Criminal Journalist Slavi Angelov: Bulgarian Mafia, Organized Crime Should Enter History Textbooks
Exclusive interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with top Bulgarian criminal journalist Slavi Angelov.
Slavi Angelov (born 1972 in Sofia) has been a criminal reporter since 1994 when he started writing for the Kontinent and the 24 Chasa Daily. Between 2000 and 2008 he was head of the criminal section of the 24 Chasa Daily. Since December 2008, he has been a special correspondent of the same paper.
For his work as a criminal journalist, he has received 2nd and 3rd prizes of the Association of Investigative Journalists and the Guardian Foundation, two “Heart and Word against Drugs” awards, Special Award of the Union of Bulgarian Publishers.
In 2007, he published his best-selling book “9 mm – The True Story of the Bulgarian Mafia.” In 2009, this was followed by his new book “Burglary” - an investigation of a gang which is behind the largest bank robberies in Bulgarian history.
Given that organized crime and corruption are the main topics that European and global media tackle when it comes to Bulgaria, what do you think a foreigner should know when it comes to the Bulgarian mafia?
I think there has been some sort of a trend in the recent month – especially in Western European media – since they started to pay a lot of attention to some more drastic examples of crimes which happened in Bulgaria.
In my view, there is some kind of a campaign here because there were periods such as 2002-2005 when criminal activity in Bulgaria was on the rise, and there was a boom of gangland killings, but foreign media did not pay much attention to that back then. And now – when the new government gives us grounds to believe that there is finally some political will to cope with organized crime – we see a series of articles on that topic.
Unfortunately, in some of these articles colleagues of ours from very prestigious foreign media have shown a serious lack of professionalism, for example, by using Google as the only source of 100% reliable information, and have described to their readers some rather grim tendencies in Bulgaria.
This is especially true in the case of the murder of Bobi Tsankov (controversial Bulgarian radio and TV show host shot dead in Sofia on January 5, 2010 – editor’s note). In this case they have concluded that journalists are being killed in Bulgaria, and that free speech is being suppressed.
I think that there must be some kind of a campaign here because we have been having fewer and fewer of the more blatant manifestations of organized crime as early as the government term of the three-way coalition (2005-2009). However, in my view, the reason for that was a deal on a very high level – we are talking here about people who in some way control organized crime.
I think that during the term of the three-way coalition there was an agreement between the people controlling organized crime and those in power. This cannot be proven and it is something that somebody could confirm in 15-20 years but I have heard it from people from the criminal world, and it has been proven by the developments over time.
The arrangement was that the mafia bosses would not be bothered by the authorities whereas in turn they would stop the blatant redistribution of territories – mostly of drug dealing territories – which very often became the cause of assassinations, melees, arsons, bomb explosions, etc. So back then was when it started to become a little more peaceful.
But I think that what has been happening in the recent months must make foreigners feel calmer in Bulgaria – especially as far as kidnappings are concerned.
If we go back to the beginning of the so called Transition Period – right after 1989 – what is the truth about the three notorious elements that fueled organized crime in Bulgaria at the beginning – the former “State Security“ secret service, the high-ranking former communist operatives, and the former wrestlers, the so called “mutri”? Who used whom in that respect?
A number of authoritative people who were at the center of those developments have not spoken out yet about these connections. No doubt, there is a connection between the numerous wrestlers and other former sportsmen – who were left unemployed as the communist state collapsed – and former agents of the State Security DS.
It is certain that people from DS who – those are the well-known cases – controlled some of the secret transit channels that the Bulgarian communist state was in control of before 1989 – such as the trafficking of synthetic drugs made in Bulgaria to the Middle East, or the contraband export of gold, cigarettes, and other excise goods to Western Europe. In that way, the communist state received hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and at the same time undermined the economies of the Western states.
When the communist state and the State Security DS collapsed after 1989, those trafficking channels were “privatized”, they became private. The former secret agents were the ones who knew how they worked – these were former agents of both the intelligence and of the secret police.
At the same time, they needed these former wrestlers and sportsmen – young, strong, and boisterous types who could impose physical control on border checkpoints, or could use force against state employees or competitors. So there was a wonderful symbiosis.
All the more so because the first wave of organized crime in Bulgaria, these sportsmen, they were very different from the generation of the 1970s. They were raised in sports high schools, sports camps, they were very well-disciplined, and generally were used to being given commands from above. So it worked “very well” when those groups came together.
Do you think that the history of the Bulgarian mafia should become part of Bulgarian history textbooks at some point? In other words, has organized crime ever been more powerful in Bulgaria that the government and state after 1989 to the extent of literally controlling them at certain points?
