Illicit firearms trafficking is defined as “the import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition from or across the territory of one State Party to that of another State Party”. The majority of such illicit trafficking activities are conducted by private entities, such as organized criminal groups, but it has been shown that governments also contribute in opposition to the UN’s arms embargoes. Eastern Europe, more specifically the Western Balkans and the former Soviet Union, is the originating location for most organized criminal organizations involved in weapons trafficking. Such organizations include Outlaw Motorcycle gangs which have active chapters in Western Europe (For more details on Outlaw Motorcycle gangs you can check my previous article, link below). Besides the history of firearms trafficking in Eastern Europe, this article will also look at the most recent cases of Illicit Firearms Trafficking coming from this region. Lastly, this article will cover how some of the Law Enforcement agencies coming from this region counter these operations.
The wild 90’s of Leon Minin, one of the hardest to prosecute Arm Barons:
Leon Minin, Wulf Breslav, Igor Osols, and Leonid Bluvshtein all have something in common, and that is that they are all the same person. The three latter names together with others are Minin’s aliases registered and banned by the Swiss authorities. He was born in Ukraine and later in life acquired passports from Israel, the former Soviet Union, Russia, Germany, and Bolivia. Furthermore, he was one of the most difficult cases that the international authorities had to solve at the beginning of this century. The issue was a lack of international coordination among law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which allowed Minin, among other arms dealers like him to develop complex businesses involving individuals, companies, and governments in dozens of countries. He was known for many international illicit trafficking activities that weren’t limited to weapons alone, he was also involved in the following activities and more beyond that:
money laundering from sales of oil stolen from Russia;
connections to the “oil mafia” of Odessa;
the international trafficking of narcotics;
fraudulent dealings in the art world;
illicit diamond trafficking;
He was successfully accused of trafficking weapons in June 2001, and of giving the Revolutionary United Front 100 tons of weapons, ammunition, and explosives. He was also accused of using counterfeit end-user certifications, transporting 113 tons of weapons from Eastern Europe to Liberia and Sierra Leone 113 tons, and 68 tons to Ivory Coast which were intended to arrive in Burkina Faso. Additionally, his faxes were usually coded but sometimes they were straight to the point. One such Fax talks about missiles with a range of more than 4,000 meters and how to reduce the costs in the transaction. For more details on his life and activities, I recommend the investigation Drugs, Diamonds, and Deadly Cargoes by A. Lallemand for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Latvian, Ukrainian, and Spanish Trafficking Group:
In 2018 the operation began to cease a criminal network made up of Latvian, Spanish, and Ukrainian members illegally transporting weapons and explosives to conflict zones in North Africa and the Middle East from Ukraine. This investigation involved the “Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional), Mossos d’Esquadra and the Spanish Tax Agency (Agencia Tributaria),” while Europol supported them. This group used cargo ships traveling the Mediterranean Sea to transport their illegal shipments by concealing them in legally sourced armaments. These illegal shipments included weapons and heavy armament, such as tanks. Additionally, this criminal group carried out money-laundering activities as well as other economic schemes to overall reduce their income taxes while increasing their profits. Their downfall came after the leader’s disputes over their activities. This investigation ended in November 2020, and it required specialists in economics, weapons, technology, and commercial and international maritime transport.
The Western Balkans and their cases of firearm trafficking:
Figure 1. Number of persons convicted for firearms trafficking in the Western Balkans, 2013-2018
Price data from Europe show Western Balkans as a potential illicit source of firearms, notably assault rifles. Here, the criminal groups taking part in firearm trafficking often work on an individual level and less based on working for organized crime. For instance, according to Serbia’s 2015 Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment, published by the Ministry of the Interior, criminal groups in Serbia frequently collaborated through friendship and family ties across shared language groups. The firearms would be frequently dismantled and hidden in passenger or cargo vehicles with altered or built-in compartments, or in luggage traveling on international bus and railway routes. Additionally, during unauthorized border crossings, they were also moved by boat or on foot. When organized criminal groups are involved, they use firearm trafficking to enforce order, threaten rival organizations, or assure the safety of the group's operations and members. For instance, there have been instances in Montenegro where criminal organizations have planted explosive devices on the vehicles and other property of members of rival criminal organizations.
Moreover, the illicit firearm trafficking in Western Balkans was linked to migrant smuggling, drug trafficking, theft, and petty crimes. A case that links the first two illicit activities to weapon trafficking is that of North Macedonia, which from 2016 to 2017 reported a substantial capture from an organized crime cell involved in these three activities. Thirteen firearms were ceased, including three rifles, a hand grenade, and two chemical explosives. ENODC conducted interviews with prisoners which uncovered that illegally acquired firearms are used in various petty crimes and theft, if not obtained by using such means.
To conclude, the cases presented above highlight the ongoing problem of illicit arms trafficking from Eastern Europe to other nearby regions or conflict zones around the world. While there have been no recent reports (last 3 years) of such trafficking, the issue remains a concern, and efforts to combat it continue. EUROPOL strives for protecting the well-known Balkan Route and Law Enforcement Agencies from the Balkan states and former Soviet Union states aid in this process together with many other European countries. Through their cooperation with Eurojust, Frontex, INTERPOL, SELEC, and other international organizations the fight against illicit firearm trafficking will continue to be fought.