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People & Power

Europe's New Mafias

In the midst of a changing criminal underworld, we investigate the spread of mafia-style activity from East to West.

Last updated: 23 Jan 2014 08:30
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No one paid the two men much attention as they approached the bank. It was around three in the afternoon in a small French town and customers had been coming and going to the cash machine all day. If anyone spared the two a thought, they would probably have assumed they were - just like anyone else - about to withdraw some money.

But then, as the men huddled together around the ATM - incidentally making it difficult for passers-by to see what they were doing - one of them opened his jacket and pulled out a rectangular steel panel. He swiftly pressed it into place over the cash machine’s keyboard (that it fitted perfectly was no accident), and then they walked away.

A few moments later another customer approached the machine, slid his bank card into the slot as usual, entered his account details via the keyboard and withdrew some cash; as did several other people over the next few hours. What none of them realised, of course, was that the keypad they were using was actually a fake, which while it allowed them to take money from their accounts as normal, also recorded their PIN numbers.

It was not until later that evening that a customer noticed something was wrong. One of the two men, who had been watching from a safe distance, came up quickly and offered to help. But the customer left to phone the police. As soon as his back was turned, the two men moved in to dismantled the fake keyboard as rapidly as they has installed it and then left once more.

As it turned out, the two men involved in this particular episode had not been as unobserved as they thought, because a hidden CCTV surveillance camera was recording their every move.

When examined by the police later on, the footage would be added to a pile of evidence they were accumulating to prosecute a group of people involved in the systematic and industrial scale theft of PIN numbers and bank account details - details that were being used to clone fake bank cards and strip accounts of millions of Euros.

What came as no surprise to the police was that the two men were from Eastern Europe. These days many of their suspects are. Though this was just one small incident, it was actually part of a much wider trend of organised crime emanating from gangs in Romania, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere, which over the last decade has been giving law enforcement an increasingly serious headache.

These new mafias have their fingerprints on all sorts of criminal activity - from bank card fraud, robberies and extortion to prostitution, arms dealing and money laundering - with most of the proceeds destined for the crime bosses back east. The problem for police in countries such as France, Germany and the UK is that while they might be able to catch and put away some of the gangs' small -time foot soldiers, it is much more difficult to go after the powerful godfathers in Moscow or Kiev or Tbilisi.

So what is behind this spread of mafia-style criminal activity from East to West? Who are the bosses and godfathers pulling the strings? And how exactly do they operate?

French filmmakers Jerome Pierrat and Barbara Conforti went behind the scenes to find out. They meet police and investigators, gangsters and crime bosses in Georgia, Romania, and the Ukraine, including some of the infamous vory v’zakone’ (which translates to: 'thieves in law’) - a loose association of organised criminals that originated in the gulags or labour camps of the Soviet era.

In Georgia they hear how the authorities, increasingly alarmed at the power and influence of the vory in everyday life, managed to take them on and force them out. One of the reasons why Eastern European crime has spread to the West is because of increasingly difficult operating conditions at home.

In Craiova, Romania, where the local mafia has made good use of the skills of the country’s unemployed IT technicians to develop sophisticated methods for cloning bank cards, they meet the gang lord who fell out with his fellow godfathers when he killed one of them during a poker game.

The film gives a fascinating glimpse into an ever-changing criminal underworld, with its own strange rules, in which people who lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, extort and kill for a living, still subscribe to their own perverse honour code.

People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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