Drug Dealers Move Online

Drug traffickers in trial. Source: sb.by

The Minsk City Court is currently dealing with the high-profile case of a drug-dealing network, known as LegalMinsk.

After its launch in 2011, it grew into the biggest online retailer of so-called 'spice' drugs. According to the prosecution, LegalMinsk infiltrated several law enforcement agencies and aspired to monopolise drug trafficking in Belarus.

Criminals use the open borders to Russia to import the newest psychotropic substances, while persisting gaps in Belarusian legislation allow them to operate with impunity. Gangs also profit from the use of the newest IT technologies and recruitment of corrupt policemen.

Over the last two years, psychotropic substances have turned into a serious issue in Belarus, seriously affecting teenagers and young people. The state is struggling keep new drugs under control with harsher punishments, yet drug-dealing gangs always appear to be one step ahead.

The “case of the 14”

On 3 May 2016, the Minsk City Court sentenced 14 individuals, who organised a drug dealing gang, which had been operating in Minsk and Hrodna for almost two years. It specialised primarily in the online trade in psychotropic substances.

According to the state prosecutor Alena Krupenina, the gang consisted of young people, aged between 17 and 25, most of them unemployed. Now all all of them face prison terms between 10 and 15 years with confiscation of property.

This case unfolded, as the police found 'spice' drugs, stashed in one of the Minsk daycares in December 2015. The use of such hiding places is a common method, which drug dealers choose to avoid direct contact with their customers.

​Not all of the gang members knew each other personally, as the group operated online

Not all of the gang members knew each other personally, as the group operated online. High degree of technical skills allowed the criminals to evade the police for a long time. For instance, one of the defendants used Tails, an open-source operation system, designed to secure complete anonymity.

The “case of the 14” reflects recent trends in drug trafficking in Belarus. In 2015, Belarusian police closed more than 100 online stores which sold drugs and psychotropic substances and limited access to another 18 websites under suspicion of drug trafficking. For the first 5 months of 2016, these numbers lie already at 34 and 10 respectively.

Legal until banned?

The defendants in the “case of the 14” had criminal connections to the large drug dealing network, known as LegalMinsk. Currently, this is the most high-profile court case in Belarus, involving 17 accused, among them several KGB agents. The illegal income of the network exceeded $1.5 million.

One of the accused is a former employee of the Central Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption, who provided the gang with expert assessment of the drugs. The chief defendant, the 31-years old Kanstancin Viliuga, allegedly controlled the entire drug market in Belarus and opened several branches in Russia.

Viliuga's criminal business imported the newest psychotropic drugs from Moscow under the guise of “legal smoking blends.” He sold them online in Belarus, making sure that these were still not prohibited. The police knew of LegalMinsk activities, as it received complaints that dealers were shamelessly distributing their business cards near subway entrances.

LegalMinsk aspired to monopolise the drug dealing market in Belarus. It had extensive connections in the law enforcement agencies and used these to fight the competition.

In essence, drug dealers profited from loopholes in the legislation, which lagged behind in expanding the list of the prohibited psychotropic drugs. As the the state was catching up in outlawing the newest substances, the gang kept getting rid of the illegal supplies, selling them to the smaller drug dealing groups and procuring more advanced blends.

Even though the prosecution did not have enough evidence to charge the gang members with murder, the officials from the Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption are convinced that the gang conducted drug trials on unsuspecting people. In many cases, these led to multiple deaths and injuries.

Legislation catching up with designer drugs

Belarusian legislation battles drug trafficking with harsher punishments. Classified as a felony, drug trafficking can result in 25 years in prison with confiscation of property. The age of criminal responsibility for drug trafficking is now 14 years instead of 16. People, who appear in the public in the state of drug intoxication or consume drugs in the open, face administrative fines.

The issue of drug traffic over the Belarusian-Russian border remains an especially worrying trend, as this border lacks customs controls, allowing for easy drug imports from Russia and Asia. Aiming to cut criminal ties of drug traffickers with the Russian illegal market, Belarus introduced criminal responsibility for transportation of drugs over the state border, punishable with prison terms for up to 12 years.

On 26 May 2016, new regulations targeted transportation of separate medical substances, introduced special penal colonies for drug traffickers, and determined stricter rules for Internet providers to keep the data on web activities of their customers. Belarusian Ministry of Health is now responsible for creating and updating a single database of all drug addicts.

Yet the rates drug-related crimes in Belarus do not seem to subside. In 2015, the law enforcement authorities uncovered 7,356 such crimes. This trend continues in 2016 as well. According to the recent statistical report of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the police already uncovered about 2,900 drug-related crimes in the first 5 months of 2016.

It is evident that drug trafficking business thrives on insufficient border controls, resourcefulness of drug designers, and wide-reaching corruption schemes. Legislation attempts to catch up, yet new laws would be more efficient, if combined with comprehensive educational and prevention campaigns.

Lizaveta Kasmach is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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