NEWS

Shadowy underworld holds Athenian businesses hostage

«I formed a group with my own people. A small army that helped me get my way wherever and whenever necessary.» «Before I even opened my cafe some people came and asked me when I was about to open. I got the message and raised no objection.» «I would gladly pay someone to protect my premises. In this line of work I have seen enough; I need to protect myself.» «Police come by the premises on specific days of the week. I give them a bottle of whisky and a tip, to keep the peace.» These are just some of the statements made by nightclub owners who talked to Kathimerini. They spoke of their «close» relations with both police and groups of gangs (often the line between the two is hard to discern), but also the links between extortionists and corrupt police officers. Yet they were less then forthcoming about the conditions under which some nightclub owners operate. For example, in the larger nightclubs along the Athens coast and in the city center where business is booming and drugs are almost as ubiquitous as alcoholic drinks, the owners have set up gangs of «heavies» to maintain control over their business. They often recruit members of more well-known gangs of extortionists so as to be tolerated by underworld barons. «You have to help certain people so that when you need them they will respect and help you,» said one businessman. «Every business has its own set of rules. If you abide by them, you’ll be all right.» These groups not only keep order and restrict drug dealing, but also ensure that the latter are only carried out by their own approved dealer. «You try to have people who know what is happening on the premises the whole time,» said the owner of a long-established club in the city center. «If an unknown element tries to deal in drugs, you make it clear to him that this is our turf and no one else’s.» Gifts to police He also said that for a nightclub to operate smoothly, there also has to be an «understanding» with the police. «You need access to officers; you have to pay middle-ranking officers who are in key posts,» he said. This does not only apply to the larger clubs. The owner of a small bar with a view of the Acropolis told Kathimerini that he managed to keep extortionists at bay by providing small «gifts» to police officers who would make regular visits during the week. «They’d come by every Friday. I’d give them a bottle of whisky after sticking -150 underneath its base. Whenever I failed to do so they would close the bar, claiming the music was too loud. Whenever that happened, the music from the place next door was so loud the place was jumping.» Even hairdressers Protection rackets are not restricted to areas such as Psyrri, Gazi, Thiseion and other busy central districts, but in suburbs traditionally controlled by extortionists such as Ilioupolis and Argyroupolis in the east as well as in the western suburbs. There, business owners have less room for maneuvering. In one southern suburb, for example, which used to be a den for gangs because of the large number of gyms, even beauty salon owners operated under a reign of terror. «One refused to pay and had his window broken and his family was threatened,» said the owner of a two cafe-restaurants in the district. «Since then, none of the rest of us has refused to pay up.» «In the 10 years since they first contacted me, I have fortunately had a good relationship with them. For each of my businesses I pay about -100 a week, and when I can’t pay, we come to an arrangement,» he added. Naturally there is no question of refusing their services. «I can’t go against them. Unfortunately, they have many ways of getting what they want – beatings, smashing the premises, even coming in and causing trouble with customers, driving them off,» he said.