Former murder detective, Director of the Police and Boarder Guard Board Elmar Vaher talks about how his former colleagues from the central criminal police reached a new level in unmasking criminal organizations and the background of several exciting investigations.
The police have caught several influential criminal groups recently. We had similar news in the past, but the story was usually simple: someone demanded payment of a debt, the police documented the situation and brought charges of blackmail. Today’s investigations have more layers. Whence this leap in quality?
There are several reasons. The police, and especially the central criminal police the task of which it is to fight organized crime, depend on quantity and quality of information. If the people of Estonia trust us, we get better information. Information is our weapon. That is just how it is.
People connected to criminal organizations usually do not talk to you about operations in Estonia. People who talk are either in dire straits or have been pressured by the police…
It is already a good result when victims work with us. It is important to concentrate on your goals, your targets in other words. And to stick to that principle – if in the past we had our fair share of chaos, meaning our analysis of tactical information was weak, we launched purposeful action again in 2006-2008, after a break.
I’m referring to quarterly organized crime overviews introduced by Koit Pikaro, Andres Anvelt, and Kalev Prillop as heads of the central criminal police. It was an overview and assessment based on which the police singled out more dangerous groups and characters. At some point, it stopped. We were relying too heavily on Europol analyses and threat assessments. A small country’s domestic concerns lose out to the problems of bigger ones.
Why did that incomprehensible break in the work of the criminal police happen?
I don’t know. I will not take responsibility for other executives. I know why we went back to it. It came from the bottom up. Our detectives told us they don’t want to come to work each morning to try and find something to do; they need to concentrate on a single target.
The team said they cannot keep running in circles. It is important to give detectives space. Do not disturb us, do not ask for reports on why there are no results. That request has merit – if we have the correct targets and the team is trusted.
Are they correct?
We go over existing targets with the prosecution every year to see where we are and where we want to be. You need ambition. We picked the things we want our detectives and surveillance agents to work on in 2018.
Detectives receive a lot of interesting information all the time. A lot. And a detective’s soul wants to investigate all of it. However, if it is not their target, if it doesn’t help them reach their goal, they must hand the information over to the prefecture or the station.
I was attending a Europol meeting in The Hague when Nikolai Tarankov was murdered. Prosecutor General Lavly Perling was also abroad. Our first question was why should this be investigated by the central criminal police. It was a classic shooting that had a crime scene, and we knew Tarankov was the victim. But do we need the central criminal police on this?
You put them on it.
Yes, as there were undercover proceedings, and we had spent a long time investigating the common fund of the underground.
Postimees wrote, after Tarankov was killed, that he would likely have been arrested soon. However, that piece of news went largely unnoticed. Would you have gotten as far as arresting Tarankov with your investigation into the fund?
I hold it rather likely. His murder was a crossroads for us – what next. One thing was clear: we need to concentrate on the ensuing power struggle.
Information can prove useful in different investigations. It is now 18 months since Tarankov’s death; before that, you had arrested Assar Paulus, Haron Dikajev, Andrei Kuzjakin; Roman Smirnov and Jevgeni Medunitsa in East Viru County…
Yes, there was also [Andrus] Viks from Pärnu…
And later Slava Gulevitš, Hubert Hirv and Pavel Gammer, Ahmed Ozdojev, Oleg Martovoi. It is a list of people I would never believed the police would catch ten years ago.
You understand that I cannot talk about everything. However, we have gone over our agent base with a fine-tooth comb – how we collect information, the methods we use. The prosecutor has created joint investigative groups with the Estonian Internal Security Service and the tax board. The central criminal police have access to our entire database. We have concentrated mainly on smart collection of information. We do not wait to receive information, we systemically target…
Who do you target?
Estonia has around 20 criminal organizations; we have mapped them, and we believe seven-eight-nine of them to be dangerous. We are actively working on three to four of them. Choices need to be made, and people in charge of investigations must be strong enough to say we’re not doing that, and that’s the end of it.
We met Reimo Reisberg in the hallway on our way up – a legendary detective who has actively investigated Tallinn’s taxi mafia. Having known Reimo for over 20 years, I know how tempted he is to seize every shard of information and set about saving the world. But you need to choose. We do not have thousands of criminal police officers. We have a handful of professional detectives, and this means we can only shoot for the top.
The central criminal police and the prosecution have agreed that we are only looking at those three-four important investigations. We are putting all our resources there, including surveillance work. I absolutely do not agree with attorney Leon Glikman in that there is too much surveillance in Estonia. Let us look at what is happening in Europe, how quickly criminal organizations started making money off the migration crisis. Europol analyses show that ferrying refugees across the sea is the bread and butter of criminals today.
Criminal activity is kept very quiet. There are those who have adopted our professional practices and changed sides. For example, my former colleague Indrek Põder et al. They use tactics they learned from us in their new line of work.
Crime is not what it was a decade ago. If only because it does not have so much “violent, raw” money anymore.
Yes. Looking at our investigations and information, criminal activity is not what it was in the 1990s. There is less hooliganism, while the structure remains. There is no more stranglehold on the market. New criminal sources of income have taken its place: taxes, fraud, contraband. Bootleg cigarettes have been on the market for some time; however, today, the commodity is people.
The classic structure of a criminal organization is still there. There is simply less violence and people no longer have to feel afraid on the streets. Taxi drivers told us they’re afraid; however, part of it is that they need to justify working with the criminals somehow. If you are afraid, you must come and talk to us. No one wants taxi drivers to be afraid and have their tires slashed.
