The Matraimov Kingdom

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: October 2, 2020

At a recent performance on Kyrgyzstan’s independence day, an improvisational poet known as an akyn memorably called out the country’s endemic corruption in front of its president, top officials, and foreign guests.

To the strains of a traditional Kyrgyz lute, the akyn denounced “big ones who stealthily fill their pockets,” “electors who have grabbed the ballot boxes and steal votes,” and the country’s customs service, where “money is taken out in buckets.”

The last allusion would not have been lost on his audience. For years, as revealed in a previous series of investigations, deputy customs chief Raimbek Matraimov enabled — and profited from — a smuggling empire run by a secretive Uighur family.

Matraimov is no longer in the customs service. But over the years, he and his brothers, who still hold important public functions, have amassed vast riches — and converted them into influence.

This new investigative series by OCCRP, Kloop, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, and Bellingcat shows how.

From living an extravagant lifestyle on modest declared salaries, to secretly taking control of private customs facilities and trade routes, to pouring wealth into a crucial election campaign, the Matraimovs embody many of the brave poet’s warnings about the dangers of corruption in the heart of Central Asia.

Stories

How to Build a Customs Empire

For years, two powerful Central Asian families colluded to build a trading empire built on smuggling. Now, through relatives and trusted confidants, they control three of Kyrgyzstan’s key customs terminals.

2 October 2020 Read the article

A Powerful Kyrgyz Clan's Political Play

The Matraimov family has long used its questionable wealth to gain social and political influence in its native Kyrgyzstan. For this year’s parliamentary elections, they’ve pulled out all the stops.

2 October 2020 Read the article

The ‘Beautiful’ Life of a Kyrgyz Customs Official

Raimbek Matraimov is a powerful Kyrgyz political operator known for his massive wealth. This investigation into his wife’s social media accounts reveals the opulent lifestyle his family enjoyed even as he declared only a modest salary in the country’s customs service.

14 December 2020 Read the article

The Kolbayev Connection

A private resort village on the shores of Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul is among the clues that connect former Kyrgyz customs boss Raimbek Matraimov and notorious criminal leader Kamchy Kolbayev.

14 December 2020 Read the article

A Successor to Raimbek Matraimov, Kyrgyzstan’s Disgraced Customs Chief, Also Enjoyed the High Life

Not much has changed in Kyrgyzstan’s customs service since Matraimov’s firing and conviction. His successor, Zamirbek Karashev, appears to be part of his network — and his family also enjoys the finer things.

9 June 2021 Read the article

Reporters' Notebook

The Matraimovs’ Dubai Apartment

Here's how reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a new property apparently owned by the Matraimov family, a luxurious penthouse apartment in Dubai.

14 December 2020 Read the article

The Matraimovs’ Karven Cottage

Reporters used open-source investigative techniques to discover a cottage the Matraimov family frequented near Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest tourist destination.

14 December 2020 Read the article

Former Kyrgyz Customs Bosses Vacation in Thailand

An open-source investigation suggests that the families of Raimbek Matraimov, Kyrgyzstan’s disgraced former deputy customs chief, and Zamirbek Karashev, his former underling and eventual replacement, vacationed together in Thailand.

9 June 2021 Read the article

Interactive Map

News

After Corruption Conviction and $24 Million Settlement, Matraimov Buys New Penthouse in Bishkek

According to an associate, Kyrgyzstan’s former deputy customs chief had to raise money from friends and relatives to pay the fine. This didn’t appear to prevent him from buying a new penthouse right next door to his old one.

4 June 2021 Read the article

Raimbek Matraimov’s Mysterious Shopping Spree

After agreeing to compensate the Kyrgyz government for years of corruption, the powerful former official went on a last-minute shopping spree, buying up apartments across Bishkek to give to the authorities.

24 February 2021 Read the article

When the State Went Missing

Here’s how Kyrgyz citizens banded together during a week of political chaos to take care of each other when their state couldn’t.

11 October 2020 Read the article

Pro-Government Election Victory Sparks Overnight Revolution in Kyrgyzstan

Enraged over an election they saw as undermined by rampant vote-buying, thousands stormed Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and presidential offices and took over government buildings throughout the country in an overnight revolution that on Tuesday forced election officials to declare the election void, OCCRP member center Kloop reported.

6 October 2020 Read the article

Previous Matraimov Investigations

The 700-Million-Dollar Man

Over the span of five years, one man funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Central Asia. What he knew may have cost him his life. But before his murder, he shared with reporters a trove of documents that reveal the source of this colossal wealth: A secretive family that ran an underground cargo empire with the help of a powerful political patron.

21 November 2019 Read the article

'His Murder Is Necessary': Man Who Exposed Kyrgyz Smuggling Scheme Was Hunted by Contract Killers

A money launderer told journalists what he knew about a secretive smuggling empire and a senior Kyrgyz official who enabled it. Now, leaked documents shed light on his shocking murder.

10 November 2020 Read the article

A Promise Cut Short

Despite receiving a death threat, the operator of a massive Kyrgyz money-laundering scheme shared hundreds of documents to corroborate what he knew. He promised even more — but then he was murdered.

21 November 2019 Read the article

The Dubai Partnership

The wife of Raimbek Matraimov, a powerful former Kyrgyz customs chief, has a joint investment in Dubai with a shadowy Uighur family, the Abdukadyrs. Back in Central Asia, that family built a thriving cargo empire thanks to corruption in the customs service.

Read the article

Kyrgyz Charity Run by Powerful Family Received Suspicious Funds Linked to Murdered Money Launderer

New

Nearly half of donations received by a well-known Kyrgyz charity run by the powerful Matraimov family have been linked to an illicit underground network.

Read the article

The Mystery of the Missing £5.6 Million

New

One of the last claims made by Aierken Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer who was murdered in Istanbul last November, was that he sent millions of pounds to London for a powerful former Kyrygz official. What happened to the money? Here’s where the evidence leads.

29 June 2020 Read the article

Project Credits

This project is a collaboration between OCCRP, Kloop, RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, and Bellingcat.

Reporting: Many local reporters contributed to these stories. They cannot be named to protect their safety.

Editing: Miranda Patrucic, Ilya Lozovsky, Julia Wallace

Writing: Ilya Lozovsky

Graphics: Edin Pasovic, Kloop

Illustrations: Svetlana Tiourina

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