Drugs, Diamonds and Deadly
from the 11-part series
Making a Killing
The Business of War
The Center for Public Integrity
At ten minutes past midnight on Aug. 5,
2000, police from the Milanese suburb of Cinisello Balsamo received
a tip from a confidential source about a man known as "Leo"
or "Leon." He was said to be hanging out at a smart
party in room 341 of the Hotel Europa, where substantial quantities
of cocaine were being consumed.
The tip turned out to be excellent. As
they entered the room at the hotel, the officers found four scantily
clad women gathered around a man. They searched the room and found
58 grams of the highest quality coke. One of the girls, a Russian,
was diluting it.
The policemen had no idea who it was they
hauled back with them to the station. The name Leonid Minin, a
52-year-old Israeli industrialist originally from Odessa in the
Ukraine, meant nothing to them. Minin is, in fact, an Israeli
citizen with an Israeli passport, but also has passports from
the former Soviet Union, Russia, Germany and Bolivia.
The initial investigation in Monza, the
Milanese suburb where Minin was held, revealed little of interest.
Some prostitutes had been pampering a businessman, who was fond
of cocaine and sex. Under questioning, he admitted to sniffing
30 to 40 grams a day. He spent about $1,500 a day on his habit.
But he could afford it: he also had bank deposits worth up to
$3 million. He told the investigators he had come from Sofia and
traded precious wood from Liberia and owned companies in China,
Liberia and Gibraltar.
The police knew that Minin was hardly
a pauper. When they arrested him, he
had $25,000 and 12.5 million Italian lira (almost $6,000) in cash
on him, as well as Mauritian rupees, Hungarian forints and some
polished diamonds, worth nearly $500,000. "Some of those
diamonds come from the selling of my shares in a company I own
on the island of Mauritius," Minin told them. But despite
his wealth, he wasn't able to get out on bail because of the seriousness
of the drug possession charges.
The authorities in Monza were, at first,
unaware whom they had arrested. It was not until weeks later that
they learned that the man with the expensive drug habit and the
fondness for beautiful women was under investigation in five countries
for various crimes. It would take even longer to piece together
the documents that he carried with him: the papers would tell
the story of his illegal arms trading, including selling weapons
to the most brutal of Africa's rebel insurgencies, the Revolutionary
United Front in Sierra Leone.
Before his arrest for drug possession,
Minin operated with near impunity as an illegal arms dealer and
an ally of brutal regimes. He was also a high-ranking member of
a Russian organized crime syndicate. His arrest was fortuitous,
but also a disturbing illustration of the inability of law enforcement
agencies to prosecute criminals whose operations are international
in scope. A lack of international coordination among law enforcement
and intelligence agencies has allowed arms dealers like Minin
to develop complex businesses involving individuals, companies
and governments in dozens of countries, a nearly two-year global
investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative
Journalists has found.
While the Italian police who arrested
Minin had no idea who he was for several weeks, intelligence services
across Europe had no idea that the infamous mobster had been arrested
on a mundane drug charge. Unlike the police in Monza, the spy
agencies had lengthy dossiers on Minin.
Switzerland, for example, banned him from
entering the country in February 2000 and recorded his aliases:
Leon Minin, Wulf Breslav, Igor Osols and Leonid Bluvshtein. According
to the Swiss authorities, he had been arrested in Germany in the
mid 1970s for falsifying stolen identity documents, and had a
record of fraudulent dealings in the art world.
The Swiss were sketchy about his more
recent activities, but did know that "for several years he
has been depositing millions of dollars in Europe and Switzerland
according to him, from international oil trades." Other
European intelligence agencies helped fill in the gaps the
money, they had discovered, was laundered from sales of oil stolen
Belgium, too, had intriguing files on
Minin: on Dec. 18, 1994, in a smart Brussels suburb, three men
had assassinated a certain Vladimir Missiourine, who had connections
to the "oil mafia" of Odessa an international
organized crime group. Investigators traced calls made by Missiourine
to a company in Rome, Galaxy Energy, which was owned by Minin.
Another Belgian judge suspected Minin "of giving $200,000
to a [Philippe] Rozenberg, [a member of parliament] in order to
obtain identity documents to allow him to set up a base in Belgium,"
according to court documents in the case. Rozenberg
is still under investigation, has not been charged, and has not
commented publicly on the investigation.
