Moldova: Criminal Underground Feeds Ukrainian Civil War with Russian Weapons
By Mihai Munteanu
CHISINAU, Moldova - One of the most powerful criminal groups in Moldova offered a reporter from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Russian army weapons including rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) units last month.
The reporter purchased one RPG from the group to demonstrate the ease of getting weapons.
The flow of such weapons into Ukraine has fueled separatist tensions, and the transaction offered a glimpse into a black market that has revived since Russia annexed Crimea and ignited conflict in eastern Ukraine this year. Pro-Russian forces have shot down Ukrainian helicopters and planes with similar heavy weapons.
The unusual deal began last February. Amidst breaking news about Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian president, fleeing Ukraine, a clipped, mechanical sound from his mobile phone alerted an OCCRP reporter to a new message.
He opened it to find a photo of Al Pacino from the movie “Scarface” emptying an automatic weapon. The text read: "Don't you need these? I believe the war in Ukraine is only now starting." P9
The message was unusual for several reasons:
- It came from Ion Anton Druta, 42, an organized crime figure who was serving time in a high security prison for a triple homicide.
- Druta knew the reporter was a journalist, but believed he had connections with intelligence agencies who might be interested in buying lots of guns to influence the conflict in Ukraine.
The weapon OCCRP bought was Russian-made. Druta said it came from the armories of the Russian 14th Army. This unit has been stationed for more than 20 years with a peacekeeping mission in Transdniestr, the Russian-speaking separatist region wedged between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
The UN and other international bodies have expressed concern that Transdniestr for years has outfitted Eastern European organized crime with weapons, but no definitive proof has ever been provided.
OCCRP initially contacted Druta’s group last year in Moldova as part of a wider investigation into a network of hired killers operating across Europe.
This time, journalists put down € 1,000 (US$ 1,365) to buy an RPG anti-tank weapon system from the group in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, which is 180 kilometers from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa. Druta threw in a semi-automatic pistol for free.
Civil War, the Weapons Dealer and the Criminal Group
The transaction took place 10 days after the Odessa massacre in which 40 people died and hundreds were wounded in street fighting between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian security forces claimed that paramilitary groups from Transdniestr were involved in the Odessa fights.
The man offering the weapons for sale has a long and violent history with police. Nearly a year ago, in July 2013, Druta, or Vanea the Writer as he’s known, was taken into custody to begin a 20-year prison sentence imposed by the Chisinau Court of Appeals for his part in a triple homicide in 1998.
Moldovan authorities held a press conference to mark the event.
"Ion Druta is an authority in the criminal underground. His (arrest) is a success of the police forces," said Ion Bodrug, then head of the Moldovan police forces. Bodrug said police had been watching Druta for a long time and captured him just as he intended to go into hiding.
Dorin Recean, Moldova’s Minister of Internal Affairs, said at the press conference that the officers who handcuffed Druta would be awarded medals for valor, although their names were not made public.
In an unexpected turn of events, in April of this year, a few months after the text message, the Supreme Court of Moldova granted Druta a retrial and set him free.
Serious Fire Power
OCCRP reporters first got in touch with Druta, who is well-known in crime circles, in the spring of 2013 while investigating the hired killers case. Druta has met or talked on the phone with reporters many times, despite his stated belief that OCCRP reporters are working with Western intelligence agencies.
Druta describes himself as a businessman but, with ice-blue eyes like those of a Siberian husky and a knife scar on his neck, he seems more like a character from a Russian crime novel. He says he doesn't drink or smoke and his only vice is poker.
It’s clear he lives on the edge.
Taciturn and wary, he has the reflexes of the hunted. When he does talk he tells tales of executions at night in the woods, gun fights with the police, arrests and daring escapes. Half of the friends he mentions in his stories are dead, some shot, some from drug overdoses.
These details emerged as reporters negotiated the purchase of the Russian weapons in various locations in Chisinau.
The journalists met Druta in public spaces and, a few times, in his private club on a central Chisinau street. For security reasons, the meetings and discussions were recorded with hidden equipment and monitored by other reporters at remote locations. In total there are more than 20 hours of recorded discussions.
Druta first offered to sell guns to the journalists in the summer of 2013, saying he could provide “significant” numbers of AK-47s or Kalashnikovs. The day before he was arrested in the triple assassination case in July 2013, he told journalists he was asked to provide weapons during the 2009 anti-Communist uprising in Chisinau. He said the buyers wanted unmarked guns to use against the anti-Communist protesters who set fire to the Moldovan Parliament. However, he did not disclose the names of those people.
Later in 2013, during the uprising against former president Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, Druta renewed his weapon sale offer despite the fact that he was behind bars at the infamous Isolator 13, a maximum-security prison in Chisinau. He frequently kept in touch with OCCRP reporters via Viber, a messaging mobile app installed on his smart phone.
In April, after being freed from prison, Druta messaged OCCRP again via a Belarus mobile phone number. Subsequently, OCCRP reporters met him in two Chisinau hotels. On the 13th of May the meeting took place in the upscale Chisinau hotel Leogrand, in downtown Chisinau.
It was the first time Druta provided clear details about the arms transactions. He said the weapons were from the stocks of the Russian 14th Army stationed in the breakaway region of Transdniestr, 80 kilometers away from Chisinau.
Druta’s plan was straightforward: he was to provide 30 Russian pistols, five RPGs and ammunition for € 29,000 (US$ 39,500). The weapons were to be delivered directly to Ukraine, somewhere near Odessa.
