Bulgaria: Police Step Up War on Mafia

Elite counter terrorism unit to be investigated as part of police bid to break the back of the mafia.

Bulgaria: Police Step Up War on Mafia

Elite counter terrorism unit to be investigated as part of police bid to break the back of the mafia.

Tuesday, 24 September, 2002

More arrests are expected in a continuing crackdown on organised crime, in which more than 1,000 people - including ex-members of Bulgaria's elite anti-terrorist Barrets unit - have so far been detained, according to IWPR sources.

Significantly, justice officials are to investigate the Barrets unit, six former members of which were rounded up at the end of August on suspicion of working as mafia hitmen.

The arrests were part of a huge police dragnet - the biggest law enforcement operation seen in Bulgaria since the fall of communism - launched after a wave of gangland shootouts in Sofia.

The battles appear to have been the result of a major turf war between Bulgaria's drug gangs, keen to take advantage of a growth in heroin trafficking following the rise in opium production in Afghanistan this year.

The police response has been spectacular. All leave has been cancelled, the interior ministry has been put on a semi-war footing and thousands of raids have been launched on nightclubs, bars, cafes and other suspected mafia haunts.

The arrest of 1,049 suspects across the country has left Bulgaria's jails bursting at the seams and is overwhelming its courts.

The raids have made a national hero out of the country's head of police operations, interior ministry chief secretary Boyko Borissov - a lantern-jawed official, nicknamed "Rambo" by the media, who's currently topping the popularity polls.

He has announced an investigation into the Barrets unit, declaring in one press interview that it "had to be cleared of corrupt employees".

And sources close to the authorities say they expect to make more arrests in the ongoing crackdown, in which consignments of drugs, fire arms and drug money are being seized on an almost daily basis.

In one recent raid, investigators discovered what they suspect to be an underground factory producing the drug Ecstasy - enough chemicals for more than 400,000 tablets were found.

A series of searches at addresses used by former Barrets men have unearthed an arsenal of weapons including machine guns, grenades, ammunition and explosives.

The arrest of some of its former members and the probe into its activities means the elite Barret squad - detailed to protect the president, government ministers and visiting heads of state - now faces an uncertain future.

There is irony in all of this. Under communism, police raids were things to be feared. Now, they are being cheered. "It is super. For the first time in Bulgaria, the officers are rounding up mafia members," said television journalist Elena Yoncheva.

"Suddenly everything is happening, and we are thinking that maybe the police are doing their job very well."

Bulgaria's problems stem from both its location on the main drug-trafficking route between Asia and Western Europe and collusion between law enforcers and smugglers.

Last year, the authorities seized a record 2,000 kg haul of high-grade heroin but, just as significantly, 140 policemen and customs officers, suspected of involvement in the trade, were arrested.

The recent raids are a major boost not just for Borissov - whose approval rating now stand at 76 per cent - but also for the government of the country's former king, Simeon II.

Simeon spent most of his life in exile in Spain, where he worked as a businessman. He returned to Bulgaria last year to form his own party, the Simeon II Movement, sweeping to power in the 2001 elections.

On his appointment as prime minister, he promised to end the bickering and corruption of conventional politics.

However, support for his party has fallen this year. Although his administration has steered clear of corruption, it has been accused of lacking courage to make difficult reforms.

Official figures show that poverty and unemployment continue to increase with the authorities seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

Fighting the drugs gangs will not fix the economy, but the newfound resolve shown by "Rambo" is breathing new life into the government and giving people fresh hope.

Chris Stephen is a freelance journalist.

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