France, which had issued a public intelligence
report on Minin for possession, transport and use of cocaine,
also had a large file on him. One intelligence report stated that
Minin "left the USSR in 1967, where he was known for racketeering."
France claimed he had moved on to Bolivia, Switzerland, Germany,
Monaco and Italy. Once again, he was dealing in oil products,
and once again with oil mafia connections - "maintaining
relations with confirmed members of the (criminal underworld)
originating from CIS [the Commonwealth of Independent States,
the successor entity to the Soviet Union], such as Viatcheslave
Ivankov, considered by the American authorities as the Russian
Mafia kingpin in the United States, and Andrei Skrylev, suspected
of being an important drug trafficker in Eastern Europe."
Like Switzerland, Monaco had declared
him a prohibited immigrant on June 18, 1997. The French docket
also referred to information from the Italians themselves: "At
the end of 1998, the Italians authorities regarded Minine [sic]
as the head of a criminal group of Ukrainian origin, close to
the criminal organization Solnstevo [sic] and specializing, among
other things, in the international trafficking of weapons and
narcotics, money laundering and extortion. In Ukraine, Minine
[sic] maintains close relations with Alexandre Angert, the head
(pivot) of organized crime in Odessa."
And while the public prosecutor's office
in Monza had never heard of the man, the Italian national police
were very familiar with Leonid Minin. As far back as October 1998
the Italians had compiled a detailed report, which declared that
Minin was "one of the most important members of the 'Neftemafija'
" that is, the oil mafia, based in Odessa.
The report was based on the work of the
Servizio Centrale Operativo, the elite investigative unit and
the nerve center of the Italian National Police, which at the
time had spent almost a year on a complex investigation of a Ukrainian
criminal group associated with the Russian mafia and involved
in international arms and drug trafficking, money laundering,
extortion and other offenses. The leader of the group was listed
as "Minin Leonid." The report chronicled Minin's taste
for cocaine, but the 1998 investigation focused on Minin's activities
at the oil terminals in Odessa and on the laundering of his oil
The investigators were also interested
in his role as head of an organization, the Neftjemafija, that
included top members of the Ukrainian mafia, such as Alexandre
Angert, alias "Angel," and Nicholay Fomichev, alias
"Kolija." The report said these men had "a large
quantity of weapons such as guns, machine-guns, pistols, hand
grenades [sic] and explosives."14 The report also described
assassination attempts on some politicians at election time in
In July 1997, Angert, Fomichev and two
bodyguards had been intercepted on the main road encircling Brussels,
the investigators noted. In a video camera the men had been carrying,
the police found a cassette that appeared to have just been recorded
in Eastern Europe of a training camp for bodyguards and
assassins. Minin appears on the tape, which also shows armed men
in training, shooting targets and using pump action shotguns.
When the report was compiled between
1997 and 1998 its analysis of Minin's phone and travel activity
did not reveal any connections to Africa.16 But when he was arrested
in Milan, investigators discovered clues about his new life: contracts,
faxes and letters related to Liberia, weapons catalogs and price
estimates, and end-user certificates issued by the Ivory Coast,
price lists for weapons, ammunitions and military goods.
Yet before those clues could be studied,
there was still the matter of Minin's arrest in the Hotel Europa
and subsequent trial. In 2000, Minin was convicted and sentenced
to two years in prison for possession of drugs. Minin's appeal
failed. With the drug case finished, Walter Mapelli, the public
prosecutor, turned his attention to investigating the documents
found in Minin's luggage that threw light on his arms sales, including
sales to some of Africa's most brutal thugs.
No living thing
Ostensibly created to challenge the corrupt
regime of Joseph Momoh in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United
Front never managed to construct a coherent ideology. At best,
its leader, Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal who had been
exiled to Libya after leading a failed coup, spouted a half-baked
version of pan-Africanism inspired by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's "Green
Book," the Libyan leader's political manifesto. Published in 1976, the book is replete with the
Libyan leader's own brand of revolutionary ideas on economics,
political theory and social musings.
The origins of the war in Sierra Leone
had more to do with the frustrated ambitions of Charles Taylor,
a warlord in neighboring Liberia, than any ideology of the RUF
to better the country. In 1990, a peacekeeping force assembled
by the Economic Community of West African States including
two units of troops from Sierra Leone thwarted Taylor's
attempt to seize the Liberian capital, Monrovia. An angry Taylor
warned in a radio broadcast that neighboring Sierra Leone would
"taste the bitterness of war."
