MOSCOW (AP) — Two men in their early twenties lie face down in the snow, hands tied behind their backs, heads doused with dark red paint. A dozen young men, some wearing surgical masks, wreck a car with hammers and axes. One sets fire to a plastic bag filled with a greenish powder and a stack of cards that read: "Aroma. Smoking mixes."
The powder is a synthetic drug known as "spice" that is Russia's latest scourge. The pair on the ground are pushers. And the hammer-wielding men? Vigilantes fighting the drug's spread with widespread public approval, admiring television coverage — and, according to critics, the Kremlin's tacit blessing.
The anti-drug gangs roaming streets in Moscow and other urban centers are an offshoot of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Young Russia. The vigilantes, who call themselves the Young Anti-Drugs Special Forces, have tapped into rising public outrage over the spread of drug use in Russia, and the impotence of law enforcement to stop it. They are also stirring concerns about President Vladimir Putin's perceived tolerance for extralegal actions against forces considered harmful to the regime or to public order.
Young Russia and a half dozen other pro-Kremlin youth groups were formed in the mid-2000s, analysts and opposition figures say, to prevent street protests similar to those that ushered pro-Western opposition forces into power in three ex-Soviet states: Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Russian authorities are accused of encouraging violence, or the threat of violence, by youth gangs when dealing with what they see as threats to stability. The vigilantes' free hand indicates that the spice epidemic is seen as one of such threats.
The Interior Ministry, which controls Russia's police, declined comment to The Associated Press on the gangs. The head of Russia's anti-drugs agency, Viktor Ivanov, criticized the group's actions as illegal and "nothing but noise."
Spice consists of herbs coated in chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine. In recent years, millions here, mostly teenagers, have smoked various kinds of spice, attracted by its cheapness, availability and reputation for being harmless, officials and anti-drug campaigners say. Reliable figures on usage are not available because of the variety of kinds of spice on offer and the lack of official studies on the phenomenon.
Pushers sell bags of spice for less than $15, in schools or online, from bulletproof cars and shops with barred windows and metal doors. Their phone numbers are often scrawled on walls or sidewalks, or printed on business cards that carry messages such as "100 percent harmless smoking mix" and "Smoke and go to paradise." Some pushers never see their customers and text message the whereabouts of a spice stash after getting a money transfer.
Spice is mass produced in China and Southeast Asia and exported to Russia as bath salts, incense and slimming additives, often in mail packages.
Ivanov, who heads Russia's Federal Drug Control Agency, said fighting spice is nearly impossible, because banning one or more ingredients means manufacturers simply change the molecular structure of the chemicals or replace the herbs to skirt the law.
"There are 900 versions of it, and every week they come up with a new one," Ivanov told The Associated Press.
And that's where the masked men with hammers come in. The Anti-Drugs Special Forces, widely known by their Russian acronym, MAS, was formed last year and includes dozens of activists in Moscow, many of them with a background in martial arts. Leaders say the group gets funding from donors and small city-run construction projects that its volunteers work on.
And the group has its own formula for hunting down spice traders. They track down a pusher. One of them uses a hidden camera to videotape a "control purchase." And then a dozen or more attack, while one or two of them shoot video.
They sometimes face no resistance from lone pushers who beg to be released and swear never to sell spice anymore. Other times, they fail to break into their fortified shops, leaving after painting the doors and bullet-proof windows with graffiti saying: "Drugs are sold here" or "They kill your children with impunity." On rare occasions, pushers fight back or call their bosses — burly men with guns and knives.
An Associated Press reporter observed the Moscow attacks on the two pushers who were doused with red paint in the snow.
Screaming obscenities and threats, more than a dozen vigilantes wearing masks and holding hammers surrounded a man with a baseball bat who had just jumped out of a parked car. The man moved backward, swinging his bat as several masked vigilantes closed in. The driver sat in the car, face convulsed with fear.
The attackers broke a window of the car and threw in a smoke candle, forcing the driver out. They punched and kicked him, tied his arms and legs with duct-tape and threw him to the snow, dousing his head with paint. From the car's front seat, they took a plastic bag with spice and set it afire. Seconds later, the first man was tied up and also soaked in paint. The assailants smashed the car with metal bars and hammers and turned it on its side.
The group admits that its methods are illegal.
"We're walking on the edge, but you have to understand that fighting drugs is a serious thing," said group leader Alexei Grunichev, fair-haired and gaunt, while showing raid videos on his laptop at the group's headquarters in several decrepit rooms. "We also understand our guilt for what we do, but I think that what we do is right and we will fight, keep fighting using these methods until law enforcement agencies, authorities can put everything under control."
The group claims to have conducted more than 300 raids over the past year in Moscow alone, and posts many raid videos online. These short clips are the backbone of the group's reputation and popular support — despite the violence, obscenities and property damage they contain. They are available on YouTube, the website of their mother group, Young Russia, and on the group's page on vl.com, Russia's most popular social networking site.
Hundreds of Russians leave encouraging messages on the group's webpages, young rappers praise them in songs and Russian television networks run reports on the group's raids.
"People often say, 'You should just kill those pushers,' although that's not the way we work," says Arkady Grichishkin, an agitated 21-year-old martial arts student often seen on the group's videos as a leader of raids.
The Federal Drugs Control Agency said it does not condone the group's raids.
"We cannot welcome it," said Ivanov. "It lies beyond law — first of all. And secondly, it makes nothing but noise." The vigilantes, however, appear to see Ivanov as an ally, posting his portrait on the walls of their headquarters.
Users say that the high they get is extremely intense and hallucinogenic. After several weeks of using spice, the drug causes sleep and weight loss, hypertension, seizures and can even lead to schizophrenia, according to officials, health experts and studies in Russia, EU and the U.S.
Users' parents also appear to be worried.
"Eighty per cent of phone calls our hot line gets are about spice," says Alexander Bysov of the Moscow-based Sodeistvie — or Assistance — anti-drugs fund that has a hotline for drug addicts and their parents and runs a rehab. "Parents are already crying SOS."
Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr. contributed to this report
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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