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Putin’s Males, The Israeli Smugglers, And The Nice St. Petersburg Drug Bust

RFERL – The person in cumbersome winter fatigues licked his pinky, dabbed it contained in the hand-sized bundle his underlings had simply opened, and introduced it, lined in white powder, to his mouth.

“Tastes bitter. Numbs the tongue,” he stated as laughter stuffed the room.

It was February 1993 in St. Petersburg, and the person within the army uniform was sampling what was billed as the most important cocaine haul in Russian historical past: simply over a metric ton — with an estimated worth of greater than $100 million — stashed in cans of corned beef that had been shipped from Colombia and smuggled into Russia by street by way of Finland.

The person whose safety brokers had seized the medicine was Viktor Cherkesov, identified throughout Soviet instances as a cruel KGB investigator. He was additionally a confidant of a fellow KGB alumnus serving as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg: an unremarkable spy-turned-bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin.

At a subsequent press convention, Cherkesov stated the bust would lead to a high-profile felony trial of a number of suspects, and that the seized cocaine can be repurposed for medical use.

However no trial ever materialized in Russia. Cherkesov’s workplace halted the investigation seven months later, saying the primary suspects had fled the nation.

Almost three many years later, it additionally stays unclear precisely what officers did with the 1,092 kilograms of Colombian cocaine, whose route had been tracked by authorities in a number of nations, together with Germany and Israel, which finally convicted a number of of its residents for narcotics trafficking in reference to the illicit cargo.

President Vladimir Putin (proper) speaks at a gathering of Federal Drug Management Service officers in 2004. Putin appointed Viktor Cherkesov (left), who oversaw the 1993 cocaine bust, as Russia’s drug czar a 12 months earlier. (TASS)

A newspaper run by Cherkesov’s spouse later claimed it had been despatched to a facility to supply medication with it. However the creator of the article acknowledged that he had been blindfolded on the facility and didn’t report truly seeing the cocaine.

The cocaine bust and the thriller of the lacking medicine have since been the topic of journalistic investigations and far hypothesis.

A infamous St. Petersburg crime boss claimed a neighborhood police official whom Putin later appointed to a senior federal submit had mentioned taking custody of the seized medicine. And in 2015, a KGB defector alleged that Putin himself had been concerned in drug smuggling.

Neither of those claims has ever been confirmed. However a brand new investigation by Present Time and RFE/RL’s Russian Service has uncovered proof pointing to a number of hyperlinks between people implicated within the 1993 cocaine smuggling case and the St. Petersburg mayor’s workplace, the place Deputy Mayor Putin headed the Exterior Relations Committee on the time.

This report is the primary installment of an investigative mission analyzing the scandals and scams that swirled round Vladimir Putin and his associates throughout his tenure as a St. Petersburg metropolis official within the Nineteen Nineties.

Two individuals instantly linked to the Israeli investigation of the smuggling scheme — an Israeli man who was convicted for his function and a witness — had been interviewed by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Present Time, the Russian-language community led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Reporters additionally reviewed Israeli investigative information, Russian police paperwork, and video and newspaper archives. Their findings embody:

  • The Israeli convict says the paperwork he carried for the cocaine consignment listed a recipient because the St. Petersburg authorities’s public well being watchdog — and that an worker of the mayor’s workplace acted as an middleman.
  • A witness within the case instructed reporters that the arrested businessman had met with Putin’s boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
  • A senior investigator stated that the cocaine smugglers had been tied to a separate smuggling case wherein Putin’s fellow deputy mayor was convicted.

Cherkesov remained near Putin, who appointed him as Russia’s prime counternarcotics officer in 2003 after he served three years because the Russian president’s envoy to the Northwest Federal District. Cherkesov has not held a authorities submit since 2010.

Neither Cherkesov nor Russia’s Federal Safety Service (FSB), the place he was the highest deputy throughout Putin’s stint as FSB director in 1998-99, responded to requests for remark for this report.

