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Bulgarian Ex-Wrestler Linked To Drug-Money-Laundering Case Against Swiss Bank

Evelin Banev has been in hiding for five years.
Evelin Banev has been in hiding for five years.

Former Bulgarian wrestler Evelin Banev was facing trials in three countries for money laundering and drug trafficking when he was last seen in public at a hearing in the Sofia Court of Appeals in September 2015.

Banev had been detained in Bulgaria in 2012 and handed over to Italian authorities for a trial in Milan. In Bucharest, Romanian authorities were also requesting his extradition on similar charges.

Then Italy allowed Banev to return temporarily to Sofia in 2015 in order to attend his Bulgarian trial.

That's when he disappeared -- apparently fleeing and going into hiding before the authorities could return him to Italy or extradite him to Romania.

He's since been sentenced in absentia by an Italian court to 20 years in prison, by a Romanian court to 10 1/2 years, and more recently by a Bulgarian court, all for money-laundering or cocaine-smuggling offenses.

Interpol has spent four years searching unsuccessfully for Banev.

Now, Banev can add Switzerland to his list of pursuers.

Prosecutors there indicted Banev this month along with Credit Suisse and one of the Swiss bank's former employees for allegedly helping to launder about $39 million of drug money through the bank.

In accordance with the usual practice under Swiss law, prosecutors didn't name Banev when they announced the indictments on December 17.

Instead, they described the Bulgarian suspect as a former wrestler already convicted in several European countries of drug trafficking and money laundering -- including the case that led to his 20-year sentence in Italy in 2017.

They also noted that he had been sought by Interpol since 2016.

It is a case that illuminates how Swiss investigators believe international organized criminal groups have used their ties with Bulgaria's criminal underworld to launder illegally obtained money and erase their criminal origins.

'Wrestlers' As A Synonym For 'Mafia'

Banev enrolled in Bulgaria's National Sports Academy in 1985 and had frequently traveled abroad for wrestling competitions before the collapse of communism.

He'd represented his Sofia wrestling club as well as Bulgaria's national team.

After the Iron Curtain came down, he lived abroad and amassed a fortune -- ostensibly as an investor in real estate.

Banev's story during the early 1990s appears similar to many wrestlers and weightlifters in Bulgaria's sports programs who used their muscle, connections to state sports clubs, and international experience to enrich themselves.

Many became bodyguards for Bulgaria's first millionaires in the postcommunist era who had formed a "confederation of industrialists" they called the Group of 13.

The wrestlers' nomenklatura bosses in the Group of 13 were former secret-service agents whose startup capital reportedly came from communist-era Bulgarian state funds they had access to in foreign bank accounts -- mostly in Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland.

Soon, the Bulgarian wrestlers-turned-bodyguards began to operate their own dubious "security" services. Then they moved into insurance firms and real estate.

In fact, so many Bulgarian wrestlers became henchmen for the country's nomenklatura mafia that ordinary Bulgarians in the early 1990s began to call all organized-crime figures in the country "bortze," or "wrestlers."

But in 2013, when the Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano published his book Zero, Zero, Zero, about the Italian mafia and its international connections, Banev was the only Bulgarian whom Saviano mentioned by name.

Citing an investigation in Turin by Italian authorities, Saviano described Banev as the leader of a Bulgarian group of "brokers" who in 2005 had organized the transportation of tons of cocaine from South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Spain to powerful Italian crime families.

At that time, Banev was a resident of Switzerland with bank accounts at Credit Suisse.

Swiss Indictments

According to Swiss prosecutors, the Bulgarian wrestler they seek was a resident of Switzerland when he deposited millions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts between 2004 and 2008.

The fresh indictments charge that the money was used to purchase real estate in Europe -- transferring millions of dollars of illegal drug profits into legal circulation by sending it through accounts in one of Switzerland's best-known banks.

The total amount of laundered funds remains unknown to the authorities. But Swiss prosecutors say that from 2004 through 2008, more than $89 million was controlled by the criminal organization that the Bulgarian wrestler worked with.

The Swiss prosecutors also say an unnamed female former Credit Suisse employee helped the Bulgarian wrestler launder nearly $18 million through the bank without alerting authorities to the questionable origin of the funds.

Describing the woman as a former senior executive at the bank who was "familiar with the wrestling world," the prosecutors have charged her with aggravated money laundering.

Meanwhile, Credit Suisse faces charges of breaking Swiss laws as well as its own internal directives.

Those laws include Switzerland's Federal Act on combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism as well as its Federal banking Commission Ordinance on combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.

The prosecutors allege that Credit Suisse was aware of the money-laundering operations as early as 2004.

If found guilty by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court, Credit Suisse could be ordered to surrender profits it received from the transactions as well as to pay a fine of up to $5 million.

Credit Suisse denies the charges -- saying that a 2004 regulatory report on money laundering had determined that the bank was following all requirements.

A statement from Credit Suisse also calls attention to a legal review that the bank had commissioned in 2016.

According to the bank's statement, the Credit Suisse-funded review also found that its anti-money-laundering measures were "correct and appropriate throughout the period in question."

The banks says it "will defend itself vigorously" against the charges when the case is taken up next by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court.

With reporting by Boris Mitov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service in Sofia