US targets 'Thieves-in-Law,' Russian mafia royalty

Washington (AFP) –


US authorities moved Friday to blacklist one of Russia's oldest and most notorious organized crime gangs, the so-called "Vory v Zakone" or "Thieves-in-Law."

The group emerged from the Soviet Union's brutal gulags and its members are now kingpins in an underworld network that has spread far beyond Russia.

Those prisoners who agree to live by its code on the outside, and are "crowned" with its secret tattoos, now operate in cities from East Asia to the United States.

Authorities have targeted the Thieves before, but the Treasury's designation of the entire network as a "Transnational Criminal Organization" is the first measure that treats them as a single group.

And in doing so, Washington seems to be confirming that the threat posed by the fabled "Russian mafia" from the former Soviet republics is a more organized one than previously supposed.

"The Thieves-in-Law is a Eurasian crime syndicate that has been linked to a long list of illicit activity across the globe," said John Smith, director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets control.

"Treasury is designating the Thieves-in-Law as part of a broader strategy to disrupt the financial infrastructure of transnational criminal organizations that pose a threat to the United States and our allies."

Under the designation, US individuals and firms are banned from doing business with the group or designated persons linked to it, and any assets held by the Thieves on US soil can be frozen.

As a "TCO", the Thieves-in-Law join a list that includes outfits such as Japan's Yakuza racketeers, the Camorra mafia of Naples, Mexican cartel Los Zetas and the MS-13 drugs gang from Central America.

In 2012, a former US administration had placed a group known as the "Brothers Circle" on the list.

This gang -- active in robbery, racketeering and drug trafficking in Russia, Central Asia and the Gulf -- included some Thieves-in-Law, but at this stage US law did not designate the whole organization.

On Friday, in addition to listing the Thieves-in-Law, the Treasury named four members -- alleged veteran mobsters whose addresses and multiple identity papers span Russia, Central Asia, Israel, Belgium and Italy.

- Stalinist gulag -

A luxury spa hotel in the Russian resort of Sochi is listed as a front organization and a Moscow publishing house and public relations agency is said to be owned by a Dubai-based suspect.

Professional criminals developed traditions and rituals in the jails of the 19th century Russian Empire and in the prison camps of the 20th century Stalinist gulag system.

Those who followed the code -- refusing to assist state authority, renouncing family life, serving jail time and vowing never to make a living through honest means -- are "crowned" as Vory v Zakone.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, in Moscow's newly capitalist free-for-all Russia's organized crime gangs joined its oligarch investors and economic migrants on the road to the West.

By 1995, US officials had arrested their first alleged Thief-in-Law in New York. He served nine years for extortion and was later expelled back to Russia.

More arrests have followed and this year an alleged Vory member was among two dozen people rounded up by US authorities for "violence, fraud, identity theft, and trafficking in stolen goods."

The identities of the suspects blacklisted along with their organization on Friday give an insight into the global reach of the modern day organization.

Zakhary Kalashov, described by Treasury as a "crowned Thief-in-Law" was extradited from the United Arab Emirates to Spain in 2006 on money-laundering charges.

Deported to Russia in 2014, he has since been arrested there on extortion charges and is suspected of arms-trafficking. The 64-year-old is said to have been born in Georgia, but carries a Russian passport.

- Winter Olympics -

Kamchybek Kolbayev is alleged to be involved in sex trafficking. He has served jail time in Dubai for theft and in Kyrgyzstan for extortion. Born in 1973 or 1974, he is a Kyrgyz national.

Lasha Shushanashvili, 56, was once arrested in Greece on Spanish charges and is wanted in his native Georgia for extortion.

Israeli-born Russian national Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, 67, is the subject of an Interpol Red Notice and has been indicted on charges related to bribery during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Ruben Tatulian, according to the Treasury, is the 48-year-old chairman of the board on the Vesna Hotel and Spa in Sochi, host city of the games, where he has allegedly been a Vory "overseer" since 2010.

The hotel itself has also been designated on the US blacklist, as has Moscow publisher Novyi Vek Media, which the US Treasury says if "wholly owned" by Tatulian.