Thessaloniki extortion gangs smashed

The suicide of a Thessaloniki businessman last year led to the unraveling of four extortion gangs and the arrest of 53 suspects, including a tax official, entrepreneurs, a journalist employed by state media and three serving policemen, officers in northern Greece said Thursday.

In one of the country?s biggest operations of its kind, some 250 police officers were dispatched on Tuesday night to locations in Thessaloniki, Serres and Halkidiki to make the arrests.

Police said they began tracking the suspects last May with the help of the National Intelligence Service (EYP). It is believed EYP used sophisticated surveillance equipment to record conversations between the gang members.

Officers were hampered in their efforts to build a case by the reluctance of victims to provide information. However, police believe the 45-year-old businessman who killed himself in Thessaloniki last year had borrowed 450,000 euros from one gang and 100,000 from another.

The four gangs operated independently but there were some links between them, police said. The biggest gang was led by a 58-year-old entrepreneur and had been active since 2003. It had 12 members, including the head of the local internal affairs division of the financial crimes squad (SDOE), the journalist, a retired policeman and two bankers. The gang lent money at monthly interest rates of between 5 and 15 percent.

Police said that between 2004 and 2011, the gang made about 40 million euros in profit. In order to launder the money, the gang would buy winning betting slips from customers of the state-run firm OPAP and collect the winnings. The 58-year-old had more than 2,000 winning betting slips at his home.

The other three gangs operated in a similar manner, according to officers.

The SDOE official was also a member of a PASOK-affiliated union. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, an MP for Thessaloniki, denied allegations on anonymous blogs that he had any connections to the unnamed tax officer.

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