It is inevitable for Bulgarian mafia to become part of textbooks on Bulgaria’s early democratic history after 1989. Because it is a fact that for about 20 years we had been in a state of lawlessness. It is a fact that no serious measures had been taken against organized crime.
For example, people of such rank as Krasimir Marinov and Nikolay Marinov, aka The Marguin Brothers, were arrested for the first time some 15 years after the beginning of the post-communist transition. Before that no one even dared to do anything against them, and this was one of the reasons they got this largely fake image of being omnipotent.
These processes that strengthened their image of invincibility result from incompetence in the state, from unwillingness to deal with these problems, largely because with every shift of political power, the Interior Ministry became weaker and weaker, the values and enemies were changing, the police officers worked in a state of total insecurity. This period lasted too long. There is no way it won’t go into history textbooks.
Many of the verbs that you just used were in the past tenses. How does the situation look now that Boyko Borisov is the Prime Minister? There are legends about his murky past, about him being involved with crime bosses. Are there currently any indications that the Bulgarian state is becoming stronger than organized crime? Would you call real successes the recent special operations against “The Impudent” (kidnappers’ gang), and “The Crocodiles” (highway robbers’ gang)?
I am going to give a couple of examples of important indications which are going to make it clear in the very near future if the Borisov government is actually doing something good, or it is just faking activity.
In the past there were such special operations against organized crime, some serious ones – such as the first arrest of the Marguin Brothers. But back then everybody got the impression that the detention of the Marguin Brothers actually served the interests of a competitor of theirs in the criminal world. There was this thing that was advertised as political will to fight organized crime but it was not clear if the state was not used by one group of gangsters against another.
This means that now Boyko Borisov must show that the state is going to hit absolutely all important mafia bosses. These people are well-known. Quite some time has passed since the Borisov government took office – so if in a few months it turns out that the state has hit all or almost all criminal bosses, this will mean that Bulgaria is changing for the better.
I am personally not concerned about Boyko Borisov’s past because the time is radical now, and it requires radical methods. In the mid 1990s, we had Jean Videnov as the Prime Minister – I don’t see how he was better than Borisov, not to mention that he brought the state to an economic collapse.
Especially as far as the mafia and organized crime are concerned, as a person who back in the days was somehow connected with these processes, I believe that Boyko Borisov knows them very well, and knows how to confront them.
What is more, I believe that he is overly ambitious. He would never let himself commit mistakes by making a fool of himself, or gettinig in a situation in which he would be likened to the people that governed before him. His ambitions will not allow him to enter into corruption schemes in any way. So I am personally don’t find his past a matter of concern.
Besides, I would like to point something out about his past. If we follow carefully the development of organized crime in Bulgaria, we will see that the Marguin Brothers, who have been arrested a few times recently, in the past and even today are connected with Rumen Nikolov, aka The Pasha, who used to be one of Boyko Borisov’s closest business partners. So we see these people who are close to a person who used to be an associate of Borisov’s in the past, and are now being hit. This is an example that Borisov’s past is most likely not going to be a burden for him.
You have mentioned the period 2001-2005 when there was a boom of mafia murders in Bulgaria. There are many speculations about this period that Boyko Borisov was the Chief Secretary of the Interior Ministry, and yet, failed to fight organized crime? Are these accusations justified in your view?
First of all, let’s not forget that he was not even the Minister. The processes in the underworld at that time were such that a lot of people from the older generation were murdered, and many people stepped in from the younger generation which is very impudent, and does not follow any kind of rules.
This was a truly hard period. Sometimes you could influence such processes but to do that one needs political will which is supposed to come from a very high state level. Let’s not look back to the past, let’s look into the future, and the things that are happening right now because what we saw with the destruction of “The Impudent” kidnappers’ gang is a sign of political will.
An analysis that I am currently working on that has to do with the Impudent kidnappers shows that the Interior Ministry could have busted the gang two years ago, thus preventing at least 10 kidnappings which really escalated public tensions in the Bulgarian society.
One of the reasons this did not happen back then was incompetence but the other reasons is the lack of political will. Because it turns out that the Interior Ministry knew about a number of the gangsters from this group as early as the first abduction. The Interior Ministry knew the name of one of the mobsters who later participated in every single kidnapping but did not do anything.
If one assumes that the executive branch in Bulgaria takes up decisive measures against organized crime, is it possible that the gaps in the judicial branch and the prosecution would be the major factor to wreck them?
If we have to be honest about it, the reasons there has been little success so far fighting Bulgaria’s organized crime – and even conventional crime which actually worries people a lot more – are all over the place – in the Interior Ministry, in the Prosecutor’s Office, in the investigating service which has fewer and fewer powers, in the courts.
