The badfellas never let go

Young Russian women flock to New York in the hope of a better life. That's when the Mafiya pounce. By Daniel Jeffreys
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Indy Lifestyle Online
On Manhattan's Upper East Side there is an upmarket food store that caters to the Park Avenue crowd. The swanky delicatessen charges the earth and supplies every conceivable delicacy on the planet. It was here, between the racks of extra virgin olive oil and dried mango, that Natalia Lomakina met her nemesis.

"I was working a part-time job filling shelves that barely paid my subway fare," says the 23-year-old blonde from Pitsunda, a resort on the Black Sea. "I'd come here with my father but he died in 1995. I had to move in with a cousin from Moscow who insisted I pay rent."

Lomakina's cousin has an apartment in Gravesend, a grim part of Brooklyn that borders the Atlantic Ocean. This section of New York City is home to more than 20,000 emigres from the former Soviet Union. Lomakina felt she had left the ruins of Communism only to be exiled in a Russian-American ghetto. She wanted more and that made her vulnerable to corruption.

"I was at work on a Saturday in August," she says, smoking nervously. Although her name has been changed for this story she still fears retribution for what she has agreed to say. "I was stacking packets of fresh ravioli and I heard this man speaking in Russian. On an impulse I stood and made a joke to him in Russian about the weather, which was terribly hot."

The man she had engaged in chance conversation complimented Lomakina on her appearance. He switched from Russian to English and soon began praising Lomakina's grasp of both languages. "He told me he was a partner in a restaurant. He gave me his telephone number and told me to call." Lomakina winces slightly at the memory. "He said he might have a 'good job' for me paying much better money than a grocery store."

Lomakina wasted no time. She called and within a week she was working in a stylish French brasserie less than half a mile from her old job. She saw the same faces she had seen at the deli. Wealthy, complacent and self-assured, none seemed to have any idea that their patronage was helping to launder money for the Russian Mafiya, now acknowledged by the FBI, CIA and MI5 as the most serious threat to global law and order.

"I'd been there a week when the guy I'd met in the deli came by and took me to one side," she says, stretching the long legs which helped get her hired at the restaurant. "He explained that I might get calls from outside the brasserie, to make up bills for customers who weren't actually there. I was told I'd be given credit card numbers and I had to process them through the system as if it were a regular table."

Within days Lomakina was getting calls from women - prostitutes serving clients in nearby hotels - who would give her credit card numbers and tell her to get approval from the card company for hundreds of dollars. "The smallest were $250 but many were $750 and $1,000," she says. "I would process a fortune every week this way. I soon realised the restaurant was fronting a multi-million-dollar sex business."

Lomakina would also get calls from a man who called himself Rafik. "He would tell me to make up false bills for any empty tables, big ones. I would collect these and tally them at the end of the evening. Rafik would then call and ask for the totals."

Within days the young Russian had become a vital cog in a money-laundering machine that may include as many as 100 New York restaurants. "Rafik" was using the brasserie to clean drug money. The dirty cash his dealers took from the street could be made to represent legitimate commerce in the form of expensive meals. Lomakina says she knows of more than 10 other Russian girls who have been lured into the Mafiya's process. She has been well rewarded in her new job and now has her own flat, but she is terrified.

"A friend of mine was working at a club downtown with another girl from Yekaterinburg," she says, clutching at a box of matches and pulling hard on a fresh cigarette. "My friend kept telling me this girl wanted to quit and was crying all the time. Then she just disappeared. I think they killed her."

It would not be the first time. FBI sources believe the Russian Mafiya has conducted at least 1,000 assassinations on US soil in the last three years. Women are not exempt. In fact, the Mafiya is especially hard on women. "The Soviet Union was completely male-dominated," says Lomakina. "My father beat my mother when he was drunk, openly and without reproach. Here in the US, Russian girls are easy targets for the Mafiya. We are expected to obey. We are intimidated into submission and we cannot ask the police for protection. They will do nothing and to be seen talking to a cop is suicidal. Any Russian woman on American soil is a potential victim of abuse."

Lomakina's restaurant is not owned exclusively by Russians. There are four partners of three nationalities - the other three, apart from Lomakina's recruiter, are a Mexican and two Colombians. She says the Russian also has a share of two restaurants in London.

"That's not an unusual feature," says Eric Seidel, a Mafiya expert who used to run the Organised Crime Task Force in New York. "The Mafiya is truly international. They have established the world's most sophisticated money-laundering operation. London and New York are key elements. Because the Russians are so good at money-laundering, every organised crime group in the world, except the Chinese, wants to be part of their 'client base'. In return, the Mafiya expect to be given a share of any existing drug and prostitution business."

Mafiya experts say London is one of the top five destinations for Mafiya money, especially the semi-clean version that has already been partially laundered by Mafiya hand-maidens like Lomakina. Russian gangsters have invested in British companies and property. Their money has also found its way into British banks, often via the US.

Four years ago Vladimir Khairedinov, the head of the Moscow Drug Squad, visited the Metropolitan Police. "When I was in England, Scotland Yard officials told me there were huge amounts of money being transferred to London bank accounts from Russia," he says. "They knew this was black market money, drug money, and they couldn't understand why the Russian government was not trying to find out where the money was coming from."

Khairedinov says he knew the answer. He claims the Mafiya and the Russian government were in bed together and that the relationship has become even more intimate in the last three years. FBI and CIA sources say that the SVRR, the descendant of the KGB, is at least partly controlled by the Mafiya. The SVRR spies on the FBI and the CIA and then passes on information concerning US law enforcement operations against the Mafiya.

Acknowledging the threat to the United States posed by the mafiya, the CIA and FBI have attempted to break down traditional fire walls between counter-intelligence and law enforcement operations overseas. But the joint effort suffered a massive blow last year with the arrest of veteran CIA agent Harold Nicholson, who allegedly sold the identities of US spies and double agents to the SVRR for at least $180,000. The United States now fears that the Mafiya has bought the names of the CIA and FBI agents arrayed against them.

"I'm sure that has happened," says Tom Masters, a former FBI agent who now helps American corporations avoid Mafiya infiltration. "What's worse is that Nicholson was specifically targeted by the Mafiya via the SVRR because he ran courses at the CIA training academy. He has probably passed the Mafiya the identities of a large slice of the next generation of field officers."

"The Russian Mafiya is an expansionist force and has gone beyond merely preying on Russian expatriates and emigres abroad," says a recent FBI intelligence report. "It has built a North American 'Organizatsiya' that includes five major cartels, comprising more than 200 gangs in 17 cities, most notably New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Miami. The Mafiya used the US as a base to establish a series of national 'prefects' in Canada, Greece, Austria, Germany, the Low Countries, Israel and the United Kingdom. Mafiya money is already in these countries. The next step is a flood of narcotics."

"The Mafiya is already using London," says Eric Seidel. "Italian and British organised crime groups have given the Russians a piece of their action in exchange for Mafiya money-laundering facilities. There probably isn't a significant British financial institution that hasn't already handled Mafiya money, knowingly or otherwise."

Natalia Lomakina drinks some coffee before lighting another Marlboro, her sixth in an hour. "I say God help anybody who gets drawn into the Mafiya's circle," she says, puffing nervously.

"I have a nice life now but I don't want it, yet I'm scared to change. I don't see a way out. Since so many of us left Russia, there are girls like me in every country. There are girls like me in London, of course. The vory just wait until hardship makes their offers irresistible. Yet once they have you, they never let go"n

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