My time in Драгалевци – living side-by-side with the Russian mafia

For a while I lived among the Russian mafia in a very usual neighborhood at the southern edge of the capital city of Sofia in the wonderful country of Bulgaria. The neighborhood was called Драгалевци, or Dragalevtsi.

Here is a view from Dragalevtsi looking towards downtown Sofia:

And here is another view looking down towards Sofia:

By the way, those are the Balkan Mountains off to the distance in the north.

But what does this have to do with the Russian mafia, you might ask?

Well, Bulgaria – next to Turkey – which itself is next to the Middle East – is not only infamous as Europe’s most corrupt country, but in fact infamous because it’s a major gateway into Europe for  illegal things like drugs, and a major gateway out of Europe for illegal things like smuggled women.

Of course, no self-respecting Russian mafioso would spend too much time in any of the hotels in Sofia, so they all lived in massive chalets they built in the neighborhood of Dragalevtsi. This made Dragalevtsi into something of the Beverly Hills of Sofia. I don’t think any of them lived here full-time – mainly, I assume, they stayed here during business trips.

Anyway, here is a snap of one of these chalets taken from my apartment:

I always thought it would be wonderful to count a few powerful Russian mafioso’s among my friends, so since I was living next to them, I did everything I could to meet them!

Sadly, with little success.

The Russian mafia are people like anyone else, and from time to time I’d see one of them shopping in the posh local Dragalevtsi supermarket, called Супермаркет МАКС, or “Supermarket MAX.” Whereas normal supermarkets in Sofia catered to the Bulgarian locals, who on average earned around EUR 250 / month – in fact this supermarket specialized in caviar and Cuban cigars and many other things that normal Bulgarians could not afford.

The mafia were easy to spot: in the parking lot I’d see a large, armored Rolls-Royce – engine running – with the driver wearing white gloves. More often then not my mobile phone would stop working – I think they carried mobile phone jammers in their cars. And standing next to them in the supermarket would be two enormous Russian bodyguards, with the obligatory black leather trenchcoats.

I tried. And I tried and I tried and I tried. And sadly, there was only a single time I could start a conversation with one of these guys. In fact, he came up to me, and in surprisingly good English he remarked that I looked like a foreigner – I told him I worked for Hewlett-Packard as an IT guy. I was hoping he would invite me over for a cigar and brandy.

But sadly, he just shrugged and walked away.

(Interesting aside: on the weekends I’d usually rent a car from Herz, then go exploring the Bulgarian countryside. The fellow at Herz told me that the rental cars will never be stolen, because of the Herz label on the back: the rental car companies all have contracts with the mafia. But, he told me, should the car be stolen, under no circumstances should I call the police. Instead he gave me a private telephone number, and he told me the car would be returned in less than 24 hours! It was a very interesting time for me – the Bulgarians are incredible, great, passionate people. But I also have more great experiences involving corruption than I could ever tell!)

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 5

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, Ken mentioned you’ve done “wet work.” Can you share any details? – Mediocre Operator Learning Everyday

MrTradecraft

Dear MOLE.

Am chuffed to bits – been waiting for this question for a while!

For the record, MOLE, I’ve never done any “wet work.”

There‘s a big difference between taking the taking of  human life inside of a Red Zone and outside of one.  Outside of a Red Zone (and here I mean yours naturally, your’s, not your target‘s), wet work refers either assassination (for sending a messing) or disappearance (when no one else should know). Within a Red Zone, the term wet work does not apply; it‘s self-defence. Sadly, I‘ve had to defend myself several times. Gladly, in my 37+ year career, the number‘s been fewer than the fingers on one hand.


Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.

 

“The Breisach Encounter”

Continuing the series . . .

One of my hobbies is exploring the Jewish past of Switzerland, as I’ve shown here and here. This is very interesting to me because, as part Gypsy myself, I find it interesting how itinerant people have been treated in medieval times.

Another of my hobbies is exploring the small villages along the Rhein. I find this interesting because historically the Rhein River had a tremendous meander which was removed via canals in modern times. This means there are medieval river villages and river relics that are now located far from the river.

Recently I was in one of these, Breisach in Germany, where I stopped to drink a coffee and smoke a cigar and reflect on my encounter with the Head of the Mossad, Gabriel Allon, at the old Synagogengasse in Zürich. Here my father tells the background story.


“Gabriel”, said a frustrated Mikhail,   “just what in the hell are we doing in Breisach?  There have to be a thousand better places in Germany for a safe house for our meeting.”

