The Myth of Russian Mafia in Latin America

Back in the Cold War days, the US propaganda ignited fears of Soviet expansionism and espionage in Latin America to frighten the continent’s governments into cooperating with Washington in the fight against the fictitious threat posed by the USSR and the Eastern bloc. Under the resulting arrangement, the CIA, FBI, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency used to impose their own long-term agendas on the police and counterespionage agencies of Latin American countries (with the obvious exception of Cuba) and generally kept them on a short leash, while the Soviet missions the countries hosted and individuals deemed to be suspicious faced constant close surveillance.

The information which became available upon the publication of the materials generated by the Warren Commission (officially known as the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy) provides a stark example of the situation. Instructed by the FBI, Lee Harvey Oswald frequented the Soviet embassy in Mexico under the pretext of visa application and, in the wake of the JFK assassination, the CIA evidently took to rebuilding the picture of Oswald’s contacts with the Soviet staff. The materials of the Warren Commission show that on a regular basis the Mexican counterespionage agency shared with the US peers the lists of the Soviet embassy’s visitors, photographed and identified the people, and in the majority of cases placed them under surveillance. It is also clear from the released materials that the Soviet community’s phones in Mexico were continuously tapped and the recordings of the conversations were passed for translation to trusted Russian-speaking immigrants. According to former CIA case officer Philip Agee who had postings in Latin America and, upon retirement, became a vociferous critic of the CIA practices, the agency’s watch over Soviet targets across the continent was permanent and pervasive.

Regardless of the widely acclaimed US-Russian relations reset which seems to have materialized mainly in a panel with a red button currently exhibited at Russia’s foreign ministry museum, these days the situation remains essentially unchanged. Latin America’s liberal regimes are tirelessly helping the Washington big brother stay informed about whatever Russian missions or Russia’s citizens are doing in the respective countries. The hunt is on for details of energy deals, military cooperation plans, and investment swaps, for anything that might in any way implicate Russian politicians or businessmen touring Latin America, and more or less for whatever comes along. The specter of the Russian organized crime has taken the place of the Cold War communist threat as the rationale for keeping Russians under total surveillance… In its infancy, the Russian mafia myth was meant exclusively for the US domestic consumption. The aberrant character of the Russian organized crime was cited by the US law enforcement as the cause behind the inefficiency of efforts aimed at combating it and armed the corresponding agencies with convincing arguments to justify their budgetary appetites.

Interestingly, the US agencies were markedly slow in grasping the fact that the share of Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Chechens, and nationals of post-Soviet republics in the so-called Russian mafia far exceeded that of ethnic Russians, and that the conglomerate could be better described as Russian-speaking than Russian. Members of the ethnic groups had no difficulty connecting to the respective immigrant communities and securing the support, financial assistance, and advice from their brethren within their traditional spheres of criminal activity. Apart from a limited array of white-collar crimes attributable to Russians who, as a rule, acted outside of organized groups, there is no evidence that an ethnic Russian mafia ever existed in the US.

Several members of the Brighton Beach’s “Russian” mafia group established in Brooklyn in 2000 and known as the “Brigade” were arrested in June, 2003. The Brigade’s criminal record started prosaic offenses like stealing checks from mailboxes, but within a fairly short period of time the predominantly Jewish group led by Zinovy Bari, an immigrant from Russia, widened the scope of its criminal activities to include the supply of synthetic drugs, protection business, insurance fraud, and racketeering. The Brigade’s “clientèle“ predictably comprised immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were threatened with physical violence for defiance.

The US intelligence and counterintelligence communities actively cultivated the notion of rampant “Russian” organized crime, routinely backing it with examples which, upon scrutiny, amount to fairly ordinary incidents such as street robberies, shoplifting, or car thefts. To reinforce their case, the agencies floated a myth that the Russian criminal groups in Latin America were supervised by former KGB and GRU (the Russian military intelligence directorate) officers. The claims were upheld in scores of books and thousands of papers offering academic-style explanations of the Russian mafia’s conquests in the part of the world stretching south of the Rio Grande. For instance, a study by two researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico blamed the penetration by the Russian mafia of Columbia and other Latin American countries on the weakness of their democratic institutions and the inefficiency of their anti-corruption campaigns. With DEA’s assistance, the paper was posted on hundreds of Latin American Internet outlets as a warning about the onslaught of the Russian mafia active in drugs and human trafficking, money laundering, paid assassinations, etc.

