How to Build a Customs Empire

For years, the deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s customs service enabled customs fraud from the shadows.

In 2017, he was unceremoniously fired. But Raimbek Matraimov appears to have found a way to stay in the customs game with the help of some old friends, a family of Uighur smugglers called the Abdukadyrs.

Between them, the Matraimov and Abdukadyr families have established control of three major Kyrgyz customs terminals through trusted confidants.

Some of these men were relatives of the Matraimov family. Others appear to be proxies with no business experience and backgrounds in fields like professional MMA fighting or law enforcement. When contacted by reporters, a wrestler who owned a company that operates one of the facilities seemed confused. “I don’t work,” he said. “I’m just a loafer.”

Now, the three terminals have become the only option for trucks that bring goods from China into Kyrgyzstan.

Industry professionals say that bribery and other illicit practices take place in these terminals on a daily basis, and many accuse Matraimov relatives working in the customs service of enabling large-scale corruption.

Aside from providing lucrative streams of legal and illegal income, the terminals also benefit Abu Sahiy, a major Central Asian trading business run by the Abdukadyr family that previous investigations have implicated in wide-ranging customs fraud. One of the southern terminals is reserved for Abu Sahiy’s nearly exclusive use.

In his only known public comment about his relationship with the Abdukadyrs, Raimbek Matraimov told the outlet Asia News that he knows the head of the family, Khabibula Abdukadyr, as an “investor on an international scale” with whom he had to work due to his position in the customs service.”

Matraimov could not be reached for comment for this story. An assistant of Iskender Matraimov, Raimbek’s brother and a member of parliament, wrote that the family would be unable to provide any comments until after this Sunday’s parliamentary election. The Abdukadyr family and the customs service did not respond to requests for comment.

Credit: OCCRP Raimbek Matraimov.

The Northern Route

Kyrgyzstan’s underdeveloped railway network means that most of the trade goods that enter the country from China must travel by truck. Rugged geography forces these trucks to pass through just two main routes that wind through the mountains.

Along both of them, either the Matraimovs or the Abdukadyrs will be waiting.

What locals call the “northern route” runs from the city of Kashgar in northwestern China, crosses into Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart pass in the Tian Shan mountains, and leads past the capital of Bishkek. From there, it continues onward to oil-rich Kazakhstan and Russia — major markets for Chinese goods.

For years, trucks plying this route usually went through customs procedures at a crowded facility in Dordoi, a sprawling and chaotic Bishkek market.

One entrepreneur saw an opportunity to fill a need by creating a modern, all-in-one logistics center nearby. The new UniLab terminal in the town of Kant, 25 kilometers from Bishkek and just 20 minutes from the Kazakh border, was to provide modern “single window” service: It would have a customs clearance facility, temporary warehouses, payment operations, and even a sports ground and hotel for weary drivers.

The initiator of this ambitious project, Syrgak Kenzhebaev, worked furiously to find the money to make it a reality. He established a partnership with a well-connected Russian insurance broker who reportedly had close ties to the head of the country’s customs service. He even got a friend to join the company.

Initially, things looked promising. Construction on UniLab’s 37-hectare territory got underway, and the company received licenses to function as a temporary storage warehouse and a customs service provider.

By the spring of 2016 the facility was finally ready for business, even hosting an opening ceremony with government officials in attendance. But the trucks never came.

“[UniLab] had received all the permissions, but for some reason no cargo was arriving,” said a professional in the industry with knowledge of the situation.

The person blamed customs, explaining that officers kept redirecting incoming trucks elsewhere.

UniLab sat idle, and Kenzhebaev was falling into debt and getting desperate. In the words of another insider, UniLab never got off the ground because senior customs officials, including Matraimov, made sure it could not succeed.

“As far as I know, [Kenzhebayev] tried to negotiate with them in good faith, saying, ‘Take this many percent, take this much.’ But it was no use,” another source said.

Even Kenzhebayev’s Russian ties proved useless.

He hosted members of parliament and the first vice prime minister at UniLab to seek support. He even wrote to President Almazbek Atambayev.