At the time Taylor, though not a head
of state, was in control of a large part of the Liberian interior,
a territory known as Greater Liberia. He ran his fiefdom as a
business, exporting timber, iron ore and other commodities through
the port of Buchanan. As he took control of trade in the interior,
he soon became interested in the rich deposits of diamonds on
the Sierra Leone side of the border. The RUF became the instrument
of Taylor's vengeance and greed.
In March 1991, the RUF struck across the
border with several units of Taylor's armed forces, as well as
mercenaries from Burkina Faso. The first target they hit was the
diamond-rich district of Koindu. Throughout the 1990s, as the
United Nations and other international agencies have documented,
Taylor and his foreign partners used the RUF to profit from Sierra
Leone's diamonds, while the RUF launched a campaign of unprecedented
brutality against the population of Sierra Leone.
Among the worst episodes was the January
1999 campaign aptly called "Operation No Living Thing."
Over four months of slaughter, RUF thugs killed 5,000 people,
and amputated the arms, hands, feet and ears of thousands more.
Some 150,000 people were left homeless by the RUF's rampage; they
burned down more than 80 percent of Freetown's buildings
including mosques, churches and schools.
There were both motive and method to the
madness of the RUF. A confidential intelligence report from the
former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2000 concluded
that Taylor's strategy was to maintain his influence over the
diamonds of eastern Sierra Leone through the RUF, capitalizing
on the breakdown of all state authority in the area. Minin's bag of documents provided a rare window
into the details of the arms deals that fueled the conflict.
A frequent flyer, with cargoes of arms
A closed hearing on Nov. 28, 2000, opened
the way for Mapelli to indict Minin. On June 20, 2001, he was
charged with weapons trafficking, and for delivering a hundred
tons of weapons, spare parts, ammunition and explosives to the
Revolutionary United Front. Minin was charged with using false
end-user certificates, and for delivering 68 tons of weaponry
from Eastern Europe supposedly destined for Burkina Faso, and
113 tons marked for the Ivory Coast, to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Documents from Minin's luggage illustrated
his methods. One fax sent to Minin on March 23, 1999, discusses
missiles with a range of more than 4,000 meters. "The procurement
can be done with 'end-user' or without. If we can declare that
we can deliver without the Certificate, the Buyer can realize
the procurement without going through a bidding procedure."
The advantage of this would be to keep costs down.
Another fax, sent to Minin on April 28,
2000, expressed an interest in communication satellites and launchers:
"Rostelesat is planning to launch its 24 (plus 4 back up
satellites) into orbit with SS-18 rockets. These rockets are converted
from intercontinental ballistic missiles and our company obtained
access to them for launching its satellites."
Some of the letters and faxes appeared
to be in code, discussing matters like the trade of flowers between
Amsterdam and Israel - a reference, the prosecutor in Monza believed,
to illicit diamonds.
The United Nations, which was also investigating
Minin's involvement in arms trading, provided background that
helped Italian authorities make sense of Minin's role in two operations
alluded to in the documents. In December 2000, a panel of U.N.
experts determined that there was "conclusive evidence of
supply lines to Liberia through Burkina Faso. Weapons supplied
to Burkina Faso by governments or private arms merchants have
been systematically diverted for use in the conflict in Sierra
Leone. For example, a shipment of 68 tons of weapons arrived in
Ouagadougou [in Burkina Faso] on 13 March 1999. They were temporarily
off-loaded in Ouagadougou and some were trucked to Bobo-Dioulasso
[in Burkina Faso]. The bulk of them were then trans-shipped within
a matter of days to Liberia. Most were flown aboard a BAC-111
owned by an Israeli businessman of Ukrainian origin, Leonid Minin."
Those shipments violated international
sanctions. In 1997, the United Nations
slapped an arms embargo on the RUF. (It was less than effective.
