Frontline World

Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

Former State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds




December 14, 1947, Odessa, U.S.S.R. (Ukraine).

Russia (2/2/95)
Germany (1/14/90; Igor Limar, 2/8/90)
Bolivia (2/9/89)
Israel (3/6/75; 11/6/94)

Leon Minin, Wulf Breslav (DOB: 7/10/44), Leonid Bluvshtein, Leonid Bluvstein, Igor Osols, Vladimir Abramovich Kerler, Igor Limar.

Oil, electricity, timber, small arms, Russian icons, diamonds and gems (Russian and possibly African), consumer goods, prefabricated homes. Investigated in several European countries for money laundering and cocaine trafficking.

Russian (native), Ukrainian (native), English, German, French, Italian.

Cocaine, $500-a-night prostitutes.

Presently in Vigevano prison outside Milan, Italy. Faces possible 12 years. Still no decision on trial date.



Gallery of International Arms Dealers Leonid Efimovich Minin - From Ukraine, a New Kind of Arms Trafficker Mug shot of MininBy Matthew Brunwasser

The scene in Leonid Minin's hotel room on the night of August 4, 2000 could have been taken from a Quentin Tarrantino film: Minin, a pale Ukrainian, abundantly fleshy and naked, freebasing cocaine, flanked by a quartet of Russian, Albanian, Italian and Kenyan prostitutes. A pornographic film flickers in the background. Minin, the majority owner of the Europa Hotel in Cinisello Balsamo, a small town outside Milan, Italy, has transformed his two-room suite into a bedroom/office and den of debauchery.

Then, without warning, the police arrive at Room 341, putting an end to the party and derailing the career of a prominent international gun smuggler and high-level leader of the so-called "Odessa Mafia."

Although local police supposedly raided Minin's hotel on a tip from an unpaid prostitute, FRONTLINE/World has acquired a report that shows the Milan customs police had had Minin under surveillance since 1992 while investigating an international criminal organization involved in laundering international drug money through the foreign bank accounts of Italian businessmen. The report also says that in 1997 Italian intelligence services conducted a "complex investigation on a criminal group of Ukrainian origins associated with the so-called 'Russian Mafia' and involved in international arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion and other offenses. This group is headed by the Ukrainian businessman Leonid Minin."

Incriminating Evidence

That hot August evening in Cinisello Balsamo, police found $500,000 worth of uncut diamonds. Later analysis found most came from Russia -- no African origins could be confirmed despite the diamond scales later found in Minin's Liberian office. They found a duffel bag filled with more than $35,000 in American, Italian, Hungarian and Mauritian currency. From a briefcase and piles scattered around the rooms, police collected 1,500 documents -- in Russian, Ukrainian, French, German, Dutch, English and Italian -- relating to Minin's wide variety of business operations. Specific findings included documents on his dealings in oil, timber and consumer goods; an inquiry by Minin into providing Nigeria's mobile phone network; a follow-up by a colleague on Minin's proposal to sell a Ukrainian aircraft carrier to Turkey; an offer from Minin's Beijing representative asking him to ascertain whether Liberian President Charles Taylor would be interested in establishing diplomatic relations with mainland China; correspondence between Minin and President Charles Taylor's son "Chuckie"; and a record of a $10,263.02 payment to Marc Rich, best known for his 11th-hour pardon from President Clinton on charges of fraud and extortion. Rich's oil company, Glencore, once shared a London phone number with one of Minin's companies Galaxy Management.

Most important, however, police found evidence of several proposed and realized arms deals. Most incriminating were several copies of an end-user certificate (EUC) signed by General Robert Guei, the former Ivory Coast Head of State. An EUC is supposed to be a unique document, showing that a specific shipment of weapons will only be used by the government of a non-embargoed country. Guei, now deposed, later told U.N. investigators he had signed only one EUC, at Liberia's request and in exchange for a cut of the weapons. Police also found maps of the Liberia-Sierra Leone border and catalogs of weapons, including 5 million 7.62 mm bullets dating from 1949 to 1966. A fax addressed to Minin from a few weeks earlier requested clearance for a flight of 113 tons of bullets from Ukraine to the Ivory Coast. And bank documents showed the money trail: Minin paid $1 million to the Russian company Aviatrend, which brokered the arms purchase and chartered the plane for delivery. One $850,000 payment went to an Aviatrend account in Turkish Cyprus; the rest went to another Aviatrend account at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. Both transactions went through Sulico Holdings, one of Minin's many off-shore companies, and showed the reference, "Buying technical material/wood extraction tools."