An ‘Official’ Order Of Meat (With Cocaine)

The person tasked with dealing with the paperwork for the cocaine cargo was Shemtov Michtavi, an Israeli profession felony who now apologizes for his misdeeds.

Michtavi was within the Netherlands within the fall of 1992 when an outdated buddy seemed him up. The buddy’s Israeli associates had arrange operations in Colombia in cooperation with the infamous Cali cartel, which U.S. authorities on the time described as “probably the most highly effective cocaine-trafficking group on the earth.”

“I used to be presupposed to get one thing like 4 or 5 million {dollars},” Michtavi stated in an unique interview late final 12 months in Yehud, a city 15 kilometers east of Tel Aviv.

Michtavi’s felony profession started early. After his dad and mom divorced within the Sixties, he bounced round and started stealing with different juvenile delinquents in Tel Aviv. His first arrest got here on the age of twenty-two in 1974, and in whole he has spent 32 of his 70 years behind bars.

Michtavi made a number of claims concerning the 1993 cocaine operation for which he stays the lone supply. However reporters had been capable of at the least partially corroborate a number of others with impartial sources.

The last word vacation spot for the cocaine consignment was the Netherlands, and it was Michtavi who was presupposed to get the documentation for the cargo so as, in response to the convicted felon and a transcript of his interrogation by Israeli police that reporters reviewed.

The concept to route the medicine by Russia, Michtavi says, got here from his Israeli confederate, Amos Sulami, who was well-connected in Russia. Whereas Russia itself wasn’t a serious cocaine market on the time, its lax safety controls within the wake of the Soviet collapse had been seen as an attractive transit level into Western Europe for South American cartels.

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Authorities from a number of governments, together with Israel and Germany, had been secretly monitoring the cargo of cocaine in what was generally known as Operation Acapulco, and Russian authorities had been tipped off that the consignment was coming their method.

However any hopes of monitoring the cargo to its remaining vacation spot in Western Europe — and rooting out the organizers and accomplices throughout all the route — successfully ended when Russian safety brokers seized the container on the Torfyanovka crossing on the border with Finland on February 16, 1993.

On the press convention in St. Petersburg per week later, Cherkesov sat at a desk on which cans of the Blony model corned beef wherein the cocaine had been smuggled sat.

1 / 2At his press convention following the drug bust, Viktor Cherkesov demonstrated a number of of the corned-beef cans wherein a metric ton of Colombian cocaine had been smuggled into Russia.

Additionally on the desk was a brick-shaped bundle — one that might not match inside a can. Michtavi stated it was one of many cocaine bricks the Cali cartel added to the cargo as presents for the smugglers.

“I do know there [were] a pair packages,” Michtavi, who revealed a Hebrew-language guide about his function within the affair final 12 months and is now releasing it in English, stated within the interview.

Amid the Soviet collapse and its aftermath, St. Petersburg confronted extreme meals shortages, prompting metropolis corridor to hunt numerous preparations to fill the hole. These included scandalous barter offers made by town’s Exterior Relations Committee, which Putin headed, wherein fly-by-night companies pocketed tens of millions of {dollars} even supposing no meals shipments had been delivered in alternate.

Michtavi says that the paperwork he helped procure included one stating that the St. Petersburg administration below Putin’s boss, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, had ordered the consignment of corned beef wherein the cocaine was shipped.

A Cali cartel lawyer, whom Michtavi known as the “the physician,” needed a allow for the consignment from town well being authorities. Michtavi says he obtained the mandatory paperwork linking the cargo to the St. Petersburg metropolis well being watchdog, which he known as the “sanitary division” — an Anglicized model of the Russian identify, “sanitarnaya sluzhba.”

“You may see the deal with [in the documents]: It was to the sanitary division of the mayor’s [office] of St. Petersburg,” Michtavi stated within the interview.

RFE/RL was unable to independently confirm this declare. However an confederate of Michtavi’s later convicted in Israel instructed police a couple of “physician” and a doc meant to display “that the request from Russia for the meat cargo was official,” in response to an interrogation transcript reviewed by reporters.

