Police operation busts N. Greece rackets

Fifty-three people, including a senior financial crimes investigator, bank employees, businessmen, a police officer and two lawyers, have been arrested within the past 24 hours in northern Greece as part of a major operation to shut down four interconnected gangs running extortion, loan-shark, fraud and money-laundering rackets, the Greek Police has reported.

According to investigators the rackets have been running as four separate but interconnected operations and are believed to have amassed a massive 43.5 million euros of ill-gotten gains over the past decade at least.

The case file put together by police offers investigating the case over the course of several months, and which was submitted to two Thessaloniki prosecutors on Wednesday, is 15,000 pages long and includes 3,500 transcripts of telephone conversations between suspects from police wiretaps.

The 53 suspects, who were taken into custody and led to the Thessaloniki First Instance Court under tight security late on Wednesday night, include leading businessmen and state officials.

Of the five businessmen arrested, one is a nightclub owner who had run for deputy regional governor in local elections in 2010, and who is suspected by police as leading a protection racket extorting money from bar and nightclub owners in Thessaloniki and Halkidiki since 2001.

Police sources also say that among the 53 suspects is an official who heads the special affairs department of the Thessaloniki financial crimes squad and who is believed to have scuppered audits by his department into the finances of the businessmen. Two senior bank officials and a former manager at a financial institution are suspected of laundering ill-gotten gains, while the suspects also include two lawyers, one cashiered and another active member of the police force who has been suspended from duty pending an inquiry by the police’s disciplinary committee, one journalist, one tax officer and a former athlete of Serbian descent who played soccer with a local Thessaloniki club.

According to the police’s preliminary findings, the 53 suspects also include a gang that ran a loan-shark operation, lending money to individuals and then charging up to 80 percent interest on the loan if payment was delayed. Their earnings were then «processed» by the other gang that ran the money-laundering operation.

The Greek Police, according to its reports, has been investigating the gangs for the past seven months following the arrest in April 2011 of a 35-year-old Greek-Syrian man who is suspected of heading rival extortion and money-laundering rackets in northern Greece.

“With its operation against these criminal organization, the Greek Police has shown that the fight against organized crime, which generates massive gains and comprises a loss to the state of significant revenues, is constant and indiscriminate,» Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis said in a statement from Athens.

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