An arrest in Istanbul and a murder in Guayaquil put spotlight on Ecuador’s Alabanian drug connection

Nov 13, 2023 | 0 comments

By Liam Higgins

Ecuadorian and Albanian authorities believe Thursday’s murder of an Albanian man in Guayaquil is related to the arrest two days earlier in Istanbul, Turkey of Dristan Rexhepi, known as the “Cocaine King of Europe.” Arjanit Rizaj was shot in the head while he sat in a car outside the Luis Vernaza Hospital in Guayaquil. The gunmen escaped by motorcycle.

In front of the image of Dristan Rexhepi, two Albanian newscasters discuss his arrest last week in Istanbul, Turkey.

According to Ecuadorian police, Rizaj carried no documentation at the time of the murder and was identified by his wife, who was in the hospital when he was shot. His wife claimed Rizaj was an unemployed “visitor to Ecuador” and was supported by family members in Albania. Immigration police say there is no record of his entry into Ecuador.

The English-language Albanian Daily News quoted Albania anti-drug officials as saying the connection with the arrest and murder are a “key element” in controlling the flow of illegal drugs from Ecuador to Europe, claiming that Rexhepi or his associates ordered the killing. “We must get to the bottom of this to stop the cocaine invasion,” an Albanian investigator said. “Almost all the drugs shipped from Ecuador are destined for Europe so establishing the chain of command in the cartel is crucial.”

According to a report released in August by the European Union, 80% of the cocaine shipped from Guayaquil, Manta, Esmeraldas and Machala is headed for European ports, most of it under the control of the so-called Albanian Mafia. The Daily News reports that EU officials in Brussels are putting increasing pressure on the Albanian government to crack down on its citizens involved in the drug trade.

Rexhepi was arrested in Guayaquil in 2014 with eleven others in the Ecuadorian National Police’s “Balkan Operation.” According to court documents, Rexhepi was identified as the leader of the narco-criminal group, Kompania Bello, a major player in the Albanian Mafia. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison but served only seven as Guayas Provincial Court Judge Diego Poma ordered him released on house arrest in 2021. Although Rexhepi was ordered to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and report to the court twice monthly, he disappeared from sight in early 2022, a fact that went unreported by the court.

Police in Italy and Albania objected to Rexhepi’s prison release, citing their extradition requests and claiming he was a flight risk. In addition to the drug-related and money laundering conviction in Ecuador, Rexhepi is believed to be responsible for at least 30 murders in Europe, Ecuador and Colombia.

According to an anonymous source in the Guayaquil National Police Command, Rexhepi remained in Ecuador for more than a year after violating the house arrest order, traveling frequently to Europe and Colombia under one of at least four aliases.

Rexhepi’s case made headlines in Ecuador early this year when audio and social media texts were leaked by the website La Posta. Referred to as the “Great Godfather” case, the leaked information connected Rexhepi to Ecuadorian businessman Rubén Cherres. Between them, the two formed at least 13 companies, most of them related to construction and real estate. Police surveillance revealed countless conversations between Cherre and Rexhepi, including at least two that included Danilo Carrera, brother-in-law of President Guillermo Lasso.

Shortly after the news broke, Cherres was found murdered on March 31 along with his girlfriend and two others in a beach rental in the resort town of Punta Blanca, north of Guayaquil. The assailants remain at large and no charges have been filed in the case.

The Great Godfather — or Caso Encuentro — case investigation is ongoing but investigators say it involves large-scale money laundering operations as well as the transport of drugs from Ecuador to Europe. In the aftermath of Cherres’ death, the Attorney General’s office said that Carrera and seven others face charges in the case, the arraignment for which is scheduled for December 15.

The Daily Times quoted an Albanian official as saying that Ecuadorian judges are “routinely bribed” to release drug gang leaders. “In many cases, it is not a clear case of corruption since judges and prosecutors are threatened with death if they do not take the money and free the criminals,” the official said. “In Latin America, there is a saying used by the drug cartels, ‘plata o plomo,’ which means take the money or take a bullet.”

The official added: “Apparently, Rexhepi’s business partner [Cherres] in Ecuador was not given an option.”

Judge Poma, who allowed Rexhepi’s house arrest, is also responsible for the early release of at least four other men convicted of drug crimes. He has been suspended from his duties and is being investigated by Ecuador’s judicial review council.

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