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How Berlin's Lebanese mafia clans work

July 13, 2017

A Lebanese organized crime family is said to be behind the spectacular theft of a giant Canadian gold coin - "the Big Maple Leaf" - from a museum in Berlin. But who are the "family R?"

German police arrest criminals in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Berlin police arrested only three men, aged 18, 19, and 20, in connection with the theft in March of the "Big Maple Leaf" from Berlin's Bode Museum, but the operation that went with it was far wider.

Some 300 officers were out at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, searching 14 different properties in Berlin for clues to the theft of the 100-kilogram (221 pound) solid gold coin, whose material value is estimated at 3.75 million euros ($4.3 million). There is no trace of the coin itself, and police believe it has long since been cut to pieces and sold on.

The brief police statement on the three arrests (a fourth man was arrested later) added that the ongoing searches had turned up four firearms, "a low six-figure sum" in cash, clothing, shoes and five vehicles - all of which are now being examined for traces of gold.

But while the theft itself was fairly lo-fi - the tools the police presented included an aluminum ladder, an ax handle, a wheel-barrow and a green rope with spring hooks - state prosecutor Martina Lamb told reporters that the conspiracy was sophisticated and far-reaching, and that the 13 suspects in total were "out of the circle of Arab clans." They were all "brothers, cousins and sons" of the "R." family (German law stipulates that the surnames of suspects aren't made public).

Canadian gold coin Big Maple Leaf
The Canadian gold coin is now thought to be in tiny piecesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. K. Techt

The Lebanese mafia

The German media often revels in speculation about the organized crime networks of what are often called the "Arab clans" in Berlin. There is even a new TV drama "4 Blocks," about the scene. It is unclear exactly how many people belong to the 10 families thought to "run" various areas of the Neukölln district of Berlin (the arrests made this week also happened in this area), with estimates ranging from a few hundred to 8,000 or even 10,000 relatives spread across Germany.

Nevertheless, Tom Schreiber, a Social Democrat representative in the Berlin state parliament, who published a 40-point plan to combat organized crime in the city last year, was keen to underline that only a small handful of the members of these families are actually criminals - "2 or 3 percent," he said.

While the networks specialize in drug dealing and prostitution, they are not above the occasional spectacular robbery. In 2009, for instance, thieves broke into Germany's most famous department store - the KaDeWe in western Berlin - and got away with some 7 million euros worth of jewelry, which has never been recovered.

"Up until now, they almost never found the loot, and they won't find the gold this time," said Ralph Ghadban, a Lebanese social worker turned author who has researched Berlin's organized crime networks. "And if the people end up in prison for a few years - if they get 3.7 million euros - it'll have been worth it."

Ghadban also said it was no accident the arrested men were so young - this will ensure they get a relatively small sentence - "they always seem to find a judge who'll prosecute them under youth law," he said. As for the 13 other suspects, "the masterminds and planners - well, you have to find them first and prove that they're involved," said Ghadban. "The ones they have arrested won't betray them."

Berlinale Film still 4 Blocks
New TV drama 4 Blocks is set in the Lebanese clan scene Image: Turner Entertainment Networks/Time Warner Company

Difficulties and plans

Most of Berlin's Lebanese immigrants arrived at the end of the 1970s and the 1980s, as refugees from the Lebanese civil war, though, according to Ghadban, who worked with Arab refugees in West Germany, some of the clans originally come from southeastern Turkey and often don't have a fixed nationality now.

"They have different statuses, and they spell their surnames differently, so it's very difficult to estimate any figures," he said. "Sometimes they're stateless, some of them have Turkish passports. Many of the others you can assume have Lebanese citizenship, but they won't go and pick up their passports - why should they? So that they get deported?"

Read more: Robbers used wheelbarrow, ladder to steal giant gold coin

Ghadban says he has been warning the German state about this organized crime for 30 years, and says it is only now that European police forces are waking up to it. "The state authorities, the police and judiciary, are blind to it," he said.

Schreiber doesn't agree with that at all. "It's certainly not true that this problem hasn't been noticed and taken seriously - a specialist police department was set up for this more than 10 years ago, and there's a specialist state prosecutor for the issue," Schreiber told DW.

"The problem is just that what we invest at the moment in expertise is not enough to keep this organized criminality small," he added. "Instead, they continue to try and build up these structures and make legal businesses out of illegal businesses - they're very clever at that."

"This matter with the gold coin - it firstly showed the excellent investigative work of the police and the state prosecutors, but it also showed how these people can plunder the state," added Schreiber. "There are many different approaches, there are many instruments that Berlin already has in place, but it's something that is a danger to our democracy, because it does threaten the rule of law, because people are afraid to speak the truth."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight