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Combatting Germany's mafia clans

Matthias von Hein | Richard Connor
September 22, 2020

The Abou-Chakers are one of several large families of Arab descent that have repeatedly attracted police attention. And, with about 250 members, they are not even the largest.

Berlin police
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Police in the German capital Berlin conducted raids on properties linked to alleged organized crime boss Arafat Abou-Chaker in late September. They were investigating allegations of tax evasion and money laundering.

The 44-year-old Abou-Chaker is believed to be the head of a Lebanese mafia clan.

Abou-Chaker is currently before a Berlin district court in connection with an ongoing feud with the musician Bushido. Abou-Chaker and three of his brothers are charged with threatening, false imprisonment and coercion. 

Bushido became famous as Germany's biggest gangster rapper, but since 2018 he has lived under police protection. When the 41-year-old musician arrived at the Berlin Regional Court in early September, he drove up in a police convoy and was flanked by guards in bulletproof vests and balaclavas as soon as he got out of the car.

Bushido, whose father was Tunisian and whose real name is Anis Ferchichi, is appearing as the star witness and co-plaintiff in the trial of Arafat Abou-Chaker and three of his brothers.

Read more: Italian mafia, bikers, clans — Europe's crime gangs

Bushido had a close business relationship with Abou-Chaker for many years, though, in the witness stand, Bushido made the relationship seem like one of serfdom.

He described involuntary payments, shady deals, and coercion, and Arafat Abou-Chaker and his brothers are said to have threatened and harassed Bushido when he wanted to end the arrangement.

Bushido and friends
Bushido (second from the left) and his pal Arafat Abou-Chaker (second from the right) posing for the cameras Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Kalaene

Insights into parallel world

Bushido has already testified several times in court, offering insight into the parallel world of Berlin's mafia. He had to pay 30% of his income to Abou-Chaker, the rapper and music producer explained — before tax. Over the years, the rapper believes this amounted to €9 million ($10.6 million).

It shows how much money is being made in gangsta rap through various record labels, said Tom Schreiber, Social Democrat (SPD) representative in the Berlin senate. "Striving for power, gaining influence, acquiring money, exerting pressure - these are basic elements in the field of organized crime. And intimidation plays a very decisive role here," Schreiber told DW. 

That includes the intimidation of witnesses, as senior public prosecutor Ralph Knispel said. Knispel has been working for Berlin's prosecutor's office for almost three decades, and now he heads the capital crimes department, meaning he is also responsible for serious mafia crimes.

Bushido Abou Chaker
Rapper Bushido at the trial with his lawyerImage: Getty Images/R. Keuenhof

The case against Arafat Abou-Chaker stands out from most organized crime cases because Bushido is a witness who has actually testified in court, which is by no means the rule.

"It can bring you to the brink of legal despair," Knispel said, "when witnesses in police interrogations give information that is sometimes far-reaching and at first glance appears to be useful for convictions, but which is then not repeated in the trial."

Read more: New migrants put Germany's established crime gangs under pressure

Time and again, he has seen witnesses pull out when asked to repeat their statements not only in the presence of the accused and their defense attorneys, but also "in the presence of friends and acquaintances sitting in the spectators' gallery." Then witnesses often came to the "conclusion that they have to downplay or even revoke their previous statements," Knispel observed.

The Abou-Chakers are one of several large families of Arab descent that have repeatedly attract police attention. And, with about 250 members, they are not even the largest.

There is also, for example, the Remmo family, with an estimated 500 members. One of its more spectacular coups was the theft of a hundred-kilo gold coin from the Berlin Bode Museum in 2017, for which three young men were sentenced to several years in February. The gold, worth more than three million euros, has disappeared, and police believe it was probably melted.

Herbert Reul looking on raid on hookah bar in Bochum
North Rhine-Westphalia is a hot spot for mafia activity and police raids — a raid is being observed here by Interior Minister Herbert ReulImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

Focus on North Rhine-Westphalia

Thomas Jungbluth, who heads the Organized Crime Department at the western German state's State Criminal Office (LKA), said: "In contrast to other groups, such as Italian or Russian organized crime, as well as rocker groups, criminal clans are very strongly interrelated." 

"The family is everything. The honor of the family must be defended at all costs. And the law of the strongest applies. Very archaic ideas play a role here," Jungbluth explained to DW.

Arab crime gangs in Germany

In mid-August, Jungbluth stood next to Herbert Reul, North Rhine-Westphalia's interior minister, as he presented the second "situation report" for clan criminality in the state. No fewer than 111 active criminal families were listed as active in 2019, while around 3,800 suspects had committed more than 6,000 criminal offenses.

"We are dealing here with criminals and serious criminals. We are dealing with robbery, fraud and organized crime, among other things. This shows that some of the clans are playing in the same league as the mafia," the Interior Minister said as he presented the report.

Parallel justice

The city of Essen, with its almost 600,000 inhabitants, is considered a special focus of mafia crime in NRW. The mafia have no direct impact on the lives of most people in Essen, Mayor Thomas Kufen told DW, "because it's about drug offenses, protection racketing, prostitution, money-laundering - things that ordinary people in Essen actually have nothing to do with."

What upsets citizens, however, is the subculture that has developed. Kufen explains: Disrespectful behavior that gives the impression that the clans own the street; that only the law of the family applies and that in case of conflicts pressure is exerted not to go to the police or consult a lawyer. "This is a parallel structure, parallel justice, which we cannot tolerate in this way," he said.

The Ruhr Security Conference was founded in Essen to fight such criminal parallel structures. "Cities from the Ruhr area come together there and bundle their capacitiesand experiences from local regulatory authorities, foreigners' registration offices, customs, tax investigation, and police," explains the LKA's Jungbluth, "and thus find new starting points for the targeted recognition and prosecution of ... violations of the law by clan members."

Read more: The ex-gangster who hid his Jewish identity

Kufen explains in more detail: Police keep closer control on hookah bars and gambling shops. In coffee houses, retail stores and hairdresser's "where no one ever sits inside but it somehow registers income with the tax office, where one has the suspicion of money laundering." Minister Reul calls this "the policy of 1,000 pinpricks."

But repression alone is not enough for Kufen. He also wants to offer opportunities. "Along with the raids and the very targeted action against clan crime, we are also making very concrete offers for young people who were born here but who have done nothing wrong," he said.

raid on Italian restaurant
The Italian mafia is very active in North Rhine-Westphalia tooImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Reichwein

Integration failure

The mayor of Essen says that integration is always linked to the prospect of residence for young immigrants, and regrets that municipalities have little leeway when it comes to questions of immigration law. At the same time, Kufen clarifies that "insufficient legal status is no excuse for becoming a criminal in Germany."

Tom Schreiber speaks of a real political failure in the 1970s and 1980s, referring to a study according to which many people were essentially forced into crime because they were not integrated into the labor market and not given the opportunity to learn German.

Seen in this light, Arafat Abou-Chaker's relationship with Bushido did not just benefit him financially: Standing next to the musician on the red carpet at film premieres was perhaps the most important signal of having made it in Germany.

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This is an update of an article published September 12.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.