In the end, his efforts were in vain. UniLab did start operating — but only after Kenzhebaev and all his partners were gone. Under increasing pressure, they sold the company in November 2016.

The two men who initially took over — a wrestler and a police officer — held onto it for just seven weeks. One could not be reached by reporters; the other said he had nothing to do with the company.

UniLab then ended up in the hands of two other men, one of whom is an associate of the Abdukadyr family. The other has the appearance of a proxy, with no public presence or known business experience.

Credit: Facebook/Kerimbekov A group that includes two of the men who appeared in UniLab’s corporate records after the takeover: Tynarbek Zhamankulov is standing second from left; Syezdbek Koshoev is standing on the right. Also in the photo are Nurbek Kerimbekov (standing third from left), who is the director of a major Abdukadyr trading company, and Kubatbek Kalybekov (sitting on the left), who later became the owner of a company that operated another Matraimov terminal. (February 2019)

🔗The UniLab Front Men

Syezdbek Koshoev

The temporary co-owner of UniLab in November and part of December 2016, Koshoev’s wrestling experience, lack of known involvement in the logistics business, and social media presence indicate that he may be a proxy. On Facebook, Instagram, and the Russian social network Odnoklassniki, he is friends with other people in the Matraimov and Abdukadyr families’ network, such as Nurbek Kerimbekov — the director of Tarim Trans, a major Abdukadyr trading company, and a known front man for the Matraimov family.

Koshoev could not be reached for comment.

Along with Koshoev, Sarbagyshev was a shareholder in UniLab for just under two months. At the time, he was a senior police officer in the Interior Ministry.

Three knowledgeable inside sources who cannot be named to protect their safety alleged that Sarbagyshev has associations with Kamchy Kolbaev, a well-known figure in the Kyrgyz criminal underworld. A self-confessed money launderer who said he had worked for the Abdukadyr family, and shared this information with reporters, alleged that Kolbaev himself is a member of the Matraimov and Abdukadyr networks. The money launderer was murdered in Istanbul last year.

In late 2018, Sarbagyshev became mayor of Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on the shore of lake Issyk-Kul where Kolbaev has his base. He won his seat as a member of a local political party reportedly affiliated with Kolbaev. He is now a candidate for parliament with Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, a political party associated with the Matraimov family.

Asked about his connections with Kolbaev, Sarbagyshev did not deny knowing the criminal figure: “I grew up in the same town, I have connections with all … good people,” he said. “What, aren’t they humans?” He also said he had nothing to do with UniLab.

In December 2016, Fast Cargo, a company created just under three months earlier, took partial ownership of UniLab. The company’s owner, Tynarbek Zhamankulov, has a 40 percent stake in Tarim Trans, the Abdukadyr family’s Kyrgyz trading company. Posts on social media show him spending time with other associates of the Matraimov and Abdukadyr families.

Little is known about Turkmenov, the son of a chief engineer at the main Osh heating station. He could not be reached for comment through his father.

A business partner of Kenzhebaev’s, who cannot be named for safety reasons, described the deal as a corporate raid, using the Russian term “reiderski zakhvat” to refer to the practice, common in many former Soviet countries, of exerting pressure on company owners to sell their businesses for little or nothing, often with support from crooked officials.

“The company was simply grabbed away,” Kenzhebaev’s partner said.

“He defended himself alone. … There weren’t such people around us that could go against the state machine. It was pointless of him to ask anyone, because nobody would come to his defense.”

When reporters approached Kenzhebaev, he refused to discuss UniLab. On a visit to Kazakhstan in December 2019, he was arrested in the Almaty airport and extradited to Kyrgyzstan. A Chinese citizen had filed a complaint against him for fraud, Kyrgyzstan’s State National Security Committee said.

In a public video statement right after Kenzhebaev’s arrest, his romantic partner, the daughter of prominent Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, said she believed the charges were an attempt to put pressure on her anti-corruption movement, Umut 2020. She declined to speak to reporters for this story.

