Pubdate: Fri, 01 Aug 2003
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2003 The Kansas City Star


MEXICO CITY - The Russian mafia, including former KGB agents, has 
infiltrated Mexico's weakened drug cartels and is helping them smuggle 
illegal narcotics to the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican 
officials and independent drug experts.

Russian mobsters have been most effective in penetrating drug gangs in the 
Tijuana-Baja California-San Diego region, Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the 
head of the Mexican Attorney General's Special Unit for Organized Crime, 
told Knight Ridder. He described the Russians as highly skilled and 
"extremely dangerous."

Some of them are advising Mexico's drug cartels and laundering their money 
in exchange for being allowed to operate, Steven W. Casteel, assistant 
administrator for intelligence at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 
told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington in May. The fee for 
laundering drug proceeds typically is 30 percent or more.

Casteel, whose agency declined to make him available for an interview, told 
lawmakers that the Russian mafia's Mexican infiltration was consistent with 
the globalization of organized crime in recent years.

Russians first showed up in Colombian cocaine cartels a decade ago. They've 
been spotted in Mexico since the late 1990s.

Their extensive penetration in the Tijuana-San Diego area follows the 2002 
arrests of Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the alleged patriarch of the region's 
drug cartel, and a dozen of its other alleged leaders. Russians took up 
some of the slack when the weakened cartel broke into "cartelitos," said 
Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor of international studies who 
has written extensively about drugs, organized crime and the Russian mafia.

Another leading Mexican trafficker, the late Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the 
head of the Juarez cartel, pioneered the use of surplus Soviet military 
aircraft as smuggling planes. He's said to have visited Moscow in the late 
1990s to confer with leaders of Russian drug gangs. Carrillo Fuentes, known 
as "Lord of the Skies," died in 1997 while undergoing surgery. His cartel 
has also decentralized, according to drug analysts, giving Russians new 
opportunities in Mexico.

Russian drug thugs are leaner and meaner," Bagley said. "They operate on a 
low profile, don't wear gold chains and don't cut people up with power saws 
or dump them in rivers."

Still, "These guys are the bloodiest human beings you can imagine," he 
said. Bagley, who recently finished a year's sabbatical at a prestigious 
Mexico City research center, the Center for Research and Economic 
Education, is the author of a bibliographic survey titled "Drug Trafficking 
in the Americas: Aggressive Russian Groups Have Flourished."

The decapitation of Mexico's biggest drug cartels, for which U.S. 
authorities credit President Vicente Fox, is giving the Russians what 
Bagley called "a golden opportunity in Mexico."

The cartels have fractured into smaller gangs operating at city and state 
levels, where they're harder to detect and officials are easier to bribe. 
The smaller groups are more open to the Russians, Bagley said, because they 
need help with protection, transportation and money laundering.

Much Russian money laundering is done offshore, he said, in Haiti, the 
Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as in Russia.

In the biggest seizure ever to implicate the Russian mob, the U.S. Coast 
Guard in April 2001 seized the 152-foot-long fishing vessel Svesda Maru in 
international waters off Acapulco and arrested its crew of 10 Russians and 
Ukrainians. More than 13 tons of cocaine was buried beneath its rotting 
squid bait, according to the Coast Guard.

U.S. prosecutors said the shipment originated in Colombia and was to be 
smuggled into the United States via Mexico. At the time, Errol Chavez, the 
head of the DEA's San Diego office, said the crew must have had permission 
from the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, then the most powerful organization in 
Mexico, to work the turf.

The crew was charged with smuggling and conspiracy. One crewmember received 
a 20-year jail term last November; the rest will be tried later this year, 
the DEA said.

The seizure alerted U.S. officials to the Russians' sophistication and 
penetration of Western Hemisphere smuggling.

"They're smart, high-tech, have advanced ships and planes. They're good at 
hiding drugs," Bagley said. Finding the cocaine beneath the squid, he 
noted, took searchers five smelly days.

Bagley thinks the Russian gangs are more dangerous than U.S. and Mexican 
authorities have acknowledged, in part because of their power to corrupt 
public officials.

"If one is interested in Mexican democracy, Russian mafias are a challenge 
we're ignoring at our peril," Bagley said. "They have wormed their way into 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens