Monday, 13 June 2011

the story of Albanian organized crime in New York City

To understand the story of Albanian organized crime in New York City, where the murder and drug-trafficking trials of the notoriously violent Krasniqi brothers and their associates got underway this week, I had to go to Michigan.

For five hours in a prison on the Canadian border, I sat across a table from Ketjol Manoku. He’s in for murder—10 felony sentences. His latest motion had been denied the day before I arrived.

He’s 200-plus pounds and six feet tall, with a shaved head and a Viking beard. I told him he looked pretty hard. He said he used to be bigger and stronger, but he’s in pain now from an old car accident and can’t work out like he used to.

The only thing that was missing from the classic profile was a tattoo; his corrections sheet stated that he had none. But of course during the interview he pulled up his sleeve and there it was: A prison tat of the doubled-headed eagle, maybe 8 inches tall on the top part of his arm, representing Shqiptar everywhere.

30-year-old Ketjol (Keti) Manoku has been living by a soldier’s code since he was an actual soldier in the Balkans. Later, he was still a soldier, on the streets of America. For the past seven years he’s been locked up in prison, where he’ll remain on guard for the rest of his life.

He told me matter-of-factly that prison is too easy. It’s like high school. In Albania, he said, he was once beaten by police until his grey shirt was bright red and the cops were paid off the next day and he was let go. He said he fired his first gun at age 11—a Russian version of a .45.

He and his friend once saw two men get shot in front of them. One died instantly and the other was mortally wounded. Manoku’s friend reached down and took the hat off the dead man’s head and put it on his own head. “Man, give the dead man his hat back,” Manoku said he told his friend.

A lot of his friends from back home are dead now. He was a teenager in Albania in 1997 when the country went mad. There was a pyramid scheme, the country was broke, an opposition political party opened the prisons and let the inmates out. All manner of guns and munitions in the country (police, military, heavy artillery) were abandoned and free for the taking, so people took them.

One day he and his boys were sitting on some rocks hanging outside of a mechanic’s shop when a car pulled up, and some men got out. One of them brandished an A.K.-47 and said to one of Manoku’s boys: “What happened to my car?”

The A.K. was pointed at his boy’s chest; his boy stood up. It was an automatic. There were a few bursts, and Manoku’s friend was hit many times. Manoku went for the gun, the mechanic grabbed it and threw it over the fence, and the men fled. There were no arrests.

Manoku didn’t like school, and left at 16 or 17. At 19 he did a year in the army, which he described in carefully vague terms as something like special forces. He didn’t say much about the training, other than it taught him how to be good at being violent.

He went to Greece, got involved in some crime there, including counterfeiting money, and was deported back to Albania. He had five different passports.

He came to America in 2001 looking for a new life. He snuck in through Mexico, speaking no English.

He had family in Michigan (in Macomb and Oakland counties). He worked in restaurants, and lived in a ghetto area at first. He said he and his friend were once held up by two black teenagers on bikes. He saw they were shaking a bit. He and his friends grabbed the guns, and then took the bikes and tossed them. He sold the guns.

He moved on from restaurants to other jobs. He did security, helping organize concerts featuring Albanian singers in Michigan, and had a small cleaning company. He was also involved in some muscle work, persuading people to pay debts to criminals. So, say, an Albanian would be smuggled into America for a fee of $12,000; he’d pay $8,000 up front but once he’s here in America he wouldn’t want to pay the rest. Manoku would be the guy sent to convince him to settle up.

He said he broke a man’s teeth one time, and did time in county jail. He hung in the Albanian coffee shops in the Detroit area and met the infamous Krasniqi brothers there. Another Albanian gangster named Elton (Tony) Sejdaris introduced them.

He said he found out at some point that he was around Albanian confidential informants, and that the F.B.I. was onto him. He said he was in a café with the Krasniqis—the two New York-Albanian heavies whose trial has just started—when a girl claiming to be a college artist came in a few times, looking to sketch one of them for a class project. Manoku said she went to the bathroom once and he looked in her portfolio and found detailed drawings of all of them. He got rid of the pictures. She never came back again, nor did the surveillance van that had been parked outside the café those same times.

