The godfather, the criminal empire and the lion in the garden


BUCHAREST
In the midst of the Bucharest slums, the neighbours could hear the lions roar from beyond the white walls that surround mafia boss Ion Balint’s private zoo.
Balint’s history is a story of modern-day Romania in which a wealthy criminal in constant conflict with the government can be hailed a hero.
“I don’t eat people,” says Ion Balint via his lawyer.

The animal carer from animal welfare organisation Vier Pfoten – which means Four Paws in German – kneeled down and raised the blowpipe.

A few minutes later the lions were lying still on the floor of their cage, tranquilised.

The four animals – a pair of adult lions and their two young – were lifted into metal boxes for transportation to a zoo outside Bucharest. The adult lions were named Simba and Bagheera, after Disney films The Lion King and The Jungle Book.

At that time, in February 2013, mafia boss Ion Balint was not at home in his residence in the Ferentari district of Bucharest. The authorities and Vier Pfoten took the opportunity to seize the lions, as Balint had been arrested by the police a few days earlier.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique case. There are others who want to feel powerful and acquire social status by having lions – the king of the animals – in their backyards. It’s completely idiotic,” says Kuki Barbuceanu, project manager at Vier Pfoten, 18 months later.

There were no documents showing where Ion Balint had got his lions from – nor the two bears seized by Vier Pfoten at the same time. Kuki Barbuceanu thinks that Balint bought them from a zoo or a circus.

The lions were first sent to a zoo in Ploiesti, around 60 km north of Bucharest, for a few months. They were then sent on to a zoo in Galati, near the border with Moldavia and Ukraine.

Before the lions were seized, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) visited Ion Balint’s private zoo. Journalist Paul Radu is the head of OCCRP in Bucharest:

“They showed us around and we saw a space under the cage where they said they put people. They smiled and said that their enemies end up there. We don’t know whether that was just an idle boast,” he says.

A lion is transferred from Ion Balint’s private zoo in February 2013. Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

The empty lions’ cage is still there, behind the white walls that surround Ion Balint’s mansion, when Expressen visits the area in late summer. Ferentari is in sector five, the poorest of the six administrative districts into which the capital Bucharest is divided.

This was where Ion Balint, 50, and his younger brother Vasile Balint, 46, began their climb up the gangster ladder. In Romania, especially here in Ferentari, the brothers nicknamed Nutu and Sile Camataru are both famous and infamous. Nutu is Romanian for “Little John”, Sile is a short form of Vasile and the name Camataru, which roughly translated means “loan sharks”, has been passed down through the family for generations. Camataru hints at how the clan earned its money, but the brothers’ activities span large areas of organised crime.

They first made their mark during the era of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Older brother Ion finished the eighth grade, while Vasile left school after the fourth grade, according to OCCRP’s archive research. They got their real education on the streets.

During the mid to late 1980s the brothers and their gang focused on large-scale burglary. They stole everything that could be sold on the Romanian black market: carpets, lamps, clocks, coffee, soap, cassette players, clothes, gold jewellery and fur hats.

"They've kept tabs on me, followed me, tried to spike my drink when I go out."

During the final turbulent years of Communism, the Balint brothers not only knew how to earn money by selling stolen goods, they were also able to zigzag their way through the country’s defective legal system. One of Ceausescu’s eccentricities was to show his “mercy” by granting prison amnesties – something that the brothers were able to exploit.

When the dictator celebrated his 70th birthday on 26 January 1988, the prison gates were opened for Balint’s gang, who had previously been convicted for some of their burglaries.

The tradition of prison amnesties continued after Ceausescu. On 16 January 1990 the brothers were able to walk out of prison after yet another conviction for burglary. Romania’s first post-Communist leader, Ion Iliescu, wanted to celebrate the collapse of the former regime by releasing the prisoners out onto the streets.

During the first stumbling steps into capitalism in the 1990s, the Balint brothers created one of Bucharest’s most powerful criminal networks. The money they had earned allowed them to live up to the name of Camataru – ‘loan sharks’. Those who didn’t manage to pay up in time or scrape together the interest could expect a visit from the clan.

