Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

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A man holds a child at a fair in the Romanian town of Tandarei. Photo: Andrei Pungovschi

Ani Sandu -Bucharest, London, Tandarei -BIRN

Romanian prosecutors thought they had an open-and-shut case against the alleged leaders of one of Europe’s largest child trafficking rings. After almost a decade, why has no one been convicted?

On a balmy spring morning in the central Romanian town of Targu Mures, a grandfatherly man enters room 52 of the court of appeal, the heels of his dress shoes clacking on the parquet.

Wearing a navy, plaid blazer and cream-coloured trousers, with a white beret in hand, he chooses an empty bench at the back. As he waits for his hearing to begin, he strokes his chin and sizes up the two judges in front.

The man is Constantin Radu, 66 — but everyone calls him Titi.

Along with 25 other men, Titi is accused of trafficking scores of Roma minority children to Western Europe for a life of forced criminality. Two of the other accused are his sons.

The defendants and their lawyers start to fill the courtroom. They sit next to Titi only after the other seats are taken.

Titi meanwhile scans a handful of crumpled papers, though he knows them well. They have been his main line of defence for the past nine years.

“He’s the real boss,” said Bernie Gravett, a former superintendent with the London Metropolitan Police who led the investigation that put the men in court. “Top of the pyramid.”

Prosecutors say Titi, a Roma person himself, is the kingpin of a notorious gang from Tandarei, a small town in southeastern Romania where grandiose mansions scream of wealth next to beat-up shacks.

“It’s like a military operation,” said Gravett, describing the group’s alleged deployment of an army of children to panhandle and steal. Even an eight-week-old baby was trafficked into service — as a prop for begging, drugged to keep quiet.

Investigators say Titi’s empire spanned far corners of the EU: Spain, Italy, France, even Norway — and especially Britain.

Officers arrested dozens of Romanians in Britain and Romania after an unprecedented joint investigation that took four years.

But justice played out differently in the two countries.

In Britain, around 100 were convicted of crimes ranging from trafficking and money laundering to benefit fraud, forging documents and child neglect.

In Romania, all of the 26 accused were acquitted in a shock verdict in February — after a nine-year, stop-start trial.

While prosecutors appealed and the men are back in the dock, many saw the verdict as proof that Romania’s judiciary is too weak — or too dysfunctional — to stand up to mobsters and the corruption that lets them flourish.

“The criminal justice system set up to fight transnational organised networks seems to be on the brink of collapse in Romania,” 25 rights groups said in a petition after the verdict, calling on international bodies to “make Romania responsible” for tackling trafficking.

In a country where politicians convicted of corruption are known for trying to bend justice to their favour, the case touched a nerve. It also resonated with Romanians fed up with the state’s dismal record of protecting the vulnerable.

Such feelings reached boiling point after the unrelated case this summer of a 15-year-old girl in southern Romania who was kidnapped, raped and murdered despite phoning police three times for help.

The tragedy revealed staggering incompetence by police and prosecutors and suspected links between law enforcement and organised crime, including trafficking rings.

European Commission data shows nearly three-quarters of trafficking victims identified in EU states come from Romania — more than 1,500 in the two-year period 2015-2016.

And the US State Department downgraded Romania in its latest Trafficking in Persons Report, noting that 2018 was the country’s worst year in more than a decade in terms of convicting traffickers or identifying victims.

As the appeal trial of Titi and his co-accused got underway this spring, BIRN spent months combing over court documents and interviewing people close to the case to understand the scale and complexity of the alleged criminal enterprise in Tandarei.

The picture that emerged was of a closed and marginalised Roma community in thrall to local mafia who prey on poor families, enslaving their children through a pernicious form of debt bondage.

The court records and expert interviews also cast light on how the wheels came off a trial that many saw as a test of Romania’s commitment to tackling modern slavery.

Anthony Steen, a former British lawmaker who followed the trial closely, branded it a “very bad case of miscarriage of justice”.

“There was no political or professional pressure to see the job done,” he told BIRN.

