January 25, 2015

Policeman, Antiquities Smuggler, Black Market Cigarette Bootlegger, Arms Trafficker, Terrorist: A Snapshot of the Many Faces of One, Greek, Organized Crime Cell

Investigating organized crime links with art crimes components is complicated. Sometimes researchers are able to draw detailed maps of criminal enterprise that fuels the illicit art and antiquities trade and other times investigations lead us down windy roads to nowhere, or at least to places where gathering further evidence is not likely and possibly dangerous.

Earlier this month Greek news bureaus hit the wires reporting on a series of startling arrests, some involving suspects who liked to mix a little art and culture with their organized crime activities.

Image Credit - Yahoo News
On Saturday, January 3, 2015 Greece’s anti-terrorism unit captured Christodoulos Xiros; an on-the-run associate of the once-powerful and ultra-violent 17N group (Greek: Επαναστατική Οργάνωση 17 Νοέμβρη ).  Xiros had walked away from his prison sentence in January 2014 while on furlough visiting his family during the Christmas holidays.

Tracked to the town of Anavyssos in southeast of Athens, Christodoulos Xiros had changed his appearance, let his hair grow out and dyed it blonde.  But instead of lying low and enjoying his freedom while on the lam, the escapee chose to taunt Greek authorities; releasing ominous statements that implied he intended to pick up where he left off before his original incarceration for murder began.

Less than one month into his escape, Xiros submitted a long-winded manifesto along with a four-minute video to the website Independent Media Center. His untraceable statements, posted online at Indymedia/IMC were laced with violent innuendo alongside governmental and civil rights complaints. 

Speaking in front of images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, two heroes of Greece's war of independence and a communist World War II resistance fighter, Xiros promised to wage war against those he believed were responsible for the destruction of Greece.  He vowed to “fight to the bitter end" and went so far as to dedicate lyrics from a song by V. Papakostantinou called 'Karaiskakis' emphasizing the phrase “When I return I will f**k you up.”

Image Credit: protothema.gr
Police Chief Dimitris Tsaknakis informed the press that Greek authorities had been searching for Christodoulos Xiros in and around the Athens’ suburbs for three months.  Investigators traced him via informant tips relayed to police, possibly in hopes of receiving part of the reward money being offered for information leading to his capture and arrest.

These tips, along with information gleaned from intercepted phone calls and solid gumshoe policing helped track the fugitive and set the stage for his organized apprehension.  Xiros had been hiding in relatively plain sight, going by the name “Manolis”.

At the time of his recapture, he was armed with a fully loaded Belgian or Hungarian-constructed Browning P35 9mm pistol.  News agencies reported that the gun’s serial number and make were scratched out, an action that impeded its traceability.

Image Credit: http://mikrometoxos.gr
A search of the house where he had been holed up contained an extensive cache of weaponry.  Law enforcement authorities inventoried assault rifles, Magtech 9mm ammunition, a rocket-propelled launcher, RPGs, grenades, six kilograms of explosive-making materials and a plethora of parts used for the manufacture of explosive devices including fuse wire, detonators and ignition wicks.

For a complete list of the evidence seized, please click here.
Image Credit: http://mikrometoxos.gr

After examining the evidence confiscated from the house in Anavyssos, Public Safety Minister, Vassilis Kikilias told reporters "Greek police prevented a major attack against the heart of the Greek prison system."  It seems that alongside the weaponry, police had found a well-developed diagram of the Korydallos prison complex.  Authorities believe that in stockpiling arms, Christodoulos Xiros was preparing for an armed assault and possible break-out on the western Athens prison, most likely to occur during Greece’s recent lead-up to the election that was held this weekend.

As a maximum-security facility, Korydallos Prison Complex has a notorious reputation.  In addition to housing other 17N convicts, it’s also has had its share of movie-worthy prison escapes.  Not only did Christodoulos Xiros vanish while on furlough but inmate/kidnapper Vasilis Paleokostas escaped twice, each time using a hijacked helicopter, first in June 2006 and again in February 2009.  During the second breakout a nearby resident captured the get-away chopper on amateur video. The grainy footage on this film shows the helicopter rising from the prison grounds and shots can be heard firing in the background while the amateur video maker comments.

Korydallos prison is also an over-crowded penal facility that has had substantial civil rights issues, many of which Christodoulos Xiros written manifesto outlined in Robin Hood-esque detail. Plagued by riots, overcrowding, poor health and sanitation conditions and a purported thriving black economy, the prison facility has been criticized not only by its convicts, but by Amnesty International and human rights bodies such as the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture. On occasion things have been so bad that inmates have staged hunger and medicine strikes to demand better living conditions and more immediate access to medical care.

But before Christodoulos Xiros, became a murdering guerrilla anarchist he was once a musical instrument maker and lived on the Aegean island of Ikaria.  Born to a retired priest, Triantafyllos Xiros, and his wife Moschoula, three of their ten children would later be condemned for participation in the 17 November group: Christodoulos, Savvas, and Vasilis.

Savvas Xiros was a painter of Greek religious icons.  He came to the attention of police following a botched bombing attack on June 29, 2002.  Whether from faulty fusing or poor execution, the IED he was handling detonated prematurely.  The explosion blinded him in one eye and caused partial vision loss in the other, blew off three fingers from his right hand, burst an eardrum and collapsed one of his lungs.  In total, he would spend 65 days at the Evangelismos Hospital in Athens recuperating from his debilitating injuries.
Savvas (L) and Vasilis (R) Xiros - Image Credit http://www.tovima.gr

Unconscious for four days, when Savvas Xiros came to he started cooperating with authorities, possibly encouraged by Greece’s rulings that enabled terrorists to receive lighter prison sentences in return for cooperation.  Later he would recant his statements and imply that his confession was made under extreme duress, while under the influence of psychotropic drugs or "truth serums" administered without his consent.  No evidence has been presented which collaborates this allegation, nor his later claims that prison inmates at Korydallos are routinely administered chemical restraints for non-therapeutic reasons.

Whether or not his confessions were self-preserving or influenced by state persuasion, Savvas Xiros’ testimony proved pivotal in Greece’s case against 17N and in dismantling the organized crime group. His testimony detailed the history of the cell from its nascent birth in 1975 as a Marxist-leaning domestic terrorism organization to its fateful decision to murder British defense attaché, Brigadier Stephen Saunders June 8, 2000.

As a result of Savvas Xiros’ testimony and the testimony of others, including his own brother, Christodoulos Xiros, ten members of 17N would be convicted for their rolls in 23 murders and sent to prison.   Prior to his escape from justice, Christodoulos Xiros was serving six life terms, plus 25 years. Savvas received five life sentences plus 25 years for his own role in 5 assassinations and Vasilis Xiros, the youngest of the three siblings, was condemned to 25 years for simple collusion to assassinate.

But this article’s publication in in ARCA’s blog is not solely to outline the life-cycle of one of Greece’s grimmest terrorist groups. Its purpose is to illustrate that organized criminal enterprise has many diverse elements and sometimes significantly and sometimes casually art crime plays its own part.

Theocharis Chrysakis -Image Credit - http://www.telegrafi.com
Following Christodoulos Xiros capture, on January 3, 2015 police have begun identifying additional co-conspirators.  One has been listed as a 37-year-old Albanian who posed as a Coast Guard officer using the pseudonym “Theocharis Chrysakis” or "Hari Koka". Police have indicated that this accomplice had prior arrest records for gun and narcotics possession.  There has also been speculation that Xiros’ stash of weapons and explosives may have been acquired via Greek criminals with Albanian supplier connections, possibly affiliated with this ally.

Christos Patoucheas - Image Credit - http://www.ethnos.gr
A second accomplice has been reported to be a 54-year-old former law enforcement officer.  Greek news wire reports have separately listed the individual as “unnamed” “Christos P” and “Christos Patoucheas” describing him as an ex police officer, dismissed from the EKAM, Special Counter-Terrorist Unit of the Hellenic Police twelve years ago.

The reason for his dismissal: involvement in antiquities smuggling and links to extortion rackets.  Patoucheas also seems to be involved in a functioning extortion ring operating from within the 6th wing of Korydallos prison which allegedly orchestrated additional bombings.

As abettors to Christodoulos Xiros these men now face graver charges than simple gun possession and antiquities trafficking.   Each can be charged as a member of a terrorist organization, as well as with contributing to the manufacturing, supply and possession of common explosives and bombs.  All of these offenses can be tried under Greece’s Anti-Terrorism Act.

But despite the successes of preventing further armed attacks and the recapture of a fugitive from justice, many questions remain regarding this organized crime group.

How is it that prison authorities felt it appropriate to grant furlough to a convicted terrorist despite his direct and indirect involvement in the deaths of 23 people?  How long has Christodoulos Xiros had this relationship with the former officer of Greece’s EKAM?  What are the details of this accomplice’s prior involvement in antiquities smuggling and extortion and is there any correlation between Accomplice One's Albanian arms channels and Accomplice Two's earlier involvement in art trafficking?

