Discover how investigative reporter Paul Radu and his colleagues have engaged with criminal networks and learned their methods, to better understand how they can be stopped.
Investigative reporters who target corruption will inevitably have to face organised crime. Dealing with powerful criminals poses a whole new set of challenges and dangers. Discover how Paul and his colleagues have engaged with criminal networks and learned their methods, to better understand how they can be stopped.
How would you define organised crime?
In my opinion, “organised crime” refers to groups of people operating in networks with a criminal purpose, doing something illegal. We are very focussed on cross-border organised crime, so we concentrate on organised crime with an international element, where people from one country are cooperating with people from a second and a third country, etc. If people are involved in a criminal enterprise, and they are conspiring to do wrong, then they’re the sorts of people we’re trying to find out about. Organised crime is important to us because it hurts the population at large, so if we find that the population is hurt by the actions of a cross-border network, we consider those actions to be organised crime.
What, if any, is the link between organised crime and the state?
Our main concern is that in some countries, organised crime IS the state. They run the state. Or, in some countries they have power from across the border, and they benefit from means of surveillance that are sometimes more powerful than those at the disposal of governments (although not more powerful than what the US government, larger EU governments or China have). The people that make up these networks are often former secret services officers. They have the know-how and the technical means to intercept phone communications, to track internet communication etc. This is our primary concern because we cover those groups, and sometimes they work hand in hand with the government, so they have access to the resources of the government. Or else their own resources might be greater than the resources of the government where they operate – as in Mexico, for example, where the drug cartels have much more money than the government. They can afford to hire hackers and people with technical skills, and they can do a lot of damage if they intercept your communications. They can put your people and your sources in danger.
Some people might see conspiracy theories, paranoia and over-interpretation in your work – how do you respond to that?
We sometimes encounter people who read our articles and say: “Ah! I knew it. I knew that this was part of the Jewish conspiracy”, or the Romanian conspiracy, or the Hungarian conspiracy, or the German conspiracy, or whatever conspiracy. This is because people find it easier to explain things in that way. What we are always trying to underline is that this is about the money. This is not about a huge, global conspiracy. This is about people who want to make money through organised crime and through corruption. There is nothing occult about this, and that’s why we are able to investigate them: we are able to follow the money and companies’ records. It is not some secret group that is involved in all this. They are real people, very smart people, who take advantage of situations in different countries. They are are able to create cross-border networks, but they are not part of any governmental or global conspiracies.
Lots of other people blame everything on “the government”. We do not see governments as blocks of people that all have the same drives and do the same things. Governments are made up of many individuals with many interests. Some of them are crooks, but some of them are honest. Some of them are used by organised crime, and some of them want to be used.
It is almost always just about the money. There is no ideology behind it – even if you look at terrorist groups, if you really analyse their inner doings, you will see that in the end there are people who profit from their actions. It is not just ideology and belief.
Besides doing research and exploring databases, you also need to meet people. When you meet criminals face to face, how do you communicate with them?
Communicating with organised criminals is, obviously, part of the job. It is very important to be able to speak a common language with these people. For example, when you meet someone who was involved in a rigged privatisation, you must know what is going on around that privatisation. You must know that he was competing with other people, and you must know about those people as well. The more information you gather about their environment, the more it helps you when you actually meet them, because they realise that they can talk to you, that you know something. In fact, they generally assume that you know much more than you do. But sometimes you are dealing with low level criminals – I can give you some examples. I went undercover, to buy women from traffickers here in Bucharest. I would go see them and pretend to be a fixer for an Italian man (who was actually my colleague) who was supposed to want to buy a girl. To communicate with them properly I had to speak the same way they did, in order to pretend I could close the deal with them. It’s also very important to be able to move between street-talk and and what is sometimes a very fancy way of talking. You have to be flexible and have basic communication skills, but this is something you learn and develop over time, through encounters with these people.
What are the most common mistakes organised criminals make?
They are always very confident, and their confidence comes from having lots of money. What’s more, whatever it is that we are investigating is usually not being investigated yet by any law enforcement agency, so they know that they do not yet have any legal problems. They are also local in outlook: you might be interviewing people involved in trafficking networks or organised crime in Bosnia, and they will talk freely about the rest of the networks, about members of their organisation in Romania and Russia. They talk so freely because they are, in a way, locals.
They feel that they cannot be harmed in their own environment, because it belongs to them and they belong there; they are the masters of that environment. That attitude makes them vulnerable, because you ask questions that they will answer just because they do not foresee any consequences. They are very cocky and willing to talk. Lots of these people are gregarious. They love to talk, people rarely talk to them. This is something that we use to our advantage. They are also curious, because they are not often approached by journalists or other people who want to interview them.
When you interview someone from these networks of organised crime, how do you decide who to interview and what questions to ask?
When we’re looking for those final questions, we always prepare them very well, so that whenever we interview someone, we already know the answers to the questions. All we need is confirmation and their voices in the piece. We document everything, we visualise it so that we understand the pieces of the puzzle. Then we know what questions to ask, and this one of the reasons they almost never refuse to be interviewed.
When we call someone for an interview, he/she usually agree because he/she wants to know what we know. We investigate organised crime and corruption, and those people know that they are on the wrong side. When we first call them, we give them just a flavour of what we know: “Look, we'd like to talk to you about this company from the
British Virgin Islands.” And they ask, “How do you know about that company?” And we start from there. They almost always want to strike deals with us and offer us bribes, or else they threaten us.
This is the key to investigative reporting: when you go to interview someone, you must know the answers to your questions already. Because these people are going to lie to you most of the time. They are, of course, defending their money, they are defending their network, they are defending whatever they have.
Sometimes even if you confront them with evidence, they will say “No, no, this is not me.” And maybe half an hour later they will say, “Yeah, it is me, but I’d forgotten about that company.” We’ve seen many instances of this, where we had actually confronted people with clear evidence and they still denied it, and then they would come back and say, “Can you not publish that, please? And we’ll offer some information about some other people.” This happens a lot, but the key is always to know the answers in advance!
First published on July 10, 2015