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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Guard to Gunman

A businessman from Nizhny Novgorod who was visiting Moscow recently narrowly escaped with his life. While leaving an elevator, he ran into some armed men who shot him three times. The police arrested the gunmen, and it turned out that they were also from Nizhny Novgorod, working as security men for a company called Scorpio-2. They admitted that it was a hired hit and that they had been paid a considerable sum. That is, they started out as guards and became hitmen. The person accused of ordering the hit has not yet been found.

A representative of a certain company showed up in the office of another firm in order to collect a 1 billion ruble debt. He brought with him four muscle-bound men from a security firm called Berkut. But their plans were foiled by police who had long been following this foursome, wanted for extortion and murder. Investigators found a huge cache of weapons in their apartment.

How is it that so many security services are becoming transformed into semi-legal criminal bands? The normal path of development is simple. Firms hire these security services to collect debts. But they soon discover that "ordinary" methods are ineffective. They learn that force is more persuasive. Debtors are quick to find the money if they believe that their lives depend on it. The ease of recovering this money casts a spell over the security men, and they begin to get more aggressive, actively going after their clients' competitors. Later, many become killers.

I do not mean to suggest that this happens with every security firm. I was told about one company in Moscow that has 800 regular employees. This company has formed a powerful security division that employs 2,500 people! They have section in charge of protecting the company's property, a personal security section, an intelligence department that sends agents into competing firms and an "internal affairs" department that spies on the company's employees and listens to their phone conversations in order to prevent infiltration and leaks. In short, it is a private KGB. And, in fact, many of the firms employees are former specialists from the Interior Ministry and the intelligence services.

In this particular company, however, the security people receive good salaries and are unlikely to risk their positions by becoming involved in criminal activity. The firm screens prospective employees carefully, and it does not use its security personnel to settle financial problems with other companies. Moreover, this security service often works in concert with the police although, as I was told at the Interior Ministry, such cooperation is more the exception than the rule.

The Interior Ministry, of course, is charged with controlling the work of these organizations. However, with more than 6,500 security services now registered in Moscow, the task has become unmanageable. The police appear on the scene only after the crime has been committed, only after the transformation from guard to thug has been completed.

Catching the criminals from these services is not enough to stop this phenomenon. The conditions of the job and the power of the racket in Russia may well corrupt those who come to replace the criminals. The situation is so bad that even official, state owned enterprises occasionally have to resort to the services these organizations offer. In Stavropol, for example, the municipal Sberbank signed a contract with a firm called MBK from Makhachkala. MBK was supposed to "help" the bank collect the debts it is owed in exchange for a percentage of what was collected. And so the thugs, practically as if they were government officials, with the Sberbank agreement in their hands, made the rounds from one debtor to the next.

Other groups, though, make the rounds not with documents, but with guns. And that is when the shootouts in the streets begin. And when Mercedes begin to explode and managers of businesses go missing.

I'll close with one more story of this type which left a bloody trail through three Russian cities. The director of a firm called CIT in the mining city of Novokuznetsk was a former convict named Sidorov. His security force consisted of a couple of former policemen, whom Sidorov used to carry out various assignments against his competitors. One such mission, involving a bar and sauna that Sidorov wanted to take over, ended in a shootout in broad daylight. Three people were killed and Sidorov, his two guards and tens of millions of rubles of SIT's money dissappeared.

The trio holed up in Moscow for awhile and the guards began to wonder what exactly they needed Sidorov for and why shouldn't they just take the money for themselves. After three quick shots in his head, they took off for Sochi, where SIT had a branch office.There they demanded 40 million rubles from the local director. They tortured her, putting out cigarettes on her arms and injecting her with vodka. Still, she claimed that she had no money, so they decided to take her to a local park and give her one more, fatal injection. Their plot, however, was foiled by two policemen who happened by at the time. One of the security men was wounded and one of the policemen was killed in the ensuing shootout.

Until the Interior Ministry and the Public Prosecutor's office get this situation under control and as long as firearms continue to be issued to everyone who applies, the transformation of security personnel into gangsters will continue. And the criminal problem in Russia will develop in a particularly devasting direction. The road from shootouts and explosions leads through a demoralized country, disenchanted with reform, to a political dictatorship, promising to restore order through force of arms and the restoration of the Gulag.

Igor Gamayunov is an investigative reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.