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Decoding Albanian Organized Crime:
Culture, Politics and Globalization

By Jana Arsovska
Los Angeles, CA: California University Press. 2015.

Decoding Albanian Organized Crime: Culture, Politics and Globalization is an erudite, superbly researched, and wide-ranging study of Albanian organized crime. Being a follower of organized crime literature and also coming from Greece, where media, political and law enforcement spheres (as well as the public) have identified the existence and transformation of organized crime since the 1990s with the so-called ‘Albanian mafia’ (among other Balkan and Eastern European ‘mafias’), I find this book a long-awaited, necessary addition to the literature. Bolstered by more than a decade of experience researching Albanian organized crime in as many as 11 countries using multiple methodological avenues, Arsovska organizes her material along an extremely interesting preface (her style should be taught in writing seminars on ‘how to hook your readers’) and seven chapters. These chapters are written with a great sense of economy, and – unlike many other books on organized crime – are of equal interest.

In the Introduction (Chapter one), the author offers a presentation of some of the Albanian ‘mafia’ characters featured in headlines internationally, the myths that the books attempts to debunk, and the various practical and methodological challenges in researching Albanian organized crime. In chapter two (‘Why We Do What We Do’), a rather long and diverse chapter, Arsovska offers an account of the complex communist and primarily post-communist political, social, cultural and economic context as well as a variety of crises (in politics, economics, and value systems) that have set the parameters for Albanian organized crime in Albania and elsewhere, and which should be carefully studied if the decision-making processes of Albanian organized criminals is to be deciphered.

Chapter three (‘On the Run: Albanians Going West’) explores the migration patterns of Albanian organized crime groups to the Western World and their ability to adapt to their new environments, whereas Chapter four (‘Iron Ties: In Blood We Trust’) focuses on the structure and ‘membership’ of Albanian organized crime groups as well as issues with regards to cooperation between and among what are largely fluid, horizontal structures. Chapter five (‘Violence, Honor, Secrecy’) deals with the prominent codes of conduct that Albanian organized criminals selectively utilize from a bigger and steadily shifting and adapting Albanian cultural baggage, how these codes allow Albanian organized criminals to do business, ‘manipulate reputation’[1], and avoid the law, as well as the differential adherence of Albanian organized criminals to these codes.

In Chapter six (‘Sex, Guns and Extortion’) Arsovska focuses on the dynamic relationship between culture, gender and emotions and select manifestations of organized crime that are “linked to issues of power” (p.224), while in Chapter seven (‘Conclusion: Dangerous Hybrids? What Now?’), the author goes about summarizing and synthesizing accounts. Of course, the material of the book is indeed too rich and wide to fit such the short presentation of each chapter appearing above.

What sets this book apart is not only the largely under-researched topic with which it deals, Albanian organized crime, its evolution, diversity, and mutating nature[2], as well as the vast amount of information it provides, but also the extraordinarily skilful treatment of the topic. A work on the organized criminality of ethnic groups and/or migrants requires an unusual degree of judgement and balance, since there is a very thin line between an informative account on organized crime and one that is sentimentally charged and full of xenophobic views verging on ‘alien conspiracy’. Arsovska’s work is certainly balanced, it attempts at deconstructing – to a varying degree – numerous law enforcement, media and political myths associated with Albanian organized crime, it is fresh, full of surprises and illuminating digressions into history, packed with incidents, and a very skilfully paced.

Fittingly, Decoding Albanian Organized Crime seems also to be something of a personal quest for the author. Turning obstacles into opportunities, and exhibiting observational sophistication and descriptive powers that the author possesses in spades, Arsovska writes as an insider and some of the characters appearing in her work are multi-faceted individuals, not mere ‘organized criminals’.

A caveat, in my opinion, is that some parts of the book that deal with theoretical perspectives attempting to explain Albanian organized criminality feel ‘distant’ to the case of Albanians per se. My impression is that there could be a direct and clearer linking of these theoretical perspectives to Albanians and that the author herself is holding back in delving deeper into her questions about Albanian organized criminals (see, for example, the section titled ‘Mafia migration: strategic or spontaneous’ in chapter three or the latter part of the chapter seven).

Nevertheless, this latter point does not detract from the overall value of Arsovska’s work, which is a truly entertaining tour of a criminologically ‘exotic’ world, a sober analysis, an absorbing work equal to the author’s high ambitions, and one destined to be a classic study on Albanian organized crime.

Teesside University, UK

[1] Bovenkerk, F., Siegel, D. and Zaitch, D. (2003) ‘Organized Crime and Ethnic Reputation Manipulation’, Crime, Law and Social Change, 39, 23-38

[2] Hobbs, D. (1995) Bad Business. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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