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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Gangs Ally With Drug Cartels

MIAMI -- Russian organized crime groups are forming alliances with Colombian drug traffickers in the Caribbean, acquiring cocaine for delivery to a growing market in the former Soviet Union and providing sophisticated weapons to Latin American mafias, according to U.S., European and Latin American law enforcement officials.

The Russian groups, operating out of Miami, New York and Puerto Rico, also are opening banks and front companies across the Caribbean to launder hundreds of millions of dollars from drug sales and other criminal activities, the sources said.

In interviews in Miami, New York, Puerto Rico and Colombia, law enforcement officials and experts on Russian crime cautioned that the growing alliance between Russian and Colombian criminal organizations is the most dangerous trend in drug smuggling in the hemisphere.

Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug-control policy director, said, "The Russians, along with the Nigerians, are the most threatening criminal organizations based in the United States."

This, acccording to McCaffrey and others, is because the Russians offer drug cartels weaponry that was previously beyond their reach. The Russians also provide access to new drug markets in Russia and other former Soviet republics at a time when consumption is falling in the United States.

In particular, the sources said, recent undercover operations have detected attempts by Russian groups to sell Colombian drug traffickers a submarine, helicopters and surface-to-air missiles. Officials said that at least two Russian combat helicopters, along with small arms, have been sold to Colombian organizations.

Surface-to-air missiles would give traffickers a way to attack helicopters, which law enforcement agencies use to swoop down on cocaine and heroin laboratories in jungle outposts. And armored helicopters would give traffickers a more secure means of transporting drugs and thwarting raids.

Russians suspected of ties to organized crime have opened more than a

dozen offshore banks around the Caribbean and have paid millions in

cash for some of the priciest strip clubs in southern Florida. Federal officials say that both the banks and the clubs are useful for laundering drug money. Many of the banks are linked to banks in Russia that also are controlled by organized crime.

While Russian organized crime groups have been active in the United States for two decades, only recently have they become involved in drug trafficking and money laundering in this hemisphere. In the past, the Russians have been linked to kidnapping, extortion, prostitution and gambling.

"We have identified a number of Russian organizations in the Caribbean and see a dramatic increase in their investments in hotels and gambling," said Felix Jimenez, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of the Caribbean, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "There are Russian organized crime families based in Miami and New York that have strong ties to Puerto Rico.

They are very tight organizations, very difficult to penetrate, and they present us with language problems. Gathering intelligence is a problem."

The Caribbean, according to law enforcement sources, is especially attractive to Russian criminal syndicates already entrenched in Europe, where there is a lucrative, growing market for cocaine in the former Soviet Bloc nations. With strict bank secrecy laws and lax financial enforcement mechanisms, such Caribbean islands as Antigua and Aruba, where Russians have recently opened offshore banks, offer havens for large sums of money from criminal enterprises that would raise questions in other countries.

"What makes the Russians so dangerous is that they are capable of so much; they are so sophisticated," said a senior Russia expert with the DEA. "We are talking [about] people with PhDs, former senior KGB agents with access to sophisticated weapons, people who have [already] laundered billions of dollars."

In the past three months, the officials said, several Russian vessels are believed to have delivered AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to the northern Colombian port of Turbo in exchange for drugs. It is perhaps a measure of the general level of violence in Colombia that authorities do not know whether the weapons went to Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary organizations or the Cali cartel.

In the early 1990s, according to Russian experts, Russian organized crime leaders sent Vyacheslav Ivankov, a well-known mob figure, to the United States to move Russian criminal enterprises here and expand their operations. Ivankov was arrested in New York on extortion charges in June 1995 and remains in prison, but he was responsible, according to federal authorities, for expanding the reach of the Russians to Miami.

In Miami, Ivankov allegedly frequented a nightclub and strip joint called

Porky's, owned by another reputed Russian mobster, Ludwig Fainberg, indicted in a case officials say demonstrates the Russian-Cali connection.

According to the indictment, brought after a three-year undercover investigation, Fainberg and others used Porky's as a meeting place to arrange the sale of at least two Soviet military helicopters to the Cali cartel. According to officials, they also offered the cartel a diesel-powered submarine to move cocaine from Colombia to the coast of California. The deal fell through when the Colombians backed out.

Fainberg's lawyer, Louis Terminello, said that his client "talks

way too much and has a big mouth," but declared that there was "not one

scintilla of evidence" linking Fainberg with organized crime.

In late 1996, U.S. and British officials discovered that Russian companies,some with known ties to organized crime groups in Russia and the United

States, had opened at least nine offshore banks in Antigua. Both islands are noted for strict bank secrecy laws that make it virtually impossible for foreign law enforcement agencies to trace the origin of funds.