ALL THE GODFATHERS
I’m well-known in the Armenian community. Remember the movie ‘The Godfather’ when they all go to the Godfather, they cry and he helps everybody? This is me.”
As boastful arrests go, it was pretty good. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols told police ‘You can’t arrest me, I’m a rockstar.’
But when it came to the self-described Godfather of the Los Angeles Russian
Armenian mafia, Hovsep ‘Mike’ Mikaelian, perhaps closer to the mark was the statement made by David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam, a 24-year-old postal worker whose string of night-time shootings in 1976 and 1977 had terrorised New York. A smiling David Berkowitz asked police officers: “How come it took you so long?”
It was 1985 when United States authorities finally got to Mikaelian, who flaunted his wealth as he rode around the city in one of his two Rolls-Royces.118 Without a thought for the girls he pimped, or the heroin he supplied, more appropriate perhaps would be Al Capone’s quote that: “I would rather be rich, affluent and greedy and go to hell when I die, than live in poverty on this earth.” How long would it take to bring down Mikaelian? Only a two-year sting operation had enabled a Los Angeles Police Organised Crime Intelligence Division task force to infiltrate Mikaelian’s burgeoning crime network. Mikaelian was accused of directing a massive fuel scam, one charge amid a 135-page Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit that detailed heroin sales, the importation of women from Eastern Europe for prostitution and extortion from wealthy businessmen among Los Angeles’ large community of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc.119
The Armenian Godfather had not learned, the dust only just settling from his controversial acquittal in the so-called ‘Laurel Canyon murders’, when four people were bludgeoned to death in a well-known drug den.120
On this occasion, his slick lawyers were encumbered with the sheer scale of his organisation and its illegal activities. Mikaelian, a.k.a. Joe McLean, pleaded guilty and served a decade in federal prison for running extortion, mail fraud, fuel tax evasion, narcotics and prostitution rackets.
Due to a drawn out legal process, including appeals, it would be 2006 before Mikaelian was released from federal prison.121 He was now 56 years old. And, with a nearly $2.4 million restitution order hanging over him, not about to retire.
In November 2013, one Texas-based investigator wrote of his post-prison life:
Joe MacLean, a.k.a. Hovsep Mikaelian, is now a free man. Between his trips to Vegas and Armenia, however, he works selling used cars, which is probably a front for his parole and court obligations to get a paycheck. I doubt he’s allowed to work in bars, casinos, entertainment, scams, etc., unless it’s secret. And to spite the court, I read that he is only making $50 monthly payments towards his fine. $50 is the minimum, according to an article about Joe’s release. His slimy lawyer claims that Joe has no income. On the eve of his arrest, he transferred “six figures” to an overseas bank, according to the Justice Dept.122
At $50 per month, Mikaelian will have cleared his financial debt to his adopted nation by the year 6018. Yet, in reality, $2.4 million would not be too much of a stretch, the aforementioned regular trips to his native Armenia giving indication as to Mikaelian’s more contemporary business portfolio.Mikaelian may have considered himself an Armenian Don, but he has competition in claiming the title.
On March 16th, 1986, the world was still gripped by the Cold War, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Mikhail Gorbachev was just settling into his corrosive tenure in Moscow. With the Soviet Union starting to come apart, the Los Angeles Times informed its readers of a new threat to the world as they knew it. Mobsters From Ex-Soviet Union a ‘Real Threat,’ Lungren Says, screamed a headline in the newspaper: California faces a “new and real threat” from mobsters from the former Soviet Union, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said Friday... “it is a threat. It is an emerging threat.”
Authorities estimate that there are now half a million immigrants from Soviet Bloc states in the Los Angeles area alone, 300,000 of them Armenians. Most live in the Hollywood and Glendale areas.
Describing elaborate fraud schemes, Lungren said mobsters who have arrived in California from the former Soviet Bloc have demonstrated a “level of sophistication that in some ways is startling.”