“Perhaps”, said Gabriel, “but not this close to the French border.  You never know when you need to cross over.  We’re still not very high on the German popularity list, and . . . .  Oh NO!  It’s him again!  NO!”

Mikhail jumped at Gabriel’s words.

Gabriel whispered hoarsely:  “Across the square, about 50 meters away, at your 11 o’clock.  The tall guy, baseball cap, sitting at the café with the espresso and cigar – and taking pictures.  Turn around – quick.  I have no desire to be photographed.  Very casually let’s walk south a bit.”

“Who is this guy?  Should I worry?” said Mikhail.

“Remember that I told you about him a couple of months back.  I had that meeting at the Synagogengasse in Zurich.  He’s the guy who’s a friend of you-know-who”, Gabriel responded.

“Tradecraft?”

“Exactly.  Old Mr. T”.

Mikhail’s brow furrowed: “You think someone has hired the T-Man to check us out?”

“Unlikely.  He never works for that side.  Mr. T has his scruples.  It’s just that the guy saw me then and I don’t want him to see me again”, said Gabriel.

Mikhail frowned. “Perhaps I should take him out.”

“No – you idiot.  Look —  this guy runs a blog.  At odd intervals, Tradecraft runs a column there answering questions, so the blog invites people to send in questions and he’ll eventually answer them.”

“So that means Mr. T uses that blog column as his mail-drop?”

“Possibly — Probably — Most likely — For Certain.  But the point is, it means that the guy over there – he calls himself Ken – is close enough to Tradecraft to carry on a dialogue – and feel secure.  He’s Mr. T’s pal.  In Zurich I had a Beretta in his ribs and he just pushed it away and called me a jackass.  Do you know of anyone else who Mr. T trusts like that?  The T-Man doesn’t have many friends.  Once he trusts a guy, bonds with him, nobody had better mess with that guy.  That’s Mr. T’s way.”

“I agree,“ said Mikhail, “that the T-man trusts hardly anyone.”

“So think about it, Mikhail.  If you  threaten this guy, or take him out, guess who will come after you?  I know you took out Tariq and Ivan, but Mr. T plays in a higher league. There’s no place you could run to.  Mr. T would declare war on The Office and I don’t need that – nor do I need this Ken taking our picture.

We don’t want to be an item in his blog.  Let’s just go get some lunch and let the blog guy take his pictures and move on.”

Ask. Mr. Tradecraft – A word about my friend

Yes, he really exists. And it’s important because a few posts coming up touch on very sensitive topics (such as wet work). I’ve promised him not to edit any of his contributions, although naturally that last one (4) was a tad embarrassing for me – he’s requested that I print my recollection of events and I eventually will.


Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.

 

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 4

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, So how did you meet Ken? – Spy Plying Outstanding Operator Knowledge

MrTradecraft

Dear SPOOK.

Communist China in the 1990’s. I was doing some TA work for a Middle Eastern client – Threat Assessment, arrive early, check out the opposition. Not ten minutes out of the hotel I spotted a 6-man surveillance team! Now here’s where you fall back on principles: it’s never a Red Zone until you confirm it’s a Red Zone. So after a few harrowing, blood-curdling bone-chilling minutes I realized there was indeed a team, but following a tall, bald American, not me. So I decided to hang back and watch the fun. Nobody, not even me, can evade a properly trained team that size.

But this dumb American! For the first hour he was clearly unaware of his situation. Don’t know what tipped him off – but after an hour he picked up the closest two. And then he did something amazing: he nonchalantly executed evasive pattern after evasive pattern (I counted four!), identifying each member of the team, and in less than 30 minutes he was absolutely, positively clear.

Here’s the thing: there was something about his body language that told me he was no operator. Followed up on him (had to, really, what he pulled off was a once-in-a-lifetime event) and learned he was a nuclear physicist – and not an operator, no training at all. That explained the team: nuclear physicists in China don’t go anywhere without surveillance. I told him – or better put, I counseled him months later, in a different Asian country, over steaming bowls of Bi Luo Chun tea – he has that raw talent that would easily take him to the upper echelons of our trade, if he ever so chose. More than sad – I would have been keen to have an apprentice of his natural caliber. But we keep in touch, and through his blog I get pro bono way to give back to an honorable trade.


Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.

 

British Intelligence – just letting me know that they know

British Intelligence, also known as MI6, recently gave me a call on my mobile phone!  In case you are wondering why they would do this, here’s the story.