He talked about a good Albanian friend getting murdered at a Michigan concert, and about going to New York to visit the Krasniqis and checking out mobster Paul Castellano’s house. He talked about two Albanian friends who went to Chicago on a drug deal with some Latinos and were killed and had their bodies burned. He said he went there to look into it. There were no arrests.

For Manoku, there were no suits and nice haircuts and Cadillacs, like the Krasniqis favored. (A law enforcement source I talked to called the Krasniqis “gentleman gangsters.”) Manoku’s style is no style at all. No hip-hop clothes or bling: He hates that. (“They’ve seen too many movies,” he said of hip-hop-styled gangsters.) He didn’t even wear nice track suits when he was on the outside, he said. He wasn’t rich or looking to get rich.

The Krasniqis are his friends, he said. Sometimes they translated for him.

Sejdaris, who is cooperating in the New York trial and has pled guilty, is definitely not a friend. Manoku called Sejdaris a coward, and said he always thought he was the weakest link in his network. He has the same dislike and contempt for a man who took a plea deal—Florjon Carcani, eight years—and testified against him and his two co-defendants: Edmond Zoica, life sentence, and Oliger Merko, 8 life sentences, two aliases. Manoku blames Carcani for lying in exchange for leniency, and for destroying his life.

There was apparently some friction between two groups of young Albanians. It was about north versus south Albanians, or perceived disrespect, or something to do with a woman, or a physical fight, or all of the above. When I pressed for details Manoku offered a lot of “let’s leave it at that.”

Manoku said he called for a peace meeting after an altercation and hands were shook and the beef was supposedly finished.

A week later two north boys jumped his boys. Manoku said he made phone calls and the other crew didn’t yield; they basically said that was how things were going to be.

He said two nights later, on July 17, 2004, at around 11:30 p.m., he was hanging in the parking lot of an apartment complex with his friends. Manoku’s friend Merko was getting married the next day. It was the first time in his life Manoku ever had a drink; half a cup of beer to celebrate. He didn’t know it then, but soon after he’d be going to prison for the rest of his life.

Manoku said a van rolled into the parking lot with five people in it. He called out, “What’s up.”

Manoku said an A.K.-47 was pointed out the window of the vehicle. He said he went under a bush where a nine-millimeter was stashed and pulled it out and said, “Put the gun down.”

Manoku said the car accelerated toward him, and he fired, hitting four of the five young men in the van. One of the men, Marikol Jaku, 20 years old, died; the others were injured. (One of the victims injured that night, Ilirjan Dibra, pled guilty in Macomb County four years later to assault with intent to do great bodily harm.)

Prosecutors say Merko, the friend of Manoku, later tried to retrieve $2,000 and two guns and two boxes of ammo he gave to a friend. He wanted the weapons to kill witnesses, the state charged. The friend had turned in the weapons to the police the day of the shooting; Merko ended up assaulting him. Merko’s wife-to-be and family sold their house and business and fled the state; prosecutors say he told them if they talked or went to the police he’d blow up their house. (Manoku disputes this account.) Merko fled to Worcester, Mass. and then to Paterson, N.J., where United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the F.B.I. tracked him down and arrested him about seven months later.

When the verdict was read at trial, Zoica reportedly put his face in his hands for a moment. Merko and Manoku showed no emotion.

The state also charged them all with conspiracy and premeditated murder, asserting that they plotted over a period of time to kill these north boys in various scenarios: by opening fire in a coffee shop, shooting AK-47s while driving by on motorcycles, shooting them up close as they waited in traffic.

There was also an earlier incident, a federal charge, that the state used against them:

It was a fight between an Albanian I’ll call Q (a friend of the north boys who were shot in the car by Manoku) and a man named Drini Brahimllari, a friend of Manoku and his boys. Manoku and Zoica and two others of their group found Q and a friend a few days after the fight in a parking lot. Manoku told Q and the friend to get in their car. In the car Manoku pointed a gun at Q and Zoica pulled a knife on him. Zoica was getting a little crazy, threatening to kill Q. Manoku grabbed Zoica’s hand and said not to hurt him. Then Manoku’s gun went off. Q and his friend jumped out of the car and ran.