...Operating in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and San Diego, Russian and Armenian organised crime has been linked to fraud of various sorts, extortion, narcotics trafficking, auto theft and murder, the report says.123
Another to appear on the scene in the United States is “Big Time” Armen Kazarian, also known by the nickname ‘Pzo’. He headed the “Mirzoyan- Terdjanian Organisation” until the group went too far.
In October 2018, more than 50 members of the gang – mainly of Armenian origin and citizens of that country – were arrested in a string of law enforcement raids across America. Charges relating to the case would be filed in California, Georgia, New Mexico and Ohio, against more than 70 other mobsters.
In all, they falsely billed the government for $160 million. Prosecutors would state that the Armenian mob “puts the traditional Mafia to shame”.
On July 8th, 2011, represented by famed high-price Californian lawyer, Mark Geragos, whose celebrity clients had included Michael Jackson, Kazarian pleaded guilty of racketeering in the Federal Court of Manhattan.
The Federal Attorney of the Southern District of New York told the court that the 47-year-old headed a criminal group which operated in both Los Angeles and New York. The Medicare scam was part of a very large crime iceberg.
“I was involved in a criminal conspiracy,” Kazarian told the court through a translator, as he and dozens of other Armenian gangsters faced charges of setting up at least 118 phantom clinics that used stolen patient details to embezzle more than $35 million in federal funds through Medicare.
“Today, Armen Kazarian pled guilty... convicted in the United States for racketeering,” the Prosecutor said. “He will not be the last. His admission of guilt should become a signal for the international gangsters in the entire world. If you commit a crime in this country, we will find you and will bring you to charge to the strictest interpretation of the law.”
It was not all bad for Kazarian, however. The Russian service of Voice of America referred to Kazarian as a vor, a Russian word similar to the word ‘Don’ used for Italian mob bosses. The tradition of the vory v zakone emerged in Soviet prison camps of the 20s and 30s; a “thief in law” was the thief other criminals relied on to settle disputes. Vory swore an oath to lead a “thieves’ life,” a code of honour requiring them to help other vory, devote their lives to crime, never work legitimately, and always tell the truth to another vor.
The notoriously vain Kazarian would surely have been proud of being recognised publicly as one of this elite.
Only he was about to do the unthinkable for a mob boss. Facing a life sentence for the massive Medicare fraud scheme, the Armenian cut a three-year ‘sweetheart deal’ with prosecutors. Federal District Judge Paul Gardephe cautioned Kazarian that he could not appeal if he was sentenced to 37 months or less, as per the arrangement. He agreed.124
It is almost unheard of for a supposed vor to cut a deal. Yet while several of Kazarian’s underlings pled guilty to their crimes and were prosecuted accordingly, he turned informer on his own crime family.
After serving his lesser time in the United States, Kazarian would return to his ancestral homeland. He features elsewhere in this tome.
While the likes of Mikaelian and Kazarian would find themselves rumbled in the United States, and eventually find themselves rebuilding their criminal lives back home in Armenia, the phenomenon continues to be a problem for their adopted country. In 2014, the LA Weekly reported on a vast investigation that aimed to pull down Armenian Power: ...an international, organised-crime group, which functions more like the mob than gangsters who flash their signs in the grittier stretches of Los Angeles and its suburbs.
The FBI’s operations were just part of a massive task force targeting Armenian Power, which also included the Los Angeles, Glendale and Burbank police departments, as well as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the United States Secret Service and other federal groups.125
After a massive investigation, Armenian Power would eventually be damaged, although not fatally, through the prosecution of many of its members, most notably kingpin Mher Darbinyan, also known as Capone and Hollywood Mike.
The United States is not isolated in its issues with this, however.
Europe got perhaps its first taste of mass law enforcement efforts to crack an Armenian gang when Czech and Austrian police were involved in a coordinated series of raids. More than 50 Armenians were arrested having been “active” in killings, racketeering and armed robbery, according to Austrian radio.
