This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Advi was looking for a way to leave Albania when a friend in the UK offered him a job that would guarantee fast money: cultivating cannabis.
"There's nothing in Albania," says the 30-year-old, who was working as a retail manager in the country's capital, Tirana, at the time. "My friends were telling me there were lots of jobs working in cannabis in Britain, and that the money would be good."
Over the past ten years, Albanian gangs have risen to become some of the most powerful players in the UK drugs market. As well as taking over the UK cocaine market, they are also moving into domestic cannabis production. Albania used to be the largest producer of outdoor-grown cannabis in Europe, but law enforcement destroyed many plantations as part of its bid to join the EU. Now, it appears criminals are bringing their know-how to British suburbia.
Over the past couple of years, police have busted Albanian-run cannabis grow houses in cities including Manchester, Gloucester, Peterborough and Leeds. And the gangs' successes are fully on display back home. Opposite the café in central Tirana where I meet Advi, a block of luxury flats is being constructed, so I'm told, for money laundering purposes. Brand new Ferraris and BMWs regularly whizz past.
In a country where the average monthly salary is less than £300 and youth unemployment is around 30 percent, the riches of British-based Albanians are difficult for young men to ignore. "People think the UK is a paradise," says Advi. "I was telling everyone I knew that I was going to make big money."
In 2017, when he was 28, Advi flew to France on a three-month Schengen tourist visa, then paid a trafficker £14,000 for a place on a lorry across the Channel. More Albanians are caught entering the UK illegally than any other nationality, and while it's unclear exactly how many end up working in the drug trade, Advi believes the lure of money coupled with trafficking debts drags a large majority in.
"The problem is no one has papers," he says, pointing out that getting a regular job is impossible for an illegal immigrant. "They start off working at [Albanian-owned] carwashes, then they hear about these other things."
Advi, however, left the country fully intending to work in criminality. His friends, who he'd met playing poker in Tirana, were running grow houses in suburban Birmingham and offered to lend him money to set up one of his own. The yield from the first crop would be ready in three months and would be sold on to dealers for £70,000, of which he would pay them back £30,000 and keep the rest for himself.
"There are many houses like this in Birmingham," he explains. "It's almost every other house. And it's not just Albanians – there are Afghans, Pakistanis, Vietnamese." He adds that the different groups kept to themselves when it came to cultivation, but would often collaborate when selling.
According to Advi, each house had one bedroom for a live-in worker, complete with Playstation to help ease the boredom, plus a bathroom and small kitchen. The other rooms were filled with plants. The Albanian managers – most of whom had several houses – would call daily to check everything was OK, using unregistered sims which they changed regularly. The set-up ensured the bosses were as hands-off as possible, helping evade police detection. In local news reports about Albanian-run cannabis plantation seizures around the country, it's usually only the live-in workers who are jailed.
Advi says the workers did not leave the houses much, apart from to get food, and the longest he heard of someone staying in one was for eight months. However, although cannabis cultivation in the UK has been linked to child slavery and abuse, he insists this is not the case with the Albanians. The workers, who are aged from their teens to their thirties, are treated well by bosses, "so you get a good production. And if they are caught, you want them to be loyal and not pass your name over."
The majority of migration from Albania to the UK is centred on the northern states of Kukes, Diber and Shroeder, and began in the late 1990s when many people sought asylum by posing as refugees from the Kosovo War. Around 60 to 70 percent of Albanian inmates in UK jails are from this region. Society here is organised around tight clan and family bonds, which lends itself well to gang recruitment.
Driving around the region, it's easy to see the impact of drug money on rural communities. Despite these being some of the poorest parts of Europe, with little industry apart from a scattering of small family-owned businesses, mansions are being constructed on the outsides of villages. Around one in every ten cars is a shiny new Mercedes or Audi with British plates.
Advi, however, is from Tirana and has no family involved in organised crime. He also didn't send money home. "I told my parents I was working another managerial job," he admits. "I made money fast, but I also managed to lose it fast. I had friends who had ten or 12 houses and were making £100,000 a week. They had plenty to send back to Albania, but they mostly invested in the UK."
Six months after arriving in the UK, Advi was caught in London with 16 bags of weed from his grow house, which he was intending to sell on to local dealers. He spent six months in jail before being deported back to Albania.
Advi is no longer in touch with his friends in Britain and has no plans to return. However, he believes police crackdowns in the UK are forcing many Albanians to "clean" their businesses. "Criminality is always one step ahead of the police," he says. When I ask what types of business they are moving into, he starts laughing and says "car washes". The mutual contact who introduced us later reveals he believes that Advi may have turned in his friends to get a shorter sentence.
"You make money in the UK, but there's also a dark side," Advi says. "People might be making £5,000 a month, but they could be jailed for 16, 17 years – they take a big risk. A lot of them would prefer to get papers and take a proper job making £3,000 a month." But with Albania’s economy showing no signs of improvement and its chances of joining the EU looking far off, the numbers of desperate young men willing to take the risks are unlikely to dwindle any time soon.