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Men in Black: Bulgaria’s Mafia

Imagine you are sitting in a quaint Italian restaurant in the centre of a busy city. Whilst you wait for your food, you scan the restaurant preferring to people-watch than play on your mobile phone. On the table adjacent to you two smart, suntanned men sit discussing business at a table strewn with mobile phones. They are thickset guys with designer shades perched on top of their shaved heads. They don’t look out of place, nor do they look all that interesting and you are about to watch the table opposite, when one of the businessmen gets up to go to the bathroom and you notice a gun poking out of his Calvin Klein’s. You double-take and confirm that it is not just a bulge of clothing, the gun; silver in colour is clearly visible. Daring not to look again you divert your attention to a loan gent, casually dressed seated near the door. He seems to be scanning the room and the businessman just like you, but all of a sudden, one of the businessmen has summoned him over to his table and it’s quite clear that they know each other. Who are these people? The answer is obvious; a mafia boss and his bodyguard. Where are they? Bulgaria?

Dark suits, shaved heads, sunglasses and fast black cars – that’s the Bulgarian Mafia. Many foreigners are shocked and often afraid of the fact that the Mafia is so prominent in Bulgaria, whilst others are mesmerized by the mystery that surrounds them. The Bulgarian Mafia came to power after the fall of Communism. The country was in turmoil and in terms of setting up a capitalist economic structure it was a free-for-all. One highly paid sector from the old society suddenly found themselves cast adrift. These people were the once popular sportsmen who represented Bulgaria in international competitions particularly wrestlers. These men had earned a fortune from their muscle and it wasn’t long before they realized that they could earn even more money under the new regime by using their muscle in a different way. And so the Mafia was born. The sportsmen set up security companies, which were little more than primitive protection rackets. They smashed up competitive or conflicting businesses and with the money they “earned” they invested in more shady deals like drugs, prostitution, extortion and human traffic. This money was dirty money and needed to be “laundered” through kosher businesses to make it “clean.” The businesses bought supermarkets, insurance companies, hotels, casinos and land etc. and the mafia money was cleaned.

In a short space of time, the Bulgarian mafia began to control most Bulgarian businesses and the word "businessman" developed an undertone of mafia association. The mob also penetrated Bulgarian politics and it was claimed that some were closely connected with the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Union of Democratic Forces. Even today, there is much evidence that leaders in organised crime rings are linked with politicians and high ranking officials and this recurring scandal has lead to intense scrutiny from the European Union.

There have been 150 mafia killings, mainly in downtown Sofia, since 2000 and most of these are never solved by the police. In fact the general public isn't even aware of these prominent "Mafioti" or their unusual nicknames until one of them is murdered or his murder is attempted.

Whilst corruption and organised crime inevitably impact on the everyday lives of the general population it is more through an unfair distribution of the country’s wealth, which results in ordinary citizens having to put up with poor roads because some mafia honcho was awarded the contract to build a road and creamed off most of the money.

You are extremely unlikely to be involved with the mob in any shape or form. They are not interested in “doing business” with ordinary folk – their deals are of the multi million variety. They are also not as trigger happy as people make them out to be, so if you cut one up on the highway, you will not find yourself with a gun against your head. These men prefer to keep low profiles and to avoid unnecessary hassle with the law.

Once you have spent longer periods of time in Bulgaria, you stop noticing the thugs in suits and spend your restaurant time playing with your mobile phone!