Though Kenzhebaev has been in detention for nine months, he has not been indicted.

Meanwhile, drivers and logistics specialists told reporters that UniLab is now, in the words of one broker, where “everything happens.”

While it was in Kenzhebaev’s hands, customs officials steered incoming trucks elsewhere. Under its new ownership, they are directing all Chinese goods along the northern route to the facility.

Credit: OCCRP Kyrgyzstan’s Dostuk border crossing to Uzbekistan.

The Southern Route

Kyrgyzstan’s only other border crossing with China, Irkeshtam, is a hundred miles southwest of Torugart as the bird flies — but far further by road. Trucks originating in Kashgar that cross here will pass through the southern trading city of Osh and on to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, in what locals call the “southern route.”

The dominant player on this route is Abu Sahiy, the trading empire established by the Abdukadyr family. (The word sahiy means ‘generous’ in Uzbek, while Abu is short for Khabibula, the family’s patriarch.) This business, which actually consists of multiple Chinese, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek companies, hauls goods from China’s Xinjiang region into Kyrgyzstan, then to Tashkent and beyond.

After crossing into Kyrgyzstan from China, Abu Sahiy trucks — and almost exclusively Abu Sahiy trucks — stop at a private customs terminal right on the Uzbek border run by a company called Mega Logistik. This facility, which people in the industry simply refer to as “Abu Sahiy,” is used to unload the Chinese goods. They are then reloaded onto different trucks for onward travel to Uzbekistan.

On paper, Mega Logistik was founded by a man with an address in the Kara-Suu district who was 21 years old at the time. (When reporters tried to reach him, a man who answered the phone said he was someone else and asked them not to call again.) But the land the Mega Logistik terminal occupies is partially owned by two men closely connected to the Matraimov family and their businesses:

🔗The Mega Logistik Proxies

Nurbek Kerimbekov

Kerimbekov is a wrestling and horse racing enthusiast who has a quasi-familial relationship with the Matraimov family. According to media reports and transport industry insiders, he is the okul bala (A traditional Kyrgyz form of ‘godson’) of Almazbek Arstanbaev, a businessman who is himself an okul bala of Raimbek Matraimov. In addition, Kerimbekov is standing for election as a candidate from the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, seen as the Matraimovs’ political vehicle.

Kerimbekov is also closely tied to the Abdukadyrs: He is the general director of Tarim Trans, the company that formally operates the family’s Abu Sahiy trading business in Kyrgyzstan. When Abu Sahiy donated more than half a million dollars in medical equipment to the Osh regional administration during the coronavirus pandemic, it was Kerimbekov who presented the aid on the company’s behalf.

Kerimbekov could not be reached for comment.

Alimbekov, a village councilor in the Osh region, appeared as a possible intermediary in a major Matraimov acquisition. In 2016, he bought a plot of land in Osh, which he then divided into two and sold six weeks later to Chynara Matraimova, Raimbek’s sister. In April 2019, she made an equity agreement with Ihlas, a construction company that is building a 14-story apartment building and shopping and entertainment center called Osh Plaza on her property.

Alimbekov could not be reached for comment.

A large parking lot adjacent to the Mega Logistik terminal is used by cargo trucks.

The land on which the parking lot sits, right on the international border, is owned by local Kyrgyz authorities. In 2004, the temporary right to use the land was given to a company called Wholesale International.

Ten years later, two nephews of Raimbek Matraimov acquired partial stakes in the company.

Credit: OCCRP The truck parking lot by the Mega Logistik terminal.

The land had been empty for many years before the parking lot was built in 2018 — the same year Mega Logistik became a full-fledged customs terminal (it had previously been used as a temporary cargo storage facility).

Some of the company’s taxes were paid by the two nephews, Erlan and Nursultan Tursunbaev, and by Nurilya Bechelova, the Matraimovs’ accountant in Osh.

Though the Mega Logistik terminal is a major operation — Kyrgyzstan’s anti-monopoly regulation agency described it in December 2016 as having a “dominant position” on the market — it is reserved almost exclusively for the use of the Abdukadyr family’s cargo empire.

