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How the Russian mob got into Missouri fish eggs

Call it criminal caviar: Undercover U.S. officials spent two years infiltrating the black market in illegal paddlefish eggs in a sleepy Missouri town.

John Sleezer

A large female paddlefish will carry upwards of nine kilograms of roe. On the black market, 100 grams sells for about $40.
Andrew Praskovsky, a 42-year-old from Colorado, made a pilgrimage to his native Russia every year. But in April 2012, his trip was cut short when U.S. federal agents descended on him at the airport to seize contraband from his luggage.
Their booty?
More than 1.8 kilograms of illegally extracted paddlefish caviar from a sleepy stretch of the Osage River, just downstream from the Harry S. Truman Dam, about a two-hour drive southeast of Kansas City. At the time, the caviar would have fetched more than $2,500 on the retail market, and exponentially more if intentionally mislabelled.
Praskovsky was charged with trafficking and will go on trial in March. He was one of eight men arrested during “Operation Roadhouse,” an investigation led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife that looked more like a high-stakes drug-ring bust, complete with undercover agents.
The operation was the largest of its kind in the U.S., focusing on an area in Warsaw, Mo., known as the Roadhouse. Federal and state investigators set up a fake paddlefish snagging operation meant to target those interested in illegally purchasing fish roe.
The two-year investigation culminated in the issuing of more than 100 state citations relating to illegal and unlicensed paddlefish exploitation. The town of Warsaw, population 2,127, is the self-proclaimed paddlefish capital of the world. It has become the unlikely centre of a black-market trade in paddlefish roe as Caspian sturgeon — the traditional source of high-grade caviar — becomes critically endangered following years of exploitation.
“When the Soviet Union crashed, organized crime groups took advantage of it and became very powerful in the region,” says Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The profit funded the arms trade as well as human trafficking in the region.
This unregulated exploitation, however, has led to sturgeon’s near extinction and a moratorium being placed on fishing in the Northern Caspian, forcing these groups to set their sights elsewhere.
Of the eight men arrested, seven were from out of state, and all were originally from Eastern Europe.
American paddlefish — known by locals as spoonbill — is a freshwater species that shares common ancestry with Beluga sturgeon. It occupies slow-moving sections of the Missouri and Mississippi drainage basins.
The Osage River running through Warsaw is a hot spot for poachers because spawning fish are blocked upstream by a dam, dramatically increasing the chance of snagging an egg-bearing female.
Unlike neighbouring Oklahoma, Missouri’s regulations surrounding paddlefish snagging are also more liberal. Anglers are allowed to catch two fish per day during the season and can keep the roe for personal use.
In contrast, “in Oklahoma, folks take their fish to the (conservation) agency, and the agency will harvest the eggs, but keep them and return the prepared fish to the individual fisher and then the agency will sell the eggs,” says Larry Yamnitz of the Missouri Department of Conservation, who was a chief investigator in “Operation Roadhouse.”
Poaching paddlefish for the purpose of commercialization is illegal, as is the transport of paddlefish roe across state lines with the intention of selling it.
Paddlefish roe is attractive to traffickers because it can be processed into caviar similar in colour, size and texture to the prized caviar of the Caspian.
Though paddlefish roe does not fetch much, this changes dramatically when it is processed into caviar — 100 grams sells for about $40 on the black market and retails at more than three times that price. A large female paddlefish will carry upwards of nine kilograms of roe, with a potential value starting at $4,000. This soars when paddlefish caviar is mislabelled.
“The bulk of illegally poached caviar is being exported,” says Greg Conover, a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Officials believe the traffickers repackage paddlefish roe as a higher-grade, more expensive form of caviar.
“We have gathered people with empty caviar tins that are labelled as beluga Russian caviar, so you can put two and two together,” says Yamnitz.
It is sold in the U.S. or shipped to other countries, reaping huge profits that are recycled into other black-market endeavours.
“There is potentially an even greater market for caviar in Russia and Asia than in the U.S.,” says Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a professor from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, who has discovered intentionally mislabelled paddlefish roe through genetic sampling.
Exploiting paddlefish in this way points to organization and a “level of sophistication beyond someone going fishing in their backyard,” she says, adding that “it’s being done by people who have thought this out, who are able to get this to the market and who are able to get a good price for it.”
“Wildlife trafficking is a very lucrative business that organized crime groups are utilizing to gain funds. I definitely think any time you have high numbers of illegal trafficking in wildlife that there are ties to some type of organized crime,” says Yamnitz