DEA pulled off one of the loudest provocations supposed to demonstrate the complicity of the Russian mafia in Latin America’s drug trafficking in 2001, when a US Navy boat arrested Zvezda Maru, an Ecuador-owned and Belize-flagged fishing vessel, in the Pacific Ocean’s neutral waters. An inspection which, oddly enough, took over a week, ended with the finding of 13 tons of cocaine in the vessel’s fuel tank and the detention of the Slavic team – two Russians and eight Ukrainians – in a San Diego prison. The case remained stuck in court for three years, with five of the sailors eventually released and four, including the vessel’s captain V. Savchenko – indicted. According to those released, the trial was based on falsifications throughout. A huge question mark hangs over the finding of cocaine aboard Zvezda Maru, considering that several suspicious containers were dropped on it by Orion, a US Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft, on the eve of the docking in San Diego. Absent the urgently forged material evidence, the Russian mafia case was sure to collapse in court.

The US intelligence community shows no signs of departing from the practice of forging cases against the alleged Russian mafia. Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman who formerly operated an air cargo fleet in Asia and Africa, fell victim to an elaborate provocation in a case which continues to draw ample media coverage. Paradoxically, Bout’s business record includes airlifts for NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his cooperation with the US unexpectedly culminated in charges of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to Columbia’s militant FARC group. The episode painted by the prosecution resembles a scenario for a Hollywood blockbuster, with boxes containing AK-47 assault rifles made in East Germany and portable anti-aircraft complexes dumped from Bout’s planes in FARC-controlled districts of Columbia. Despite Moscow’s protests, Bout was extradited from Thailand, where he was arrested, to the US to stand trial which promises the Russian logistics entrepreneur anything but justice, considering that the US intelligence agencies clearly need to stage a serious show. If Bout is convicted, the anti-Russian propaganda in Latin America will spin off the case as a warning against any form of cooperation with Russians.

Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot From Russia’s Rostov-on-the-Don, also found himself drawn into a widely publicized story part of which was a thinly disguised provocation. The man was seized under obscure circumstances in a DEA sting in Liberia and covertly transfered to the US for allegedly planning to help deliver some 4 tons of Columbian cocaine to the US. The Russian embassy in Liberia was not notified of the arrest of Yaroshenko under a ridiculous pretext that the officer who was supposed to send the notification dialed a wrong fax number. The Russian pilot was indicted in April, 2011 and offered to testify against Bout to earn a milder sentence. Yaroshenko who never met Bout rejected the deal. Most of the individuals involved in the hypothetic criminal plan over which Yaroshenko was charged were not taken into custody, which indicates that he was framed by DEA for a nonexistent drug-trafficking plot. Unable to provide a rational answer to the defense’s question about the whereabouts of the cocaine Yaroshenko supposedly planned to ship, a US prosecutor said the FARC guerrillas must still have it.

Washington continues to sell Cold War-era stereotypes – the images of Russia as an evil country and a nuclear-armed monster – to Latin American countries. US-made computer games and movies supplied in quantities to Latin America employ the story line by which the Russian mafia grabs Russia’s nuclear arsenal and puts it to work for global blackmail. The message the Empire thus sends to the continent reads that Russians are disreputable and treacherous partners to be avoided at all costs.

Recently Peru was shattered by a political storm when Alexis Humala, brother of the country’s freshly elected president Ullanta Humala, visited Russia. Reports by the pro-US part of the Peruvian media that the president’s rating momentarily shed 30 points forced the country leader to pledge that his brother would be “punished” for unauthorized meetings with Russian government officials and state-run industry captains, even though the talks produced a series of clearly worthy bilateral deals. President Humala even had to send a letter to the Russian ambassador explaining that his brother had no official powers to conduct the negotiations. Judging by the prompt media response to Alexis Humala’s Moscow tour, the US intelligence community must have ahead-of-the-curve plans for a wide range of potential situations. The current impression is that in Peru the next step will be to portray the wife of Alexis Humala, Russian immigrant Tatiana Murashova, as the Russian mafia’s envoy to Peru. Interpol already opened on the US request a probe into her complicity in trafficking illegal immigrants from East Europe to the US. The strategy is that, regardless of the absurdity of the accusations, making whoever is targeted fight them off automatically counts as a gain in the propaganda game.

The above gives an idea of the contours of the campaign ostensibly meant to unmask Russian organized crime in Latin America. The imaginative approach to the theme helps the US intelligence community sustain the myth that the triumphant Russian mafia is galloping over the continent.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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