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Infographic: Marta Klawerzeczy

Gold bars and AK47s

In the dusty streets of Tandarei, children play football at noon, on a school day. At the annual fun fair, held on a lot near the town centre, they ride dodgem cars and shoot toy rifles.

The town of 13,000 begins and ends in the plains, halfway between the capital, Bucharest, and the Black Sea to the east.

The tallest buildings are four-story communist-era apartment blocks, but the edifices that stand out are the luxury houses with sweeping balconies and ornate wrought-iron gates — many built with the proceeds of crime, investigators say.

Veer from the main road and you risk ending up in a pothole or skidding in mud. That does not deter the drivers of luxury cars seen all over town: BMWs, Mercedes, even a Porsche. Some vehicles have the steering wheel on the right, British-style.

People are afraid to talk to journalists. They are wary of being photographed, even at public events like the annual fair, where one man threatened to “smash your face” if pictures were not deleted.

The order of Tandarei, such as it is, was shattered on April 8, 2010 when around 300 Romanian and British officers in balaclavas rammed the doors of 34 mansions as helicopters buzzed overhead.

They did not alert local authorities in advance. The dawn raid, captured on video released by Romanian police, revealed stacks of cash, gold bars, birth certificates and guns — including AK47s — hidden under flooring.

Police seized some suspects — all Roma — straight out of bed. Eighteen were arrested on the spot, including Titi.

In addition to trafficking minors, for which they risk up to 12 years in prison, the men were charged with running an organised crime group, money laundering and firearms violations. All deny the charges.

Prosecutors opted to try the alleged traffickers in Harghita county in central Romania, 350 kilometres from Tandarei, in a bid to keep the gang from influencing the trial.

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Infographic: Marta Klawerzeczy

The raid and subsequent court case were the result of an unprecedented investigation that began in 2006 after a Czech woman landed in Britain with three Roma children from Tandarei.

Immigration officers at London Stansted Airport got suspicious when they realised the children could not communicate with the woman. She later got three years in prison for trying to bring them into the country illegally.

Gravett, the London Metropolitan Police superintendent, took up the case after catching hundreds of Romanian Roma children shoplifting and pickpocketing in central London.

He said crimes by Romanians shot up almost 800 per cent in just three months after Romania joined the European Union in 2007.

Most were thefts by children. Gravett recalled a 13-year-old girl arrested more than 10 times under different names and dates of birth.

“So we then knew that someone was playing a game with us,” he told BIRN in an interview at a cafe in the southeastern English town of Brighton.

He took out a laptop and opened a PowerPoint presentation on the Tandarei case. Now retired after 31 years with the police, Gravett works as a consultant and he uses the case to teach officers how to deal with trafficking.

Later, he requested a napkin — “I draw on white napkins,” he said — to scrawl circles, arrows and pyramids, showing how people and money circulated.

Shortly after Romania joined the EU, Gravett discovered that police in pre-accession Romania had sent Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, a list of 1,087 names of children and 67 suspected gang members to be monitored.

Europol assessed it as one of the largest human trafficking rings in Europe.

Checking the list, Gravett found that around 200 of the minors had been arrested in London for petty crimes. He sought EU funds to probe further.

That is how Operation Golf, the first EU joint anti-trafficking investigation between two countries came about. In 2008, the European Commission granted one million euros so British and Romanian police could cooperate to put an end to the criminal group.

Investigators found that gang leaders approached poor Roma families in Romania offering to take a child abroad to earn money, charging parents 1,000 euros per child, according to Gravett.

The group would lend the money, with interest, and the family stayed forever in debt. So they would send another child, and another, until the entire family ended up abroad, working for the gang.

“We had a father trying to bring an eight-week-old child to give to the gang,” Gravett said. “Three times he tried.”

The gang then placed the children with families under their control. Gravett cited the case of a 13-year-old girl taken to the town of Slough, near London. When she was not forced to go out and beg, she was a house slave.