A Rare Case

Although Minin is highly sophisticated, there is no reason to believe Minin is extraordinary in any way other than getting caught. The evidence yielded by his arrest and the subsequent investigation is invaluable to international efforts to stop the illegal international trade in small arms. U.N. investigators have contributed expertise to the prosecution and have had access to the information found at the arrest. One reason given for the small number of prosecutions in international embargo-busting is the complexity of such cases. They invariably involve a vast network of individuals, banks and companies - legitimate, criminal and paper-based - as well as government officials from many countries. Professional arms brokers can easily navigate through the holes in the threadbare patchwork of national laws which make up the international arms control system. With equal ease, they can legally distance themselves from the companies that do their illegal business. According to Dr. Walter Mapelli, the Federal Prosecutor who is leading the Minin investigation and prosecution in Monza, Italy: "We must take into account the fact that jurisdiction is one step behind criminality today, because criminality is operating globally and continues to do so all the more."

Dr. Mapelli further explains, "Whereas each state is very jealous of its own sovereignty and its own prerogatives within its borders, the consequence of this is that each state only sees one little segment of the whole business. ... I hope that a successful outcome in this case against Minin will then mean that such international smugglers should no longer feel they can exploit the diversity of legislation between different countries for their purposes."

Ukrainian Roots

Leonid Minin is part of a new generation of highly organized post-Soviet criminals whose power and success is largely attributable to the climate of chaos, poverty and disintegrating state apparatus that governs many former Soviet republics today. Mobsters have easy access to former Soviet Army stockpiles -- now considered "surplus" small arms -- favored by embargoed military groupings seeking cheap weaponry wherever they can get it.

During the Soviet era, the Second Soviet Army was based in Kiev, Ukraine, as part of the Soviet Union's defense strategy against a western NATO attack. Ukraine was equipped to maintain a standing army of 800,000, almost three times the size of Ukraine's military today. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine inherited these Soviet stockpiles of military goods intended for a military far larger than Ukraine's. As Ukraine sank into economic chaos, defense spending accounted for only 17 percent of the military's operating expenses, according to Oleg Belosludtsev, a Moscow analyst quoted in The Guardian(July 9, 2001). He explains that "freelance arms merchants took over in cahoots with army officers, plundering the vast surplus stocks and selling wherever buyers could be found." Belosludtsev estimates that 80 percent of arms exports were in the hands of these "shadowy structures."

Today Ukraine produces only large weapons -- such as tanks, missiles and armored personnel carriers -- all of which are difficult to smuggle. All sales of Ukrainian small arms, defined as weapons an individual can carry and still be mobile, come from the stockpiles. Small arms account for the bulk of the smuggling trade in Ukraine.

Attempts to Assess

The Ukrainian government has never officially tried to inventory its small-arms stocks, despite the massive theft of state property and the considerable international security threat the arms pose when sold to organized crime groups, African insurgents or embargoed states. The government has also has turned a blind eye to the wealth of army generals, which has mounted amidst the crumbling of the military.

A few frustrating attempts have been made towards investigating the situation. In Ukraine, a self-appointed parliamentary investigative commission formed in 1994. According to committee members, the investigators had no access to arms storage facilities and were often thwarted by government officials. After four years of study, the committee found the arms deals were done by high-level military officials with the cooperation of workers or guards at the facilities.

A committee member explained the operations of a small arms sale from the Ukrainian stockpiles with the following example. If the international market price for an AK-47 bullet was 80 cents, a military official would sell it to "a private party" for 20 cents. The official doing the deal would put 8 cents on the books, money which would actually go into the Defense Ministry budget. Many deals had receipts. The military official would then pocket the difference between 8 cents and 20 cents. The "private parties" would get the biggest profit, the difference between 20 cents and 80 cents, presumably because they face the risk -- or perhaps just the inconvenience -- from a further illegal transfer or export.

