By Mihai Munteanu
CHISINAU, Moldova - One of the most powerful criminal groups in Moldova offered a reporter from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Russian army weapons including rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) units last month.
The reporter purchased one RPG from the group to demonstrate the ease of getting weapons.
The flow of such weapons into Ukraine has fueled separatist tensions, and the transaction offered a glimpse into a black market that has revived since Russia annexed Crimea and ignited conflict in eastern Ukraine this year. Pro-Russian forces have shot down Ukrainian helicopters and planes with similar heavy weapons.
The unusual deal began last February. Amidst breaking news about Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian president, fleeing Ukraine, a clipped, mechanical sound from his mobile phone alerted an OCCRP reporter to a new message.
He opened it to find a photo of Al Pacino from the movie “Scarface” emptying an automatic weapon. The text read: "Don't you need these? I believe the war in Ukraine is only now starting." P9
The message was unusual for several reasons:
• It came from Ion Anton Druta, 42, an organized crime figure who was serving time in a high security prison for a triple homicide.
• Druta knew the reporter was a journalist, but believed he had connections with intelligence agencies who might be interested in buying lots of guns to influence the conflict in Ukraine.
The weapon OCCRP bought was Russian-made. Druta said it came from the armories of the Russian 14th Army. This unit has been stationed for more than 20 years with a peacekeeping mission in Transdniestr, the Russian-speaking separatist region wedged between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine.
The UN and other international bodies have expressed concern that Transdniestr for years has outfitted Eastern European organized crime with weapons, but no definitive proof has ever been provided.
OCCRP initially contacted Druta’s group last year in Moldova as part of a wider investigation into a network of hired killers operating across Europe.
This time, journalists put down € 1,000 (US$ 1,365) to buy an RPG anti-tank weapon system from the group in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, which is 180 kilometers from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa. Druta threw in a semi-automatic pistol for free.
Civil War, the Weapons Dealer and the Criminal Group
The transaction took place 10 days after the Odessa massacre in which 40 people died and hundreds were wounded in street fighting between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian security forces claimed that paramilitary groups from Transdniestr were involved in the Odessa fights.
The man offering the weapons for sale has a long and violent history with police. Nearly a year ago, in July 2013, Druta, or Vanea the Writer as he’s known, was taken into custody to begin a 20-year prison sentence imposed by the Chisinau Court of Appeals for his part in a triple homicide in 1998.
Moldovan authorities held a press conference to mark the event.