English street robbers, Somali pirates, Bulgarian highwaymen, every nation has its criminal stereotype and in the pre-Christmas crime wave, the Crocodile brothers have grabbed the attention of the headline writers of the Bulgarian yellow press.
For the past twenty years, impervious to attempts by the authorities to put them behind bars, or perhaps helped by them, the band led by the brothers, Kroky and Geyser Milev, have preyed on Turkish guest-workers returning from Germany and Austria. Perhaps alerted by paid informers among customs officials and border police, the gang await their prey on the Sofia ring road or on the motorway that stretches past Plovdiv towards the Turkish border. They sit in cars down adjoining slip lanes, till they spot the loaded Audi or Mercedes, then give chase with flashing police lights. Once the law abiding Turkish citizen stops, the gang jump out of their cars, dressed in police uniforms, ready to beat smash rob and even kidnap.
With former police chief, Boyko Borisov as Prime Minister, many corrupt customs officials and border police are supposed to be trembling for their futures. Not a day passes without news of an arrest of some high powered official – even former minister. But the legal system has not as yet delivered convictions. As Boyko once famously said in his former life: we arrest them; you judges release them. Despite many previous arrests and trials, the Crocodile gang still operate with apparent impunity.
And so we learn that after a shoot out on the Sofia –Plovdiv motorway and the release of a frightened handcuffed Turkish Audi driver, the brothers are still at large armed with Kalashnikovs. No doubt after a hue and cry they’ll be arrested and once again the faulty Bulgarian justice machine will judder into life – just in time for our heroes to stand for an election and claim immunity. Alibis will be provided as in the past. The outcome will be in doubt for the next few years.
The Crocodile gang are but the latest in an old Bulgarian criminal tradition, celebrated in story and song. The country’s mountain chains and forests have long provided shelter for gangs of highway robbers, known as Haiduks. Most notably during the time of Turkish rule, Haiduks preyed on the rich caravans travelling from the northern borders of the empire towards Istanbul.
It was inevitable that many of the Haiduks have been celebrated as heroes of national resistance to oppressive Turkish rule. Captain Petko Voivoda, is just one of countless typical examples of Robin Hood characters who used the proceeds of their robberies to found churches and build bridges and fresh water fountains.
The romance associated with Balkan brigandage gained an international reputation with the kidnapping of the American missionary, Miss Stone in 1901. Her colleagues managed to smuggle the ransom in gold under the noses of the Turkish authorities. They had no doubt that the gold would be used to fund the Bulgarian resistance movement. As the American newspaper proprietor S.S McClure reported: “We never suspected the Bulgarian brigands of bad faith, for brigandage is one profession in which the prosperity of a man's business absolutely depends upon his scrupulously keeping his word.”
Miss Stone told the New York Times on her release: “I suppose you want to hear all about the brigands. They were not quite so fierce as you think.”
I’m not sure that our victim of the Sofia-Plovdiv motorway robbery would have been so gracious. The evidence shows that a large majority of Haiduks were not selfless patriots, fighting for Bulgarian freedom, but like the Crocodile brothers, out for get-rich-quick easy pickings from hapless travellers.
In England, every government is held to account by its yellow press when the street robbery statistics come out. Bulgarians won’t be holding their breaths on the fate of the Crocodile brothers.