The most shocking finding of the committee, picked up by the Western media, was that $32 billion in arms, equipment and military property were stolen from Ukrainian stocks within six years. In fact, this figure referred to the total value of all Ukrainian military property -- real estate, factories, planes, ships, tanks as well as stockpiles of small arms, ammunition, uniforms and other goods -- which declined from $89 billion in 1992 to $57 billion by 1998, due also to loss of market value and lack of maintenance. One committee member revealed the source of this figure as coming from a London-based think-tank, but it could not be confirmed.

While the methods of the investigation may have been faulty and the findings exaggerated, they are nonetheless alarming. The committee published a 17-volume study in 1998 that was buried by the current Kuchma Administration and that remains largely inaccessible to committee members today. Its chairman was court-martialed and now lives in hiding out of fear for his own and his family's lives. One committee-member photocopied and released a 27-page summary to journalists but only a few smaller newspapers ran the findings. A publisher, Sergiy Odarych, was shot in the leg after sending the news to press. To date, the Kuchma administration has yet to react publicly to the report. And while the investigative committee submitted its own findings to the chief prosecutor of Ukraine, not a single official has yet been charged. Another similar committee formed in 1998 but was disbanded in 2000 before compiling any findings.

Supply and Demand

Leonid Minin was placed under arrest on arms charges in June 2001, nearly a year after the incident at the Europa Hotel. Key to the Italian government's case were the end-user certificates found in his hotel room. Minin was charged with international gun smuggling and using a fake EUC to sell arms to Liberia and Sierra Leone. He is implicated for his role in two shipments: 113 tons of arms delivered to Ivory Coast on July 12, 2000; and 68 tons to Burkina Faso on March 13, 1999. Minin is now in a prison outside Milan, awaiting his trial date and facing a possible 12-year sentence. The smuggling charge is for violating a U.N. arms embargo adopted by the Italian parliament, thus becoming Italian law. It is the first such case which does not involve a national law separate from the embargo. Others have been convicted for arms deals to embargoed countries, but the crimes usually have involved national export laws and attempts to obscure the recipient -- when the customer is a country under U.N. embargo. The case is potentially precedent setting and could encourage other prosecutors around the world to bring more cases against embargo busters.

Little is known about the fate of the sales Minin had proposals to broker at the time he was caught. Valery Cherny, Minin's partner from Aviatrend who brokered the purchase of arms for the Ivory Coast deal, told U.N. investigators $750,000 worth of weapons were still waiting for delivery when Minin "disappeared" in June 2001. The documents seized at Minin's arrest indicated a variety of other deals at various stages of completion.

Even after Minin's highly-publicized arrest, the conditions for the sales of small arms to embargoed African hotspots remain the same: a massive supply of small arms sits stockpiled in the former Soviet Union; extensive networks of organized gun smuggling are formed, and regroup if discovered; government corruption and negligence is the norm in impoverished countries; the system of controls worldwide has little defense against unscrupulous arms brokers; and the demand for arms remains constant. While one giant sits bound in prison, doubtless others have seized the opportunity to replace him, keeping up the flow of arms from supply to demand.

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance journalist based in Bulgaria. He worked as field producer on FRONTLINE/World's "Gunrunners" story.

Additional reporting from Rick Young and William Kistner

The Prince of Marbella: Arms To All Sides

Links relevant to this article:

Minin and the Women
In this article, The Washington Monthly reports on the tabloid details of Leonid Minin's arrest in a hotel room with drugs, women and diamonds. "Minin liked to stay at the equally anonymous Hotel Europa, across the street from the town's main cathedral, where $75 can get you a double room and the privacy to do what you want." (The Washington Monthly, Jan/Feb, 2001)

Minin's Destabilizing Effect on Sierra Leone
Canada's special envoy to Sierra Leone examines the security issues facing Sierra Leone and surrounding countries affected by the general instability in the region. This thorough political analysis contains sections on the historical background of the region and a section on Leonid Minin's activities.

The Liberian Perspective on Minin and Gun Trafficking
The Perspective, a U.S.-published Liberian news service, writes in an editorial that "swift and comprehensive sanctions are needed to make the 'businesses' of the Minins, the Kouwenhovens and the Taylors unacceptable and repugnant." (The Perspective, February 9, 2001)

"The International Dealers in Death"
This article, one in a three-part series in The Guardian, calls Minin "the scourge of sub-Saharan Africa." His activities, it claims, support corrupt regimes, contribute to the use of child soldiers, and fuel endless civil wars and insurrections in the region. (The Guardian, July 9, 2001)