But before any of our readers jumps to premature conclusions, I am not implying that Christodoulos Xiros’ organization was in any way funded by antiquities smuggling.  None of my research, in looking for antiquities smuggling connections to this escapee or his associates has uncovered evidence that would substantiate such a claim. Given the more lucrative profitability of extortion and arms and cigarette trafficking, it would also seem superfluous at best as a potential revenue stream to fund Greek terrorism.

My point is merely to underscore, in a thought provoking way, the complexity of criminal behavior and that traffickers, especially art traffickers, are not always tie-wearing antiquities dealers with glossy Geneva free ports and warehouses.

Some art criminals are simply opportunistic criminals. They are incentivized to smuggle whatever illicit commodity has a willing buyer.  The type of “merchandise” isn’t important.  The contraband could be art and antiquities, or drugs and weaponry.  The sole criterion is that the enterprising criminal has access to a willing buyer and a steady supply stream of merchandise that supports his market’s demand.

I mention this because I think it is important, when examining organized crime and terrorism and its potential connection to antiquities smuggling, that researchers not to fall into the trap of feeding the media’s insatiable desire to see actuarial percentages that calculate the risk, size, percentage, threat, motivation or impact of a specific subset of organized crime, be it terrorism, arms trafficking, cigarette bootlegging or antiquities looting.  When we do, we allow the media to skim over the complexity of the subject in exchange for scary headlines that superficially skim the surface and are often based on estimates.

By the same toke art crime researchers should be more comfortable with admitting to journalists “I can’t answer that” or "there is not enough evidence to confirm links between art smuggling and terrorism" in cases like the Xiros investigation, when there is not enough proof available to satisfy the hypothesis.   In most cases, the mere mention of the words ‘organized crime’ and the circumstances of real life cases, as complex as this Greek terrorism cell, already have sufficiently powerful details on which journalists can draw readership without the need for supposition.

For those that want to take a closer look at organized crime and the difficult problem of assessing its scope, I suggest starting with this 2004 academic article.  Produced by criminologists, it gives readers a far greater understanding of the complexity of quantifying organized criminal behavior than I can within the scope of this already overly-long blog post.   The article also sadly underscores that despite having been written more than ten years ago, we are still wrestling with the same problems where organized crime information gathering is concerned.

The sad truth is that even today conclusions are too-often drawn based on too few cases and estimates rather than harder-to-actually-substantiate data giving the media tantalizing conjecture rather than providing much in the way of concrete evidence regarding a specific subset of criminal enterprise.

Part of the reason for this is that researching the mechanisms behind organized crime and any illicit trafficking market is a potentially risky endeavor. Global Initiative estimates that 35% of the journalists killed in the last ten years were reporting on organized crime or corruption.  And no matter how firmly experts researching organized crime disclaim unrealistic estimates or over-reaching assumptions it will always be, at best, an imprecise science by its very nature.

Measuring something as complex and elusive as organized crime, or specifically organized crime with art-related offenses would require law enforcement to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework that permits the police to gather data on and then measure the types of art crimes in a more meaningful way.

Unfortunately we aren't there yet, despite what some media headlines tell you.

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA

References used in this article: 
Inside Greek Terrorism, by George Kassimeris, Oxford University Press (October 1, 2013)
Organized Crime, Corruption and Crime Prevention, Editors: Stefano Caneppele and Francesco Calderoni
Race Against Terror, By Nicholas Gage, Vanity Fair, Jan 2007 Issue 557, p64, 9p
The Faces of Terrorism: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by David Canter
‘Threats and Phantoms of Organised Crime, Corruption and Terrorism’ (Critical European Perspectives), June 1, 2004 by Petrus C. Van Duyne (Author, Editor), Matjaz Jager (Editor), Klaus Von Lampe (Editor), James L. Newell (Editor)


Your current appeal for caution as to links between terrorism and antiquity sales is commendable. As for Mr. Xiros, one wonders how long he will actually be incarcerated given the recent election victory by those who seem to share at least some of his Left Wing views, if not his violent inclinations.

At the moment it seems Christodoulos Xiros has a price put on his head. Jailed members of the terror/prisoner rights group “Conspiracy of Nuclei of Fire” have apparently discussed ordering a hit the 17N convicted terrorist believing him responsible for the failure of the bomb attacks with booby-trapped envelopes addressed to the Itea Police Station and the Korydallos district Tax Office. Since this blog posting, he has been assaulted from behind and knocked unconscious last Friday by a fellow inmate at the maximum security facility where he is being held. Needless to say, C. Xiros did not name the perpetrator.

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