Her father eventually got five years in a British prison for trafficking his own daughter. The investigation found he had controlled other girls for the gang too, as far away as in Spain.

During a raid in Slough, officers found 211 people living in 16 houses. Conditions were appalling. Roma children slept huddled together on the floor. The fridges were mostly empty.

Most of the children were aged 10-17 and had “a very busy criminal record”, Gravett said.

Investigators say Britain was the gang’s preferred country due to its relatively generous welfare system. They falsified documents to cash benefit cheques, sometimes making tell-tale errors like writing “February 30”.

Wealth and power

Gravett estimates the group may have trafficked as many as 10,000 children since 2002 — far more than the number identified by the joint investigation — with each child making around 160,000 euros a year for the gang.

He says most of those profits went to Titi, sent via MoneyGram and Western Union or brought to Romania by goons toting bundles of cash.

Titi declined to comment when approached by BIRN in the courthouse after one of his appeal hearings, but his defence has been consistent: he says he is a victim of mistaken identity.

According to the indictment, Titi masterminded how children should be recruited and decided who would transport them abroad.

Phone intercepts included in the indictment reveal that Titi was in regular contact with local police, who tipped him off if there was trouble ahead. Wiretaps also show he promised to help a man with legal problems stay out of jail in exchange for money.

By all accounts, Titi is respected and feared in Tandarei. A Romanian police officer who worked on the case and declined to be identified said Titi was known as the “supreme judge” among the Roma.

Questioned in court in November 2018, Titi denied everything: recruiting minors, lending money to people, being a local leader.

“I have no influence over anybody in the community in which we live,” he said.

He added he did not recognise the phone calls mentioned in the indictment and that he had papers for the weapons found in his home, which he said he used for hunting.

“There is another person with the same name,” he said, “and I’m probably [here] in his stead, and the money allegedly sent to me was in reality sent in the name of this other [person].”

Tandarei is a town hollowed out by emigration. Locals estimate that around 80 per cent of residents work abroad since jobs are scarce. Almost all the factories that thrived during communism have closed.

Around a quarter of Tandarei’s population are Roma people, Romania’s second-largest ethnic minority after Hungarians. As elsewhere, many Roma families live in extreme poverty, cut off from essential services like education and healthcare. Discrimination is rife.

The main Roma neighbourhood in Tandarei is called Strachina — off limits to outsiders without permission from community leaders.

Nicusor Lefter, a Roma resident of Tandarei who works with non-governmental organisations to support the community, said the mansions in town were built with money earned abroad and did not spring up overnight.

“Everything you see here is financed by the Roma,” he said. “If it weren’t for the Roma, there wouldn’t be any shops because many of the Romanians have left.”

Gelu Duminica, executive director of the Impreuna Agency for Community Development, which supports Roma communities nationwide, guided a group of British politicians to Tandarei right after the trafficking investigation.

He recalled they met with around 30 of the most important people in town and many complained that the police raids had been abusive. It turned out more than half of those in the room were defendants in the case, he said.

Even today, the man accused of being Titi’s number two in the gang — Gheorghe Dragusin, nicknamed “Frant” — claims to be the advisor for Roma issues to Tandarei Mayor Nicoleta Toma.

Toma declined an interview request and BIRN was unable to verify Drăgușin’s claim.

“I say I’m innocent,” Dragusin, 57, told BIRN after an appeal hearing in Targu Mures. “We’re in this case because of someone else’s deeds.”

Prosecutors say Dragusin organised trips abroad, bribed border guards and collected money from those forced to beg.

“Are those kids still alive?” Dragusin asked rhetorically. “Did we kill them? What do they mean we took these kids from their families and they don’t know where they are?”

Experts say many in Strachina see the gang members as “modern Robin Hoods”, taking money from the rich abroad and giving it to the poor back home.

“The sad thing about this is we must understand the Roma have had a hard time over history, but this is Roma organised crime exploiting lower clans and other Roma people and families within their own group who have nothing,” former superintendent Gravett said.