Criminals keep thinking up new ways to make money illegally. The times when excise duty fraud that moved through Latvia was commonplace is over. We don’t see many such millionaires on the streets today as new laws have made economic crimes more difficult to commit.
The reality is that the bosses are rich and the workers still poor. It is believed that if someone has an exclusive vehicle, they must be loaded, while in reality that vehicle is all they have, and they still had to take out a loan to buy it. All the while their wife is counting pennies at home and the kids owe money for dance practice. But you did mention one thing – international relations.
We’ve seen change there too: if in the past, we used to stage broad-based international operations, we have settled on a narrower focus here as well. The case of Imre Arakas was born out of contact between Estonian and Lithuanian criminal police during a different operation when they realized they had the same information. A joint task force was formed, and Imre Arakas is in custody in Ireland today.
This would not have happened without trust between those two teams. We have achieved broad-based trust. It is born out of successful joint investigations.
Lithuanian car thieves are still trying their luck in Estonia?
I dare say we can keep their movements under control right now. We will know if Lithuanian car thieves start coming to Estonia. The question is whether they’ll get caught in Latvia, later in Tartu or Pärnu, or whether they’ll get all the way to Tallinn. And whether we can share information quickly enough. After an arrest near the Latvian border ended in a shootout and several vehicles being rammed a few years ago, we’ve heard from Lithuania that it doesn’t pay to go to Estonia, because you’ll get caught.
This shows we’ve managed to send a message. Or let us take witness protection for example – you cannot do it in Estonia without international agreements. It just doesn’t work. Other countries also want our help. Legislation to make it possible came in 2004, and we set about creating the unit. We managed to get it working years later. It only happened because of our partners’ trust in us: when we demonstrated that we can protect their people under witness protection here and get them to give statements in court. Now, we can make use of such possibilities ourselves.
We have people we send abroad for a period?
Of course. It cannot be done any other way.
I remember examples from Lithuania and other neighboring countries from years ago. At the time, it looked like poor man’s witness protection as Lithuania’s criminal world largely coincides with ours. Who can you safely hide in Lithuania.
But we do not limit ourselves to Lithuania. There are other countries.
Which makes it a very expensive undertaking.
There was a case some 15 years ago where it was necessary to protect a person from a Pärnu gang, and six months later, the detective told me quite cynically that we cannot hide them in the woods forever, they’ll have to make it on their own. It seemed like quite a ruthless statement at the time. How are things now?
We have examples where we calculate our risks and have the person return to Estonia. Not every person under witness protection will have to hide their identity for the rest of their lives. They return to everyday life. Our duties also include helping them later in life.
There is a criminal case you are investigating that includes a witness protection component. The local criminal world regards a person who has returned to Estonia and is walking around in plain sight, as safe as you please, after fleeing from the country years ago a key witness in the case. Is it an example of criminals fearing the police?
I’m very glad whenever people turn away from crime as they understand it doesn’t pay. Our role is to make sure innocent people do not get hurt in skirmishes. That it wouldn’t end up on the streets. We took a recent shooting at a hotel lobby in Tallinn very seriously. The confusion that followed Tarankov’s murder spilled out into the public sphere.
One ricochet could have had tragic consequences. We have not betrayed the people who have helped us by providing information. They realize they will not get rich by criminal means and have renounced their old principles, and we protect them in return. It is not something that was decided on a whim. These decisions pass through the office of the prosecutor general.
There used to be cases where people went and stayed missing after these kinds of clashes…
The taxi market investigation showed that such incidents have not disappeared completely yet.
It was the Kemerovo gang case?
Yes, we found their bodies in the woods near Viljandi.
However, that was heat of the moment, not a hit long in the planning.
Yes, it was an argument that got out of hand during a drinking session.
There are several ways of dealing with criminal organizations. Your previous major case, that of Pavel Gammer and Hubert Hirv, was mapped out by the economic crimes unit. Knowing that Hirv and Gammer have interested investigative organs on many fronts, including very severe crimes against persons, and always managed to get away, that economic approach was inspired. If the police could not break in the front door, they found a backdoor instead.
I cannot go into details as concerns the Gammer and Hirv case, the investigation has not been concluded. The question is to which extent we allow well-hidden criminals to operate on the economic crimes landscape – liquidators, con artists, corruption. It is the police’s task to contribute to a fair business environment. Honest enterprise yields more tax revenue at the end of the day.
Cash has regularly been funneled into the common fund that is then put into the pot. However, it is very difficult to keep an eye on that pot if you don’t know which money to monitor and where. Is the common fund even alive after Tarankov’s death and Slava Gulevitš’ arrest for narcotics crimes?
I cannot divulge everything; it would impede our progress. I assure you that we are in moderate control of the situation. The people you listed have not left Estonia, they are only incarcerated. And it is relatively easy to communicate in and out of prison in Estonia. They also need support in there, and we’re keeping an eye on that.
The more clients of the common fund are sent to prison, the smaller its revenue. The number of those who need supporting is growing, and it has been said the fund had to go on a serious diet for a time as a result.
We have the example of [Juri] Vorobei. Young Vorobei was meeting Tarankov to talk about money.
To use his connections to gain the upper hand in a dispute over cash.
Yes. That meeting turned into a murder for money.
Where will you be in five years as concerns the fight against organized crime?
My hope is that we will know our local cybercrime bosses. And I’d like to be better at investigating economic crimes. Talking about organized crime.
Who will become the new godfather after Tarankov’s death?
We are making great efforts to avoid anyone taking up that position. Ozdojev’s arrest was a milestone in that. We need to make smart use of this period of discord between criminal groups. It will give us the opportunity to “read” them. It is apple blossom time for data collection.