Bulgarians caught in gangland cross fire SF_Chronicle - 2004/9/12
Bulgarians caught in gangland cross fire -- 50 mob hits, with drugs, sex trade at stake
Like a scene from a Hollywood gangster film, six mobsters
in police uniforms burst into Sofia's Slavia restaurant screaming "Everybody
down!" and opened fire.
Within seconds, their target, underworld boss Milcho Bone -- a.k.a. Brother
Mile -- and five of his bodyguards lay dead on the restaurant patio.
The gangland slaying on July 30 in this small Balkan nation was the latest
bloody salvo in an organized crime turf war that has seen 50 mob hits in the
past three years.
"It's at the point that if you go into a restaurant or a bar, you can't be
sure someone won't come in and start shooting," says Rumyana Buchvarova,
director of Market Links Research firm, based in Sofia. "That the
perpetrators of this recent attack were dressed as police officers is
emblematic of the problem we're facing."
Authorities have arrested seven people and charged one man with murder for
the restaurant mob massacre, but police often have a tough time getting such
charges to stick. Witnesses often recant testimony or fall victim to
"accidents," lawyers back out of cases, and evidence disappears at the hands
of corrupt police officials.
Criminal gangs in Romania and Bulgaria are "extremely dynamic" and involved
in "a wide range of criminal activities which impact upon many European
Union countries,'' according to a report by Europol, the organization that
coordinates cross-border policing and criminal investigation throughout
Europe. It suggested that the gangs "pose one of the main threats to the
Authorities estimate that international sex trade operatives traffic 10, 000
women a year from Bulgaria to other countries. Bulgarian mobsters are adept
at counterfeiting currencies, forging credit cards and identity documents
and facilitating the transit of heroin from Asia to Western Europe,
according to Europol.
Their criminal enterprises account for between 30 percent and 36 percent of
the Bulgarian economy -- to the tune of $6.2 billion to $7.4 billion
annually, according to the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the
Bulgaria's mob blossomed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many out-of-
work body builders turned themselves into bodyguards, learned how to shoot
and joined forces with shady young businessmen looking to exploit Bulgaria's
transition from a closed, Soviet-style system to a more capitalist market
Known as mutra -- which means "ugly face" in Bulgarian -- the bodyguards
made a name for themselves in the early 1990s by providing "security" to
small- and medium-size businesses for monthly fees. Business owners who
refused to pay fell victim to repeated robberies, which ceased only when the
protection money was paid.
Homegrown versions of Mafia dons exploited Bulgaria's domestic instability
and lax law enforcement as the Soviet bloc unraveled, buying or shooting
their way out of any potential legal trouble.
Bulgaria's geographical location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia
attracted mob interests from places as diverse as Russia, China and Colombia
-- newcomers who introduced the aspiring Bulgarian capos to more profitable
Over the past couple of years, authorities striving to clean up Bulgaria's
image before it joins the European Union in 2007 drafted anti-crime
legislation and closed legal loopholes that impeded a crackdown on the
country's mobsters. A recently passed law targets human trafficking
offenses, mandating 5- t0 25-year jail terms and stiff fines.
The result is stiffer competition for the multibillion-dollar drug and flesh
trade, disintegrating into a bloodbath between men whose nicknames could
have come out of a Dick Tracy comic strip.
Authorities believe the two main rivals are drug lord Anton Miltenov, a.k.
a. "The Beak," and Ilyan Versanov. The fight between them intensified as
other criminal groups, including those led by "Zladko the Baretta" and
Vassil "The Scalp" Boshkov, vied for control of the lucrative business of
Konstantin Dimitrov, killed in Amsterdam by a 37-year-old Dutch drug dealer
known as Erwin W., who is suspected of being a hit man hired by someone in
On June 4, two men dressed in the flowing black robes of Orthodox priests
walked up to a cafe in Sofia and opened fire, killing three of Miltenov's
rivals. In mid-June, the younger brother of "The Beak" was gunned down
outside a pizza parlor later identified by authorities as a narcotics
"They have learned all their lessons from Hollywood, and so they play out
their lives -- and deaths -- in that vein," says Interior Ministry Chief
Secretary Boyko Borisov, 45, who insists that Bulgaria's mob problems are no
worse than those of Italy and the United States.
"If this problem were enough to prohibit entry into the European Union, then
all the countries would have to leave it," Borisov said. "Organized crime is
an international problem."
Borisov, interviewed between incessant calls on his cell phones in an office
cluttered with bulletproof vests, 9mm pistols and handcuffs, doesn't mince
words about the government's strategy.
"We've got a policy of no tolerance. And this is a job that has to be done,
and done completely," he said.
Among Bulgaria's successes, security forces dismantled 32 currency- forging
operations in the past year, snagging millions of counterfeit dollars and
euros. In early June, a four-city sweep involving 360 Bulgarian security
personnel and members of Interpol resulted in 10 arrests and the seizure of
55, 000 counterfeit euros (about $68,000), as well as forged American and
"No doubt, efforts are being made," says Buchvarova of Market Links
Research, "but when most of the cases brought against mobsters won't stick,
basically there is nothing we can do but wait for them to kill each other."