Druta asked for a week to provide the weapons explaining, "There's a lot of demand now because of Ukraine, everybody is looking for guns." The payment was to be made in two installments: half in advance and the other half after delivery.
An OCCRP reporter asked to buy a sample anti-tank RPG. Druta agreed, and delivered it promptly.
The deal was concluded in a Volkswagen Tiguan with Moldova license plates. Druta and his people insisted on tight security measures.
He knows an international arrest warrant is out on him and that mistakes are costly, saying, "In our world, this kind of mistake can only be done once ... Killers don't live long."
He sees himself as a Robin Hood in a world with different rules.
The first rule is vigilance. Druta uses an array of counter-surveillance measures. He usually has a tail, someone who follows him to make sure he is not followed. Sometimes he drives at random through quiet neighborhoods in Chisinau on narrow, perpendicular streets where it is easy to see if someone takes turns to follow.
In a neighborhood near the State University, Druta handed over the semi-automatic pistol while continuously glancing in his rear view mirror. The gun was wrapped in a dirty cloth and placed in an ordinary plastic bag. Druta provided the pistol for free, as a deal-sweetener for the larger business to come. It was at this same place, the next day, where reporters paid him € 1,000 (US$ 1,365) for the RPG.
The RPG arrived 24 hours later in the same Tiguan, but this time the handover was more complicated. Druta arrived in the Tiguan at the Hotel Leogrand, where he stayed to drink a cup of tea with a reporter while the car, driven by one of his men, left for the parking lot of the Hotel Codru, a kilometer away. Another OCCRP reporter was in that parking lot to receive the RPG, which was placed in his car.
The RPG is a Russian-made 64 mm caliber RPG-18 manufactured for the Russian army as a standard personal anti-armor weapon for foot infantry. It fires a single-stage rocket and it weighs 2.6 kilograms, has a range of about 200 meters and can penetrate 375-mm armor or a brick wall a meter thick.
The pistol is a TT-33, Tula-Tokarev, 7.62-mm caliber and can go through a soldier’s helmet. It was developed by the Red Army in the 1920s and used by the Soviet Army until the 1960s, and by the Soviet police until the 1970s. It was produced under license in China, Hungary, North Korea, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia.
Once the transaction was concluded, Druta took his 4-year-old son for a stroll in the nearby park. OCCRP turned the weapons over to authorities.
A Popular Guy, Much Sought-After
Since July of 2013, Interpol and the Romanian authorities have been seeking Druta in connection with an assassination attempt in Romania in late 2012. Police in Bucharest say that Druta brought Vitalie Proca, a Moldovan assassin, to Romania to eliminate a Romanian underworld figure and gave him logistical support, including a car equipped with Bulgarian license plates, a Kalashnikov rifle and a Makarov pistol.
The Kalashnikov was used in a failed assassination attempt in Bucharest, where Proca shot the wrong guy, mistaking an innocent citizen for an underworld figure.
Proca was also involved in a botched assassination attempt in London where the target was German Gorbuntsov, also known as the Black Banker, a controversial Russian banker wanted for major fraud in Moldova.
Proca was supposed to be behind bars for life after he tortured and killed two women on Christmas Eve in 1998. He was freed in 2010 by a judge who is now under investigation for his role in the case. Proca is currently in pre-trial detention in Bucharest after he was extradited from Moscow in November 2013.
Crime appears to be a family affair. Two of Druta’s brothers are serving time in Romania for their roles in torturing and killing a Romanian businessman in his vacation home in 2011.
Romanian and Moldovan law enforcement say the Druta brothers are part of an organized crime group led by Ion Gusan, also known as “Nicu Patron” (Nicu The Boss). The Patron’s network specializes in human trafficking, cigarette smuggling, racketeering and contract killing.
Gusan was arrested in September 2013 in Romania. He and two lieutenants were charged with cigarette smuggling and with forming an organized crime group. The court case is pending and court records OCCRP reporters read name Druta as a member of the crime group.
Gusan has problems with Italian authorities as well. The Italians issued a European arrest warrant, charging him with trafficking in persons and Mafia-style activities. The Italian court case is ongoing in Venice and, according to Romanian law enforcement, Gusan will be sent to Italy once the court case in Romania is finalized.
According to police, in 2001 Gusan was made a vor-v-zakone, a thief-in-law, which is the highest criminal ranking in former Soviet countries. Such men have life-and-death power over the members of their criminal assemblies.
Gusan’s “Patron” organization functions as a paramilitary group with its own budget called "obceac" where all the criminal profits are deposited. The territory covered by the Patron group includes Moldova, Transdniestr, Romania, Bulgaria and the south of Ukraine, although the most profitable territories are Western European countries.
The vor-v-zakone organizations were born in the 1930s in the former Soviet Union's criminal gulags. Until his arrest, Police say Gusan was the only vor-v-zakone at-large in Moldova.
Druta is one of the most prominent members of Gusan's group. Investigators say Druta coordinates scores of wrestlers and other athletes from Moldova's sports clubs and is responsible for providing the group with guns.
Romanian prosecutors describe him as the most dangerous member of the criminal structure: "He is involved in various trans-national criminal enterprises, he coordinates and watches over the nucleus of the crime structure which is active on the territory of Moldova in the areas of illicit gains from extortion, violent punishment and debt recovery."
Mihai Pogan contributed photos and reporting to this report