For a long time the Interior Ministry only pretended to work. Its officials used to say, “We arrest the gangsters, the court releases them,“ but the truth is that in a large number of the cases for many, many years, the Interior Ministry had been doing a lousy job collecting evidence.
It is also true that the Prosecutor’s office back then did not play active enough a role so that the Interior Ministry could gather sufficient evidence. The Prosecutor’s Office is the king of pre-court procedures. However, back then the prosecutors would hide in their offices, and would keep files with discrediting materials in their drawers, and would pull them out or put them back in whenever it suited them, and whenever the problems got resolved they would hide them back.
During this whole period, corruption entered the courts as well, so the reasons for the current situation are all over the place.
However, I believe that on cases generating lots of public interest the judges will not afford to make mistakes because they look after themselves, they are independent and are obliged to protect themselves from all kinds of public pressure.
But in the past we have had certain cases – such as an amphetamine factory in the village of Opitsvet near Sofia where 500 liters of amphetamine were discovered right before they were to be turned into powder, and the court ruled that the owners were innocent because the amphetamine was for personal use! 500 kg for personal use! It was evident that those judges had been bribed.
I hope that such cases will become fewer and fewer. The whole affair with Krasio the Black (Krasimir Georgiev, a man exposed the mastermind of a brokerage scheme for securing magistrate jobs in exchange of sums of EUR 200 000 – editor’s note), the big “mediator” in the judicial system, is positive because it revealed to a certain extent the processes there which have been hidden until now.
We just need to talk and write about these things more, the more, the better. Personally, I am an optimist even though a moderate one but I believe that things are changing little by little.
You’ve mentioned the new generation in the Bulgarian mafia. Your book “9 mm – The True Story of the Bulgarian Mafia” ends with a sentence saying that the new gangster generation of the 1970s is taking over. What is that new generation like?
These are people who were born in the 1970s, actually at the end of the 1970s, even the generation of the 1980s is starting to show up. These are people whose personalities and characters were shaped after 1989, during the so called Transition period, with totally different values.
This has turned them into extremely unscrupulous – which is a very valuable quality in the underworld. But I think that if the state manages to win back more territories from them, it has fair chances of triumphing over organized crime.
It is a fact that a number of major mafia bosses are in a bad position - such as Hristoforos Amanatidis, aka Taki – who lives in South Africa now and does not want to come back; or Zlatomir Ivanov, aka Zlatko Baretata (i.e. “The Barret”), who is in jail; or the Marguin Brothers – who tried to occupy a niche vacated by one of those other “heroes” - one of them is also in the arrest, and the other one is wanted.
What we need is a constant pressure against them. Let’s not have any illusions. Drugs are sold in Germany, France, the USA, the major issue are the brutal public displays of tensions in this business.
Speaking of brutal public crimes – what about the murders of Bobi Tsankov (January 5, 2010) and Georgi Stoev (April 7, 2008). Western media have started to present them as journalists, people who criticized the system in Bulgaria, and were killed as a result. Is such a claim justified? Because if one compares what these people wrote with your publications, the difference is rather striking, and is not in their favor?
Over the recent weeks, rather high-level officers of the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office have commented on the reasons for the murder of Bobi Tsankov. All those opinions are positive that he was not killed for what he had written but because of the weird roles that he had been trying to play in the criminal world, especially in the drugs business. His connection with Zlatko Baretata is no secret, neither is his activity in the recent months against Baretata’s competitors. I think that the reason for his murder lies here.
As far as Georgi Stoev is concerned, there was much truth in what he had written. And he has written a lot. There were, however, things that Stoev had not witnessed directly, he had gotten the information from third parties, and it was not very precise.
I have talked to people who have been working on his murder. For a while there was a suspect there who was arrested but was then released because several witnesses later refused to testify.
Yet, earlier they had claimed that the person who ordered and executed Stoev’s murder was one and the same, i.e. that was a man that Stoev knew rather well, and who felt really insulted by him because Stoev had depicted him directly in his novels, and even described his actions having to do with his part in gangland killings.
Those people claimed that this was the reason for Georgi Stoev’s assassination rather than some revelations that he had made in his books about higher-ranking mafia bosses. Of course, these murders are shocking but I don’t think that either of them was directed against free speech.
What is the truth about the legendary mafia empires from the 1990s – the so called VIS and SIC? What is left of them today?
The groups VIS and SIC are long gone. The time in the mid 1990s when they were extremely powerful, and could find every single stolen car or to catch every street mugger is in the past.
