Greek police cracks down on Greco-Turkish gold smuggling ring

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To the complex nature of relations which have kept Turkey and Greece together for bad or good, another level of interaction has been added this week: criminality.

Not that the phenomenon is new: collaboration of criminal gangs or individuals embroiled in a wide variety of illegal activities have been known to the police of both countries for long time, especially drug trade. Greece and Turkey are “transit” countries. They lie on one of the most important drug trade routes, the so-called “Balkan Axis”, which links the opiate producing countries i.e. Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with Western Europe. Famous cases of criminal gangs being active in both countries as “carriers and distributors” of drugs by land or sea, have often hit the international headlines.

Lately, another form of criminal activity was added to the illegal exchanges between the two countries: human smuggling and illegal immigration trade. According to the official Greek police report for 2017, Greece arrested 1,399 human smugglers of illegal immigrants and refugees coming from Turkey.

However, the reason that prompted this article has to do with an unexpected example of a close collaboration of Greeks and Turks in a novel criminal occupation: gold smuggling. And the revenue is enormous.

The Greek police hit the headlines last Tuesday when they announced that they had managed to dismantle two major criminal gangs who were active in systematic illegal trade of gold on a gigantic scale, carried out from Greece to Turkey.

According to the official announcement, nearly seventy individuals were arrested so far, and the leader of the gang turned out to be a household name for the Greek TV viewers by advertising his enormous network of pawnbroker shops spread all over Greece. His call to anyone who wanted to pawn any valuable item for “the best cash price” became a standard feature on people’s TV screens. Many desperate Greeks must have sought his services during the hard years of bail-out austerity. Richardos-the man’s first name and the name of his shops, with a high profile in social media, was also promoted and hosted by various TV programmes as a successful businessman owner of the largest pawnbroker chain, living in luxury and using his all-gold telephone set for his business.

According to the police, Richardos was the leader of a criminal gang in which his close accomplice was a Turkish citizen. The gang also included other gold dealers and jewellers and had links with a second criminal gang consisting mainly of plain robbers coming from the community of the Greek Roma, who only during 2016 were thought to have carried out around 700 robberies mainly in the Athens area.

The golden objects which were brought to the Richardos’ group either through his pawn shops or via robberies were melted into ingots-the infrastructure of the gang included smelting furnaces. Those gold ingots weighing 6kgs each were taken to Turkey using regular Greek or Turkish tourist buses from the border city of Alexandroupolis, a popular method of cheap travelling for a large number of visitors to and from Turkey. The gold was sent every two days as unaccompanied package “to be collected” on the other side or in passengers’ luggage. The estimated daily turnover was nearly half a million euros. The money was then laundered in buying real estate, cars and luxury boats.

So far, according to the Greek police, 50 kgs. of gold has been confiscated and one person was caught on the customs of Alexandroupolis with 25 kgs of gold.

The story is just beginning to unfold; the first suspects have been detained and taken to the court. Not very much is known about the Turkish leg of the operation. The name of the Turkish citizen is not revealed yet. There are some conflicting stories in the Greek media claiming him to be of Syrian or Armenian origin.

It is only a matter of time before the story spill over to Turkey. And even further than that, as according to information, the final destination of the “loot” was Germany and Central Europe.

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