The Worst Gangster Most People Have Never Heard Of

Christina Sterbenz

Semion MogilovichFBISemion Mogilevich, a known Russian mob boss
Drug trafficking, trading nuclear material, contract murders, and international prostitution — that's how the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes Semion Mogilevich, one of its top 10 most wanted fugitives, has spent his time over the last few decades.
Indicted in 2003 for countless fraud charges, Mogilevich now primarily lives in Moscow. His location allows him to maintain close ties to the Bratva, or The Brotherhood, aka the Russian mob.

The 'Boss Of Bosses'
A 5'6" and a portly chain smoker, Mogilevich is known as "boss of bosses" in one of the biggest mafia states in the world.
Born in 1946 in Kiev, Ukraine, Mogilevich once acted as the key money laundering contact for the Solntsevskaya Bratva, a super-gang based in Moscow. He has since held over 100 front companies and bank accounts in 27 different countries, all to keep the cash flowing.
In 1998, the FBI released a report naming Mogilevich as the leader of an organization with about 250 members. Only in operation only four years, the group's main activities included arms dealing, trading nuclear material, prostitution, drug trafficking, oil deals, and money laundering.
Between 1993 and 1998, however, Mogilevich caught the FBI's attention when he allegedly participated in a $150 million scheme to defraud thousands of investors in a Canadian company, YBM Magnex, based just outside Philadelphia, which supposedly made magnets. With his economics degree and clever lies, Mogilevich forged documents for the Securities and Exchange Commission that raised the company's stock price nearly 2,000%.
When asked about YBM by BBC in 2007, Mogilevich replied: "Well if they found old-fashioned hanky panky [i.e., suspicious activity], it's up to them to prove it. Unfortunately, I don't have access to FBI files."
"What makes him so dangerous is that he operates without borders," said  Special Agent Peter Kowenhoven, who has worked on Mogilevich's case since 1997. "Here’s a guy who managed to defraud investors out of $150 million without ever stepping foot in the Philadelphia area."
In 1998, the Village Voice reported on hundreds of previously classified FBI and Israeli intelligence documents. They placed Mogilevich, also known as "Brainy Don," as the leader of the Red Mafia, a notorious Russian mob family infamous for its brutality. Based in Budapest, members held key posts in New York, Pennsylvania, Southern California, and even New Zealand.
"He's the most powerful mobster in the world," Monya Elison, one of Mogilevich's partners in a prostitution ring, told the Voice. He claimed he's Mogilevich's best friend.

Geopolitical Influence
Arguably one of Mogelivich's most concerning characteristics is his influence in Europe's energy sector. With only a $100,000 bounty on his head, he controls extensive natural gas pipelines in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Right now, Russia supplies about 30% of Europe's gas. Ironically, the country's largest pipeline to the rest of Europe shares a name with the mob — Bratstvo.