In one of the last James Bond movies to star Pierce Brosnan, The world is not enough, James Bond blasts out of the MI6 building on the Thames River in London on a high speed boat,

So on a recent trip to London I was eager to see the real building, which is located in the center of London on the Thames River at a place called Vauxhall Cross. Since there were no “do not photograph” signs I walked all around the building and took lots of snaps!  And . . . I was able to confirm my sneaking suspicion: it turns out that the building is set so far back from the Thames that it would have been impossible for James Bond to blast out and land in the river.

It’s a pretty impressive building from the side:

And it’s even a bit more impressive from the front:

Anyway, I was so impressed that I texted a snap to my father on my Swiss mobile phone.

I think that was the magic moment that set everything into motion, the text message to my Dad.

About 2 minutes later I received a call. We don’t need to go into details, essentially one of the worst Swiss German accents I’ve ever heard. I think the main point was just to let me know that they knew. And by the way, I’m also guessing that they really didn’t know: I’ve had a number of run-in’s and encounters with real spies in my life (one of whom remains a very good friend, and one a Russian KGB officer who taught me how to make pickled cabbage), so I’m very sure if they looked in the right databases I would have been speaking to them face-2-face.

Of course, it piqued my curiosity as to the history of this place (Vauxhall Cross, not the MI6 building).  It dates back to the 13th century to a man named Faulkes who had a big house in this area. People called the house Faulke’s Hall which eventually morphed into Fox Hall which eventually then became Vauxhall.

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 3

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

I landed an upcoming assignment beginning 6 weeks from today, but for reasons I can‘t mention, I‘ll need to disguise myself. Any advice? – Disguised Operator Needs Good Lessons from Experts.

MrTradecraft

Dear DONGLE, Cancel the contract. I won‘t operate with a different persona without a minimum 4 months solid prep time, 24×7.  The hair, the clothes, the look, the speech – that‘s the easy bit. But the walk is the key. We all have our own natural walk, and learning to walk differently – to carry yourself differently – that‘s the hard bit. You’ll need a minimum of 4 months living the persona full time to develop the muscle memory, and to keep it throughout any stress situation.

Dear Mr. Tradecraft,

Ken has mentioned in his blog all the different areas you’ve worked in. What is the hardest and most challenging?– Secret Person Yearning

Dear SPY, The clandestine world has many specialties and sub-disciplines, but one stands far, far apart from the others: Cut-Out: getting a physical “thing” from Place A to Place B with absolutely, positively no trace-ability. Oh, I’ve dabbled in this from time to time, and I rarely turn down a straightforward contract. But for the big stuff – the political dossiers, the nuclear plans, the CD of videos showing CIA torture scenes – nothing less than a purebred, died-in-the-wool CU master will do. A top earner in this discipline easily earns fifty times what I bring down. But it takes decades of hard work and experience to get to this level. Today, there are only three well-known international, freelancing CU masters at this level. Four, if you count one in the Mossad.


Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.

 

Gabriel in Zürich – The true backstory

If you’ve read my post about Historical Jewry in Zurich, I might have left a few details out. Here’s the “backstory” as told by my father of Uncle Eddy Speaks Up fame:


Gabriel felt uneasy in Zurich at the best of times.  The Swiss have made it clear that he was not welcome. But he was back.  Worse, he was about to enter the old Synagogengasse and he didn’t much care for company. And yet here, in the evening mist, was someone else, pretending to read the plaque that told of the old pogroms there and holding a cell phone camera.

Gabriel’s hand went under the black slicker he wore and gripped the Beretta in the small of his back.  Standing in the shadows was a figure, quite tall and seemingly bald, he held a baseball cap to as to get closer to the plaque that marked the end of the alley. No one went to Synagogengasse, not even Jewish tourists.  Gabriel hoped that this was a coincidence, and that his cover wasn’t blown. No one was supposed to know he was in Zurich.

This was not a time for caution, and against his better judgment he had to move.  He slipped up quietly behind the stranger, pulling the Beretta, and jammed it into his ribs.  “If you want to live”, Gabriel said, “tell me who sent you.”

“Hey, man, quit the gun stuff”, said the stranger.  “I’m Ken, and I live here in Zurich”.  Gabriel’s eyes narrowed: “You have a slightly American accent – Ken.  If that’s your name.  And why take a picture of the Synagogengasse plaque?”

The stranger pushed the Beretta away from his ribs, and said: “the pictures are for my blog, you moron.  I travel all over the region – France, Germany, Italy – take interesting pictures and publish them in my blog.  This is a little known Jewish relic in Zurich and I wanted to see it.   I was trying to read the plaque when you came sneaking up, you jackass”.

