Investigations into Ndragheta shake the foundations of Erion Veliaj’s towers
An investigation of the Katanzaro’s Anti-mafia in Italy has provoked a series of controversies in Albania as well.
Erion Veliaj, the mayor of Tirana, has been placed at the center of public suspicions.
Veliaj is the main man for issuing construction permits in the Albanian capital and it seems that he is the focus of some Italian investors, affiliated to Ndragheta, to find ways to invest and launder money in Albania.
Some businessmen from the South of Italy, recently arrested in a mega-operation of the Italian Anti-Mafia, have been eavesdropping on several conversations, communicating how they can easily obtain building permits for large mansions and skyscrapers in Tirana.
It is enough to pay 20 percent of the investment as a bribe to the authorities and everything becomes very easy. And, in Tirana, the main authority for issuing construction permits is the Mayor, Erion Veliaj.
At the center of the wiretapped conversations is Andrea Gallo, an Italian businessman, known by the Italian authorities as a person associated with “Ndragheta”, the most powerful and sophisticated mafia at the moment in Western Europe.
Gallo is interested in investing in Albania and communicates freely with his associates to find the necessary ways to launder money.
These conversations took place mainly in 2018. So far, only a small part of the investigative acts of the Katanzaro’s Prosecution has been revealed and it is still unclear whether the intention of persons associated with Anti-Mafia to invest and launder money in Tirana is realized.
The publication of some of the files of the wiretaps conversations of the Katanzaro’s prosecution in the Albanian media, caused a stormy reaction on social networks and in some media, which are not under the government control.
The public reaction was accompanied by an official opposition speech, which called for the immediate launch of investigations by the Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK), a unit set up to investigate the crimes of senior officials and their links to criminal groups.
Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, the main supporter and investor of Erion Veliaj in politics, has so far not given any comment.
Meanwhile, Veliaj himself reacted harshly to these criticisms.
He chose to argue with opposition representatives in Albania, while not giving any version of his own on the wiretaps recorded by the Katanzaro’s prosecution.
The empire of ‘propaganda’, in danger
Veliaj’s emotional reaction added suspicions in the Albanian political environment that he is concerned about what can be found in the files of the Katanzaro’s Anti-Mafia.
Veliaj, as a product of civil society, and who has been in charge of the Municipality of Tirana for more than 6 years, has worked hard to secure the image of a young and european politician.
He has been helped by the main medias in the country, whose owners, linked to construction interests, have provided Veliaj with a public shield in exchange for building permits or other public property favors.
Also, an “army” of his supporters, are intensively occupied to promote Veliaj’s work on social networks, arguing on-line with anyone who has a critical attitude towards the mayor of Tirana.
Despite Veliaj’s efforts to ensure a cured image, he did not seem to be able to control the fury of comments and suspicions against him on online media and social networks, after the publication of wiretaps on conversations between the exponents of “Ndragheta- s ”.
Building Boom, who buys them?
There is a very fundamental reason why Erion Veliaj is losing the battle with social networks, which could turn into a “political Waterloo”, and not only, after the investigations conducted by the prosecutors in the Italian Catanzaro.
Tirana, during the years it was lead by Veliaj, has been transformed into a large construction site for towers and multi-storey private buildings.
With the support of Prime Minister Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana has approved sky-scratching permits in almost the entire center of the capital, while the peripheral part is also under almost absolute control of heavy tonnage vehicles.
Veliaj won his first 4-year term as mayor of Tirana in 2015, promising an environmentally friendly policy. One of his main promises was to minimize building permits and increase greenery in the messy Albanian capital city.
But the electoral promises vanished as soon as he took over the city of about 1 million people.
Independent experts report that, under Veliaj’s mandate, over 3 million square meters of land for private construction were provided in Tirana, a record number compared to all his predecessors of the post-communist period.
In the center of Tirana, apartment prices range from two to four thousand euros per square meter. While the price for commercial and office premises is several times higher.
The biggest question mark after this boom of investments is the fact who buys or who are the potential buyers of these spaces.
Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe and most citizens have no real opportunity to hope to buy an apartment or commercial unit in the center of the capital.
Large businesses, controlled by a few hands, have already been housed in commercial residences and they live in suburbs without dust of Tirana.
Meanwhile, Albania, for years, has a pronounced lack of approach of prestigious international companies.
A part of the offices in the center of Tirana have been rented to the branches of companies registered outside Albania, which declare as their activity commercial consulting.
They are businesses with a minimal number of employees and often with unknown owners, registered in what are considered “tax havens”.
Economic experts estimate that these “shell” companies serve as mechanisms to launder money in Albania, through consultations, often fictitious.
Representatives of “Ndragheta”, recently arrested by the Italian Anti-Mafia operation in Katanzaro, also seem to find themselves on their ground here.
Building permits in a few hands
In the conversations of Andrea Gallos and others, they see ideal opportunities to launder money in the construction business in Tirana.
They have found a character, “Nik”, with strong ties to the government and municipality, who can provide contacts with the officials who issue building permits.
Medias in Albania have identified the character “Nik” with the businessman Besnik Halili, the husband of an important official of the “Rama” government.
But, “Nik” is not the only entrance gate of “Ndragheta” in Albania.
They know that building permits in Tirana are concentrated in a few hands.
They also know that these local investors are often faced with financial difficulties and desperately looking for partners to complete the buildings.
This is the best moment – Ndragheta’s mafia think – to quietly launder their money in Albania, but especially in Tirana.
The solution is to attach to the bosses of construction permits in Albania.
They are provided with funding, which they do not lack as “Ndragheta” is believed to circulate 55 billion dollars a year from cocaine trafficking, and this way they use Tirana as a “washing machine” for millions of dollars.
But, of course, they also need a hand from the Albanian authorities, who “can buy them for 1 thousand dollars”, like in the ’60s Calabria, as well as giving the “20 percent” of the investment to those who enable permits of construction in Tirana.
This is the word of the “Ndragheta” mafia.