Two weeks later Q was again summoned by Manoku, this time to the parking lot of the Tirana Café. He was picked up, driven to the apartment of Brahimllari, and he followed Manoku and Merko upstairs and inside. Brahimllari and Carcani were already there. Plastic was laid on the floor, presumably to catch blood. There were 10-20 kitchen knives laid out on a table which Q was led past. He told Q to kneel. Merko brought out a gun and a pillow, he put the pillow in front of Q’s head and put the gun against it. 

Merko told Brahimllari to turn up the volume on the television. Merko cursed at Q, and threatened him, and told him he had disrespected him. Q pled for his life (Merko later told Carcani he let him live because he begged). Merko said Q had two days to come up with $1,000 dollars for Brahimllari’s fight, and related medical bills. A day late and he’d be shot. They drove him back to the café.

Q told his father everything. The next day Q and his father drove to a public park and met with Brahimllari and Carcani. His father paid and asked for his son to be left alone. I reached out to Q, apologizing for invading his privacy, asking if there was anything he wanted to say, even anonymously. Q got back to me. He said he would appreciate if he wasn’t mentioned by name in any of the stories.

“I have moved on and things are going good for me,” he said. “Thank you for understanding.”

Carcani is in federal custody in Arizona with a 2014 release date. Brahimllari fled to Albania, was eventually extradited back to the States, and is currently incarcerated and awaiting deportation.

The F.B.I. agent who worked the case in Michigan called Merko the closest thing to a leader. He said if anybody put fear into the Albanian community it was Merko, who had a reputation built on having beaten an earlier attempted murder case. The agent disputed that the north boys had a gun in the car; no A.K. was ever found. He also said that Manoku had a drop on the guys in the car. He was right there, and ready for them. They didn't have much of a chance.

In an Albanian club in Detroit, I met a man who knew Jaku’s family. He said he doubted they’d talk to me, but I told them to put the word out. He said it’s a tough community to crack. Among themselves they said something about recently having seen the father of one of the men involved in the case; they said he hasn’t been the same since it happened, and that he’s devastated.


Manoku said he’s sorry he killed Jaku. He said he didn’t mean it, and that he only meant to injure the people he shot at. He said I shouldn’t contact Jaku’s family, because they’ve suffered enough. He said at the time he would have confessed to manslaughter or second degree murder. He says if you do the crime you do the time. He insists there was no conspiracy. 

He plays spades and chess. He works out with two men he’s cool with (he has no friends in prison), one of them Mexican and the other African-American. He enjoys and loses himself in Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller comedies.

He’s made a point of never talking to cops, detectives, the F.B.I. or, before he talked to me, reporters. He stayed mum throughout his trial and sentencing. He pointedly wanted nothing from me and wouldn’t take anything from me in a room full of vending machines. He wouldn’t touch the Coke or the bag of Skittles I bought, just to give him something.

He read the list of the indicted people involved in the upcoming New York trial. He knows the people; he said there are people he and his associates had beef with from Michigan. He wouldn’t speak on it though.

He believes in a god, though he said he’s not really religious. He reads the Koran and the Bible.

I asked him what he would do different if he had a chance to live his life again. He paused, as if, even in his current circumstances, he’d never considered it. He said if he had to do it over again he would just own a simple house and have a small business and family, with no great plans. He said there are other crimes he regrets that he hasn’t been arrested for but he’s not going to give me or the state anything more than we already have.

There are people who are free and have successful lives in this country and elsewhere, he said, and he’s not going to betray them. He’ll be taking things to the grave. I asked him whether, if he were 70 years old and taking his last dying breath, he would tell me. He said he wouldn’t.

He rarely showed emotion, other than when he talked about snitches, the thought of whom make him very angry. On Sejdaris, for example: “He wants to be tough but at the same time he wants to be a cop.”

