The Albanian mafia has seized control of the Soho vice trade, according to a Home Office report.
In the space of less than a year, the ruthless Eastern European crime network has moved into almost all of the saunas and massage parlours in the heart of Britain's sex industry. The development is described as a "revolution" by one government source.
A Home Office briefing, seen by The Independent, says: "Around 70 per cent of sauna/massage parlours in Soho [are] now controlled by Albanians/Kosovars." The briefing said that the "tightening grip" of Albanian gangs on the vice trade was "changing the landscape" of Britain's sex industry. The Albanian mafia's establishment of a foothold in Britain is of deep concern to law enforcement agencies, which have been concerned by the crime network's growing presence in other parts of Europe.
A source said: "Twelve months ago, Albanian organised crime was not an issue for the UK. Their infiltration has been very swift."
Albanian gangs already control much of the vice in Greece, Germany and Italy, where they have been prepared to take on the Italian Mafia, particularly in Milan. The Home Office report follows a shocking study by Save the Children last March, which revealed that thousands of Albanian girls as young as 14 were being abducted from their families and sent overseas to work as prostitutes.
A concerted police raid on Soho brothels in February revealed that 80 per cent of women working as prostitutes were from overseas, mostly from the Balkans and Baltic states. According to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Albanian women are also being moved to red light areas in the north of England and the Midlands. Nearly a decade ago it was predicted that Russian organised crime would seek to exert influence over the British vice trade but instead it is the Albanian gangs that have taken control.
Inspector Paul Holmes, of the Metropolitan Police clubs and vice unit, said the Albanians had come to prominence "very rapidly" by striking a deal with the Maltese and East End gangsters who have traditionally dominated the Soho vice scene. Inspector Holmes said he believed that 70 to 75 per cent of women working in the brothels were now from Albania or were Kosovo Albanians.
"The Albanians have inserted their girls into the existing infrastructure [of brothels] but the women are being controlled by organised criminals," he said.
The arrival of the Albanian mafia has not yet led to violence. Inspector Holmes described the relationship between the Albanians and the traditional London vice rackets as "almost like a comfortable bedfellow thing.
"The people that run these places want a set level of money and don't care whether the girls are from Albania or Mars. But we are concerned at what will happen when the turf is full and the Albanians start setting up their own places."
Similar scenarios in Italy and Germany have led to violent clashes, with the Albanian gangs demonstrating that they are ruthless and heavily armed.
But some women's groups challenge the official view of Albanian prostitution in London. They argue that the women, many of whom are seeking asylum, are not being victimised and are grateful for an opportunity to earn money.
Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes said all the Albanian women she had met had claimed to be "working independently" and none had said they were exploited by criminal racketeers.
"There are a number of women in Soho who are sending money back to their families and have said to us, 'I am the only wage earner in my family'," she said.
Inspector Holmes said 90 per cent of the women knew they would be working as prostitutes when they left Albania but he rejected the idea that they were working independently. "What they believe is that once they have paid their debt bond they will be able to make significant money for themselves. The reality is completely different," he said. "At its most benign it is ruthless exploitation and at its most malevolent it is rape on a daily basis." Albanian prostitutes were terrified of giving evidence against their pimps in case of reprisals against their families, he said.
The problem of the Albanian mafia in Britain will be raised tomorrow in Edinburgh, when some of the world's foremost experts on organised crime will meet to discuss emerging trends at the Global Forum for Law Enforcement and National Security.
The guest speaker, Mark Galeotti, the director of the organised crime centre at Keele University, told The Independent that the Albanian mafia was "the key group emerging at the moment" in Britain.
The old territorial crime families were "increasingly dinosaurial", he said.