ESSAY: Private Security Work Not for Faint of Heart

There is currently a debate going on about private security firms. Some say they are covers for criminal structures and audacious cold-blooded killers. Others say that these firms are the most reliable law-enforcement force, which protects Russia's nascent entrepreneurs from racketeers - that they are an instrument of a market economy. The defenders also note that more than 1 million Russians today work in the non-state security system.

I was recently in Voronezh, where I was introduced to one such private security firm, called Boomerang. The firm, founded three years ago, is known locally for two things. First, the oblast internal affairs department says, Boomerang is staffed by genuine professionals. Secondly, someone has tried to blow up its detectives three times, unsuccessfully.

Around a year and a half ago, Boomerang was warned by the police: Our informants tell us that an attack on you is planned. But the police did not manage to explain exactly who was planning the attack, or when and where it was to take place. Boomerang was then guarding several dozen places, including trade fairs, wholesale outlets, auto markets and the offices of entrepreneurs.

Everywhere, the racketeers had been more or less forced to retreat. They would back off after finding out that Boomerang was guarding a place, knowing that the security firm was made up of former policemen. To go up against them could be costly, given that they were led by Alexander Goncharov, a veteran police lieutenant colonel who had served 20 years in the criminal investigations department. Goncharov was backed up by two other former police lieutenant colonels - Viktor Kusov and Yury Tretyakov. These two were particularly annoying to the racketeers: They would surreptitiously videotape their visits to businessmen and tape-record their extortion demands. And then, with police participation, the criminals would be detained.

Most shameful of all for the racketeers was the fact they had been forced out of the automobile market, for which the Boomerang team had developed an early warning system. As soon as the racketeers appeared, the auto sales personnel would transmit a prearranged signal to the security guards, the entrance into and exit from the market would be blocked and the extortionists would be nabbed right there, without gunplay.

Three months passed after Boomerang received the warning of an attack. Was it false information, or was it simply taking a long time to ready the attack? Or perhaps it was just an intimidation attempt. One Saturday, Goncharov and Kusov arrived at the auto market, checked things out and went into its administrative office, as usual. Then they returned to their car. It was a few minutes before 5 p.m., it was December and thus twilight, so it was lucky that a Zhiguli had pulled up nearby with its headlights on. In the weak light, the two noticed an object under their car. They bent down to look - an ordinary brick, but one that hadn't been there when they parked. And they saw a twisted strand stretching from the brick to the bottom of the car. Goncharov realized that death was hanging there: attached to the bottom of the car was a package of some kind - containing, as they would later find out, explosives. The only question that would remain was who put them there.

The Boomerang agency not only guards firms, but also carries out on their behalf special checks on potential business partners. It also helps its clients study interesting markets and identify unscrupulous competitors or, maybe, con men operating through front companies.

Boomerang discovered one such firm not long ago, after it aggressively made profitable offers to one of Boomerang's clients. The detectives found out whose name the firm was registered in and the address of the owner. When they went there and rang the doorbell, an elderly woman came to the door. She did not appear to be the wife, the mother or even the cleaning lady of a prosperous businessman. In her tiny room, the woman complained that her son had lost his passport. The detectives looked into the situation and found that the clever operator who had stolen the passport had not only registered a firm in its name, but had borrowed a hefty amount of money. He was about to disappear when he was apprehended.

The Boomerang detectives call such work routine. But it sometimes entails risk - occasionally, life-threatening. One late April evening, Kusov was dropped off at his home by a friend. As he walked toward his building's entrance and the car began to turn away, something exploded, knocking Kusov down. He leaped up, assuming someone had thrown a grenade, perhaps from the garage. Now joined by his friend, they looked around, but the perpetrator had slipped away. Glancing at the building's entrance, he saw the fragments of what had been a bench, which the grenade had landed under. "That's what saved you," his friend said.

Kusov tried to figure out who was behind the attack. He remembered that a person with broad shoulders and close-cropped hair had recently dropped in on one of Boomerang's clients, politely asking whether the businessman might assist his friends located in prison. It was an invitation to contribute to the vorovskoi obshchak - a criminal group's communal treasury. The owner answered as he had been instructed to by Boomerang: "The firm has a person who deals with such questions," he said. "Come by and talk to him tomorrow at 5 p.m." When the short-haired visitor arrived at the appointed time and saw Kusov, he pursed his lips, knowing Kusov from his police days.

Kusov wondered: Could the criminals have been behind the grenade attack? Hardly. They would have known such a step would not change the situation. And the police network of informers would have tipped him off about the attack.

At this time, Boomerang was involved in an operation to expose a large group of "shadow" businessmen. The group included 40 commercial structures, had its own underground bank and hid four-fifths of its operations from the tax organs. It maintained a regime of secrecy like that found in a defense enterprise. Kusov had stumbled on this group when one of his friends, a businessman, who had been caught up in its tentacles, asked Kusov to help him get untangled from it. After Kusov discovered the group, he informed his friends in the police and tax organs, and all of them together put the group under electronic surveillance.

Could these "shadow" businessmen have targeted Kusov, who had led to them being investigated? Kusov had no documentary proof of their participation in the bombing, but he was later the target of another grenade attack - again unsuccessful. This time, as before, the perpetrator escaped.

Igor Gamayunov is a correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.