In a sweeping crackdown on organized crime, Kyrgyzstan’s security services have arrested dozens of suspected gangsters, seized millions of dollars’ worth of illicit assets, and killed the country’s most notorious crime boss in a dramatic shootout.
The operation, which began on October 4, has been hailed by the authorities as a decisive blow to the criminal underworld, which they accuse of undermining the rule of law, extorting businesses, and influencing politics.
“We are declaring an all-out war on crime,” said Kamchybek Tashiyev, the head of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, in a speech on October 5. “From now on, in our country there will be no thieves-in-law, no leaders of organized crime groups, no criminal organizations.”
The term “thieves-in-law” refers to members of a sprawling Eurasian criminal fraternity that emerged in the Soviet era and has since expanded across the region and beyond. Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous Central Asian nation of 6.5 million people, has long been a hub for such groups, which have exploited its porous borders, weak institutions, and turbulent politics.
The most prominent figure among them was Kamchybek Kolbayev, also known as Kolya Kyrgyz, who had been wanted by both Kyrgyz and U.S. authorities for years on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, and murder. In 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department designated him as a “foreign narcotics kingpin” and imposed sanctions on him and his associates.
Kolbayev’s reign came to an end on October 4, when he was killed in a gunfight with GKNB officers who attempted to arrest him at a bar in Bishkek. According to the GKNB, Kolbayev resisted arrest and opened fire on the officers, injuring two of them. The officers returned fire and fatally wounded him.
Kolbayev’s death was followed by a wave of arrests of his associates and rivals across the country. The GKNB said it detained more than 40 “thieves-in-law” and members of organized crime groups in less than a week. It also seized more than $10 million worth of property and assets belonging to them.
Among those arrested were Mars Sulaimanov, the brother of another slain crime boss known as Limonti; Baktybek Amankulov, a suspect in the killing of yet another crime boss known as Doo Chyngyz; and four associates of Kadyr Donosov, a gang leader known as Jengo.
Most of the detainees were made to film confessions to camera in which they renounced their “criminal ways” and pledged to become law-abiding citizens. Some also apologized to President Sadyr Japarov and Tashiyev for their activities.
Japarov, who came to power last year after a popular uprising toppled the previous government, has vowed to restore order and stability in Kyrgyzstan. He has also expressed support for Tashiyev’s campaign against organized crime.
However, some critics have questioned the motives and methods behind the crackdown. They have accused Japarov and Tashiyev of using the anti-crime operation as a pretext to eliminate their political opponents and consolidate their power.
Japarov and Tashiyev are both former opposition leaders who have faced criminal charges in the past for their involvement in violent protests. They have also been linked to nationalist groups that have clashed with ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan.
Some observers have also suggested that Kolbayev’s killing may have been orchestrated by rival factions within the security services or the criminal underworld. They have pointed to inconsistencies and contradictions in the official version of events, such as the lack of video footage or eyewitness accounts of the shootout.
Others have expressed doubt that the crackdown will have a lasting impact on Kyrgyzstan’s entrenched criminal networks. They have argued that new leaders will soon emerge to fill the vacuum left by Kolbayev and his associates.
“The problem is not only Kolbayev or other individual criminals,” said Azamat Temirkulov, a political analyst at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. “The problem is the systemic corruption and collusion between crime and politics in Kyrgyzstan.”
Temirkulov said that unless the authorities address the root causes of crime, such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, and lack of justice, they will not be able to eradicate it.
He also warned that the heavy-handed approach of the security services could backfire by alienating the public and provoking resistance from the criminal groups.
“The authorities should not rely on force alone,” he said. “They should also use dialogue, persuasion, and incentives to encourage the criminals to abandon their illegal activities and integrate into society.”