Feature Articles

August 14, 2000

Mobsters Of Mass Destruction.

By John William Tuohy and Ed Becker

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     A few weeks ago, Russia's new President Vladimir Putin held an off the cuff conference with Western business leaders on and promised to free up the Russian economy of corruption to attract foreign investment.

     Admitting before an international group of business leaders and press, that a pubic corruption problem exists, is considered a major step in a nation where major steps are rare, but Putin rejected the idea that the Russian Mafia is the driving force behind Russia's quasi-official government corruption.

     "Mafia" said Putin "Is not a Russian word"

     Semantics aside, Russia does, in fact, have an organized crime problem, and it always has. The Russian Mafia has been around for a long time, but it was, more or less, tightly control by the Communist government. When Communism collapsed, the mob flourished.

     In fact, it flourished so much, that Russia, a land with so little, has two types, or levels, of organized crime. The first are the street's thugs, known as the "tattoos," for their extensive prison body art.

     The tattoos are a cross between the Gambino's under John Gotti and Hells Angels, something like low brow muscle men who extort payoffs for protection and run a series of dull minded rackets.

     But, slow-witted or not, over the past two decades, the tattoos have successfully sucked most of the life blood out of the Russian nation, leaving a near cadaver in its place. In Western Russia today, it's difficult to find a person who has not been directly or indirectly terrorized or extorted by one the Russian Mafia. As a result, the nation is gripped by fear. The cops are useless, unless one considers collecting mob graft a virtue and elected officials are worse.

     The Tattoos, through muscle and terrorism, have a virtual lock on almost every aspect of the Russian marketplace, where, like their American counterparts, they level a hefty street tax through which they can decide which business stay and which one's fail.

     The effect is devastating. Simple things, like advertising, doesn't exist because ads' attract the mob attention. Self promotion, the key to success for any entrepreneur, is gone as well. Those who have money, work to hide it since they don't want to become extortion victims, so contributions to charities are almost a thing of the past. Worst of all, foreign investors are afraid to visit the country

     But the Tattoo's are, more or less, a local problem, although a considerable number have decided to try their hand in the American marketplace as well.

     The problem-child of the Russian mob that the world has to concern itself with, are the second tier of Mobdom, the so called "Rooftops," a name that doesn't translate well into English, but brings across the meaning anyway.

     Second to Japans Yakuza, these guys are the elite of the European and Asian gangs, made possible through their extensive contacts within the governments of the former Soviet Union, the new entrepreneurs and the old line bureaucrats.

     There use to be a different elite in Russia, the nuclear elite, made up of the scientists and military men who built the Soviets considerable missile fleet and made them an international power to be reckoned with.

     Now the nuclear physicists go hungry, something they're not used to, and as a result, are willing to sell their services, that is, their vast knowledge, to anyone willing pay to have them.

     There are two problems with that, one is that there are plenty of third world banana, desert and/or outlaw nations with a chip on their shoulders who are willing to pay virtually anything for the scientists knowledge, and secondly, the Russian mob is happy to play the middle man on in the deal because the money is incredible.

     Because of this trilateral common need, there exists in the world today, with the help of an army of corrupt government officials, an international grocery store where the most destructive weapons known to man are offered for sale to the highest bidder. So far, although they'll deny it, the CIA has been the biggest buyer on the market, trying to buy up the surplus and get it "off the streets," to turn a phrase.

     But, as smart as our spooks are, and they are smart, they miss sometimes, and its that one miss, that one bungle, that could deliver a nuclear bomb to some crazed dictator or group of religious fanatics.

     Could it happen?

     Well, it almost did.

     In 1993, two things happened in Lithuania. First, there were rumors of top-secret military shipment that had been brought into the country, secondly, there was an eruption of violent gang street wars in the port town of Klaipeda, with ten mobsters turning up machine gunned to death.

     The local cops rounded up the usual suspects, and informants and learned, in broad strokes, that a Lithuanian mob was muscling in on a larger Lithuanian-Russian mob, so they could extort money out of them over a big-deal smuggling operation. Only the Russian-Liths hadn't planned on making any payoffs in the deal, and when they didn't shell out, the street war erupted.

     The cops figured that ten dead Wise guys and six car bombs had to mean that there was more at stake then a new shipment of American cigarettes, but they were still clueless. Then a tip rolled in that the cops should snoop around the basement of the Lithuanian Joint-Stock Innovation Bank, which authorities believe is controlled by the Russian Mafia.

     The source of the tip was solid, and, careful not to tip the hoods, a squad of heavily armed Army Special Forces entered the property under the pretext of a bomb threat. Inside the basement, they found 27 wooden crates they found beryllium, 4.4 tons of it in all, and every inch if it radioactive.

     Radioactive or not, Beryllium is an extremely valuable commodity and is used in missile-guidance systems, high-performance aircraft and precision optical components, and, most importantly, as a neutron reflector, the stuff used in nuclear warheads.

     It was easy to follow the trail of the smuggled beryllium. Russian mobsters are that arrogant. The path circled from Moscow to Yekaterinburg in Russia where it was stolen and ultimately to Switzerland, where a mystery buyer was prepared to pay $24 million for the shipment, or about 10 times the legitimate market rate, at that time.

     Since then, the otherwise lax Russian government has bowed to considerable international pressure and has taken drastic steps to improve security at sensitive nuclear installations. However, the threat continues simply because the average worker at a Russian nuclear power facilities live in desperate poverty and will do or sell virtually anything for a buck.

     Also adding to this problem, and it is a problem of epic proportions, the powers that regulate the industry are disorganized and inexperienced, most of the seasoned professionals having left Mother Russia long ago for better paying jobs in other parts of the world.

     Add those two factors with the money hungry Russian Mafia and a few international terrorists willing to pay any asking price for beryllium, and you've got a recipe for mass destruction on an enormous scale, with the United States as the most likely target.

     Sleep well.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at

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