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Eurasian Organized Crime


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Case Study: Vory V Zakone

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It was in the Soviet prisons and gulags where the modern vory v zakone began to come together. The ultimate distinguishing feature of a vor in Russia was prison time; it became a badge of honour because it represented both a real and symbolic ostracism from society. Time spent in the gulags also forged a stronger secret fraternity and helped the existing vors recruit others inside the prisons into their underground society (Handelman, 1995: 31). The vors became an elite class of offender in Soviet prisons and by attracting “violent aides ready to carry out the orders of vory,” they assumed positions of authority to informally govern inmates in prisons and camps (Volkov, 2014: 163). Writing back in the 1930s, a Russian scholar named Dmitri Likhachev observed that convicts in construction squads building Stalin’s infamous Baltic-White Sea Canal formed a cohesive unit and “ultimately they are governed by a system of collective beliefs that is remarkably uniform among criminals within different ethnic roots.” Likhachev noted that a “Thieves’ Court” regularly punished anyone who broke the rules (as cited in Handelman, 1995: 21).

 

It was during the period before and following World War II that the vory became increasingly involved in the criminal underworld, committing petty crimes, and later becoming involved in more organized infractions such as extortion. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the 7 amnesty provided to many political prisoners in Russia resulted in the release of hundreds of vors back into society, where they integrated themselves into the criminal underworld and the shadow economy. By the 1960s, a new vory began to eclipse the old guard. They cloaked themselves in the rituals, customs, and thieves’ code, but were much more driven by material gains. While the older vory was characterized by a rigid leadership style and modest criminal operations, focusing mostly on theft and extortion, the new vory was more flexible and fluid in its leadership and structure, was organized along a more ambitious (regional and national) scale, and became involved in a greater diversity of profit-oriented crimes, including black marketeering. In the underground economy, the “thieves-in-law offered a wide range of criminal services (from ‘knocking out’ a debtor’s money to contract killing), and became a second-tier distribution vehicle for shadow capital.” They also “supervised shadow businesspeople, tsekhoviki, protecting them from robberies and extortions, providing enforcement for contracts, and sometimes simply blackmailing them and thereby forcing them to share their profits” (Cheloukhine, 2012: 113).

 

The demise of the Soviet Union and the introduction of the free market system in Russia provided the most fertile ground for those criminals active in the underground economy and schooled in a political system rife with corruption. Today, the vory v zakone form a sort of Russian criminal aristocracy. The vory is not in itself an identifiable, independent organized crime group, but the vors are a recognized elite within the Russian criminal world. The individual vors may hold various positions and have different degrees of power depending on their capabilities. In Russian crime groups, there are the leaders and there are the vors. Both have control and command functions, and a vor may also be a leader of a particular crime group. Yet, the vors generally maintain a higher status than the leaders of individual Russian crime groups, no matter how large or powerful those groups may be. A vor may influence many groups simultaneously as the head of an association or confederation, rather than leading a single group. He commits very few crimes directly; instead, he is acknowledged as a patron to other offenders, bringing together individuals for specific criminal conspiracies, adjudicating disputes among them, and furthering criminal activities through his relationships with corrupt officials and law enforcement agents. In this respect, the role and status of a vor are somewhat analogous to the Mafioso.

 

The vors are reportedly supported financially by the revenues from crime groups they are associated with or oversee. The Russian criminal underworld is believed to be divided up amongst a number of vors, each of whom is recognized by the others as the authority in his respective territory. It is also believed that there may be one top-level vor who has been given responsibility by other vors for overseeing Russian criminal activities in Germany, Canada, and the United States. This top-level vor is chosen at a meeting of members and requires the recommendations of at least two other bosses—the more recommendations, the more prestige (Handelman, 1995; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1995; Rawlinson, 1998; Nicaso, 2001; Cheloukhine, 2012).

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Interview with Martin Estrada, from the Criminal Division of the Office of the U.S. Attorney General (U.S. Department of Justice)

 

In particular, what kind of offences are Armenians involved in?

So in terms of what we have investigated, we basically investigated organized crime in the Los Angeles, Orange Country and the southern California area. And obviously as you are aware by now there is a large concentration of people of Armenian descent in Glendale, Burbank, North L.A. County.

 

And terms of the sorts of crimes that we investigated it’s been everything under the sun from murders to bank fraud, to kidnapping, to credit card fraud, to identity theft, to gambling – basically everything under the sun.