One proof for that is the fact that so many kidnappings have happened over the last couple of years. Because many people have tried to influence those processes including through mechanisms in the criminal world itself but it just did not work out.
Now the former empires are fragmented into a number of much smaller organized crime groups which, however, are also very interesting. They are not all involved in the classic security/racketeering business. Actually, most of them have switched to financial crimes which – first of all – face minor punishments because our laws in that field are against some ridiculous economic crimes from 1968 when the Penal Code was drafted for the most part.
For example, these new organized crime groups steal money from EU funds such as the SAPARD Program, they are highly mobile, financially powerful, and are advised by excellent financial and legal experts.
Where does Bulgarian organized crime stand internationally today? Back in the early 1990s it was actively involved in violating the Yugoslavia Embargo. Do its activities today have international dimensions?
There are very few Bulgarians from the mafia who in some way ended up at a very high level in international organized crime such as the trafficking of some kind of goods or of drugs.
In contrast, the Serbian organized crime, for example, was always much “better” abroad because the Serbs had the right to travel freely before 1989 so this is a mafia with a much longer history than ours. Not to mention the internal wars that they have had in Serbia.
Romanians can be no competitors to our mafia because of the brutal fear from the secret service Securitate, which more or less continues today, and people there are generally much more well-behaved that us Bulgarians, they did not have former wrestlers or sportsmen. Of course, Greece also does not have our kind of history of its organized crime.
In this sense, the Bulgarian mafia most similar to the Russian mafia. There are cases here in Bulgaria of a few people who reached very high levels in the international drug trafficking.
This is something of which I cannot speak in great detail but it is about a channel for trafficking heroin to Western Europe, a very big channel, with huge amounts of heroin, in which a Bulgarian was involved on a very high level.
I think that back in the days Ivan Todorov, aka “The Doctor”, was also very high-ranking – in the international cigarettes contraband schemes. Actually, this trafficking was not even a crime according to Bulgarian law because the cigarettes only went through Bulgaria as transit goods.
But these examples are isolated. In most cases, Bulgaria’s organized crime is confined to the national level.
Who are the most “notable” or impressive persons from the Bulgarian mafia?
It depends on the criteria. Well, Poli Pantev was impressive with his brutality. He was a man who – if he had not made some mistakes so as to be killed so young – could have now been a real monster. Because in addition to being brutal, he was also very smart.
As a person who managed to break away from those brutal street crimes from the mid 1990s and to start rather significant and “cleaner” business, I would point to Mladen Mihalev, aka Madzho, who has been living abroad for years.
The Marguin Brothers are people that, I think, are never going to be involved in clean business, i.e. they are never going to cut off their tail, the dirty business, apparently, they are incapable of doing that.
Are they the major bosses left of the Bulgarian mafia today?
Well, I can’t say that Mladen Mihalev is involved in dirty business activities any more, and actually, he has not been for many years. Let’s say that he has connections with some political parties, and whenever they are in power, his business goes better, when they are in opposition, let’s say, his business is not that successful, it does not get that many successful projects. But I think he did away with that kind of criminal activity a long time ago. But, in my opinion, the Marguin Brothers will be involved in this kind of stuff as long as they are alive.
Is there are Bulgarian political party which never had any connections with the mafia?
I will have to give that some thought... I can’t think of any, maybe some negligible agrarian party... Unfortunately, all of the big parties have in one way or another been connected with organized crime – sometimes with people that we all know have committed brutal crimes, sometimes with underworld organizations involved in more “innocent” things such as contraband.
Of course, contraband is one of the most profitable criminal activities. Unfortunately, all Bulgarian political parties in the years of the post-communist transition got their hands dirty with organized crime connections.
You have received threats because of your publications. Do you feel that you are in danger because of what you do?
When you write about such things, there is no way that you won’t receive threats. But I think that when a journalist demonstrates that they only try to do their job, i.e. to seek the facts on certain case impartially, the very people dealing with organized crime themselves will recognize that in some way. That is, when they see there is no personal attitude towards them.
I can even give you an example about my last book “Robbery” – it is about the top Bulgarian thieves. In it, I describe this character of an actual person who I expected would be offended by the things I had written about him. And now, just several days ago I met with people who know this man, and we mentioned the book, and they told me that he really liked it, and was amazed by the fact that about 80% - in his words – of what I had written was true, he was pleasantly impressed by that.
But, of course, people are different. Some are easily offended. But I think that when you are just doing your job, and don’t try to discredit someone, it is ok. If it is just your desire to reveal a story, I think that this is recognized.
We should accept that a bandit’s job is to go against the state, a policeman’s job is to expose and arrest them, a prosecutor’s job is take them to court, and a journalist’s job is to cover this entire process.
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