Europe Gas
John Wood, a senior anti-money laundering consultant at IPSA International wrote an entire report on Mogelivich. According to his research, the Ukrainian-born Russian mobster had long planned his stake in Europe's gas.
In 1991, Mogilevich started meddling in the energy sector with Arbat International. For the next five years, the company served as his primary import-export petroleum company. Then, in 2002, an Israeli lawyer named Zeev Gordon, who represented Mogilevich for more than 20 years, created Eural Trans Gas (ETG), the main intermediary between Turkmenistan and Ukraine. Some reports show that Gordon registered the company in Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash's name.
After that, Russia’s energy giant Gazprom and Ukraine's Centragas Holding AG teamed up to establish Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo (RUE) to replace ETG. Firtash and Gazprom reportedly roughly split the ownership of RUE.
In 2010, however, then prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, said she had "documented proof that some powerful criminal structures are behind the RosUkrEnergo (RUE) company," according to WikiLeaks. Even before, the press had widely speculated about Mogilevich's ties to RUE.
Dmitry FirtashReutersDmytro Firtash, one of Ukraine's richest men, (R) and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich take part in an opening ceremony of a new complex for the production of sulfuric acid in Crimea region in April 2012.
Although Firtash has repeatedly denied having any close relationship with Mogilevich, he has admitted to asking permission from the mobster before conducting business in Ukraine as early as 1986, Reuters recently reported. At the request of the FBI, Firtash was arrested in Austria for suspicion of bribery and creating a criminal organization.
Mogilevich may even have a working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a published conversation between Leonid Derkach, the former chief of the Ukrainian security service, and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.
"He's [Mogilevich] on good terms with Putin," Derkach reportedly said. "He and Putin have been in contact since Putin was still in Leningrad."

A Free Man
In 2007, Mogelivich told BBC that his business was selling wheat and grain.
In 2008, however, Russian police arrested Mogelivich, using one of his many pseudonyms, Sergei Schneider, in connection with tax evasion for a cosmetics company, Arbat Prestige. Mogilevich ran that company with his partner, Vladimir Nekrosov. Three years later, the charges were dropped.
Considering the US doesn't have an extradition treaty with Russia, as long as Mogilevich stays within Putin's borders, the "boss of bosses" will likely remain a free man. He's believed to have Russian, Israeli, Ukrainian, and Greek passports.

Afghan drug traffic most serious threat to post-Soviet states — Russian official

MOSCOW, November 27. /TASS/. Afghan drug traffic is the most serious threat to Collective Security Treaty Organization member states, Russian presidential commissioner for international cooperation against terrorism and transnational organized crime Alexander Zmeevsky told an international conference in St. Petersburg.
The text of his speech at the conference that discussed drug control laws of CSTO countries is published on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.
“The growing scope of illegal spread of drugs is a serious threat to security, stability and health of people in CSTO member states as well as in other countries in the region,” Zmeevsky said.
Opium production has grown considerably in Afghanistan this year - to 6.4 tons (5.5 tons last year). UN experts warn about further worsening of the situation, the Russian official said.
Against the alarming background, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization demonstratively ignores Russia’s persistent calls for establishing cooperation with the CSTO. “They just refused to talk with us,” he said. In his words, “it is out of the logic of the uncompromising fight against the Afghan drug threat.”
NATO even hinted that the alliance, for ideological reasons, did not consider the CSTO as an equal organization, he added.
"It sounds not only challenging, but also disrespectful, first of all for tens of thousands of their citizens who have become victims of the Afghan heroin narcobusiness expansion in NATO countries," Zmeevsky said.
“Such an approach is unacceptable for us. To protect our citizens (and not only our) from the dangerous drug threat, we will develop cooperation on the basis of equality with interested partners and deepen cooperation within the organization,” the Russian official said.

Russian criminal tattoos: breaking the code

Soviet prisoners had a secret language – tattoos. Will Hodgkinson deciphers the hidden meaning of skulls, cats, grins and swastikas

