Jim Kouri
July 18, 2005
The Russian mob and human trafficking
Russian mobsters consort with terrorists, slave traders
By Jim Kouri

From Himalayan villages to Eastern European cities, people especially women and girls are attracted by the prospect of a well-paid job as a domestic servant, waitress or factory worker. Human traffickers recruit victims through fake advertisements, mail-order bride catalogues and casual acquaintances. Upon arrival at their destination, victims are placed in conditions controlled by traffickers while they are exploited to earn illicit revenues. Many are physically confined, their travel or identity documents are taken away and they or their families are threatened if they do not cooperate.

Women and girls forced to work as prostitutes are blackmailed by the threat that traffickers will tell their families. Trafficked children are dependent on their traffickers for food, shelter and other basic necessities. Traffickers also play on victims' fears that authorities in a strange country will prosecute or deport them if they ask for help. A major purveyor of these de facto slaves is the Russian organized crime syndicate. Brutal, cunning and ruthless, these 21st Century mobsters present a new threat to US national security.

Over the past decade, trafficking in human beings has reached epidemic proportions. No country is immune. The search for work abroad has been fueled by economic disparity, high unemployment and the disruption of traditional livelihoods. Traffickers face few risks and can earn huge profits by taking advantage of large numbers of potential immigrants. Trafficking in human beings is a crime in which victims are moved from poor environments to more affluent ones, with the profits flowing in the opposite direction, a pattern often repeated at the domestic, regional and global levels. It is believed to be growing fastest in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In Asia, girls from villages in Nepal and Bangladesh the majority of whom are under 18 are sold to brothels in India for $1000. Trafficked women from Thailand and the Philippines are increasingly being joined by women from other countries in Southeast Asia. Europe (European InterPol) estimates that the industry is now worth several billion dollars a year. Trafficking in human beings is not confined to the sex industry. Children are trafficked to work in sweatshops as bonded labor and men work illegally in the "three D-jobs" dirty, difficult and dangerous. A recent CIA report estimated that between 45,000 to 50,000 women and children are brought to the United States every year under false pretenses and are forced to work as prostitutes, abused laborers or servants. UNICEF estimates that more than 200,000 children are enslaved by cross-border smuggling in West and Central Africa. The children are often "sold" by unsuspecting parents who believe their children are going to be looked after, learn a trade or be educated.

In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has become the target of a new global crime threat from criminal organizations and criminal activities that have poured forth over the borders of Russia and other former Soviet republics such as Ukraine. The nature and variety of the crimes being committed seem unlimited trafficking in women and children, drugs, arms trafficking, stolen automobiles, and money laundering are among the most prevalent. The spillover is particularly troubling to Europe because of its geographical proximity to Russia, and to Israel, because of its large numbers of Russian immigrants. But no area of the world seems immune to this menace, especially not the United States. America is the land of opportunity for unloading criminal goods and laundering dirty money. For that reason and because, unfortunately, much of the examination of Russian organized crime (the so-called "Russian Mafia") to date has been rather hyperbolic and sketchy many in law enforcement believe it is important to step back and take an objective look at this growing phenomenon.

As in the United States, there is no universally accepted definition of organized crime in Russia, in major part because Russian law provides no legal definition of organized crime. Analysis of criminological sources, however, enables one to identify some of its basic characteristics. These include organizational features that make Russian organized crime unique in the degree to which it is embedded in the post-Soviet political system. At the same time, however, it has certain features in common with such other well-known varieties of organized crime as the Italian Mafia. The latter has a complicated history that includes both cooperation and conflict with the Italian state. Much more than was ever the case with the Italian Mafia, however, Russian organized crime is uniquely a descendant of the Soviet state.

Russian organized crime has come to plague many areas of the globe since the demise of the Soviet Union just more than a decade ago. The transnational character of Russian organized crime, when coupled with its high degree of sophistication and ruthlessness, has attracted the world's attention and concern to what has become known as a global Russian Mafia. Along with this concern, however, has come a fair amount of misunderstanding and stereotyping with respect to Russian organized crime.

Trafficking is almost always a form of organized crime and should be dealt with using criminal powers to investigate and prosecute offenders for trafficking and any other criminal activities in which they engage. Trafficked persons should also be seen as victims of crime. Support and protection of victims is a humanitarian objective and an important means of ensuring that victims are willing and able to assist in criminal cases. As with other forms of organized crime, trafficking has globalized. Groups formerly active in specific routes or regions have expanded the geographical scope of their activities to explore new markets. Some have merged or formed cooperative relationships, expanding their geographical reach and range of criminal activities. Illegal migrants and trafficking victims have become another commodity in a larger realm of criminal commerce involving other commodities, such as narcotic drugs and firearms or weapons and money laundering, that generate illicit revenues or seek to reduce risks for traffickers.

