Will organized crime survive the government onslaught in Central Asia?

Kyrgyzstan's criminal bosses renouncing criminal ideology and their status. Screenshot from Kloop na russkom YouTube video. Fair use.

On October 4, Kyrgyzstan’s criminal kingpin and the so-called thief-in-law Kamchy Kolbaev was killed during an operation conducted by the State Committee of National Security (GKNB). He was shot dead at his restaurant after allegedly displaying armed resistance. GKNB called the incident a special operation conducted as part of the investigation of criminal cases against organized crime groups and their leaders.

On the next day, October 5, Kazakhstan’s Committee of National Security (KNB) conducted large-scale arrests of criminal groups in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office. The arrested groups allegedly carried out illegal activities in the border regions of Kazakhstan with Kyrgyzstan, China and Uzbekistan.

Two months later, at the beginning of December, Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry conducted raids against street gangs and criminal groups in several cities, arresting 103 people in total. The most notable arrested figure was Salim Abduvaliev, a businessman with ties to the criminal world, who seemed untouchable.

These arrests sent shockwaves through Central Asia, raising questions about the future of organized crime groups in the region. Kolbaev’s influence extended far beyond  Kyrgyzstan, and the arrests of criminals in neighboring countries following his death hint at this fact. Organized crime groups in the region are retreating, but questions remain whether the government onslaught will succeed in eliminating their influence.

Notorious, rich and influential

Kolbaev was not an ordinary criminal. He was the first and only Kyrgyz thief-in-law, a special title given to criminal elite. The history of thieves-in-law dates back to the 1930s, when the Soviet authorities created a special prison caste system to control the enormous prison populations in the Soviet Union. The original thieves-in-law followed a specific code of honor, which forbade them cooperating with the authorities, having families, and running a business. Their job was to maintain the traditions of the criminal world. One became a thief-in-law through the process of “coronation” by other thieves-in-law.

Kolbaev was one of the most notorious crime bosses in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. His organized crime group consisted of 424 participants. His “coronation” took place in Moscow in 2008. In 2012, then US president Barack Obama blacklisted Kolbaev as one of the largest drug lords. In 2017, the US Department of Treasury blacklisted him, stating that Kolbaev was part of the international criminal group “Bratskii Krug” (Brotherly Circle), consisting of crime bosses from post-Soviet countries. US authorities promised a reward of up to USD 5 million for information that would convict Kolbaev or destroy his criminal schemes.

Here is a YouTube video about Kolbaev's path in the criminal world.

Kolbaev has been detained several times before. However, in mid-August 2023, his former lawyer reported that there were no criminal cases against him. Kolbaev’s influence extended beyond the criminal world. He is reported to have had strong influence over Kyrgyzstan’s political life as well, having negotiated the resignation of the former president Sooronbai Jeenbekov and endorsed the candidacy of the current president Sadyr Japarov in October 2020 during political turmoil in the country.

According to the GKNB, Kolbaev and his relatives and associates had illegal financial assets in tourism, construction, trade and the restaurant business. His organized crime group was involved in smuggling, international drug trafficking, robbery, and kidnapping. GKNB estimated his assets at around USD 1 billion.

Here is a YouTube video with Kolbaev's confiscated properties.

Organized crime leaders detained in the neighboring Uzbekistan earlier this month are not any less notorious, rich or influential. One of them is Bakhtiyar Kudratillayev, widely known by his nickname Bakhti Tashkentskiy. It is customary for thieves-in-law to have nicknames, Kolbaev’s was Kolya-Kirgiz. Kudratillayev is Uzbekistan’s only thief-in-law, he was coronated in 1997 at the age of 26.

An even bigger figure is Abduvaliev, widely known as Salimboy and Salim Boyvacha (Salim the Rich), which hint at his immense wealth. Abduvaliev is one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in Uzbekistan. Alongside a fellow criminal kingpin Gafur Rakhimov, Abduvaliev is reported to oversee the drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia through the Northern Route, which passes through Uzbekistan. The former US Ambassador to Uzbekistan has called him “the boss of the Uzbek mafia.” Abduvaliev is also reported to sell government posts and facilitate large tenders.

Here is a YouTube video about Abduvaliev.

Abduvaliev’s true passion lies in sports. He is a five-time national wrestling champion. Since 2017, Abduvaliev has been serving as the deputy head of Uzbekistan’s National Olympic Committee and Director of the Wrestling Association. In 2021, he was awarded the title “Honored Sports Trainer.”

Here is a YouTube video with an interview with Abduvaliev at his house.

Dead or detained

Following Kolbaev’s death, dozens of state workers and businessmen were arrested in relation to their alleged ties with the Kolbaev led criminal groups. GKNB Chief Kamchybek Tashiyev stated that “there will no longer be a mafia” related to Kolbaev and Raimbek Matraimov, a former customs official implicated in transnational corruption schemes. With his billion dollar assets now transferred to the state, Kolbaev’s criminal empire seems obliterated.

As for the rest of the criminal groups active in Kyrgyzstan, Kolbaev’s death sent a strong signal to them, making it clear that the authorities will pursue the most severe measures against them. Notable criminal figures affiliated with Kolbaev have uploaded videos of of themselves renouncing criminal ideology and promising to live by the law.

Here is a YouTube video with Kyrgyzstan's criminal figures renouncing their criminal ideology and status.

A much better but still tragic fate seems to await Kudratillayev and Abduvaliev, who are currently in detention. Kudratillayev is suspected of extortion, punishable by imprisonment from 10 to 15 years, and illegal manufacture, acquisition, storage and other actions with narcotic drugs, their analogues or psychotropic substances.

The criminal case against Abduvaliev was launched under Article 248 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan, which involves the acquisition, storage, carrying, transportation, shipment, and use of firearms, ammunition, explosives, and means of blasting or explosive devices without the appropriate licenses or permits. He faces a prison sentence ranging from five to 10 years.

Modern day criminal elites in Central Asia, such as Kolbaev and Abduvaliev, are different from the original thieves-in-law. They have families, run businesses, hold official posts, and fund campaigns. Their influence has long extended from the criminal world to their countries’ political and economic lives. Central Asian governments, which are authoritarian and populist, are moving on organized crime groups to consolidate power and cater to public demand to reduce crime. Organized crime groups may survive the current onslaught, but they will not longer wield the same influence over the region.

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