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In Romania, prosecutions of criminal organizations and of corruption sometimes end in frustration for lower level law enforcement and findings they don’t understand or agree with. Criminal organizations that traffic in drugs, launder money and smuggle cigarettes thrive in Romania amid corruption, lax judicial attitudes toward drug dealing, an exaggerated regard for suspects’ rights and gaps in the law.
“If you are hungry and you steal a loaf of bread you get twelve years in prison. Steal millions of Euros and you won’t do a day. This is the problem with the Romanian justice system,” said a Romanian police officer who specializes in fighting organized crime.
Corruption in the justice system and government provides a fertile ground for criminal organizations to develop their abilities to steal public money. At the same time, loopholes in Romanian laws enable criminals to walk free if they are caught, wasting tax money spent on costly police operations. And the judges’ leniency does little to deter drug traffickers in the future.
According to a February report by Romania’s Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT), in 2007 its prosecutors were assigned more than 16,000 cases. Each prosecutor was assigned, on average, 90 cases for the year. According to the same report, by the end of 2007, approximately 7,200 cases were completed, making the average number of cases solved by each prosecutor 40– less than half of those assigned. Many prosecutors complain about being overwhelmed by the number of cases, saying that some investigations are very complex and require considerable time and resources.
The failures of the Romanian judiciary system are underscored by major drug traffickers who go free soon after they are caught.
Some judges and prosecutors will say anonymously that although money and well-connected lawyers help some drug dealers say out of jail, some judges just don’t view drug trafficking as a significant social threat.
A recent case underscores this attitude. In early November 2007, the Department for Combating Traffic in Illegal Substances (DCTIS) started tracking an international heroin trafficking ring led by Fazli Onluturk, a Turkish citizen. The drugs were sent from Turkey, transited through Bulgaria and reached Romania using a trucking company. The heroin was stored in Romania, awaiting shipment to Germany with the help of another Turkish citizen, Yavuz Muammer, along with Serdar Onluturk, Fazli’s son.
On the night of January 12, a truck loaded with 21 tons of oranges entered Romania from Bulgaria through the Giurgiu border point, across the Danube River. The long haul truck was registered to Ambara Com SRL, located near Bucharest and registered to Fazli Onluturk and a Romanian, Ionel Teja. It was driven by a Romanian, Cristea Costel. Romanian officers were tipped off about the shipment and decided to keep it under surveillance to identify other members of the network. Eight days later, the truck was stopped by Romanian officers for a thorough inspection at the Nadlac border crossing at the Hungarian frontier. The officers found 160 packs containing about 84 kg of heroin hidden in one of the trailer’s walls, under the refrigeration system. The market value of the drugs seized was more than €4 million. Prosecutors arrested those involved in the heroin ring. The Romanian magistrates, however, decided that the traffickers were not a social threat and released them on unconditional bail, pending further investigation. Angered by the judges’ decision, the officers kept an eye on the traffickers. Three months later, Yavuz Muammer was caught in the main Bucharest train station with several fake documents: a Bulgarian passport, Romanian and Bulgarian identity cards and a German driver’s license.
An undercover officer who worked on the case and spoke anonymously explained his frustration: “The head of the network hides in Turkey. We couldn’t arrest him but we have conclusive evidence to arrest the others. The judge thought otherwise. We managed to arrest Muammer, three months after the action in January, only because he tried to leave the country with fake IDs. This time the Court couldn’t do anything for him, as we clearly proved that he wanted to run across the border.
“It’s a paradox,” he said. “The trafficker who gets caught with a few hundred grams of narcotics is considered a social threat and we are allowed to keep him arrested while the ones who get caught with kilograms of drugs aren’t a social threat. There’s no logical explanation. The judges say that the persons they are freeing are no social threat because they are simple dealers in a larger network. But this dealer is part of a criminal organization. Any officer that investigates something like this isn’t up against the dealer but against the whole group. According to the law, traffickers should be getting 25 years in prison for drug trafficking felonies. The drug trafficking in itself represents a social threat, as the drugs get to the consumers.”
A similar tale to that of the Turkish heroin ring stems from Romania’s largest cocaine seizure of 2007, which was worth over €5 million. Cocaine was air freighted to Bucharest from Venezuela, hidden in a shipment of men’s suits. The hangers holding the suits were made of pure cocaine and were to be picked up at the airport by Luciano Gilio, an Italian who lived in Romania. The Romanians intercepted the shipment and arrested Gilio but he was freed by the judges, who said he was not a social threat, but that he had to respond to authorities if asked. His trial has been postponed repeatedly since March 17, 2007.
