Ron Kaye: Fighting the 'Power'

They are a people who have long endured repression and reigns of terror across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Even here, in the Promised Land where so many Armenians are thriving, they still are victimized.

Sometimes it's the pain of prejudice that every wave of immigrants has felt when their numbers threaten the way things were.

This time, it comes from their own people, a vast Los Angeles-based international syndicate called Armenian Power that is accused of preying on Armenians, engaging in kidnapping, robbery and extortion even as its 250 members and hundreds of runners stole millions from banks and credit card companies, dealt drugs and committed other crimes against us all.

On Wednesday, a joint local-state-federal task force of nearly 1,000 law enforcement officers — Operation Power Outage — rounded up 74 of the 99 suspects indicted by grand juries in Los Angeles and Orange County on 234 counts of criminal activity and racketeering.Of the 70 suspects identified as being from Los Angeles County, 19 live in Glendale and six live in Burbank.

The crimes of the few feed prejudice and stain a whole community, shining an unwanted negative light on the 80,000 or more Armenians in Glendale and the half-million across Southern California who work hard, obey the law and contribute to our society.

"The bulk of the community is unaware of and unaffected by the deeds that are alleged in this indictment," said Garo Ghazarian, vice chair of the Armenian Bar Assn. "The community is not tolerant of this. They want to live a free and safe life. That's why I left Beirut. That's why we are here. These crimes as alleged were committed by the few, but they create a negative image for us all."

Armenian Power is like the Italian La Cosa Nostra in some ways, but there is no godfather whose word is the word of God, no elaborate organization.

Instead, the brokers who try keep the peace here and back in the old country are called "Thieves-in-Law," "Goghs" in Armenian, a role that goes back decades long before the wave of Armenian immigration to America.

Starting in the 1980s in Hollywood as little more than a street gang for self-protection in a tough neighborhood, Armenian Power evolved over time much like similar Latino gangs into a criminal enterprise. It recruited immigrants, aligned itself in prisons and on the streets with the Mexican Mafia, collaborated with black gangs and challenged the old guard of "Thieves-in-Law" from Yerevan to Moscow.

The kingpin of Armenian Power in Los Angeles was identified in court papers as Mher Darbinyan, a ruthless and intimidating figure whose pals call him "Capone" or "Caps" or "Hollywood Mike."

Authorities said Darbinyan, a Valencia resident, already was back in prison for violating parole for identity theft and card skimming at the time of the raid.

Darbinyan's name comes up hundreds of times in the indictments, boasting on his cell phone to "victims Z, L.K., and others that DARBINYAN is the only one who lays down the law in Los Angeles."

He and others, the court documents state, threatened to cut people's heads off if they didn't sign over their businesses, and to kill kidnap victims and their families if ransoms of hundreds of thousands of dollars weren't paid. They delighted in victims crying for their lives, joking one victim "might die of a heart attack because he was so scared."

These are vicious criminals, according to the indictments, who impersonated honest people and looted their bank accounts, stole credit card information by inserting their own scanners in ATMs at 99 cent stores, and defrauded major banks into making loans to fictitious people.

They grew and sold marijuana in huge amounts, even robbing other drug dealers. They stopped at nothing, communicating in "code language" with each other about spotting rich Armenian targets to rob in Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

For the last two years they have been under constant surveillance by federal agents using wiretaps and sophisticated electronic devices.

Mobsters were turned into informants, with witnesses and victims interrogated while other agents dug deep into financial records to build evidence.

U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., who, concidentially, is being honored at a banquet next Thursday at the Phoenicia Restaurant in Glendale, called the indictments "a significant first step in dismantling and disrupting this dangerous criminal organization."

No one wants this criminal syndicate removed from our society more than the Armenian community itself, which is so often victimized by it and sees some of its young people lured into a life of crime for the easy money.

"This is difficult for us; 99% of Armenians just want to succeed in being part of a productive effort, to enjoy the freedom and opportunity in the America," said Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian, a prominent leader in the Armenian community.

"People get upset at being singled out and stereotyped, so they circle the wagons when something like this happens that stain us all. But it's only a short-term problem. It only gives us more reason to remind ourselves to be good citizens, good students and honest businessmen.

"I know I'm going to have to become better than I was yesterday. I want people to see from my deeds who I am."

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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