Spain, politically, is far from the frontlines of Russia and the West.
However, when it comes to battling Russian organized crime it is at the cutting edge, with Spanish prosecutor José Grinda leading the charge. His partners in the FBI call him “relentless,” whilst the leading anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder hails him as “the man who brought down the Russian mafia in Spain.” Slight and unassuming, he is a nightmare for organized crime.
And now, potentially, a problem for Donald Trump.
Grinda, like a Spanish Zelig, has questioned sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska, jailed the mafia kingpin Zakhar Kalashov, played a walk-on role in the fall of the Russian defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and convinced Alexander Litvinenko to testify against the Russian mafia and its ties to the Kremlin only months before the former FSB agent was murdered in London.
“More should be encouraged to follow Grinda’s example,” said Ana Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of the assembly’s Special Committee on Financial Crimes, Tax Evasion, and Tax Avoidance, who campaigns for sanctions on Russian kleptocrats. Grinda is as highly regarded in the J. Edgar Hoover Building, home of the FBI.
Maxwell Marker, Section Chief of the Transnational Organized Crime Section – Eastern Hemisphere, lauded Grinda’s “relentless” pursuit of mafia groups which “threaten national security not only in Spain, but in the United States,” in a statement to The American Interest. They are more than just friends. “The FBI has a longstanding partnership with José Grinda,” said Marker, who described the relationship with Grinda as “important” and “valuable.”
He has been so successful that in February 2016, France intercepted a mafia kingpin ordering Grinda’s assassination. “I don’t think they’re going to get it done,” Grinda says, adding that a second hit on him was ordered in March 2018.
“I have also been attacked by smears,” he says. Grinda has been accused of being a pedophile by a now-deceased Spanish lawyer, whom he claims to have evidence was acting on the instructions of a former Russian minister. “He was paid,” says Grinda nonchalantly. He is now pursuing a defamation case. To date, this allegation has been ignored by the traditionally more reputable Spanish press, but it has circulated online. Retaliation for his work, he says.
None of this has scared him off. Only two weeks ago, campaigner Bill Browder was briefly arrested by Spanish police in Madrid, due to an unlawful Russian-issued Interpol notice, on the way to give evidence to Grinda. “He’s such a powerful guy,” said a source familiar with the investigation, “that people go to give evidence to him, and things happen.”
The FBI is taking a closer interest than ever in Grinda’s war.
On this recent visit to Washington, DC, Grinda met with the FBI Organized Crime Unit. He says both the Organized Crime Unit of the FBI in the United States and the office of the FBI in Spain “are interested in some investigations in Spain” and “they said that those would be sent to Mueller.” But for the moment he is not aware if the information related to these investigations has been transferred to the Special Counsel or not.
Which investigations are these?
The first is the investigation against Alexander Romanov, a convicted Russian money launderer and a friend of Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician and Putin ally who has courted the NRA and U.S. lawmakers, including meeting with Donald Trump Jr. “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned,” said Grinda on May 25 at a public event at the Hudson Institute, which hosted him in Washington.
The Justice Department is now deepening an investigation as to whether Mr. Torshin illegally funneled money through the NRA to financially support Trump’s 2016 campaign. The gun rights body, which reported donating over $30 million, was Trump’s biggest donor.
Does Grinda have the smoking gun?
The FBI, Grinda explained, “asked us for information on Torshin, and what we gave was the following: wiretaps of phone calls between Romanov and Torshin, and we told them that Romanov has been sentenced and convicted but that the investigation against Torshin [has been] shelved.” Grinda says Torshin, now deputy head of the Russian Central Bank, is linked to Grigory Rabinovitch, whom he identifies as the leader of the Taganskaya Brotherhood.
Torshin, who denies mafia ties, did however attempt to broker a meeting with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in May 2016, and was scheduled to meet privately with the President at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017, before White House officials pulled it. The reason cited: Torshin was referred to in one of Grinda’s wiretaps, now with the FBI, as “godfather” by Romanov. Grinda confirms that is how Romanov addressed Torshin.
The second investigation of interest to the FBI has to do with a case in a court in Barcelona which issued a European Arrest Warrant against the Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. “Paul Manafort worked for Dmytro Firtash,” says Grinda. “We have shared information on Dmytro Firtash to do with economic crimes.” This trial has yet to take place. Meanwhile, Firtash is under house arrest in Vienna, fighting a U.S. extradition request. In 2017, he was indicted in a Chicago court for crimes including bribery, racketeering and money laundering.
