Crime could reach neither Gjika nor Riomel Gold for comment.

Since the takedown of Gjika’s alleged allies, authorities in Ecuador have not arrested any other major Albanian drug traffickers. But demand for cocaine in Europe remains high, and other transatlantic networks are filling the gap in demand.

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