The confederate, Yuval Shemesh, instructed investigators he couldn’t say whether or not the “physician” truly obtained the doc, and a November 1993 report in The Jerusalem Put up stated the container was stopped as a result of it lacked “a well being certificates masking the meals it was presupposed to be carrying.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak (proper) sitting subsequent to his deputy, Vladimir Putin, in August 1993. (Reuters)

Michtavi says the smugglers used two intermediaries in coping with the St. Petersburg mayor’s workplace. The primary was a employees member who he says was identified to the smugglers by the alias “Roman Izikov.” Reporters couldn’t discover anybody by that identify in Russian databases.

The second was a person whom, primarily based on Michtavi’s description, RFE/RL was capable of determine as Vladimir Bakhshiyev. RFE/RL independently obtained a headshot of Bakhshiyev and despatched it to Michtavi alongside these of 5 different random people. Michtavi accurately recognized Bakhshiyev’s {photograph}.

Michtavi stated Bakhshiyev was a buddy of Shabtai Kalmanovich, a colourful Russian emigre to Israel whom the FBI described as a “highly effective affiliate” of Russian organized crime figures and stated had “ties to former KGB brokers and high-level Russian, Israeli, and different authorities officers all through the world.”

It was Bakhshiyev, Michtavi claimed, who helped get hold of the paperwork for the cocaine cargo from Sobchak’s administration.

Reporters couldn’t independently verify the hyperlink between Bakhshiyev and Kalmanovich, who was shot useless in a gangland-style assassination in Moscow in 2009. However Kalmanovich was near Sobchak.

Police seal off the crime scene across the bullet-riddled automotive with the physique of Shabtai Kalmanovich, who was shot useless in an assassination-style killing in Moscow in November 2009. (TASS)

It was Kalmanovich who found Sobchak’s physique in a resort in Russia’s western exclave of Kaliningrad in February 2000, Sobchak’s widow, Lyudmila Narusova, stated in a 2012 interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta. Within the interview, Narusova hinted she had proof of foul play in her husband’s demise, which was formally attributed to a coronary heart assault.

RFE/RL was unable to ascertain whether or not Bakhshiyev remains to be alive. Makes an attempt to achieve him and a relative at telephone numbers related to them had been unsuccessful.

It has by no means been confirmed that Putin or his political mentor, Sobchak, knew what was actually within the consignment of corned beef from Colombia. However Michtavi says he believes Sobchak was conscious.

“I [don’t] have proof about that. However Anatoly Sobchak, he was [in the] know. He ought to get some cash for that,” he stated within the interview late final 12 months. “To let you know 100%, I can not for certain. However you possibly can see the deal with: It was to the sanitary division of the mayor’s [office] of St. Petersburg.”

Narusova didn’t reply to a request for remark concerning the smuggled cocaine or Michtavi’s allegation.

The Logistics Magnate And The Mayor’s Workplace

On the time of the cocaine bust, one constructing away from a department of St. Petersburg’s well being watchdog that Michtavi stated featured within the consignment information, a logistics firm based by a outstanding Israeli businessman within the metropolis was working.

The corporate was referred to as Eurodonat, and its proprietor, Oscar Donat, had constructed a powerful portfolio within the metropolis. He had arrange a shopping mall that includes St. Petersburg’s first Philips electronics retailer, its first paging firm, and a customs-clearance middle referred to as Eurodonat Terminals.

Eurodonat Terminals was certainly one of quite a few corporations formally registered by St. Petersburg’s foreign-economic-relations committee, which Sobchak appointed Putin to guide in June 1991.

Its customs middle was additionally the place the transport container with the cocaine stashed in corned-beef cans was heading when it was seized by Cherkesov’s males and Russian border guards on February 16, 1993, in response to a newspaper report on the time.

The cargo of cocaine was reportedly destined for the customs-clearance middle Eurodonat Terminals, which was registered by the St. Petersburg mayor’s workplace’s Exterior Relations Committee that Vladimir Putin headed on the time.

