A criminal maxim states that whoever controls a drug’s price controls the market. And whoever dominates that economic space will also have power over the territory: the street. That was the idea behind a 2019 operation by an emerging criminal network of Albanians in Rome. With the help of the Casamonica clan, a group that has long operated in the city, the Albanians chartered a private plane to bring seven tons of cocaine from Brazil. They planned to bring enough to flood the capital’s 15 districts with drugs, just enough to throw off the balance of the Eternal City’s fragmented criminal scene. That January, in a case dubbed Brazilian Low Cost, an international police operation coordinated from Rome, involving the US DEA and infiltrated agents, aborted the entry of the shipment of cocaine from Brazil. Its arrival would have definitively changed the landscape of organized crime in Rome. The Albanians wanted their share of the city.
The symbol of the group’s dazzling rise is Elvis Demce, a 37-year-old second-generation Albanian raised in the outskirts of Rome. “I am God,” he proclaimed upon leaving prison in May 2020, after spending six years there for a homicide for which he was acquitted. Even though the city’s share of the pie was already distributed, he behaved like a deity. He replaced his colleagues arrested in the Brasile Low Cost operation, earned more than €10 million in eight months, imported cocaine directly from South America and obtained the ‘Ndrangheta’s approval to operate his business. But he violated the first commandment of the Mafia Constitution: to keep quiet. “If we had not arrested him, he would be huge now,” say sources in the investigation.
Rome had never wanted to have owners. Organized crime groups divided up the Italian capital, the second largest city in Europe by extension, among themselves. It was a fertile place for drug trafficking and money laundering, as long as no violence was involved. Despite attempts by the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta, the only group that managed to bring together all the criminal factions was the legendary Banda della Magliana, which assembled a motley crew of criminals and neo-fascists affiliated with the terrorist group NAR (Revolutionary Armed Nuclei) in the 1970s and 80s.
After the Banda della Magliana’s slow decomposition, figures such as Michele Senese, a Neapolitan and delegate of the Camorra in Rome, took on the role of mediator for the interests that converged in the city. But Senese’s arrest in 2013, and the slow dismantling of his clan, opened the door to new groups in 2017. The Albanians stood out. A prosecutor who knows the universe of Eastern European mafias well points out another factor in there rise: “The murder of Diabolik marked the turning of the tables.”
Fabrizio Piscitelli, nicknamed Diabolik, was the leader of the Lazio soccer club’s ultras group. He also controlled part of the drug trade in Rome, thanks to the support of groups of Albanians. He introduced them to the criminal scene. “They shared football and their political faith,” says a magistrate, referring to Lazio and fascism. On August 7, 2019, while Piscitelli sat on a bench in Rome’s Aqueducts Park, an Argentine hitman dressed as a runner shot him in the back of the head, then ran away. The Antimafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) had long been following Diabolik, who was trying to become a capo in a city that never allowed for owners.
On December 13, 2017, Piscitelli had sat at a table with the Spada, Casamonica and Exposito mafia families in a meeting to guarantee stability in the Roman district of Ostia. The gathering, held in a restaurant on the city’s outskirts, became known as the Pax Romana. The Albanians had their own delegate at that meal: Dorian Petoku, the mastermind behind the botched Brazil operation. Piscitelli wanted to keep the group close. And when Petoku was arrested shortly afterwards in the Low Cost operation, it was time for the new king.
Elvis Demce took up the role. The son of Albanians and completely Romanized –his group spoke in Romanesco, the local dialect– he knew the country’s culture perfectly and was hungrier than anyone elsse. “ISIS is out,” he wrote to his friends, announcing the advent of a new order after being released for lack of evidence in a murder case. A magistrate familiar with Demce’s modus operandi reconstructs the progression of his group. “For 25 years, the Albanians worked for the Neapolitan clan of Michele Senese, first as doormen of their businesses, then as traffickers. They are more violent than anyone else, and they used that to grow. Many ended up in jail and came into contact with the Calabrians. The prison is also a great network of professional contacts, and the agreements they made inside with the ‘Ndrangheta [the Calabrian mafia, the most powerful in Italy], were fundamental,” he points out.
The mechanism is simple. The price of coca at its origin is partly based on the buyer’s ability to take care of all the phases after importation: recovering the container from the port, custody, transportation, cutting, distribution on the street. Demce’s gang offered those services to both Calabrians and Latin Americans, and they got a competitive price of about €30,000 per kilo. Their contacts allowed them to buy large quantities of cocaine, first from the Calabrians and then directly from the South American cartels. They did not replace the Calabrians in controlling the drug at its source, but they contributed to its control in some ports in northern Europe and in Albania, chiefly the port of Durrës. “Thanks to that, certain groups of Albanians managed to sell about 30 kilos a week in Rome. To find an outlet for that drug, you have to be sure that you will sell it and have a large logistics and distribution infrastructure. That means conquering territory. And it is done with violence or agreements with other groups.”
The Albanians did it both ways. The Italian Antimafia Prosecutor’s Office studied their strategy carefully. One of its magistrates believes that “it is new for this type of mafia to have so much control over the territory.” “They have more fluid structures, less organized. They are not distributed by positions and roles. It is very different from ‘Ndrangheta, but they are closely related to them. They have the management of some drug channels. They were strong on heroin from Afghanistan and on hashish, both from Albania and Morocco. And, above all, they are knowledgeable about the management of the ports of northern Europe, especially in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.”
When Demce, who called himself Don Pablo–after Pablo Escobar–got out of prison, he wanted to recover what he considered his. But someone else had taken over his territory. “Those areas were now managed by Ermal Aarpaj. And that’s where a fratricidal war began,” explain sources from the Carabinieri’s Rome Provincial Command Operational Nucleus. Demce tried to assassinate his rival. “There is only one church here. And in this city, even the cobblestones are ours,” he was heard to say in an intercepted conversation. Arapaj first fled to Spain and then returned to Rome to kill Demce. Chaos broke out. All the codes learned by Cosa Nostra during the attacks of the 1990s were broken. The conflict attracted the police and the judges, who began to surround them. Cornered by the investigations, Demce decided that he needed to confront the state.
The Albanian capo’s plan consisted of assassinating policemen and two judges, the brothers Francesco and Giuseppe Cascini, who both happened to be investigating the organization, as a Carabinieri source recalls. “It was crazy. There has never been an attack on a judge in the Italian capital. And I don’t know if they would have made it to the end, but they certainly had the weapons: grenades, bazookas, rifles. They said they were going to use them for that in a certain place.”
Demce planned to commit the attack in the heart of Rome — Piazzale Clodio, headquarters of the criminal courts. But he made the mistake of carrying out his telephone conversations through an encryption application called SkyEcc, whose server Europol had intercepted months before. “They found 170,000 free-talking contacts out there.” The information was detailed: operations, quantities, photos of hostages about to be executed. In March 2021 the arrests began. “That server was like opening a Pandora’s box, especially in Italy. Most of a certain kind of criminal used this system to communicate. We have whole months of genuine, detailed conversations. It is very high-profile evidence. We are still working on it,” the Carabinieri state.
The operation concluded last January with 27 arrests and the dismantling of the group’s first layer. They have been charged with crimes of international drug trafficking and organized crime. “Now they are weakened. It was a tough blow. But they are still there. Their liquid, less vertical structure allows them to recover more quickly,” sources from the investigation say.
It used to be said that one life is not enough to get to know Rome. Elvis Demce tried to conquer an eternal city in just 10 months, and he ended up in jail. His successors may now try to move more slowly.