In autumn 1994 accusations of violence were directed at the brothers after they personally attacked their victims. This included attacking two families, taking their cars, money and jewellery. Another family was attacked with a sword in the street.

They were convicted in the first court instance, but there was no new trial. The case documents had been stolen from the court building and disappeared. The brothers had escaped a prison sentence – once again.

Ion Balint in handcuffs in the courtroom in 2004. In the background is his brother Vasile Balint. Both were later convicted to many years in prison. Photo: Catalina Filip, Mediafax foto
  • Ion Balint in handcuffs in the courtroom in 2004. In the background is his brother Vasile Balint. Both were later convicted to many years in prison. Photo: Catalina Filip, Mediafax foto
  • Gangster boss Ion Balint, who goes under the nickname of Nutu Camataru, is heavily guarded after his arrest in February 2013. Photo: Liviu Adascalitei, Mediafax Foto
  • Defence lawyer Lucian Papacostea leaves the courthouse building in central Bucharest after the Balint brothers were arrested at the end of August this year. Photo: Sven Lindwall
  • Marian Sintion managed to cage the Balint brothers. Photo: Sven Lindwall

A late summer’s evening, far away from Bucharest. We’re sitting at a corner table, right at the back of a restaurant. We can’t say where we are, and the man we’ve arranged to meet doesn’t want to go out onto the street to have his photo taken – someone might see him talking to us.

“They hate me so much, they’d like to see me dead,” he says.

Have they threatened you?

“Yes, they’ve threatened me. They’ve kept tabs on me, followed me, tried to spike my drink when I go out.”

The man at the corner table is Marian Sintion, aged 41. He’s the first prosecutor to manage to get the Balint brothers locked up – and make sure they stayed in prison.

“When I was working on the Camataru case, I was under the protection of the Ministry of Administration and Interior,” he says.

"At that time the Camataru brothers covered all branches of organised crime."

Around the turn of the century, Sintion was working at the Romanian Public Prosecution Service’s trafficking unit. Since the 1990s the Camataru clan had been building up an extensive prostitution operation.

The clan’s prostitutes, many from Moldavia, were packaged off into flats all over Bucharest. Under conditions similar to slavery, they were then sent from these flats to well-known entertainment venues and hotels – such as Hotel Intercontinental, Athenee Hotel Hilton and Victoria Casino – to meet clients. Discotheque Herastrau, a trendy nightclub in the middle of a large park just north of Bucharest city centre, became the hub for the Camataru clan’s prostitution operation. The nightclub had become extremely popular with Romanians who had succeeded in reaping the rewards of the new capitalist system.

Ion Balint cuddles his wife, Claudia Brazilianca, at the paddock on his country estate in Ferentari in central Bucharest.

 

The dominant position of the Camataru clan attracted attention. Gang warfare broke out at the end of the 1990s, and the clan found themselves defending their position of power.

The violence wasn’t the only reason why all eyes were on the Camataru clan. The Balint brothers lived in the lap of luxury. When ordinary Romanians would be lucky to afford a Dacia, the members of the Camataru clan were seen driving around in armoured military jeeps to and from the whitewashed country estate in Ferentari – where Ion Balint had already acquired his own private zoo, complete with racecourse.

“At that time the Camataru brothers covered all branches of organised crime. I was working in the unit that focused on human trafficking. We were trying to gather evidence about the money-lending business, but there was no real legislation for that at the time. They also used to collect protection money from other criminal groups,” says prosecutor Marian Sintion.

Sintion managed to do what many people thought impossible: he revived the criminal investigation from 1995, the one that had been forgotten about after the case documents were stolen from the court. But as the crimes were about to fall under the statute of limitations, time was of the essence.

Followed by television cameras, Ion Balint rode back to his country estate in Ferentari.

The case was troublesome – witnesses had forgotten or withdrawn their testimonies, and one of the victims had even emigrated to the United States. The clan’s phones were tapped, but their real trump card was a young woman who they convinced to testify. The woman told of her almost decade-long imprisonment with the clan after she was picked up off the street aged 16.