When a reporter called several independent customs brokers to ask about importing cargo from China, one did not even name the facility as a possibility. The only option, he said, was another southern terminal.

“We’re in the south,” he said. “Here there’s only Kara-Suu.”

The Kara-Suu Terminal

This terminal, stationed on the site of a Soviet-era flour factory, was once operated by a company belonging to people close to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was deposed in a revolution in 2010.

It is still operated by the same company, but now it is owned by people close to the Matraimovs.

Business records show that this happened while Raimbek Matraimov was still climbing the career ladder in the customs service — in a manner that suggests, at the very least, a possible conflict of interest. Its complex corporate history, which includes a nearly five-year partnership with the Kyrgyz state and several reorganizations, is a veritable parade of Matraimov relatives and associates:

🔗The Saga of the Kara-Suu Terminal

1: The Acquisition

In May 2012, the facility, operated by a company called OshTamozhServis, was acquired from its three former owners by Almazbek Arstanbaev, the okul bala (godson) of Raimbek Matraimov. At the time, Matraimov was head of the Osh division of Kyrgyzstan’s customs service. Arstanbaev could not be reached for comment.

Later that year, Arstanbaev’s OshTamozhServis joined with a state-owned company, Tamozhennaya Infrastruktura (“Customs Infrastructure”), to found a new company for customs operations, BIMI OshTransServis. Still operating the same facility, the profits of the newly founded firm were split equally between OshTamozhServis and the state company.

BIMI OshTransServis’s director when it was incorporated was Kylychbek Sarkarbaev, a 25-year-old mixed martial arts champion from a sports club associated with the head of the Osh police at the time. Years later, Kyrgyz outlet Kaktus named Sarkarbaev as one of Raimbek Matraimov’s closest associates. His close affiliation with the family is clear from his social media accounts, where he posts photos of himself with Matraimov relatives, including Raimbek’s son Bakai. He also trains at the family’s EREM sports club. Sarkarbaev was investigated for allegedly shooting a Matraimov critic in the leg in 2019, but has not been charged.

When reached for comment, Sarkarbaev asked a reporter to call back later, but did not pick up again.

In January 2013, the Osh customs service — led by Matraimov until that year, when he was promoted to a higher position — issued BIMI OshTransServis a license to operate customs warehouses.

The Matraimovs themselves had no visible presence in the business until that fall, when they appeared in the corporate structure of OshTamozhServis, which by then had been renamed Evraziya Logistik, for just a month. In September, Arstanbaev transferred most of his shares to two people: his brother Azamat and Ruslanbek Matraimov, Raimbek’s brother, who acquired a majority share.

A month later, the decision was reversed. The new owners transferred their shares back to Arstanbaev, who once again became the company’s sole owner. There was one change: Sarkarbaev, the Matraimov-affiliated MMA champion, was appointed director.

Three years later, in November 2016, Sarkarbaev was dismissed from his position and replaced with Raimbek Matraimov’s sister’s son-in-law, Aibek Zairov. But the company was on its way out; it would be dissolved by mid-2017.

Its replacement was a company called Avtoexpress Invest that, from then on, operated the terminal with no further state participation. (Raimbek Matraimov had meanwhile been promoted to his highest official position, deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s customs service.)

Avtoexpress Invest’s founder, Mairambek Abdirashit uulu, is a wrestler associated with the Matraimovs’ EREM sports club. Nothing in his social media presence identifies him as a manager of any enterprise related to customs or logistics. He has also been seen in photographs with others known to be Matraimov associates.

When reporters reached Abdirashit uulu by phone, he said he had never heard of the company. When asked about his profession, he said, “I don’t work. I’m just a loafer.” He said he did not know the Matraimov family, but had “maybe” read about them on the internet.

A few months after its establishment, Avtoexpress Invest received two licenses as a customs service provider: to operate a warehouse for customs clearance and temporary storage for goods. Both were awarded in November 2016, while Matraimov was still deputy customs head.

