Pubdate: Tue,  5 Aug 2003
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2003 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Susana Hayward


As Drug Networks Weakened, 'Red Mafia' Stepped In

MEXICO CITY - Russian crime syndicates, including former KGB agents and
ex-Soviet military men, have infiltrated Mexico's weakened drug cartels and
are 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
San Diego-Tijuana-Baja region, according to Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the
head of the Mexican Attorney General's Special Unit for Organized Crime. 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 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 at the hearing that the infiltration was consistent with the
globalization of organized crime in recent years.

Russians first showed up in Colombian cocaine cartels a decade ago. They and
nationals from other Russian-speaking countries have been spotted in Mexico
since the late 1990s.

Their extensive penetration in the San Diego-Tijuana area follows the 2002
arrests of Benjamin Arellano-Felix, the alleged patriarch of the region's
drug cartel, and a dozen other alleged leaders of the cartel. Russians took
up some of the slack when the weakened cartel broke into cartelitos, said
Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami scholar who has written about drugs,
organized crime and Russian crime syndicates known as ``Red Mafias.''

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 is 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.''

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 are 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 crew member received
a 20-year jail term in November; the other crew members 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 believes the Russian gangs are more dangerous than U.S. and Mexican
authorities have acknowledged, in part because of their power to corrupt
public officials.
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