HITMAN, enforcer, bag man... archaeologist. Experts in ancient antiquities have become the latest recruits to the notorious Eastern European crime families.
Mafia groups in the Ukraine are pursuing a lucrative sideline in archaeology, looting valuable artefacts to be sold on the black market, in addition to their traditional criminal enterprises such as selling drugs, prostitution and protection rackets.
Their latest target is Crimea, in the southern Ukraine, which is host to vast quantities of buried treasures from Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Bronze Age settlements.
Some of the mafia families have employed archaeologists to work directly for them, after making them an offer that they can’t refuse. Others wait patiently, vulture-like, for the experts to carry out their work before swooping on their finds.
Professor Viktor Myts, of the Crimean Institute for Archaeology in Simferopol, said: "It’s incredible. You can actually see them waiting, hovering in the distance. As soon as our teams pack up for the night the thieves come along and try to strip the site bare of everything."
In other cases, archaeologists employed by the mafia gangs move in on promising historical sites with diggers, floodlights, and armed guards to keep out concerned academics, rival gangs, and Ukraine’s under-funded police force.
Professor Vladimir Golenko, an expert in Classical archaeology in Simferopol, said: "In a way you can understand why some people do it. The economy here is very depressed, people need the money. But it’s very sad. We are in danger of losing a lot of our heritage.
"We are having to pick up the pieces after the criminals have robbed archaeological sites. "
A half-mile square section of the ancient Hellenic city of Olvia was recently cleared out by thieves looking for valuables to sell. Fortunately, experts have managed to salvage a number of priceless relics, including a huge hoard of Ancient Greek gold in Kerch .
However, the authorities are failing to stem the rising tide of valuables being smuggled out of the country.
Dr Neil Brodie, of Cambridge University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, said: "The key to this is cutting off the demand for stolen items and insisting on proper records so we can trace where things have come from."
Since the fall of Communism in 1991, organised crime has flourished in Eastern and Central Europe, with some Ukrainian towns being dominated by the mafia.