 

And it seems from the investigations that we’ve done that people with links to Armenia or the former Soviet Union or even just Eastern Europe, they have special abilities to commit identity theft. That’s because they have access to technology and they have access to tourists or others who come to the country. They can obtain their information, their names, social security number, and dates of birth, buy those from the tourists, or get involved criminally with them and then use that information to commit identity theft or fraud of some sort.

 

During the past year the Armenian Power group has been repeatedly covered and talked about in media. What is this organization? How would you describe or characterize this organization?

Based on our investigation, what we have learnt is that it’s an enterprise. And an enterprise is a legal term that refers to a group that’s committing crimes of all sorts. The types of enterprises that the government investigates range from street gangs. Los Angeles has many-many street gangs. Some are very large and they have been investigated like MS13 and they are enterprises. But also more sophisticated organized crime groups like Cosa Nostra, Asian groups like the Triads and those are also enterprises.

Based on our investigation, we found Armenian Power to be a very sophisticated enterprise because it has both street gang aspects and higher organized crime aspects. So it’s almost like a marriage of the old Italian Mafia and street gangs. They have power on the street based on young individuals, who pose as gangsters, and they are people who carry fire arms and do sort of the violent dirty work. But then, they have other associates who don’t get involved in the street gang, but they have expertise in fraud, money laundering, and things of that sort. And then there is a small group of people who sort of vie for control of these different aspects.

 

And the other interesting aspect (this is also discussed in the indictment) is that Armenian Power here has become more powerful than the traditional thieves-in-law. So the leadership of Armenian Power will deal directly on a level playing field with the thieves-in-law who come to Los Angeles. But they have a power (I mean leaders in Armenian Power) beyond the thieves-in-law because of their ties to the street, they have the soldiers and they have links to an incredibly powerful prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. It is essentially a Hispanic street gang that controls the prisons both federal and state in California and throughout the country. So because the Armenian Power leadership has those connections, they have power on the street and they have protection in the jail.

 

As far as I understood, based on your description, they are the strongest collection of criminals.

And we consider them to be one of the biggest threats in Los Angeles.

When information came to light publicly, there were references or talk that these folks also have connections to Armenia. Was anything proven to show that these folks have ties or contacts to officials in Armenia or the criminal world in Armenia?

Yes, a large majority were born in the former Soviet Union and still have family or connections there. And the significance of that is that they have the connection to the tourists as we said from Russia and from Armenia. They also, on occasion, have fled America to go there to avoid prosecution. But probably more importantly is their connection with thieves-in-law. The leadership of Armenian Power is dealing directly with the Moscow and Armenian thieves in law, not just here. And the inference would be, although we haven’t gotten into this, is that there’s a reason they’re doing this; there must be some reciprocation in Armenia and Moscow.

 

Does this mean you haven’t definitely established any proof of a connection? Is it just an assumption that you have?

No, there is concrete proof of connection. What we don’t know is what the thieves-in-law of Russia do for these guys in Russia and Armenia, if anything. Maybe it’s just a respect thing.

 

Haven’t law enforcement agencies of Armenia cooperated with you?

We haven’t requested any sort of cooperation because it’s not necessarily relevant to our investigations. In other related investigations we have requested assistance from the Russian government and we have been able to cooperate there.

 

Is it possible that the names of criminals, or say Russian or Armenian officials, are ever mentioned during court trials here?

It’s always possible.

 

And they also were talking about amounts that were being transferred to Armenia or Russia. Have they been incidents where you have been able to ascertain that such transfers of financial assets have occurred?

That is probably an area I shouldn’t talk about because it’s not public.

 

Why is it possible that in Los Angeles these groups are able to mushroom and evolve? How is it that this Armenian group has grown and prospered so?

Los Angeles is one of the largest economies, there is a lot of commerce, there are ports, and there is proximity to Mexico which is the center of drug-trafficking. So there is a great deal of criminal activity in Los Angeles and these particular people we investigate have the ability to both deal with street elements like the Mexican mafia and also the more sophisticated elements like the thieves-in-law in Russia and Armenia. And they’re able to understand technology to commit identity theft and bank fraud. Those are the sorts of sophisticated crimes that normally aren’t committed by people involved in violent crime. But this group can do both.

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