Donat’s connections with energy gamers had been simple. He had spoken publicly of his interactions with Sobchak about his enterprise operations in Russia’s second metropolis. And simply months earlier than the Soviet Union disintegrated, Eurodonat Terminals had even based a safety agency, referred to as Panther, along with the St. Petersburg police division and a particular division of the KGB, in response to information from the St. Petersburg Registration Chamber’s database reviewed by RFE/RL.

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Certainly one of Cherkesov’s subordinates on the KGB successor company initially referred to as the Safety Ministry, Sergei Yakovlev, instructed The Jerusalem Put up in November 1993 that Donat had continued touring to Russia after the cocaine was seized and that the ministry had questioned him. Donat admitted realizing two suspects who had been subsequently arrested — certainly one of whom was convicted in Israel — however “denied all reference to the medicine,” Yakovlev stated.

Donat was arrested in Israel in September 1993 on suspicion of arranging cocaine offers in Russia and ordered into custody by a Tel Aviv courtroom.

A photograph of Oscar Donat following his arrest on suspicion of cocaine trafficking revealed within the October 4, 1993, problem of the newspaper Hadashot (Information), a replica of which is posted on the web site of the Nationwide Library of Israel.

Donat’s identify additionally seems within the request for authorized help that Israel despatched to Finnish authorities in September 1993, figuring out the businessman as a “suspect.”

In a request for authorized help that Israel despatched to Finland, the Israeli businessman Oscar Donat, who had connections to energy gamers in St. Petersburg, was listed as a suspect within the cocaine trafficking.

RFE/RL tracked down a witness cited within the Israeli criminal-case supplies. The witness, Vasily Didenko, had been employed as a driver by one of many accomplices whom Israel ultimately convicted.

“Firm administrators visited Donat at a resort day by day. They introduced him instances filled with money. Even Sobchak visited him,” Didenko stated in a phone interview. “Everybody was on the market in these days. Donat didn’t have only one automotive, he had a number of. He traveled with bodyguards. The cops protected him.”

Whereas an Israeli courtroom ultimately convicted Michtavi and 4 others in reference to the smuggled cocaine, the costs in opposition to Donat had been ultimately dropped attributable to lack of proof.

Members of the Tel Aviv cartel, who had been detained instantly after the arrest of the container (from prime to backside, left to proper): Yuval Shemesh, Elias Cohen, Marek Frisch, Amos Sulami. Israel convicted all 4 of cocaine smuggling.

The fees in opposition to the lone suspect arrested by Russian authorities, Dmitry Selyuk, had been additionally dropped. Selyuk, who has since grow to be a widely known soccer agent, was one of many suspects whom Donat admitted to realizing, Russian investigators stated.

Dmitry Selyuk, who went on to grow to be a widely known soccer agent, was arrested by Russian authorities however by no means convicted.

A Soviet-born Israeli citizen, Selyuk was accused of attempting to bribe a neighborhood physician to problem a well being certificates to safe the discharge of the meat cargo wherein the cocaine was stashed, although he insisted he was harmless.

Michtavi instructed reporters for this report that he had handed paperwork that includes addresses — together with that of St. Petersburg metropolis corridor — associated to the corned-beef cargo to his middleman with Sobchak’s workplace, Vladimir Bakhshiyev, when the 2 met within the Netherlands.

The identical paperwork ended up within the arms of the person — Selyuk — accused of attempting to bribe officers to launch the cargo, Michtavi claimed, although he conceded that he didn’t bear in mind the person’s identify off the highest of his head.

“I used to be by no means concerned with him and don’t know him, I simply learn it within the newspapers,” Michtavi, who stated he discovered particulars of the container’s seizure from associates whereas in hiding within the Netherlands for a number of months earlier than his arrest, stated within the interview.

Reached by phone, Selyuk declined to debate the 1993 cocaine bust and the accusations in opposition to him.

“I don’t even wish to touch upon this nonsense,” he stated.