In 2017, Avtoexpress Invest’s ownership was changed from Abdirashit uulu to Zairov, Raimbek Matraimov’s sister’s son-in-law.

A professional in the Osh import industry has identified Zairov as a person who “arranges transit for Raim” and works with Tajikistan-related routes.

In June 2019, a young man named Kubatbek Kalybekov, who can be seen in multiple social media posts spending time with Matraimov associates, took over the ownership of Avtoexpress Invest from Zairov.

At the same time, Baktybek Kanaliev, the vice speaker of the Osh council, was named the director of Avtoexpress Invest. He is now a candidate for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, a political party described as the Matraimovs’ political vehicle.

“Save Us From the Close Associates of Raimbek Matraimov”

Previous investigations by OCCRP and partners showed that extensive corruption took place within Kyrgyzstan’s customs service during Raimbek Matraimov’s tenure as its deputy head. They also showed how Matraimov’s patronage helped the Abdukadyr family’s Abu Sahiy trading empire flourish at the expense of its competitors.

By the end of 2017, Matraimov had been removed from his position as deputy head of customs. The two southern customs terminals were in full operation, and in the north, UniLab was about to get off the ground.

The corruption within those facilities, and in the wider customs service, continued despite his removal. In 2018, a group of international traders wrote a joint letter begging the country’s president, speaker of parliament, and prime minister to address the problem, which they said was making it nearly impossible for them to do business.

“Save us from Raim Matraimov, so-called ‘holder of the red book [financial ledger] of Kyrgyz customs and immovable khan of Kyrgyz customs’ and his close associates, who implement and execute his corrupt schemes to the letter,” reads the conclusion of the 11-page document.

The bulk of the text alleged, in detail, how people loyal to Matraimov engaged in corruption at the terminals, lamenting that these officials — the letter listed about a dozen names — had been reinstated to senior positions after being initially dismissed in the wake of his ouster.

The letter alleged they were forcing cargo operators unaffiliated with the Matraimovs, or with the Abdukadyrs’ Abu Sahiy company, to pay large bribes under various pretexts, with some drivers having to pay up to $4,000 per truck before being allowed to cross the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

Such practices, the letter alleged, have made Matraimov relatives vast amounts of dirty money:

🔗The Matraimov Relatives

The businessmen’s letter, as well as independent interviews and other sources, allege that relatives of Raimbek Matraimov led and participated in customs corruption.

Nursultan Tursunbayev, Raimbek’s nephew

One of the allegedly corrupt officials mentioned by name in the letter is Raim Matraimov’s nephew Nursultan Tursunbayev, who briefly appeared in the ownership structure of the company that now owns the land under the Matraimovs’ truck parking lot.

Tursunbayev has held several positions in customs, including chief inspector at the Kara-Suu terminal and member of the customs team at the southern border crossing of Irkeshtam.

When trucks arrive, the letter explained, “[Tursnubayev] tells us: Should I thoroughly inspect your cargo, or should we negotiate?’” In order “to solve everything without a thorough inspection of the cargo,” drivers are required to pay bribes in either Kyrgyz soms or U.S. dollars.

If the drivers opt to submit to an inspection, the businessmen wrote, Tursunbayev “requires that we bring freight movers, or he can bring his own, and they start to unload our cargo. If they find no violations, we have to pay ten thousand som ($125) to the freight movers to load the goods back into the trucks.”When some pretext is found — “an undeclared box of nails or something else” — Tursunbayev is said to demand an immediate fine without reporting the issue.

Tursunbayev could be reached for comment.

Ruslanbek Matraimov is the only Matraimov brother who has never served in government, but he has several public-facing roles, including headingthe Matraimov family’s charitable foundation and its EREM sports clubs. But multiple professionals in the trucking industry describe him as a powerful behind-the-scenes operator, with multiple cargo companies under his control.

A former customs official told reporters that Ruslanbek makes large amounts of money “at the [southern] Dostuk border crossing,” and that he calls the shots there. “He calls managers there and demands [they] report to him.”