With respect to organized crime, certain geographical or infrastructure characteristics, such as the presence of seaports, international airports, strategic border locations, rich natural resources, and so on, provide special criminal opportunities that can best be exploited by criminals who are organized. More so than common crime, organized crime is fed by the presence of ethnic minorities who furnish a ready supply of both victims and the offenders to victimize them. Organized crime also thrives in environments characterized by a relatively high tolerance of deviance and a romanticization of crime figures, especially where government and law enforcement are weak or corrupt (the history of the Sicilian Mafia illustrates this).

THE RUSSIAN MOB

Russia is one of those unfortunate countries that has the receptive environment in which organized crime thrives. Organized crime is deeply rooted in the 400-year history of Russia's peculiar administrative bureaucracy, but it was especially shaped into its current form during the seven decades of Soviet hegemony that ended in 1991. This ancestry helps to explain the pervasiveness of organized crime in today's Russia and its close merger with the political system. Organized crime in Russia is an institutionalized part of the political and economic environment. It cannot, therefore, be fully understood without first understanding its place in the context of the Russian political and economic system.

Unlike Colombian, Italian, Mexican, or other well-known forms of organized crime, Soviet organized crime was not primarily based on ethnic or family structures. To help understand the difference, we can look to the history of organized crime in the United States for a contrasting portrait. As a number of scholars have pointed out, organized crime provided a "crooked ladder of upward mobility" for some immigrants to the United States. Certain immigrants sharing a common ethnicity, culture, and language, and, being on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, either having legitimate opportunities for advancement closed to them or rejecting the opportunities that were available have turned to crime, and specifically organized crime, to get ahead.

Because organized crime is made up of criminals who conspire to carry out illegal acts, a degree of trust is necessary among those criminals. Co-conspirators must be able to trust that their collaborators will not talk to the police or to anyone who might talk to the police, and that they will not cheat them out of their money. A shared ethnicity, with its common language, background, and culture, has historically been a foundation for trust among organized crime figures.

Yet ethnicity did not play the significant role in Soviet organized crime that it played in the United States. Instead, the Soviet prison system, in many ways, fulfilled functions that were satisfied by shared ethnicity in the United States. In the Soviet Union, a professional criminal class developed in Soviet prisons during the Stalinist period that began in 1924 the era of the gulag. These criminals adopted behaviors, rules, values, and sanctions that bound them together in what was called the thieves' world, led by the elite criminals who lived according to the "thieves' law." This thieves' world created and maintained the bonds and climate of trust necessary for carrying out organized crime.

Organized crime in the Soviet era consists of illegal enterprises with both legal and black-market connections that were based on the misuse of state property and funds. It is most important to recognize that the blurring of the distinction between the licit and the illicit is also a trademark of post-Soviet organized crime that shows its ancestry with the old Soviet state and its command-economy system. This, in turn, has direct political implications. The historical symbiosis with the state makes Russian organized crime virtually an inalienable part of the state. As this has continued into the present, some would say it has become an engine of the state that works at all levels of the Russian government.

Contemporary Russian organized crime grew out of the Soviet "nomenklatura" system (the government's organizational structure and high-level officials) in which some individual "apparatchiks" (government bureaucrats) developed mutually beneficial personal relationships with the thieves' world. The top of the pyramid of organized crime during the Soviet period was made up of the Communist Party and state officials who abused their positions of power and authority. Economic activities ranged across a spectrum of markets white, gray, black, and criminal. These markets were roughly defined by whether the goods and services being provided were legal, legal but regulated, or illegal, and by whether the system for providing them was likewise legal, legal but regulated, or illegal. The criminals operated on the illegal end of this spectrum. Tribute gained from black markets and criminal activities was passed up a three-tiered pyramid to the nomenklatura, and the nomenklatura itself (some 1.5 million people) had a vast internal system of rewards and punishments. The giant state apparatus thus not only allowed criminal activity, but encouraged, facilitated, and protected it, because the apparatus itself benefited from crime.

These sorts of relationships provided the original nexus between organized crime and the government. From these beginnings, organized crime in Russia evolved to its present ambiguous position of being both in direct collaboration with the state and, at the same time, in conflict with it.

Sources:
    US Department of Justice
    United Nations Protocols
    National Criminal Justice Reference Service
    National Association of Chiefs of Police
    Department of Homeland Security

© Jim Kouri

 

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Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police... (more)

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