The Dark Money Men
05 Dec 2019

On the last night of his life, Khusan Kerimov had a package to deliver: $1.6 million in cash.

Late in the evening on October 22, he headed for Manas International Airport, a half hour outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

It was a routine the 39-year-old taxi driver had down cold, having made the trip dozens of times.

Usually, it ran like clockwork: He would call a pre-arranged number on his phone, meet a man in the terminal, take the cash from him, and board a plane for Istanbul. Before it took off, he would take a selfie and send it to a handler to prove that he — and his precious cargo — were safely on their way.

But on that October night, his handler waited and waited. The selfie never came. Kerimov was gone.

The handler, Aierkin Saimaiti, was a 37-year-old professional money launderer. He employed an entire network of couriers like Kerimov — more than a dozen working-class men who regularly flew the Bishkek-Istanbul route with taped-up packages stowed with them on board. Each bag contained what, especially in Central Asia, is a considerable fortune: from a few hundred thousand to several million U.S. dollars.

Saimaiti’s network had operated for years in almost complete secrecy. But after Kerimov went missing, Saimaiti wanted to tell his story. As proof of his courier business, he provided reporters with dozens of Turkish and Kyrgyz cash declaration forms his men had filled out.

A joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, OCCRP, and Kloop used the cash declaration forms, flight data, border service records, and other documents, as well as a series of interviews, to paint a larger picture.

Saimaiti was just one player in an entire underground industry of cash-transfer specialists who facilitate the daily movement of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan with minimal scrutiny.

An analysis of the documents obtained by reporters shows the removal of $77 million out of Kyrgyzstan by courier. The true amount is certainly far higher. Saimaiti claimed that, over the years, his network alone had moved over a billion dollars.

Mostly, the couriers work on behalf of the vendors and wholesalers in Kyrgyzstan’s ubiquitous bazaars, who hire them to take their cash to Turkey and China to pay for goods. These merchants, whose trade is the lifeblood of the country’s economy, use this informal method to keep their business activity in the shadows.

Though this practice is widespread, it is illegal under Kyrgyz law. In depriving the state of customs revenues, it represents a loss to Kyrgyzstan’s taxpayers. It also has serious implications for the country’s ability to investigate the origins of these financial flows.

“This money is hidden,” said Samat Isabekov, a former official who had been responsible for internal investigations at Manas Airport. “Firstly, from customs fees. Secondly, taxes. And third, from the financial intelligence service.”

Moreover, precisely because the couriers carry cash, it’s impossible to be certain about the origins of the millions of dollars they funnel through Kyrgyzstan’s airports every year. Though some of the money represents peaceful — if illicit — trade, large sums are also known to pass through the system after being smuggled into Kyrgyzstan from abroad. The courier networks are also vulnerable to exploitation by organized criminal groups.

Prior to moving to Istanbul, Saimaiti used the same technique to move cash out of Kyrgyzstan on behalf of a secretive Uighur clan, the Abdukadyrs. He showed reporters how he had moved the proceeds of the family’s underground cargo empire abroad through both wire transfers and couriers.

Even the limited information available shows that the courier system has corrosive effects on Kyrgyzstan’s fragile rule of law. Its functioning depends on the acquiescence of paid-off civil servants, especially in the customs service — who, according to multiple accounts, profit handsomely from the trade.

The portrait afforded to reporters by Saimaiti represents an unusually detailed look at how such systems operate.

The Collectors

Khusan Kerimov was not the only man in the courier business to have disappeared on the job. Less than a week prior, the body of Khufur Abdurakheman, a 37-year-old trader, was found far from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan’s poor and sparsely populated Naryn region.

Abdurakheman had gone missing two weeks earlier after leaving Bishkek’s Madina bazaar, where, according to its head, he operated a small textile business out of a repurposed shipping container.

But he wasn’t just a simple merchant. According to Saimaiti and several other sources, Abdurakheman was a “collector” who regularly bundled together other traders’ savings for transfer abroad.

According to a person who knew him, he had spent years as a cook at a small restaurant inside the market, and had earned other vendors’ respect for his religious observance.

“He was a qari,” the man said, a term used to describe people skilled in reciting the Koran out loud. “He had a collection of Koranic books … Since he was а qari, local Uighurs said he couldn’t cheat, and they decided to store their money in a safe in the [restaurant].”

“He was doing this kind of work,” he said. “For example, if I say to transfer $50,000 to China, he gets around $50 [as a fee].”

When he was killed, Abdurakheman was headed toward Dordoi, a vast and colorful Bishkek market — the largest in Central Asia — where businessmen working out of shipping containers sell everything from lingerie to home furnishings.

Bazaars like Dordoi, the Uighur-dominated Madina, or the southern market of Kara-Suu lie at the heart of Kyrgyzstan’s economy. According to a World Bank estimate from 2012, the money that changes hands there represents a “staggering 33 percent” of the country’s gross domestic product. (There are no official figures, and newer estimates are not available.) The bazaars not only provide employment and income for the wholesalers and vendors who work there, but serve as hubs for a range of other industries, such as garment production.

But few, if any, of the goods sold in these sprawling markets originate in Kyrgyzstan. They are largely imported wholesale from China and Turkey.

For many vendors, bringing cash abroad in person is the most cost-effective way to pay for these goods, allowing them to avoid bank transfer fees, Western Union charges, or official inspections. In trades with razor-thin margins, like garments, these savings can be critical.

Some sellers just travel themselves and buy the goods in person. “When I started,” said one of Saimaiti’s former couriers, who also worked as a market vendor, “I would travel to Turkey and stay there for a week.”

But in time, a more standardized system developed that, though unofficial and illegal, has become a part of the weekly rhythm of market activity in bazaars across Kyrgyzstan. Sources described a routine in which, on certain days of the week, operators collect money for delivery by courier to its ultimate destination. Abdurekhman, the pious cafe cook, was one such collector.

“Whoever has money [now] sends it by couriers [to buy goods],” Saimaiti’s former courier said, explaining that vendors no longer need to make the trips themselves. “You can choose goods from Turkish shops on WhatsApp. You can buy and order goods like that.”

Once it’s picked up, the cash — always U.S. dollars — is sealed and packaged in bundles, each marked with the amount of money inside and labeled with codes that may designate which vendors it came from.

For those in the know, the couriers’ presence in the airport was obvious and ubiquitous.

“There are many who travel and carry stuff back and forth,” Saimaiti’s former courier said. “Some 100-150 guys who travel regularly … If you go [to the airport] you’ll see for yourself who does what. People make a living this way.”

The Couriers

Bishkek’s Manas International Airport became a focal point for the courier business. Cash picked up in the city was taken straight there for travel abroad. Money originating elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, such as in the southern bazaar of Kara-Suu, would first be brought to Manas on a domestic flight.

In some cases, a hand-off was made to another courier who would make the international trip (this was Kerimov’s role). In others, the arriving courier could wait in the airport for the next flight. One man described spending hours in the VIP hall, sleeping or drinking tea as he waited to take his package onward.

By RFE/RL, OCCRP, and Kloop, 3 December 2019

Read more at OCCRP

Photo (cropped and edited): A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

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