How Spain’s Fight Against Gangsters Revealed Russian Power Networks
Sebastian Rotella (ProPublica) 13 November 2017
Among the wealthy sophisticates who came and went from their seaside villas on the Spanish island of Mallorca, there was something that didn’t quite fit about the Russian who lived in a neoclassical mansion on the Avenida Portals Vells. Tall and powerfully built, with a flattened nose and graying, short-cropped hair, he looked more like an aging boxer than an international businessman. Most days, dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants, he would drive over to a local marina in his older-model Mercedes — he saved the Bentley for rides with his wife — and stop in at a favorite restaurant. Taking a table by the water’s edge, he would order a tapa and watch the boats, murmuring into his cell phone in a hoarse, Slavic whisper.
It wasn’t long before police began to wonder about Gennady Petrov. He and his family were clearly Russian, but their passports were Greek. They seemed to have a lot of money, and to spend it in unusual ways. A real estate agent reported that Petrov had paid a contractor to build a tunnel down to the sea from another home he had owned in the area. Then there was an incident involving two Russians who were arrested as they prowled outside an upscale shopping center. The suspects wouldn’t talk, even after the police found a bomb in their car. But detectives eventually determined that the men were hoodlums who had flown in from Frankfurt to track another Russian — a businessman who was apparently involved in a dispute with Petrov.
The authorities soon discovered that Petrov was indeed a former boxer — and reputedly a high-ranking figure in one of Russia’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Tambovskaya. In Spain alone, he had amassed at least $50 million in properties and businesses. Beyond his island refuge, he was said to control a global network of legitimate and illicit activities, ranging from jewelry stores and extortion rings to the gray-market sale of Soviet MiG-29 fighter jets. But even the scope of Petrov’s enterprises did not prepare Spanish investigators for what they heard when they began to listen in on his telephone calls.
At one point, Petrov called a senior justice official in Moscow to complain that a Russian shipyard had fallen behind on construction of a new yacht Petrov had ordered. According to a confidential Spanish report of the conversation, the Russian official promised to go see the shipbuilder with some of “his boys,” and show him “a lot of affection.” Days later, another Spanish wiretap caught two of Petrov’s associates laughing about how agents of the Russian security forces had left the shipbuilder terrified. The yacht was back on schedule.
In hundreds of telephone calls intercepted during the year before Petrov’s arrest in 2008, Spanish investigators listened as the mob boss chatted with powerful businessmen, notorious criminals and high-level officials in the government of Vladimir Putin. During one trip to Russia, Petrov called his son to say he had just met with a man who turned out to be the Russian defense minister — and to report that they had sorted out a land deal, the sale of some airplanes, and a scheme to invest in Russian energy companies.
“Will you join the government?” a fellow mob boss joked with Petrov in another conversation monitored by Spanish investigators. “I bought a suitcase to store all the bribes you’ll get.” Petrov seemed to enjoy the irony, but said he was quite satisfied with Putin’s continued political control.
At a time when Russian intelligence and criminal activities have become an urgent concern in the United States and Europe, the Spanish investigations of Petrov and other Russians offer a remarkable view of the way that some of the most powerful mafia bosses have operated, both in Russia and abroad. Building on ties that sometimes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, more sophisticated mob leaders have survived gang wars and crackdowns to amass extraordinary wealth and influence, while remaining almost as deferential to Putin’s government as the oligarchs he helped create. Rather than simply bribing police officials to facilitate their activities, bosses like Petrov have established themselves as business partners, money launderers and investment scouts for high-ranking officials who have amassed sizeable fortunes themselves, Western security officials say. Those relationships, in turn, have enabled crime bosses to expand their involvement in legitimate business and political activities that are linked to the Russian government.
In isolated cases, the mafias are also believed to have been used as instruments of Russian state power — running guns for the security services, killing enemies, or carrying out political skullduggery. But the blurring lines between state and criminal activities have taken on new significance as Russia has worked more aggressively to undermine its adversaries in Europe and the United States. In Spain, such concerns have grown especially around the current crisis over the campaign for independence in Catalonia, where Russian news and social-media operations have lately been accused of spreading disinformation to stoke the separatist fervor. Russian mobsters have been active in the region for years, Spanish officials say, working to build influence among Catalan politicians and businesspeople, and to take advantage of the rivalry between Catalan and national law-enforcement agencies.
Interviews with more than 20 Western law-enforcement and intelligence officials — including Spanish investigators who spoke publicly and in detail about the Russian cases for the first time — as well as a review of thousands of pages of court files and investigative documents, show the interplay of gangsters, spies, magnates and politicians in Russian power networks at home and abroad. The mafias’ ties to the Russian government, and particularly to the security services, have led Spanish officials to fear for their national security as well as law and order. “If you are someone important in the mafia in Russia, you don’t work on your own,” said Juan Rueda, a former Spanish police commander who led many of the investigations. Another senior police official added, “There is always the shadow of intelligence services behind them.”
Over the past decade, Spain has cracked down more systematically than any other European government, jailing bosses and soldiers and confiscating tens of millions of dollars in cash and assets. Prosecutors have issued indictments or arrest warrants for high-level Russian government and business figures, and named others as suspected allies of organized crime. But the anti-mafia campaign has not always been successful. Many of the court cases have dragged on for years. Spectacular police operations have sometimes produced meager results. And the gangsters have not generally been cowed. “Neither you, nor your laws, are capable of fighting us,” one Maserati-driving boss, who was known as “the Beast,” snarled at the officers who arrested him…
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