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Criminal Gangs Are Stealing Peanut Butter Cups—and You're Buying Them

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In Part I of The Darkest Web, that innocent snack you’re eating may be the tip of an international organized crime iceberg.

The thieves had it all planned. They’d created a fake shipping company and put in a bid to transport a trailer load of stolen peanut butter cups from one warehouse to another, where they’d be distributed to a chain of retail stores in the New York area. But the truck that came to pick up the load of candy wasn’t what it seemed. Using fake IDs and a spoofed email address, a gang of Brooklyn-based criminals picked up $10,000 worth of chocolate in an unmarked tractor trailer and drove it to their own warehouse. There, they handed the cargo over to a man they believed to be a black-market distributor, but was actually an FBI informant. This case of small-time food theft became the loose brick that brought down one of the largest organized crime gangs in the United States: the so-called Shulaya Enterprise. Headed by Razhden Shulaya, a resident of New Jersey and native of the Republic of Georgia, the Enterprise was allegedly behind several violent and shady schemes that stretched from New York to Pennsylvania, Florida, and Nevada.

Too Good to Pass Up

The foiled chocolate heist—one of the few food thefts by an organized criminal group that the authorities have busted—demonstrates how food theft can be part of an ecosystem of serious and often violent crime. 

In a bail hearing last June for Shulaya and his associates, prosecutor Andrew Adams claimed that the heart of the Enterprise was an illegal poker game held in a house in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. Gamblers who welched on their debts were beaten up inside a safe room in the house, and the beatings were captured on a surveillance camera the mobsters had installed. The cameras were controlled with an iPhone app, which was hacked by the FBI. The Enterprise owned nightclubs where it sold narcotics and ran a protection racket for prostitutes. All of this activity was recorded by their confidential informants. In Las Vegas, the Enterprise figured out how to game slot machines by buying one from the manufacturer, disassembling it, and decoding the random number generator in the motherboard to know exactly when to make winning bets. According to Adams, “They turned slot machines into ATMs."

A Black Market for Everything

The downfall of the Enterprise reveals how even gangs that are involved in more obviously lucrative scams find it hard to pass up the opportunity to steal food. Reflecting on an especially memorable case in 2013, New Jersey State Police Detective Oliver Sissman said, "There's a black market for everything…We've found stolen beer, stolen food, stolen machine parts, but this is the first time we've found stolen cheese.”

Go behind the scenes of the Darkest Web with author Peter Green:

In this case, a 34-year-old Illinois man, Veniamin Balika, was arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike with a big rig carrying 42,000 pounds of Muenster cheese with a street value of $200,000. He’d used falsified documents to pick up the cheese from K & K, an Amish cheesemaker in Wisconsin, who expected him to take it to a buyer in Texas. Instead, Balika headed east, hoping to hock it to whatever stores or middlemen would take it.

FALSE CREDENTIALS: Every security system has a weakness. In this clip from McMafia we see how a hacker is forced to steal a container from the Port of Mumbai by aspiring Indian crime boss Dilly Mahmood.

Truckloads of food and beverages worth more than $50 million were stolen in the US in 2016, according to SensiGuard, a shipping security firm formerly known as FreightWatch. “Cargo thieves are good capitalists. They have to steal things that people will buy,” Scott Cornell, a theft specialist at Travelers Insurance told Food Logistics. “Food and beverages will, of course, always be top sellers.”  Mass amounts of food can typically be stolen and then sold at a variety of different locations—without anyone noticing or asking questions—simply because there aren’t enough security measures in place. “Food items, such as chocolates, lobster and nuts are high value items, but, unlike electronics or pharmaceuticals, they’re not treated as high value items. We’ve seen these items stolen time after time,” Anthony Pelli, a supply chain risk consultant for BSI Group also told Food Logistics. In 2014 and 2015, thieves made off with truckloads of pistachios and almonds from farms that never thought they’d be the target of thieves. 

In an increasingly cutthroat business world, the wholesale theft of food finds ready clients. The peanut butter cups taken by the Shulaya gang, for instance, were probably destined to be sold to some of the hundreds of New York bodegas. Many of these stores are too small to be visited by sales reps from large food distributors, and the steep margins they can make on stolen food, and especially on stolen cigarettes, can prove tempting. Those margins can be as high as three to four times the price they pay for black-market goods, compared with an average margin of 5 to 10 percent in most grocery stores.

Food heists can sometimes be very small scale. In 2016, New York City saw a rash of thefts of high-end ice cream. Thieves carrying shopping bags, backpacks, or even a duffle bag packed with dry ice, would enter understaffed chain stores at night and make off with as many as 200 pints of ice cream. In one case, a 28-year-old Manhattan man led a gang of six ice cream thieves, including four minors. The kids would distract store clerks while the adults loaded bags with frozen loot. Police suspect the ice cream in most of the thefts was sold for as little as 10 cents on the dollar to convenience stores in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Upper Manhattan, which then resold it to unsuspecting customers.

Climate change, which is causing wide swings in the availability and price of food, is fueling food theft. After an unexpected freeze in 2011 savaged Florida’s vegetable crops, sending produce prices skyrocketing, thieves stole six tractor trailers of tomatoes from Sunshine State wholesalers, along with a truck full of cucumbers and another full of frozen meat. The thieves managed to take the produce without violence by pretending to be a legitimate trucking company. The food was never recovered, and police believe the tomatoes—unmarked and untraceable—were sold to small convenience stores or food processing companies in the area who were happy to buy goods below market price and keep a hefty margin. And hungry consumers were perfectly content to eat their salads, having no idea where those tomatoes came from. 

You've finished Part I of the Darkest Web, now watch more international intrigue on McMafia, a story of global crime incorporated, co-produced by AMC and the BBC, premiering on February 26 on AMC at 10/9 central. 

Illustrations by Patrick Leger