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Knight Ridder, Washington Bureau

Posted on Fri, Aug. 01, 2003

Russian mafia helping Mexican cartels smuggle drugs into U.S., officials say

By Susana Hayward

Knight Ridder Newspapers


MEXICO CITY - The Russian mafia, including former KGB agents, has infiltrated Mexico's weakened drug cartels and is helping them smuggle illegal narcotics to the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican officials and independent drug experts.

Russian mobsters have been most effective in penetrating drug gangs in the Tijuana-Baja California-San Diego region, Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the head of the Mexican Attorney General's Special Unit for Organized Crime, told Knight Ridder. He described the Russians as highly skilled and "extremely dangerous."

Some of them are advising Mexico's drug cartels and laundering their money in exchange for being allowed to operate, Steven W. Casteel, assistant administrator for intelligence at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington in May. The fee for laundering drug proceeds typically is 30 percent or more.

Casteel, whose agency declined to make him available for an interview, told lawmakers that the Russian mafia's Mexican infiltration was consistent with the globalization of organized crime in recent years.

Russians first showed up in Colombian cocaine cartels a decade ago. They've been spotted in Mexico since the late 1990s.

Their extensive penetration in the Tijuana-San Diego area follows the 2002 arrests of Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the alleged patriarch of the region's drug cartel, and a dozen of its other alleged leaders. Russians took up some of the slack when the weakened cartel broke into "cartelitos," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor of international studies who has written extensively about drugs, organized crime and the Russian mafia.

Another leading Mexican trafficker, the late Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the head of the Juarez cartel, pioneered the use of surplus Soviet military aircraft as smuggling planes. He's said to have visited Moscow in the late 1990s to confer with leaders of Russian drug gangs. Carrillo Fuentes, known as "Lord of the Skies," died in 1997 while undergoing surgery. His cartel has also decentralized, according to drug analysts, giving Russians new opportunities in Mexico.

Russian drug thugs are leaner and meaner," Bagley said. "They operate on a low profile, don't wear gold chains and don't cut people up with power saws or dump them in rivers."

Still, "These guys are the bloodiest human beings you can imagine," he said. Bagley, who recently finished a year's sabbatical at a prestigious Mexico City research center, the Center for Research and Economic Education, is the author of a bibliographic survey titled "Drug Trafficking in the Americas: Aggressive Russian Groups Have Flourished."

The decapitation of Mexico's biggest drug cartels, for which U.S. authorities credit President Vicente Fox, is giving the Russians what Bagley called "a golden opportunity in Mexico."

The cartels have fractured into smaller gangs operating at city and state levels, where they're harder to detect and officials are easier to bribe. The smaller groups are more open to the Russians, Bagley said, because they need help with protection, transportation and money laundering.

Much Russian money laundering is done offshore, he said, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as in Russia.

In the biggest seizure ever to implicate the Russian mob, the U.S. Coast Guard in April 2001 seized the 152-foot-long fishing vessel Svesda Maru in international waters off Acapulco and arrested its crew of 10 Russians and Ukrainians. More than 13 tons of cocaine was buried beneath its rotting squid bait, according to the Coast Guard.

U.S. prosecutors said the shipment originated in Colombia and was to be smuggled into the United States via Mexico. At the time, Errol Chavez, the head of the DEA's San Diego office, said the crew must have had permission from the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, then the most powerful organization in Mexico, to work the turf.

The crew was charged with smuggling and conspiracy. One crewmember received a 20-year jail term last November; the rest will be tried later this year, the DEA said.

The seizure alerted U.S. officials to the Russians' sophistication and penetration of Western Hemisphere smuggling.

"They're smart, high-tech, have advanced ships and planes. They're good at hiding drugs," Bagley said. Finding the cocaine beneath the squid, he noted, took searchers five smelly days.

Bagley thinks the Russian gangs are more dangerous than U.S. and Mexican authorities have acknowledged, in part because of their power to corrupt public officials.

"If one is interested in Mexican democracy, Russian mafias are a challenge we're ignoring at our peril," Bagley said. "They have wormed their way into Mexico." 

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