FBI Suspicions

Putin’s Colleague And The Smuggled Isotope

Donat was linked to St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Lev Savenkov, a direct affiliate of Putin and Sobchak at metropolis corridor who was concerned in a separate smuggling case that Cherkesov’s subordinate linked to the 1993 cocaine operation.

Previous to becoming a member of Sobchak and Putin in metropolis corridor in 1992, Savenkov had served as common director of the Donat-owned buying middle Alisa.

In October 1993, across the time Israel was arresting suspects within the cocaine-smuggling investigation, Savenkov was arrested in a separate — and weird — smuggling case.

In September of that 12 months, an affiliate of Savenkov had been detained on the similar crossing level on the Finnish border the place Russian authorities had seized the cocaine seven months earlier. Within the glove compartment of the automotive he was driving, border guards discovered a number of grams of what he described because the isotope osmium-187.

The substance, it emerged later, got here from Vladimir Petrik, a controversial however well-connected scientist who has been denounced by many in Russia’s scientific group as a charlatan.

Savenkov was charged with smuggling, although it was unclear precisely what revolutionary functions the substance may need. Publicly, Savenkov stated the incident was a part of a plan to advertise the substance to potential overseas patrons to boost cash for St. Petersburg’s price range below the umbrella of a secretive “company” to be arrange with metropolis corridor.

Putin corroborated Savenkov’s account of this “company” in a March 1994 interview with a neighborhood newspaper, and stated that the scientist — whom Putin didn’t identify however who, in actual fact, was Petrik — was ready to work for this mysterious entity.

In June 1997, a St. Petersburg courtroom sentenced Savenkov to 5 years in jail after convicting him within the osmium-smuggling case and an extra case of caviar smuggling.

The next 12 months, Sergei Yakovlev — one of many authentic prime investigators working below Cherkesov on the 1993 cocaine-smuggling case — publicly linked Savenkov’s case with that of the large drug bust.

“We got here to the conclusion that the identical people who helped Savenkov smuggle caviar and osmium participated within the unlawful transport of 1 ton of cocaine onto Russian territory,” Yakovlev instructed a Russian true-crime program in 1998.

Reporters may discover no document, nonetheless, of any subsequent felony instances or convictions linked to this alleged felony nexus.

Reached by phone, Savenkov stated he knew Donat however denied any connection to the cocaine-smuggling operation.

An Operation Reduce Brief

After Russian authorities seized the metric ton of cocaine stashed within the corned-beef cans, observers questioned whether or not the operation by authorities of a number of nations may have yielded higher outcomes if it hadn’t led to Russia.

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“Was it value it to blow our personal horn to such nice fanfare…or would it not have been good to trace all the chain of passage of such a big cargo of cocaine?” one Russian columnist wrote shortly after the seizure.

The outstanding Belgian investigative journalist Alain Lallemand, who chronicled the case carefully, wrote in 1995 that Russia seized the cocaine “in opposition to all logic.”

If different governments had been miffed about Russia’s transfer, they didn’t grumble publicly. At a joint press convention in Moscow with senior U.S. and German officers, a senior Russian Inside Ministry official thanked his German colleague, saying it was his workforce that first tipped Russia off concerning the cocaine cargo, and the German official proceeded to tout the significance of multilateral cooperation on such efforts.

However Vasily Didenko, the Russian witness within the Israeli felony case contacted by reporters, stated the Israeli investigators who questioned him instructed him they’d deliberate to trace the consignment to its remaining vacation spot.

“However as an alternative of monitoring all of it the way in which, they only arrested six guys or so,” Didenko stated in a phone interview.

A person listed as a “Russian safety officer” additionally testified within the Israeli felony trial, in response to case supplies RFE/RL reviewed. However the information gave solely his initials, and RFE/RL was unable to ascertain this particular person’s identification.

In a 1996 documentary titled A Man’s Job that lauds the work of the FSB — and credit Putin with the concept for the movie — senior FSB investigator Sergei Yakovlev praises the work Russia did on the cocaine case, saying it had handed over “a big amount of case supplies to Israel.”

“It was all mirrored within the sentences handed down in Israel,” Yakovlev stated.

