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Authorities crack down on transnational Armenian Power crime group

By Michael Martinez, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Armenian Power has ties to Armenia, Russia and Georgia crime figures
  • Its membership is believed to be more than 200
  • Authorities have charged 99 of the members

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Authorities announced charges Wednesday against 99 members of a transnational organized crime group in southern California called the Armenian Power, whose enterprise allegedly collected $20 million through kidnapping, extortion, bank fraud and narcotics trafficking.

About 800 law enforcement officers on Wednesday arrested 74 of the 99 members and associates of the Armenian Power, which allegedly has ties to high-level crime figures in Armenia, Russia and Georgia, authorities said. The remainder are being sought, authorities said.

In all, the crime group is believed to have more than 200 members, authorities said.

"This is a significant step in disrupting this organization," U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. in Los Angeles said during a press conference. The charges came after a two-year investigation into the organization, according to local and federal authorities in the joint Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force.

Two federal indictments unsealed Wednesday named 88 defendants linked to Armenian Power, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney has charged 11 more gang members in seven cases, authorities said.

The Armenian Power also allegedly engaged in more than 400 acts of identity theft, credit card skimming, manufacturing counterfeit checks, bank fraud, health care fraud, marijuana distribution and illegal gambling, authorities said.

Birotte said the group's crime schemes caused losses of $10 million in Orange County, California, and another $10 million in Los Angeles.

Among the alleged conspiracies, Armenian Power members allegedly defrauded hundreds of customers of 99 Cents Only Stores when they secretly installed "skimming" devices to steal customer account information at cash registers and then used the information to make counterfeit debit and credit cards, authorities said.

Managers at the 99 Cents Only Stores contacted authorities when they learned of the scheme, Birotte said. The fraud netted $2 million for the gang, authorities said.

In the Orange County case, which names 20 defendants, Armenian Power members allegedly targeted elderly people in a bank fraud scheme, and members also worked with African-American street gangs and allegedly bribed bank insiders to gather information that allowed them to take over bank accounts, authorities said.

Members of Armenian Power have a heritage going back to Armenia and other Eastern Bloc countries, and the crime group started as a street gang in East Hollywood, California, in the 1980s, authorities said. Members identify themselves with tattoos, graffiti and gang clothing, but the organization is more concerned with racketeering than controlling "turf," authorities said.

Armenian Power, also known as AP-13, has close ties with the prison gang Mexican Mafia, which controls much of the narcotics distribution in California's prisons, and maintains connections with Russian and Armenian crime figures known as "Thieves-in-Law," authorities said.

"The indictments that target the Armenian Power organized crime enterprise provide a window into a group that appears willing to do anything and everything illegal to make a profit," Birotte said. "These types of criminal organizations -- through the use of extortions, kidnappings and other violent acts -- have demonstrated a willingness to prey upon members of their own community."

In separate actions brought by federal authorities in Miami and Denver, and announced along with the Los Angeles indictments by the Department of Justice, 14 additional defendants, some of whom are linked to Armenian Power, were charged Wednesday with extortion, money laundering and fraud offenses, among other crimes, authorities said.

"The common denominator among these defendants and their criminal enterprises is their willingness to commit any crime for profit, and to use any means of violence and intimidation to further their goals," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Justice Department's Criminal Division said at a press conference held in the police department of Glendale, California, home to a large Armenian community.

"In less than one month, however, the department has undertaken the largest one-day takedown of La Cosa Nostra; a coordinated national effort against street gangs; and today, taken action against Armenian Power and others with ties to international organized crime," Breuer said, reading from a prepared statement.

In one alleged kidnapping, several Armenian Power members forced a man to pay ransom by taking him to an auto body shop belonging to a group member and then threatening him with violence, authorities said.

In an alleged extortion scheme lasting months, the victim and his family were forced to make repeated payments under threats, authorities said.