Responding to the idea that drug traffickers are not a social threat, the president of the Romanian Agency against Drugs (ANA, www.ana.gov.ro), Pavel Abraham, pointed out that the money from drug trafficking is used to finance international terrorism and that 7500 deaths are associated with drug consumption every year in Romania. And, since the beginning of 2008, Romanian custom officers have seized about 400 kilograms of heroin worth more than USD 16 million.
Corrupt politicians and criminals also use human rights issues to shield themselves from prosecution. Instead of maintaining their innocence, they complain of the way evidence against them was gathered. Police and prosecutors fighting organized crime themselves complain that the period they are allowed to tap the phones of suspected criminals—up to four months― is too short. Another undercover IGPF officer said anonymously, “If we are not able to prove the facts in this time span, we are no longer allowed to intercept. But we are working on trans-border cases. We really do need more time for intercepting, because we have cases where we work in cooperation with other states. They intercept members of a network in their country; we intercept members that are in Romania. After those four months, we have to tell our partners we can no longer intercept the trafficker in Romania.
“Then I see myself forced to go through a lot of paperwork to officially ask for access to the transcripts of the phone conversation in which the trafficker in their country is talking to the trafficker here,” he said. “At this point, which country will still consider us a serious partner? No matter what evidence we have, after four months, we’re forced to stop. Show me a network like Hossein Karimi’s, in which 18 traffickers were arrested, that needs to be intercepted in only four months! This is la dolce vita for traffickers.”
The man he was talking about, Hossein Karimi, is considered by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be one of the world’s major heroin traffickers. He was arrested in Vienna in 2007 in a joint DEA-European law enforcement operation. Karimi, who is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 27 in New York, had lived in Romania for more than ten years and was never bothered by Romanian law enforcement. The DEA started a global investigation into his network, which stretched from Afghanistan to countries in the West, and asked for surveillance help only from another Romanian law enforcement group within the border police.
Prosecutors are reluctant to express their discontent with the Romanian judiciary system because of a provision in the Magistrates Ethical Code that prohibits them from “challenging the moral probity of their colleagues.” In October 2008, prosecutor Maximilian Balasescu was charged with breaking provisions of the Code because he talked to “Jurnalul National,” a Bucharest-based newspaper, about an organized crime group set free by the judges. “With the laws we have in Romania and such judgments, I would rather quit and become a thief. I’m smarter than the thieves and, anyway, if I get caught I’ll be set free by the judge.” said Balasescu.
He was unhappy with a judge’s ruling that allowed what he deemed a “very violent organized crime group” to walk free from the courtroom. After a lengthy investigation, the prosecution had charged the group with kidnapping, attempted murder and assault.
After one collaboration between the DEA and Romanian police that resulted in arrests, all but one suspect walked free, and that suspect was detained less than a month. In 2008, in another major trans-continental operation, the DEA informed Romanian police of their ongoing investigation of a criminal group led by a Ukrainian citizen, Nikolai Dozortsev, also known as Colea. Colea was operating out of New York and was coordinating a network involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling cigarettes into the United States, Hong Kong, Spain, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Poland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Romania. Running the network in Romania was Constantin Cartale, who, from the Black Sea port of Constanta, was organizing illegal transports of counterfeit and original cigarettes from Ukraine and Moldova to Romania. Some of the cigarettes were destined for the black market in Romania and the rest for Western European markets. Romanian police managed to seize three transports with a total of 800,000 illegal packs—about 1.6 million cigarettes—and arrested 16 people connected to the organized crime group. One of the 16 was held in custody for 29 days; the rest were freed.
Florentin Robescu, the chief of the law enforcement unit that fights trans-border crime, said, “We are here facing one of the biggest legislative issues when it comes to combating smuggling. The act of illegally introducing cigarettes into the country through border points is not considered smuggling. It is only smuggling if it goes through areas outside the border points, if it goes through the green area. If you cross through the frontier station it isn’t considered smuggling and you’re only fined for a misdemeanor. We proposed on three occasions that the law be changed but to no avail.”
Another complaint among Romanian law enforcement for years has been the lack of a dependable witness protection program. British prosecutor Alan Bacarese, who is implementing an anti-corruption program in Romania, recognizes the lack of sufficient witness protection and says the problem is with an improper law governing these programs. High profile organized crime investigations have been compromised by leaks of the identities of protected witnesses. One such case involved a prosecutor who revealed, on TV, the identity of a protected witness in an investigation regarding a cocaine trafficking ring. The ring was connected to some of the wealthiest families in Romania and to the heads of football clubs and banks. The prosecutor who leaked the name was briefly investigated but his colleagues decided not to pursue the case. While the prosecutor was protected, the witnesses, whose lives are at stake, are not.