Gangsters, Police, And A ‘Delicate Operation’

So what precisely occurred to the metric ton of Cali-cartel cocaine stashed in corned-beef cans after Russia seized it?

Whereas Cherkesov, with whom Putin has stated publicly he was shut, stated after the bust that it will be repurposed for medical use, his subordinate, Yakovlev, sounded noncommittal in an interview 9 months later.

“We don’t know what we’ll do with all of the cocaine,” Yakovlev was quoted by The Jerusalem Put up as saying. “Perhaps we’ll give it to a hospital.”

Reporting on Putin confidant Viktor Cherkesov’s press convention following the cocaine seizure, the newspaper Nevskoye vremya quoted the senior safety official as saying the narcotics can be repurposed for medical use.

In accordance with one Russian crime kingpin, officers and gangsters had been concocting plans to counterpoint themselves from the proceeds of the cocaine.

In a 2016 interview from jail, the place he’s serving a 25-year sentence for his function as head of the infamous Tambov crime group, Vladimir Kumarin stated he was approached by a St. Petersburg police official named Nikolai Aulov in 1992 or 1993 to debate the cocaine cargo seized on the Finnish border.

“As I understood it, he was hinting that I ought to take the medicine below management, arguing that whoever takes them below management will get large cash. Those that get large cash will grow to be sturdy and kill or imprison us, which is the way it turned out. The whole lot got here true,” Kumarin, who was generally known as St. Petersburg’s “evening governor” within the Nineteen Nineties attributable to his monumental affect in organized crime and politics, stated within the interview.

On the time, Aulov was an organized-crime specialist with St. Petersburg police. In 2006, Putin — then in his second time period as president — appointed him head of the Inside Ministry’s directorate within the Northwest Federal District, the highest police official for a big area that features St. Petersburg.

In 2016, Spanish authorities issued an worldwide arrest warrant for Aulov, by then deputy head of Russia’s federal counternarcotics company, over his demonstrated hyperlinks with Russian gang chief Gennady Petrov. Aulov’s company denied the allegations.

Whereas Russian authorities publicly touted the seizure of such a big consignment of cocaine and knowledgeable the media about developments within the investigation, reporters had been unable to seek out any document of press conferences or press releases about what occurred to the medicine.

The FSB didn’t reply to an e-mail searching for touch upon whether or not the metric ton of cocaine seized in 1993 had been repurposed for medical use as its senior officers, Cherkesov and Yakovlev, steered it will be.

Reporters despatched questions concerning the cocaine to Cherkesov by his spouse, Natalia Cherkesova, a outstanding Russian journalist for 3 many years and editor-in-chief of the St. Petersburg-based information outlet Rosbalt.

She didn’t verify whether or not she handed on the inquiries to Cherkesov. However she did ship a scan of a 1995 article revealed by the St. Petersburg newspaper she was enhancing on the time, Chas pik, or Rush Hour.

The article is a firsthand account by the paper’s reporter about accompanying two vans purportedly carrying the seized cocaine to a facility in Moscow that might supposedly convert it into medication.

In accordance with the article, the supply was carried out amid heightened secrecy and safety by the St. Petersburg department of the FSB, which Cherkesov headed on the time. The creator, who didn’t report truly seeing the cocaine, wrote that the FSB operatives blindfolded him “like in a film” upon arrival and didn’t take away the masks till he was within the workplace of a prime official on the facility.

The article cited an unidentified deputy director there as expressing concern that organized crime would possibly assault the power to steal the cocaine — and shock that the World Well being Group (WHO) had agreed to permit such a big haul of illicit cocaine to be processed for medical functions.

RFE/RL contacted the WHO and requested if the Geneva-based group had any document of such an settlement. A spokesman stated the WHO checked in its archive however “couldn’t discover something related in our information.”

The article within the newspaper run by Cherkesov’s spouse concluded by thanking the FSB department that he headed for “giving our journalist the distinctive alternative to take part in such a fragile operation.”

By Mark Krutov, Andrei Soshnikov, and Carl Schreck