More followed. In June 2018, some 142 people were arrested across 72 raids in locations that included Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia. A Spanish police investigation into the Armenian mafia highlighted drug and arms trafficking, tobacco smuggling, money laundering, sports betting fraud and other crimes committed across Europe. The gang has alleged criminal links in the United States, France, Belgium, Italy and Lithuania.126
During the same period there has been much discussion over a 30-minute MDR Television documentary film titled “Godfather in Germany: The Armenian Mafia and Thieves-In-Law”, exposing the Armenian mafia in that country. A joint investigation by reporters from the news magazine Der Spiegel and MDR Television, revealed that German law enforcement agencies had been secretly monitoring the Armenian mafia in the country for years. According to Der Spiegel, the police operation, codenamed FATIL (Fight against thieves in law), targeted 42 mafia members, while controversy swirled around Armenia’s Ambassador, Aschot Smbatjan, and his close relations with criminal groups.
While Spanish law enforcement seemed successful, the German investigation did not succeed as well, with Horizon Armenian Weekly reporting that German Police Fail to Take Down ‘Armenian Mafia’.
Down Under in Australia, the Daily Mail reported on Armenian cocaine dealers, while the Sydney Morning Herald stated that crime families now operate “from Armenia to Australia”. There have been arrests of Armenian mafia members reported in South America, Asia and Africa.
For good measure, it was an Armenian-Belgian gang behind sweeping June 2018 arrests connected to a group that has corrupted professional tennis. Raids also took place in the United States, Germany, France, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Netherlands following investigations promoted by the Independent Review of Integrity in Tennis that stated an “investigator described the extent of the problem at some lower level events as a “tsunami,” according to Agence France- Presse.
Organised crime is not usually ranked among the highest priorities of global governance. Governments and law enforcement agencies speak of terrorism, cyber attacks and military conflicts. These are the metrics commonly used to measure the safety of our societies.
Yet the harm and effect caused by organised crime are arguably equally as pervasive. The results of mafia activities can be felt on a daily basis at the local, national and international level. These effects manifest themselves through symptoms such as insecurity, levels of violence, economics and the exploitation of state weakness.
Donald Cressey’s famous analysis of organised crime in Theft of the Nation, which based his hypothesis on the example provided by La Cosa Nostra in the United States, emphasised the existence of a “nationwide illicit cartel and confederation”. Yet perhaps the best template for Armenia can be drawn from Francis Ianni’s seminal study, Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organised Crime, which focused on the African American and Puerto Rican criminal networks in New York.
The latter understood mafia through a prism of patron-client relations rather than formal hierarchies.
With historically large diaspora around the world, followed by independence from the Soviet Union and the increasingly free movement of criminal elements, the rise of groups like Armenia Power, and others reported in Europe and elsewhere, was perhaps inevitable.
Some have been discombobulated through law enforcement efforts. Yet the fact that most exist along the lines of Cressey’s loose confederations, and within the even more opaque patron-client relationships that Ianni describes, ultimately makes them somewhat impervious to anything more than disruption. They grow back. Like a cancer.
Armenia itself has always had its problems. Its homegrown mafia dominated life in the country. With the arrival in Yerevan of a new generation of hardened Armenian-American Godfathers, the likes of Mikaelian and Kazarian being just two, the nation was entering a new and even more radical phase in its delinquency.
On the one hand, it is a nation that boasts serene beauty similar to Lake Sevan, the cerebral monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin, and other wonders. Yet the Caucasus republic has become more infamous for its political leeches, famed for sucking the economic lifeblood from their own nation and people.
Kocharyan et al.
In 2017, Armenia was ranked a meagre 35 out of 100 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The Atlantic wrote that ordinary Armenians had: grown tired of broken promises, endemic corruption and the widening gap between the country’s haves and the have-nots.
Yet weighed down by a rich political elite, and a criminal underclass that has spun a web from Yerevan and across the world, any journey towards national redemption will be long and hard.
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