Suddenly, it made sense to Gabriel.  “Wait a minute.  Ken —  blog — Zurich.  You’re Mr. Tradecraft’s friend Ken?”   “That’s right”, said Ken, now uneasy at the mention of the seldom-spoken name.   “I’m sorry.”, said Gabriel, “I’ll just slip away quietly and leave you to your reading.  Have you heard from Mr. T, lately?”

Ken looked at him, and made a what-a-dumb-ass-you-are face. “When Mr. T wants you to know where he is, he’ll call you.”

TOP SECRET – Full Disclosure!

I am not a spy, secret agent, terrorist, or anything like that. And I am not a paramilitary operator or mercenary, although people often think that when they see my enormous physical strength and lightning quick reflexes.

However, I have had – through no fault or desire of my own – more than my fair share of encounters with people who live in this secret underworld.

The other parts of my homepage and blog have been written for fun. But the stories I am now disclosing here are all true, and I am disclosing them for one purpose only: to save my life. Only by FULL DISCLOSURE can you be sure — after seeing what I have seen and learning what I have learned — that you will not one day simply disappear.

You’ve already read several blogs from my clandestine friend (Mr. Tradecraft) – now please stay tuned to read about my adventures.

 

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 2

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, I’m a middle-aged operator with experience now on three continents. On each of them, from older (and wiser) operators, I’ve heard rumors and speculation about something called Code 16. But nobody can tell me what it is – is this a special tactic?  Perhaps a famous black operation? – Suspicious person yearning.

MrTradecraft

Dear SPY.

Neither. It’s an black-ops organization, but the details are not fully known.

Here’s what we know. Everyone’s heard of the Navy SEALS: take soldiers with world-class athletic ability, put them through insane training, and punish them in a “Hell Week” without sleep. Those that make it through become the world’s top warriors – or so they say.  In 1996 an analyst in the psychology group of the Center for Naval Analysis studied all graduating SEALs and those who dropped out. She found an amazing correlation: the candidates who dropped out during Hell Week had an intelligence quota of 16 points higher than those who made it through or dropped out earlier. For non-experts, that’s the difference between average and genius. Thus was born the idea for Code 16.

Think about it: find soldiers who’ll die to carry out orders and what do you have? Super soldiers willing to follow orders and die.  And of course that’s good – sometimes you need that.  But find soldiers who drop out just before the end and what do you have? The same super soldiers, but those who can think, who need to see the Big Picture; those who also value their own lives and well-being.  As any operator knows, those are more valuable traits for our line of work. Presumably, a select group of these “last dropouts” is handpicked to join Code 16 – probably those with skills in multiple languages.

Who runs Code 16?  Nobody knows, but the current speculation is a joint U.S. / French group with a focus on Northern Africa.

Where are they based?  Nobody knows, but my guess is a big city – partly for urban training opportunities. But also the best way to hide a group of men with strange body language is probably in plain sight.

How do you identify them?  That’s probably the easy part.  If you have access to a wire news search engine (like the newspapers use), search the obituaries for young men, early 30’s, Navy enlisted (or my guess: French Foreign Legion as well), dropped out of the program, and were killed – preferably cremated. Not all of them are Code 16 – but that’d be the place to start.


Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.

 

Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 1

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, At restaurants, bars and coffee shops I know I should always sit facing the door or window, but what happens when this isn’t possible?  Is this rule so important that I should look for a different place to eat or drink? – Beginning Operator Needs Discussion

MrTradecraft

Dear BOND. I get this question a lot – it might be my most asked question! The short answer is: eat or drink where you like, because where you sit really doesn’t matter.

You have to remember, BOND, we live in a world of CCTV, drones, cell phones, and GPS. So the tradecraft we use today is a lot different than what George Smiley or his contemporaries practiced during their jaunts through East Berlin. There’s what we call the Golden Assumptions of Tradecraft, or GAT-Rules.  GAT Rule 1: assume you are under observation, everywhere, all the time.  GAT Rule 2: assume that if they want you dead, you’re dead.

Now, BOND, the only thing you’ll likely accomplish by looking for a special seat is to send off those oh-so-subtle body language signals that might be picked up by innocent non-combatants such as waitresses or passers-by.  That can only complicate the successful completion of your mission. No, BOND, your best course of action is to assume you are being watched, and rely on your heightened senses and quick reflexes to deal with any eventuality that may come along.

So, BOND, just relax and find a good spot to enjoy your meal. Because in our business, you never know if it will be your last.

 


Note from Ken: After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.