He seemed mildly appreciative, if not actually impressed, that I gave him (and therefore his associates) my home address, on the premise that I was coming into his home and asking to know where and how he’s living.

I asked whether he was haunted by the deaths of his friends or adversaries, or devastated by the loss of his liberty. No, he said.

Did he ever cry? He can’t cry, or even remember when he was able to. He said he wants to be able to; at all those funerals when everyone was crying, he tried, because he wanted to feel what they were feeling. He couldn’t.

But there was one time in the five hours I spent with him when I felt like he wasn’t regarding me with wary contempt. (He told me pointedly that I wasn’t worthy of making it onto his collect-call list; it’s full and he would have to bump someone he gives a damn about.) It was when he quoted back from memory a line from the first article I wrote for this website about Albanian crime, which I printed out and sent him in hopes of lining up the interview: “There are surely many mothers and fathers crying, girlfriends and wives devastated, families wrecked…”

He saw his own mother in 2008, for the first time since he left Albania in 2001. She came and stayed with an uncle in Michigan for a while and visited him in prison. It was emotional, he said; when she saw him she cried.

So what really happened? Why? How? I pressed for details, and argued for a historical record. It’s not snitching, I said. It’s truth, and therefore worthwhile.

He said he had a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine for a year and he read every word of it. I wrote for that magazine. There was one story I did where a man broke down and spilled everything pre-trial, and another in which a man took me into his world and committed crimes in front of me. Manoku told me he appreciated reading about that sort of thing but wouldn't do it himself.

“I just don’t want to break it down,” he said.

My appeal to Ketjol Manoku was, and is, this:

I’m not looking to get you off of charges or to bury you or judge you or get my name out there by exploiting you and your life, your secrets, your misery or your gangster glamour. Don’t tell me about it; tell the Albanian community that was so shocked by the incident in 2004. Tell today’s little Keti, a 16-year-old Shqiptar who saw all those movies and sees his 1997 Albania in an American ghetto and gets disrespected one day and has to make a decision on how to be a man with honor. Tell him what the truth is, what it’s like, what he should do and not do and what may or may not happen.

I told him to send me a letter, and to tell the story in his words, so there could be no question of twisting what he says. (This is obviously a concern of his: He warned me that there would be “consequences” if I twisted his words.) He said he might. He agreed, in principle, to the idea of “shining some light” on the events of his life, and on the workings of Albanian organized crime in New York and America.

In the course of the interview, we seemed to make progress toward that idea. In the beginning, at 9 a.m., he told me there was no such thing as the Albanian mafia.

Just before 2 p.m., near the end, I was exhausted trying to convince him that what I was doing was worthwhile, driving hours of Interstate, getting messed with, stripped by, yelled at, and disrespected nastily by prison guards. (By some of them, not all.)

I told him that if I wrote what he was saying, that there’s no such thing as the Albanian mafia, even though knowledgeable readers know that there is—I wouldn’t want anyone to make the mistake of thinking he was ignorant on the topic. Was he denying the existence of the Albanian mafia because he had to, because he didn’t want to break some sort of code?

“You got the point,” he said.

I shook his hand, left him, and prepared to drive six hours down I -75 into the community he came from.

When I got into the Albanian clubs down near Detroit, more than 300 miles from Manoku’s prison, I met a man who was from the same town in Albania as Manoku, and who knew him from the streets of Michigan as well. He said, “These are guys who think a gun makes them a god, and they disrespect the Albanian community.”

He said he’s seen people he’s known in Albania—normal people, “painters” and “workers”—all of a sudden turn from being people “into just a gun.” Maybe the Merkos and the Manokus aren’t actually soldiers; maybe they’ve just turned into guns.

Macomb and Oakland County are full of strip malls with fast food restaurants. It’s where many of the Albanian immigrants work. There’s 11th and Main, the downtown club area where on a Friday night at midnight community college graduates are screaming like mad about the Red Wing hockey games on the bar TVs. The girls are mini-skirted and there are bikers everywhere.

