SOFIA -- A burly, bald-headed man in a high-visibility jacket flaunts a rifle as a group of men lie face down on the ground. He curses at them and tells them not to come to Bulgaria again.
The November video was widely shared across Bulgarian social networks and the man with the rifle was Dinko Valev, a semiprofessional wrestler and celebrity migrant hunter from Yambol, a town just 50 kilometers from Bulgaria's border with Turkey.
Valev became a household name in 2016 after his quad-bike patrols, which he said were to catch migrants sneaking into the country, were widely reported both in Bulgaria and abroad. In one of his most notorious videos, Valev, now in his early 30s, was seen insulting a group of Syrian men lying on the ground. The men, Valev said, had come to his country to kill Bulgarians "like dogs."
Hours after Valev's most recent video was released, Bulgaria's Interior Ministry issued a statement. "Border police officers from Elhovo (a town in Yambol Province) detained 20 illegal immigrants," the statement read. There was no mention of Valev or his role in apprehending the migrants, a detail that has once again raised questions about official Bulgarian support for the anti-migrant vigilante groups that have sprung up in recent years.
In the last decade, thousands of migrants, many of them from Turkey and war-ravaged Syria, have arrived in Bulgaria, often using the European Union's poorest country as a way station to access richer and more welcoming countries farther north. Negative sentiments toward migrants grew as the flow across the border increased in the mid-2010s. In 2019, a Gallup poll found that Bulgaria was one of the least accepting countries toward migrants in the world.
"I found them this time without even trying to," Valev said in his most recent video, before turning the camera on the men, most of them carrying backpacks and lying face down on the ground.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, Valev said the migrants he apprehended were 20 people from Afghanistan, who he saw by chance. In November, fearing an influx of migrants due to the crisis in Afghanistan, Bulgaria deployed 350 troops on its borders with Turkey and Greece.
"You take the rifle out of the trunk and tell them, 'Stop, stop, stop!' and they stop," Valev said. "Two walked across the road. I saw them, I shouted out. I took the rifle. I went down one path and watched them gather in a circle. They stopped. I did not hit them or harass them."
According to Valev, who mostly uses Facebook to share his videos, he then called the national emergency number, forced the men to lie down, and remained there until the police arrived. All he had done, he said, was make a "citizen's arrest."
Vigilantes 'Exceeding Their Rights'?
Valev and his associates are just one of many vigilante and paramilitary groups that have sprung up in recent years, ostensibly to defend Bulgaria against a wave of migrants. Fueled by conspiracy theories about an "Islamic invasion" and a virulent mix of pro-Russian and far-right ideologies, groups such as the Vasil Levski Military Union and the Shipka Bulgarian National Movement operate on Bulgaria's 269-kilometer border with Turkey, much of which is now fortified with a barbed-wire fence. The vigilantes often wear military uniforms and perform drills, with some of them documenting their activities on social media.
In the past, the Bulgarian authorities have been accused by rights groups of encouraging and enabling the vigilantes. In 2016, then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who ruled the country for a decade, said that "any help for the police, for the border police, and for the state is welcome. I thanked [the vigilantes]...[and] sent the director of the border police to meet with them so that they could coordinate their information." After widespread criticism, Borisov backtracked on the comments and said that "citizens should not exceed their rights."
If not enabling the vigilante groups, however, the Bulgarian authorities have often been accused of turning a blind eye. While Valev has been arrested by the police several times, twice for beating someone up and once for attempting to transport a memorial plaque across the Bulgaria-North Macedonia border, he has never been charged.
After Valev's most recent video, a statement on the website of the Interior Ministry did not mention his role. "A border-police squad identified 20 foreigners, men. They were without identity documents, claiming to be from Afghanistan. The illegal immigrants have been detained at the Elhovo police department," the statement read.
The press center of the national border police confirmed to RFE/RL that the men were detained in the area of Elhovo but said that it hadn't seen Valev's video that appeared on social media. Only after RFE/RL sent the border police the video did they acknowledge that Valev was at the scene.
Are Migrant Hunters Breaking The Law?
Whether or not the Bulgarian authorities are collaborating with Valev, the legality of the migrant hunters' actions has been called into question.
According to Sofia-based lawyer Greta Ganeva, "anyone can make a citizen's arrest to prevent a violation," but they cannot use a weapon. "The questions are: how this man found out that the men on the road were foreigners [and] how did he know that they had broken the law? This can happen only after checking documents, and he does not have such powers," Ganeva said.
It was also unclear if Valev carries a regular rifle or an air rifle on his patrols. He told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that his rifle was registered and he carried it in his car because he has a "big company" and often carries large amounts of money. "We don't always use companies that transport money. The police checked me. Everything is fine with the rifle," he said.
But in the same interview with RFE/RL, Valev also said he was carrying an air rifle. For Ganeva, it's an important distinction. "Hunting weapons can be carried, but there are certain requirements," she said. "They must be in a holster and with a locking device." Air rifles are in a different category and there are no similar restrictions for carrying them, Ganeva added.
According to a written response to RFE/RL from the Interior Ministry, "in the video published on social media, Valev has a legally registered air rifle, which was established by the officers who arrived on the scene."
In 2017, Valev managed to acquire some more potent weaponry, when it was reported that he had bought a military helicopter. It was unclear, however, where it came from or if the helicopter was even operational.
"Bulgaria needs people like me: dignified Bulgarians, willing to defend their homeland," Valev told the BBC in March 2016, shortly after his rise to fame.
At the time, most Bulgarians agreed. In a poll carried out shortly afterward by BNT television, 84 percent of respondents said that vigilantes should be recognized and supported by the government.