Will Grinda’s war join up with the Mueller inquiry? The FBI declined to comment. Grinda himself would like to know what the FBI has done with his information. “I told the FBI,” he says, “that we can be more useful if we actually know where exactly we can useful.”
Grinda’s war began 12 years ago, when the career prosecutor was assigned to work Russian cases in March 2006. “I had to crawl back home to my wife after I was assigned,” he said. She had warned him months earlier not to be “silly” and find himself fighting the Russian mob. His early cases were the tip of the spear.
Starting in 2005, Spain conducted three major operations—codenamed Avispa, Troika and Variola—against various Russian mafia networks in the country. His efforts led to over 80 arrests. Spanish officials compiled a secret list of Russian prosecutors, senior military officers, and politicians linked to organized crime, based on over 230 wire taps.
This, for Madrid, was a complete turnaround.
“For a long time Spain seemed wide open to dirty Russian money and brazen Russian gangsters,” said Mark Galeotti, the author of The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. “Especially thanks to the works of José Grinda and his colleagues, Spain is arguably at the forefront of European efforts.”
But why, out of all the countries in Europe, is this happening in Spain?
“We have an advantage,” Grinda says. “We are not important geopolitically and we don’t have economic interests in Russia. This is what allows us to be freer. I haven’t received any directives from above, from the political class.”
This unique position, to go after the Russian mafia with few restraints, also flows from his country’s empowered anti-corruption unit, La Fiscalía Anticorrupción. “It was a marvellous accident,” he said, that it evolved this way. “If there weren’t a centralized organization, with all its powers, things would be very slow. Coordination between different agencies isn’t good enough.”
Success, he believes, has also come with the element of surprise. “We’ve always been down there in the sewers, with the sewer rats, without anyone knowing we were doing it, and lots of people would give us information without ever thinking we’d get anywhere with this.”
But Spain’s freedom to act has restricted Grinda’s personal freedom. When this interview took place at the Hudson Institute on Pennsylvania Avenue, after the prosecutor’s speech, his armed guard was never out of sight. He lives with round-the-clock protection for himself and his family.
Spain has dealt the Russian mafia a rare blow. But until Wikileaks, José Grinda was a man in the shadows. He shot to fame in December 2010 when an explosive U.S. Embassy cable from earlier that year was leaked to the public. It read, in part:
Grinda stated that he considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual “mafia states” and said that Ukraine is going to be one. For each of those countries, he alleged, one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [Organized Crime] groups.
According to the leaked cable, Grinda said it was an unanswered question whether or not Vladimir Putin is “implicated in the Russian mafia” and “whether he controls the mafia’s actions.” He also accused the Kremlin of having “organized crime groups do whatever the government of Russia cannot acceptably do as a government.”
Does he still think Russia is a mafia state? On the record, Grinda does not go as far as he did in the U.S. Embassy Cable.
“Russian organized crime is collaborating by corrupting specific politicians and specific public servants,” he says.
So, is Russia a mafia state? I repeat my question.
“It’s a thesis that can be asserted.”
Previously, Grinda has said that this was the theory Alexander Litvinenko laid out to him in a meeting in London in 2006—that a fusion had taken place between the world of Russian intelligence and the world of Russian crime under the direction of Kremlin operatives.
Who are they?
The Solntsevskaya Brotherhood, Grinda says, is the mafia group that has “the most links to the current Russian government.” The word mafia, conjuring up Hollywood movies of small-time chancers, fails to capture the sheer scale of this operation, believed to have a turnover of almost $9 billion. How are operations of this scale even possible?
“Mafia money,” says Grinda, “is believed to be laundered through major financial institutions.” The easier it is to launder money, the easier it is for mafia groups to convert the proceeds of crime into new sources of power and activity.
But what do they want to achieve with this?
Mafias like the Solntsevskaya, according to Grinda, do not want to destroy, but want to capture the state. This is not something uniquely Russian, he believes, but a strategy common to all mafia groups.
What mafias seek to do, Grinda explains, is to build up “three blocks”: social, political, and financial power. “If the mafia only had economic power,” he says, “it would be easy to stop.”
The weaker the state, the easier the mafia’s job.