I stuck my head in a patrol car to talk to a policeman. The officer told me Detroit is too disorganized to have any gangs that last (one bust and they’re gone forever). He says the Hell’s Angels have been trying to establish a club here for years and “there’s a big element of black females riding crotch rockets,” but he doesn’t know anything about Albanians.

I went to the apartment-complex parking lot where the Manoku shooting occurred. I talked to the first two people I came across, introducing myself and apologizing for the intrusion. They were Albanian.

Of course they know about the shooting, they said; everyone knows about it. They told me about all the Albanian cafes, bars and restaurants in the area: Café Tirana, Eagle Café, Great Sport, Mocha Café, Goodfellas. (I eventually went to all of them.)

One woman who just got back from work wearing her pain clinic shirt said she was sorry, she was late, she had to pick up her boy from soccer practice. She said quickly that she thought a family affected by the shooting used to live next door but they moved.

There was a young Albanian, 14 maybe, who was already conditioned not to talk to me.

There was a young woman squatting in the square, cars going past on the service road at 45 miles an hour, cradling her infant, watching her other kids play. She said she was from Kosovo, and was willing to give me the lay of the land a little.

A black man pulled up, wearing jewelry, pulling on a Newport, asking me what’s up. He asked if it was my brother who got shot, because why else would I care so much.

A middle-aged white woman standing on her small terrace gardening told me about the schizophrenic Albanian woman across the way, and said a little woefully, “I’m kind of like a minority here.”

Three young men from El Salvador pulled up. Si, si, they know about guns and weed and ladrones. We’re nice, from a nice country, they say.

In one Albanian café a man who said he knew Manoku from Albania told me Manoku was a Gypsy—somehow not as much an Albanian as he is.

I met a 25-year-old Albanian-American with a degree from the University of Michigan who works in construction management. He allowed that some of these criminals are hard—he said he knows them—but he also said, not entirely unsympathetically, “These guys are hot-shot wannabes. It’s all adolescent fights over bitches.”

He said half the Albanians he went to high school with became rappers. One guy, he saw in a video surrounded by luxury cars. He thought this guy was broke; every time he saw him in the cafes he’d have to pay for his coffee. He found out later that one of the rappers knew someone at a car dealership and they let them use the cars as video props.

There were bars filled mostly with old Albanian men playing tile games, where the younger men would have to translate for me. At one café and they welcomed me to sit with them in a booth. I brought in my paper file filled with reporting documents, and spread out the contents. A little crowd gathered. The older men remembered Albania in 1997. A young female worker behind the bar who said she just got to America a few months ago volunteered that she’d rather be back home. She sat down and listened intently to all my stories, periodically refilling my coffee and water. She asked me, struggling with the English a little, then getting it with a little help from one of the men: “Sincere? Manoku, was he sincere?”

I talked to her at the bar later, asking her questions and wanting to ask her more, until the owner yelled at me to leave her alone. She had work to do. She accepted one of my business cards before I left. Neither she nor the boss who yelled at me would accept my money.

The F.B.I. has a task force for organized Balkan crime, in Kew Gardens, Queens. The unit had been dissolved, but it was reconstituted two months ago.

There’s an Albanian double-eagle flag draped over one of the cubicles. The supervising agent, Lou DiGregorio, worked on the Italian mafia for 20 years. He told me a few times that the guys in the Albanian crime game are vicious.

DiGregorio keeps a copy of the Kanun on his desk. He called in an agent whose name he doesn’t want me to use, a man who has been working these cases for a while. This man was smart, funny, confident and street-smart.

He read my first article and said he knows every name in there, and had talked to a bunch of the defendants personally. He asked where I’d gotten some of the information from, and seemed surprised and a little disappointed that I’d been able to get it. Media gets in the way sometimes, he said; he prefers to have the element of surprise.

“You talked to Grezdas’s uncle?” he asked. Yes, I said.

“How did you find this guy?”

The public information officer sitting in on the interview cut in: he’s a reporter.


I love New York City fashion. And gangster suits is what I want to wear in intimate occasions in NYC.

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