“I’ve been to Tandarei many times, and the gangsters get rich and the poor people stay in debt and they stay at the bottom. They’re not gonna tell on the gang.”

‘We’ll kill your family’

Titi and the other defendants were remanded in custody for 10 months before being released, long before the trial began in February 2013.

All the accused protested their innocence in court. Some said they were framed. Others claimed not to remember what had happened. They said funds received from Britain were remittances from relatives working honestly.

One, a cousin of Titi, said he bought his house and car in Tandarei by selling vehicles, newspapers and food in Spain, Britain, Italy and France. “My kids have never been detained by the police.”

Another said he has 13 children in Britain, receiving social benefits of about 200 pounds (230 euros) per child. “I didn’t know and it didn’t even cross my mind that children from Tandarei are recruited to beg abroad.”

Another said he had been working in Britain since 2008, delivering food. “I have never seen a Romanian child begging in England,” he told the judge.

Titi hired one of Romania’s most famous attorneys, Catalin Dancu, who had defended top politicians and businessmen, earning the nickname “lawyer of celebrities”.

Delays dogged the trial from the outset. There was a problem with the indictment, which had to be remade. Hearings were postponed as defendants changed lawyers.

Once, the defence sought a delay because it was snowing. Then Titi had to seek new council after his lawyer was named head of Romania’s Consulate General to New York.

But the biggest problem was getting witnesses to testify.

A few could not be subpoenaed because they had died. Many more moved abroad or could not be found. A judge even fined local police around 230 euros for not trying hard enough to locate them.

Again and again, witnesses were excused from testifying because they were related to the accused by blood or by marriage. BIRN counted around 20 such exceptions.

Then there was the fact that the trial had no official aggrieved parties. When investigators questioned children who were allegedly trafficked, or their families, they were given the legal status of witnesses rather than victims.

The reason was that the victims did not see themselves as such, the Romanian police officer said. For one thing, they considered life in Britain a step up from Tandarei.

“Now they lived in a house,” he said. “They had a TV in that house. The streets were paved. They saw it as a big advantage.”

Throughout the trial, witnesses changed their testimony from their initial statements given to British police. They said they went to Britain willingly, to beg for themselves.

For investigators, there is no doubt that many lied out of fear.

“The simple thing is they’ll say: ‘We’ll just kill members of your family,’” Gravett said.

One witness wrote to the court saying it was too dangerous to testify, and later backtracked on his police statement.

Only four of 158 witnesses had their identities protected. And even then there were problems. In one hearing conducted via video link, a protected witness was unable to see defendants when asked to point them out because of a technical glitch.

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Girls walk past an amusement ride at the annual fair in Tandarei. Photo: Andrei Pungovschi

‘Negligence or bad faith’

By the time the Harghita court came to a verdict in February 2019, the trial had reached its 53rd hearing.

The judge observed that as of December 2018, the clock had run out on some of the charges, including gun violations and running an organised criminal group.

That is because changes in the penal code made in 2014 had shortened the statute of limitations and reduced sentences for certain crimes.

On the counts of human trafficking and money laundering, the judge said there was not enough evidence to convict.

In his reasoning for the verdict, he wrote that clarifying what had happened “was hindered by the total lack of aggrieved parties identified during the criminal investigation” — a reference to the lack of official victims.

About Titi, he said: “From the evidence in this case, and taking into account especially the testimonies of the witnesses, it does not ensue that he was involved in recruiting, housing and transporting some minors by using false promises.”

He added that recordings of phone conversations between Titi and local police were “clues to other crimes, not those the defendant was charged with”.

Silvia Tabusca, a law professor and coordinator of the Human Security Programme at the European Centre for Legal Education and Research, a Bucharest-based rights group, said she found it odd that the verdict came right after the statute of limitations expired.

She also blamed the prosecutor for not fighting hard enough. “It’s either serious negligence, or bad faith,” she said.

Asked about the verdict by members of Romania’s parliament, then General Prosecutor Augustin Lazar issued a statement defending the prosecutor.