Just six months before the statute of limitations would have applied, Ion and Vasile Balint were convicted.

“Back then, in 2004, it was the first time that the Camataru brothers had been properly convicted. They were sentenced to five and six years’ imprisonment,” says Sintion.

Did they stay in prison?

“Yes, they did, and they hate me for it.”

For Marian Sintion, his work to bring down the Camataru brothers underlined the corruption of the Romanian legal system. Time after time they had managed to get away with it, the evidence against them was said to be insufficient and charges were dropped on what seemed to be fabricated grounds.

When the police and prosecutor continued to investigate the clan following the conviction in 2004 – which included extortion, rape, trafficking and GHB – and took a new case to court, a scandal ensued. Not least when the brothers attempted to thwart the investigation by informing on police officers who they had bribed over the years.

 

In 2008, the year after Romania became an EU Member State, the Camataru brothers were once again brought to justice. Vasile Balint was imprisoned for 13 years, while Ion Balint got away with just one year and seven months’ imprisonment in the extensive case that followed the 2004 conviction. However, their sentences were not extended to any notable extent. As they had already served time, their new sentences were incorporated with their earlier ones.

Mirzea Pupaza, Inspector for the Environmental Department. Photo: Sven Lindwall

Vasile Balint was released on probation in December 2011. Just over a year earlier, his brother Ion Balint had been released from prison. His gang was waiting for him outside the prison gates with a black stallion, its bridle adorned with Swarovski crystals.

Followed by television cameras, Ion Balint rode back to his country estate in Ferentari.

The brothers were once again free, but their time in prison had weakened the clan. In sector five in Bucharest, the Steoaca clan had gained ground and become one of the dominant gangs where the drug trade was concerned. In the same sector the Piano clan had seized the market for extortion and illegal money lending.

Within the Camataru clan’s former area of speciality, prostitution, there was greater competition from several clans, who had also expanded their business by trafficking Romanian and Moldavian women to countries such as Italy and Spain.

“They (the Camataru clan) lost their market. They no longer had the influence and strength they once had. New groups had taken over,” says prosecutor Marian Sintion.

Pictures showed how Ion Balint seemed to be living comfortably within the walls of the Jilava prison.

The strained situation meant that the Camataru clan desperately needed to prove that they were still a force to be reckoned with.

A spectacular robbery, at full speed on a Romanian motorway, was one way of doing this.

Images of the robbery, released by the Romanian Public Prosecution Service’s Directorate for Organized Crime and Terror Investigation, DIICOT 2012, show the robbers climbing up through the sunroof of their own vehicle and crawling over the bonnet. They then climbed into the cargo space of the lorry in front – still at breakneck speed. The film went viral internationally on social media.

At the same time, their extravagant gangster lifestyle was frequently reported on in the media. Pictures showed how Ion Balint seemed to be living comfortably within the walls of the Jilava prison. Wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms in the same colour and pattern as the American flag, he sat on his bottom bunk with the television on. Around his wrist was a gold watch and on his red T-shirt were the words: “I’m trying to pick you up”.

The television cameras then followed Ion Balint post-release from the Rahova prison in central Bucharest last autumn after yet another legal backflip. From there he went to his luxury villa on the shore of Lake Snagov, 40 kilometres north of the capital.

When we take a boat trip on the lake, we pass palaces and lavish shoreside mansions on the way to the Camataru house, which is deserted that day. The summer palace of former dictator Ceausescu was just a short distance away.

This summer, bare-chested Vasile and Ion Balint posed with their new pet – a baboon.

Ion’s brother, Vasile Balint, was also released this spring. The brothers’ holiday snaps show how they’ve spent their time in freedom: partying, dinners, relaxing by the jetty in Snagov, body building at the gym and sunbathing on the Black Sea coast, where they have a house in the seaside resort of Constanta.