A logistics operator added, “The customs workers [on the Uzbek border] carry out the orders of ... Ruslan[bek] Matraimov.”

“That’s why we couldn’t work,” he said. “I’m sitting with folded hands and six children. I can’t carry even a kilogram of cargo. Ruslan’s guys can, but we can’t.”

Ruslanbek Matraimov did not respond to requests for comment sent to the family. A spokeswoman for Iskender, the eldest Matraimov brother, asked for more time and said the family would be willing to speak to reporters after the election.

Azizbek Tokonov, who married Raimbek’s niece, was mentioned in the businessmen’s letter as a person “very close to Raim[bek] Matraimov” who “implemented corrupt schemes at customs.” According to several sources, he was the main inspector at the Kara-Suu terminal before being moved to a different position in the wake of a 2019 report by RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk about corruption in the service.

When asked about these allegations, Tokonov initially asked for specifics. He then said that the reporter had dialed the wrong number and hung up.

“We, businessmen, work day in and day out to make enough for apartments in high-rise buildings. Meanwhile, young guys (around 30-35 years old), perpetrators of Raim Matraimov’s corruption scheme, live in three-story houses and drive expensive Lexus SUVs,” the letter reads. “These people came to work [in customs] only 3-4 years ago, and we know from which financial sources they receive so much money.”

Sources in the cargo industry described a host of advantages enjoyed by insider companies with connections to Raimbek Matraimov. Among other schemes, customs officials allow them to falsely declare expensive goods as cheaper ones, making their trade along these routes much more profitable. And while goods driven to Tajikistan by independent operators “are thoroughly inspected and unloaded from trucks,” ending up “sitting at customs posts for weeks and even months” if bribes are not paid, “the goods of Raim[bek] Matraimov’s associates pass without being unloaded, and the customs seals on their trucks aren’t even broken.”

As a result of these advantages, the businessmen wrote, importing goods to Kyrgyzstan is faster and cheaper for companies associated with Matraimov.

On multiple occasions, the letter mentions cargo carriers associated with the Matraimov family, such as “freight companies of Ruslan[bek] Matraimov, the younger brother of Raim[bek] Matraimov; and the okul bala of Raim[bek] Matraimov, the man named Almaz [Almazbek Arstanbaev], who is in charge of the Kara-Suu customs terminal.”

Reporters found several cargo companies owned by and associated with the Matraimov family, including Delux Trans, formerly owned by Ruslanbek Matraimov, and the Baiboto group of companies, owned by Almazbek Arstanbaev.

But the only insider company mentioned in the letter by name is the Abdukadyr family’s Abu Sahiy, which specializes in transit cargo. Chinese goods carried through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan are “allowed to be transported only … through the Abu-Sahiy company affiliated with [Matraimov],” the letter reads. “In other words, other businessmen are not able to transport cargo to Uzbekistan.”

The description appears to be no exaggeration. This June, Kyrgyz truck drivers erupted in protest that Abu Sahiy was the only company whose trucks were being let through the southern Irkeshtam crossing.

🔗Some Official Data

The drivers’ descriptions of an Abu Sahiy monopoly are supported by a government database of transport licenses published online by the Kyrgyz Ministry of Transportation and accessed by reporters in February 2020.

Though transport ministry officials told OCCRP that the database is regularly updated, data downloaded today differs very little from older batches. The date range of the published data is uncertain.

But the available sample shows that, over a certain period, Tarim Trans received more licenses than all other companies put together. (Individual drivers are not included in this calculation.)

Speaking on behalf of the drivers, entrepreneur and former driver Isabay Sulaimanov told OCCRP that “Ninety percent of the cargo [from China to Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek border] is driven by Tarim Trans,” referring to the company representing the Kyrgyz portion of the overall Abu Sahiy business.

“Wherever we go, it’s Abu Sahiy’s interests that are being protected everywhere,” a driver said. “Our passage across the border is 100 percent hindered by Abu Sahiy.”

“They’ve taken away the bread of so many people,” another driver said.

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