He said the prosecutor had been legally unable to ask for a faster trial and had pressed for convictions for human trafficking and money laundering right until the end.

Madalina Mocan, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy think tank in the northwestern Romanian city of Cluj Napoca, said trafficking cases in Romania rely too much on victim testimony — a big ask given that trials can take years and no one gets psychological counselling before taking the stand.

“Without strong testimony, the case becomes very weak,” she said. “I’m [more] interested in the money made, proving that a Jaguar, say, was bought with money from trafficking.”

In trafficking cases in Britain, courts can convict on the basis of such evidence alone.

Following an outcry over the verdict, the Harghita court issued a statement saying it had too few judges and was overwhelmed. It cited the sheer size of the Tandarei case, which involved more than 200 parties, including defendants and witnesses.

The indictment alone was 600 pages long. And by 2019, there were enough case documents to fill five big shopping carts.

In the end, the Judicial Inspectorate, which oversees judges and is accused by critics of being controlled by politicians, found no problems with the trial after four inspections of the case.

In a statement to BIRN, the inspectorate said the length of the proceedings was due to the complexity of the case and the amount of evidence. It also said the judge was affected by “a significant volume of work” and that from May 2017 to February 2019, there were no unjustified delays.

The Romanian officer who took part in the investigation said it probably would have been better to split the case into smaller, more manageable chunks. The only success, he added, was that “this group from Tandarei spent a lot of money on lawyers”.

Former British lawmaker Steen, who heads the Human Trafficking Foundation in London and accompanied police on some of the British raids, said there was no way the case would have collapsed in Britain as long as the evidence was sound.

“I don’t know whether it’s corruption or inadequacy, inability, or — which I more likely suspect — there is a connection between somebody very rich or somebody in the police force or somebody in politics, or a mixture of the lot, who has actually prevented things going forward.”

Former Superintendent Gravett said he regretted agreeing to prosecute the alleged gang leaders in Romania instead of bringing them to Britain.

“If we’d have, they would all be in prison,” he said.

‘Protect the vulnerable’

The Tandarei trial brought bad press to the Roma community in a country where anti-Roma sentiment runs high.

But Duminica from the Impreuna Agency for Community Development said the case should not be viewed through the lens of ethnicity since it is really about the state’s failure to protect the vulnerable.

For one thing, local authorities and child protection services should have noticed the Roma children were missing, said Duminica.

“Criminals always take risks. It’s the state institution that hooks up with the criminal that makes him feel and become untouchable.”

He added that the solution was to create more opportunities for Roma people.

“First, the law has to be applied,” he said. “State institutions have to do their job.” Going forward, the community needs sustainable alternatives “between being a beggar, a trafficker, whatever, and making money”.

Former British lawmaker Steen agreed.

“It’s an abuse of people who are very unfortunate for no fault of their own, extremely poor, living in abject poverty, and they want to escape. And therefore they are easy prey to people promising things.”

Minutes of local council meetings show that Tandarei Mayor Toma wants to turn a long-closed school in Strachina into a medical clinic and educational centre.

“We must start somewhere,” she told a council meeting in March, noting that only 10 of the neighbourhood’s 373 school-age children were in school. “Whether we like it or not, they are citizens of our town.”

Toma added that if nothing is done for the children, “we shouldn’t wonder when they hit us on the head in the street”.

She said discussions were underway with the Romanian government, the World Bank and the city of Madrid to fund the project.

The mayor of Madrid, home to a large number of Roma from Tandarei, visited the town last autumn.

Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena (now no longer in office) held a press conference together with local officials — during which she shared a table with one of the accused.

Then she went to Strachina and visited some homes. On the street, she spoke to the press about the need to make sure “Romanian citizens who come from here and live in Madrid have a dignified living”.

Tandarei Mayor Toma later spoke of the need to create good living conditions in the town so that “our citizens remain here”.

Above the law?