But their holidays came to an abrupt end at the end of August when both were arrested after a knife fight in the Bucharest courthouse. When we visit the same building, we must pass through a metal detector, and no one manages to explain how the brothers were able to bring in the knives they allegedly used.

When the Camataru case is tried in court at the beginning of September, a crowd gathers outside the courtroom consisting of around thirty of the gang’s members plus Claudia, Ion Balint’s 27-year-old wife, who holds on tightly to her Louis Vuitton bag.

This time, the Camataru brothers don’t manage to wangle their way to freedom. The court decides to detain them.

It’s 34°C. Lawyer Lucian Papacostea, wearing a dark suit, has come prepared, his face caked with make-up – appropriate for someone giving television interviews in the hot sun.

“These brothers are considered to be il capo di tutti capo (the Boss of Bosses, ed.) – but it’s not true,” says Papacostea about his clients.

Papacostea has been representing the brothers since 2013. He doesn’t try to explain the criminal past of the Camataru clan – he categorically denies it. Instead of crime, clan leader Ion Balint has been involved in charity work, according to Papacostea:

“Everybody loves him! He does a lot for charity. There are people who come to him asking for money for their children who need emergency operations.”

When Expressen mentions the overwhelming evidence to support prostitution activities that the clan has been responsible for, Lucian Papacostea interrupts:

“They’re just trying to make something up. There were only four girls. They had never heard of two of the girls, who didn’t testify against them. The other two said that they had never been forced into prostitution.

The real criminal, on the other hand, is the state, which has been hunting down the Camataru brothers,” according to Papacostea.

“The political organisation in Romania is the real face of organised crime. You live in a democratic country, so you don’t know what things are like here. Here, you need contacts and if you don’t pay, you don’t survive.”

"He really loves animals. If you go to the zoo here in Romania, you'll see that the animals have worse conditions there than they did at his place."

But the full story of the Camataru brothers is lined with tales of how they’ve wormed their way out of prison and bribed officials.

“These are just things someone has said ... I don’t know ... TV and media try to create this image, but it isn’t true. We’re not talking the ’Ndrangheta, we’re not talking Cosa Nostra,” says Papacostea, referring to the infamous Italian mafia gangs.

When we ask the lawyer to describe the clan leader’s life, he says that when he’s not working on his house in Ferentari, Ion Balint likes to go to restaurants or to the cinema with his wife.

“His life looks like yours or mine. He goes shopping, he goes on trips outside Bucharest in his free time. He’s not a mafia figure. It’s nothing like The Godfather.”

But the difference is, I don’t have any lions in my backyard.

“He really loves animals. If you go to the zoo here in Romania, you’ll see that the animals have worse conditions there than they did at his place.”

Did he use the lions to scare his enemies?

“Never, never, never. That’s just a myth.”

Does he want the lions back?

“Yes! We’re going to appeal,” says Lucian Papacostea.

But Ion Balint can forget getting his lions back. So says Mirzea Pupaza, inspector at the unit for biodiversity at the Romanian Ministry of Environment and Forests, who was also involved in seizing the lions:

“You can’t demand something back that you’ve never owned,” he says, adding:

“To be able to own them, you need to be able to show documentation with certificates for them.” The lions belong to the Romanian government.

So the mafia lions will remain in the Romanian national zoo in Galati. But what will become of the Camataru brothers?

“They’re going to try to leave Romania. They want to renounce their Romanian citizenship,” says Lucian Papacostea.

Where do they want to move to?

“Maybe Sweden,” says the lawyer, laughing.

Despite their constant run-ins with the law, the Camataru clan is thriving. In the eyes of many Romanians, this makes the brothers heroes – people who’ve managed to succeed in a society that’s one of the poorest in Europe. In particular this is the view of Marian Sintion, who has spent his working life fighting the clan and the corruption that has helped them over the years.

“Due to the Camataru’s constant battle with the legal system and the authorities, he (Ion Balint) has become a hero. He’s become a hero for all those trying to make their way through the system,” says Sintion, adding:

“For many Romanians, the Camataru are success personified. Their life of crime seems to be the easiest route to success in Romania today.”