Will Hodgkinson

Danzig Baldaev grew up in a Russian children's home, his father having been denounced as an enemy of the people. He was later ordered to take a job as a warden in Kresty, an infamous Leningrad prison, where he worked from 1948 to 1981. It was a job that allowed Baldaev to continue his father's work as an ethnographer – by documenting the tattoos of criminals. Heavy with symbolism and hidden meanings, the tattoos depicted a complex world of hierarchies, disgraces and achievements. Mostly anti-Soviet and frequently obscene, they are a portal into a violent world that ran alongside the worst excesses of the Communist era.
The KGB found out about Baldaev's tattoo project but, incredibly, they sanctioned it. "They realised the value of being able to establish the facts about a convict or criminal: his date and place of birth, the crimes he had committed, the camps where he had served time, and even his psychological profile," Baldaev wrote, shortly before his death in 2005.
Baldaev's archive of criminal tattoo drawings would probably have died alongside its creator had Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell of the design publishers Fuel not heard about it from a Russian literary agent. "We visited his widow, Valentina, in her tiny flat in the St Petersburg suburbs, where all of these drawings were stacked in bin liners," says Murray. "She didn't know what to do with them, but she was concerned that her family would throw them out when she died. So we bought them off her."
Having published three volumes of Baldaev's drawings in the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia series, Murray and Sorrell are now launching their first exhibition, giving the public a chance to see the original drawings for the first time. In effect, the tattoos formed a service record of a criminal's transgressions. Skulls denoted a criminal authority. A cat represented a thief. On a woman, a tattoo of a penis was the kitemark of a prostitute. Crosses on knuckles denoted the number of times the wearer had been to prison, and a shoulder insignia marked solitary confinement, while a swastika represented not a fondness for fascism but a refusal to accept the rules of prison society.
A criminal with no tattoos was devoid of status, but to have a tattoo when you hadn't earned it – bearing the skull sign of a criminal authority, for example – often resulted in the tattoo being forcibly removed with a scalpel by fellow prisoners. And "grins" (depicting communist leaders in obscene or comical positions) were a way for criminal to put two fingers up at the authorities.
"The grin is a bravado thing," Murray says. "Tattooing was illegal in prisons, so prisoners made tattoos by melting down boot heels and mixing the solution with blood and urine. Having an anti-Soviet grin was a way of saying, 'I'm the toughest guy around.' A lot of these guys knew they would never be released from prison, so they couldn't care less what the authorities did to them."
The Soviet dissident and writer Eduard Kuznetsov cites an extreme example of this in his 1975 memoir, Prison Diaries. Kuznetsov writes about a con who was operated on by prison authorities three times against his will to remove a tattoo on his forehead. The first tattoo read: Khrushchev's Slave. The second: Slave of the USSR. The third: Slave of the CPSU (Communist party). "Now, after three operations," wrote Kuznetsov, "the skin is so tightly stretched . . . he can no longer close his eyes. We call him The Stare."
Then there are the tattoos that were made against the wearer's will. "Obscene tattoos on men were often tattooed forcibly on passive homosexuals, or people that lost at cards," says Murray. Worse than this was a seemingly innocuous heart inside a white triangle – the sign of a child rapist. Bearing this meant being an untouchable, and subject to the sexual whims of other prisoners.
Today, tattoos are a fashion accessory. The images Baldaev captured had significance and told a story. What's most intriguing is why this prison guard, who calculated that he lost 58 members of his family to Soviet torture and oppression, wanted to document criminal tattoos and scenes from gulag life in the first place. Following conversations with Baldaev's widow, Murray has concluded that it was a moral response to the excesses of the Communist era.
While accepting that the state had sanctioned his work, Baldaev had no sympathies with the regime. "Ideological lies, skilfully devised international conflicts, the humiliation of people, the denial of the right to a dignified life – or to life itself. These are the sins of the state," he wrote. "They are manifest in the world of the prisons and camps, in the terrible plague patches of tattoos."
"Danzig's father was an enemy of the people," says Murray, "so Danzig grew up in an orphanage for the enemy of the people. Then the government told him he was working as a prison officer, guarding enemies of the people. He went home to his tiny flat at night and did these drawings on the kitchen table. He did manage to get a few published here and there, but he wasn't doing it for the money. This was his way of making sense of the world he was in."
Tattoos of the world
The swallow
Popular with sailors, the swallow reflects a wish to come home safely. Traditionally, a sailor only had a swallow tattooed on his chest after completing 5,000 nautical miles.
The koi
In Japanese mythology, when the koi swims to the gate of heaven it is transformed into a dragon. As a tattoo, the koi represents luck, power, strength and individuality, and, most of all, braving the obstacles in life to achieve your goals.
The teardrop
Originating from the Chicano gangs of California, the teardrop below the eye originally signified the wearer had killed someone. Now it can signify the loss of a loved one or time spent in prison.
The dragon
Symbolising courage, freedom and the supernatural, for British and American sailors the dragon tattoo marks the crossing of the international date line, or serving in China.