It starts with what he calls reputation laundering. “The first thing they try and do after achieving economic profits is to try and legitimize themselves,” says Grinda. “In Spain, the people who are the most corrupt do two things: First, they buy an incredibly luxurious mansion to show they are there. Second, they buy a soccer team.”
A mafia builds up social power piece by piece, “first in their little town, and then [expanding] into creating foundations—charities, legal foundations, medical foundations. And then they will say they are philanthropists. They say that they take care of people.”
Once their social power is built up, explains Grinda, they build up a second block. “This is because they realize that the social webs that they are able to create and through which they bring people in are not enough.”
The key to political power, Grinda explains, is “the awarding of public contracts.” Mafias will seek out public contracts, such as road building, or other public works, not for their financial value, but because “this is how criminal organizations come into contact with politicians.”
Not only does chasing public contracts give the mafiosos an opportunity to bribe politicians; the high prominence and social value of flagship projects means politicians can come to depend on the mafia delivering them the smooth road building, trash collection, or public transport they need to get re-elected. Willingly or otherwise, politicians become compromised.
“In other words,” says Grinda, “they are insinuating themselves into the political world. And once there, they can get legislation changed.”
This is what happened in Russia. “We have detected in our investigations that Russian crime organizations, that this power has meant that criminals have been able to make officials purge their criminal records. And the worst is when they actually create their own political parties.”
Grinda points the finger at the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a Kremlin-controlled political group that is notionally both in opposition and led by the ultranationalist tubthumper Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as having “members from organized crime.”
The final block is financial power. “This completes the legitimization process.” The Russian mafia, he says, are using “these large law firms and financial experts, alongside financial and banking insitutitions,” to hide dirty money. Meanwhile, offshore jurisdictions allow any mafia “to have hidden assets with their ownership obscured from the investigators of any country.” This is how mafias worth $9 billion, like the Solntsevskaya, store their loot.
The more powerful a mafia gets, the less it looks like a mafia. The Russian mafia, for example, no longer looks like it did in David Cronenberg’s 2007 movie Eastern Promises. Legendary post-Soviet gangsters, such as the heavily-tattoed “Thieves in Law,” are no longer what they were.
“The Thieves in Law,” he explains, “have become an endangered species.” These guys have been swept away by Russian authorities. Not so the mafiosos that have fused with the states. “The challenge we now face is from mafia groups that never had a tattoo and have legitimized themselves”—mafiosi indistinguishable from the Russian political class.
The rise of a Russian mafia, now interwoven with the Russian state, is not just a problem for Russian people. It is now exporting mafia power.
“They are seizing all kinds of assets in our country,” warns Grinda, “and that means they are going to gain power, economically speaking.”
As Russian organized crime has gone global, international, and in particular intra-European, attempts to stop it have lagged. Russia has not been the only country that has posed cooperation problems.
“We have a wonderful relationship with the United States,” he said. “However we have a very serious problem in fighting organized crime with the UK. We have very serious problems in getting them to cooperate—with the exception of drug trafficking [cases].” “It’s zilch,” he continued in exasperation, “it’s less than negative. It just doesn’t exist.” Britain, he says, is suffering from “economic contamination,” and the country is lousy with “oligarchs that have taken dirty money, taken money from a criminal organization.”
Belgium and the Netherlands, he says, are similarly problematic.
As we talk, Grinda is still smarting at Britain’s failure to arrest the Russian-Israeli businessman Michael Cherney in May 2009. Cherney is a man the Spaniards consider to be the leader of the Izmailovskaya Organized Crime Group, and there was an Interpol arrest warrant issued against him. Grinda says he confronted the British representative over these failings at a 2012 Interpol meeting. At the end of the meeting the British representative menacingly stood up, himself a good bit taller than Grinda. “Everyone thought he was going to smash me.” Instead he said, “You’re actually right. I commit myself to changing this.”
Yet change was not forthcoming.
“The United Kingdom was not aware at the time of the danger these people represented,” said Grinda. “They were just not involved in fighting it.”
Have British politicians been compromised?
“We have observed that British politicians have been linked to oligarchs,” he said. “But the Brits themselves will have to speak to that.”
What about American politicians? Have Donald Trump and his associates ever come into his investigations?
As our interview wraps up, I notice the tiredness in his eyes.
“In order to win the fight against organized crime,” says Grinda, “we have to try to be similar to or act like we are organized crime groups. In other words we will need to be consistent, organized and patient.”