Arms continued to reach the movement through Liberia, which led
the United Nations to put that country under an embargo in March
2001, with the intention of preventing the arms trafficking to
On Jan. 10, 2001, Johan Peleman, one of
the U.N. experts and a co-author of the December 2000 report,
went to Mapelli's Monza office to make a statement. Peleman told
Mapelli about the delivery to Ouagadougou. According to Ukrainian
documents, the weapons had been sold under the terms of a contract
between the Ukrainian state-owned arms exporting company Ukrspetseksport
and a Gibraltar company representing Burkina Faso's defense ministry.
An airplane belonging to the British company Air Foyle then delivered
the weapons to Ouagadougou, on behalf of Antonov Design Bureau,
a Ukrainian cargo shipper.
The arms did not remain in Ouagadougou.
At first, Burkina Faso denied to the United Nations that the weapons
were meant for Liberia, but later admitted the truth to the U.N.
investigators: the arms had been shipped to Liberia in March 1999
using a BAC-111 belonging to Minin.
Peleman's account was supported by Mapelli's
investigation. When the Italians arrested Minin on drug charges
in August 2000, he had been trying to sell the very BAC-111 used
to transport the arms. His luggage was full of papers documenting
the aircraft's history, which any prospective buyer would want
before purchasing the aircraft. A summary of the plane's flights
found in Minin's luggage matched the U.N. account of the route
that weapons shipped from Ouagadougou to Monrovia in March 1999
had taken. On March 6, Minin had left Odessa for Kiev and, on
March 8, he went to Monrovia via Ibiza, in the Mediterranean.
The records suggested that Minin, himself,
could have closely supervised the shipment of weapons from Ukraine
to Burkina Faso. And, according to the papers, the plane made
several roundtrips between Monrovia and Ouagadougou during March
to carry "Liberian Gov Cargo." The Monza police also
got two pictures taken during March 1999 that showed Minin's plane
at Bobo-Dioulasso airport. Another photograph showed the inside
of a plane filled with boxes of weapons
The U.N. experts also concluded that in
the weeks before his arrest, Minin was planning to deliver a massive
amount of weapons to Liberia via the Ivory Coast.
Among the documents taken from him were
several copies of a buyer's certificate signed by Gen. Robert
Guei, then the leader of the Ivory Coast. According to this document,
which was authenticated by the Ivory Coast embassy in Moscow,
on May 26, 1999, Guei authorized the following to be bought in
his name: 5 million rounds of 76 2x39mm Ball ammunition; 50 M93
30mm grenade launchers; 10,000 30mm bombs for M93 launcher; 20
thermal image binoculars. The authorization for the deal was made
out to a certain Valery Cherny, from the company "Aviatrend."
When the prosecutor confronted him with
this document during a judiciary interview, Minin sought to distance
himself from Cherny. He said he had met him by chance, and the
Ivory Coast document had come into his possession by accident.
Minin explained that he had come across Cherny in a hotel in Italy,
and that Cherny had left some of his documents in a green wallet
in Minin's room. "Poco verosimile" (hardly credible),
was the Italian judge's opinion of Minin's explanation.
The judge's opinion was soon confirmed.
Minin shipped wood through his Liberian company Exotic Tropical
Timber Enterprise (ETTE) logging is one of the prime sources
of revenue in Liberia and was a mainstay of Taylor's forces
using Cherny's trucks. Minin was forced to concede that he knew
Cherny as his supplier of trucks, but still denied any involvement
in an arms deal with Cherny.
When asked to explain other documents
in his luggage referring to weapons, Minin said: "These are
photocopies of magazines. I do not and have never been concerned
with weapon trading. My company Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise
deals with wood. Aviatrend is not a
company you can link to me. It belongs to Valery Cherny and this
company (Aviatrend) has a contract with a Ukrainian company that
produces trucks. They have sold lorries to Exotic Tropical for
my company to transport timber from the interior of the country
to Liberia's ports."
Other documents found in Minin's luggage
were to shatter this defense, too. One fax, sent by Cherny on
an Aviatrend Limited letterhead, offered to furnish weaponry that
was identical to that listed on the buyer certificate from the
Ivory Coast. The fax was sent to a certain "Leonid."
Aviatrend bought the weapons in Ukraine and then offered them
to Minin, even though the buyer certificate was under the name
of Cherny. Other documents confirmed the deception. Another fax
specified: "Delivery terms: FCA airport Bourgas. Delivery
time: up to 30 days from date payment is received and after EUC
[end user certificate] submitted." The weapons were to be
shipped through Bulgaria, and the price, according to various
notes on the faxes, varied between $910,500 and $1,071,350.