Law enforcement sources and rights groups say the Tandarei gang is still active in Britain, France, Spain and elsewhere — often moving children from country to country.

“They continue to do what they’ve been doing for years and they seem to be above the law,” Gravett said.

A child rights expert who has followed the gang’s activity in France told BIRN that since 2004, between 200 and 300 children from Tandarei have been known to beg and steal in the Paris region.

French sociologist Olivier Peyroux has met around 50 of them in recent years while researching a book on child exploitation in Eastern Europe, with a chapter on Tandarei.

He said that after the joint British and Romanian investigation, the gang changed strategy: parents started to accompany their trafficked children a lot more to shield the ringleaders.

“Slowly, slowly they integrated the families into the network,” he told BIRN. “They somehow adapt to the investigators’ techniques and find a way to give the impression the family is exploiting their own children.”

In Italy, police announced in May they had caught 40 people from Tandarei and the nearby town of Fetești suspected of involvement in more than 100 robberies.

Back in Britain, the Salvation Army, which helps adult victims of modern slavery, said it saw a big jump in the number of Romanians exploited last year. In terms of people referred for support, only Albanians and Vietnamese come in higher numbers.

In May, a British woman in the northern English town of Ashton Market, near Manchester, posted cell phone footage on a Facebook group set up to report crime in the area. In it, she accuses a young man and a young woman — presumed to be Romanian — of stealing perfume from her market stall.

The video was widely shared, along with a flow of xenophobic comments.

“Romanian piece of garbage,” wrote one social media user. “CLOSE OUR BORDERS, KICK THEM OUT,” said another.

Somehow, the video got noticed by people from Tandarei. Several of them posted humorous comments that suggested the alleged thieves were well known in the community.

Someone even tagged the young man, identifying him as a 20-year-old from the town who now lives in Germany and has done prison time in France.

Analysis of dozens of Facebook accounts from Tandarei shows that many young men — including some defendants in the case and their sons — are fond of livestreaming their lives. Some call themselves “mafia” and “boss” and boast about the luxury cars they plan to buy.

Other videos show Tandarei residents visiting relatives in British prisons. In one, five young men are seen drinking and listening to melancholy music, distressed that a cousin ended up in jail.

In another video, a woman whose son is convicted in Britain points to her purse and says she has “enough money to bury [pay for expensive funerals for] half of Tandarei”. She adds: “This is what it [really] means to be a mobster.”

Meanwhile, the appeal trial in Targu Mures grinds towards a conclusion. As of December 10, the court had held its eleventh hearing.

As in the first trial, the court has struggled to find witnesses. And even when they do, they are less than forthcoming.

During a hearing in September, prosecutors questioned a driver who had told police he drove Roma children from Tandarei across the border for two defendants. He backpedaled on his initial statement, denying he knew the accused and claiming not to remember much.

“I see you remember [only] what you want,” a judge snapped.

Judging by their social media posts, many of the accused seem unphased after almost a decade in court.

On the first day of the appeal trial, on April 24, one of the accused livestreamed a video of himself with several other defendants relaxing at a mountain resort 200 kilometres southeast of Targu Mures, just hours after they left the court.

They appeared to be in high spirits, as though taking a vacation. “Horses don’t die when dogs want them to,” one of them said.

In a parking lot of the resort, they honked their horns like revellers on New Year’s Eve.

At the annual fair in Tandarei in September, as people of all ages spun on merry-go-rounds and boys and men took turns testing their strength on punching bags, Titi arrived in a white shirt and cream trousers, wearing his signature white beret.

Accompanied by two women and two boys, he stopped near an inflatable slide branded with Tom and Jerry cartoon images. There, he talked to one of the boys, with the look of a grandfather giving life advice.

Then they all disappeared into the crowd.   

Ani Sandu is a news anchor and editor at Romanian Public Radio and a reporter at large for DoR, a non-fiction quarterly. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Editing by Timothy Large

Article from: https://balkaninsight.com/2019/12/11/blind-justice-for-romanias-trafficked-roma-children/