The Italian prosecutor also managed to
get hold of a bank order from Minin. On June 7, Minin had told
his contact at Banco di Lugano, a Mr. Pessina, to pay $850,000
to Alpha Bank Ltd, in Nicosia, Cyprus, in the name of Aviatrend
Limited. The transfer was purportedly for the "purchase of
engineering for a wood industry."
The delivery of the weapons eventually
took place in the middle of July 2000, according to faxes sent
by Aviatrend to the Ivory Coast defense ministry. Copies of the
faxes went to Minin, who, at that time, was staying in room 204
of "Hotel Atlantic" in Sofia. Via fax, Minin received
a blow-by-blow account of the weapons transaction. One telex dated July 11, 2000, sent to room 204,
said an Antonov 124-100, registered as UR82008 and belonging to
the Ukrainian company Antonov Design Bureau, would deliver on
the following day 113 tons of cargo "cartridges UNOO14, 1.4S"
from the Kiev-based military company Spetstehnoexport. According
to the document, the captain of the plane, Vitalii Horovienko,
would be assisted by 18 other Ukrainian citizens, and had to deliver
the goods officially to the defense ministry of the Ivory Coast.
The Italians then managed to prove that the buyer certificate
dated May 26 which was used for that July weapons delivery
was falsified. Marius Assemian, a counselor at the Ivory
Coast embassy in Italy, testified to that on June 7, 2001.
There was plenty of circumstantial evidence
to back up the hunch that the weapons were destined for Sierra
Leone. Through his timber business, Minin had met with Taylor.
The arms dealer was even closer to Taylor's son, known as "Chucky"
and "Junior," who has been known to be active in Sierra
On July 27, 1999, a business contact of
Minin's (the same one who had written to him about "flowers")
sent a fax: "I flew from Spain straight to Turkey to start
work on (.) special package for JUNIOR. We can deliver provided
he can pay for it (.) Kindly arrange that I have a line of communication
with JUNIOR in case I will need it. The package consists of 20-30
items, in addition to the 100 units you know about."
Mapelli believed the figure of 100 referred
to 100 missiles.
Another fax sent to Minin, dated Feb.
5, 2000, and signed by one of Minin's associates in Liberia, shed
further light on the relations between the arms dealer and the
younger Taylor. The fax said: "Dear Leo, I'm just coming
from Chucky's house. He called me this morning for a business
proposal . Nature of the business:
to be the sole importer of crude oil by-products to Liberia. Duration
of the business: 2 to 3 years or so estimated profit would be
around: 3,000,000 US$/month."
Minin even paid expenses for Taylor's
son. The Italian investigation came across a fax, sent by the
younger Taylor to "Minin-Switzerland" on Feb. 15, 2000,
concerning the expenses he had incurred on a trip to Trinidad.
Inscribed on the top of the fax was the single word "Pessina,"
an apparent reference to Minin's contact at the Banco di Lugano,
which Minin used to pay for arms purchased from Aviatrend.
It is unclear on what else the two men
were collaborating, since the younger Taylor cut off all ties
with Minin after his arrest. Among the last documents seized and
analyzed by the Italians was a hand-written fax by "Charles
McArthur Taylor Junior." The Liberian president's son wrote
to Minin: "And from this day forward never in your life ever
contact me again."
From bullets to ballots
British forces, acting as part of a U.N.
peacekeeping force, entered Sierra Leone in 2000 after other U.N.
troops had been forced to surrender to the RUF.
Step by step, they began to recapture
the country's districts and demobilize the rebel forces
about 47,000 fighters were disarmed. By May 2002, the situation
had finally turned around. Foday Sankoh was in jail in Freetown
awaiting trial for murder; Leonid Minin was in jail in Italy,
awaiting trial for gunrunning, scheduled for December 2002; Charles
Taylor was warding off an offensive by rebels from the Liberians
United for Reconciliation and Democracy and had seen the war move
to within 25 kilometers of his own capital, Monrovia.
On May 14, citizens of Sierra Leone went
to the polls and peacefully re-elected Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as president.
Ed Royce, the Africa subcommittee chairman in the U.S. House of
Representatives, commented: "One can't help but be moved
by the photos of Sierra Leoneans who had their hands amputated
managing to cast ballots."
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