Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: November 21, 2019

“I’m Aierken Saimaiti,” the man said. “Between 2011 and 2016, I transferred more than $700 million out of Kyrgyzstan.”

Just a few months after this conversation with a journalist, Saimaiti was murdered.

But before his death, he gave reporters documents that revealed the massive and systemic plunder of public funds from one of the poorest countries on earth.

A joint team from RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk, OCCRP, and its Kyrgyz member center, Kloop, spent months poring over Saimaiti’s documents, following his leads, and reporting on the ground to corroborate as much as possible. Together, this evidence tells the story of how a vast underground cargo empire run by the Abdukadyrs, a secretive Uighur clan, systematically funneled massive bribes to Kyrgyzstan’s customs service. It also implicates Raimbek Matraimov, a former top customs official widely seen as so powerful that he is essentially untouchable.

Along the way, Kyrgyz journalists involved in the project received credible threats to their safety and found themselves under surveillance. This made publication a matter of not only public interest, but physical safety. Saimaiti’s murder increased this urgency. Reporters spent the 11 days after his death working around the clock to piece together, verify, and publish the story he had been trying to tell.

Saimaiti knew so much because he had been a crucial player in the functioning of the patronage and money laundering system he revealed. But he was determined to expose that system. This investigative project will stand as his final word, showing in unprecedented detail how a small clique enriched itself at the expense of Kyrgyzstan’s people.

The Big Picture

The 700-Million-Dollar Man

Over the span of five years, one man funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars out of Central Asia. What he knew may have cost him his life. But before his murder, he shared with reporters a trove of documents that reveal the source of this colossal wealth: A secretive family that ran an underground cargo empire with the help of a powerful political patron.

21 November 2019 Read the article

'His Murder Is Necessary': Man Who Exposed Kyrgyz Smuggling Scheme Was Hunted by Contract Killers

A money launderer told journalists what he knew about a secretive smuggling empire and a senior Kyrgyz official who enabled it. Now, leaked documents shed light on his shocking murder.

10 November 2020 Read the article

The Matraimov Family

A Promise Cut Short

Despite receiving a death threat, the operator of a massive Kyrgyz money-laundering scheme shared hundreds of documents to corroborate what he knew. He promised even more — but then he was murdered.

21 November 2019 Read the article

The Abdukadyr Family

The Dark Money Men

For years, a network of informal couriers has funneled millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan in cold, hard cash. The underground money transfer system fuels corruption, destroys transparency — and has claimed people’s lives. Here’s how it works.

3 December 2019 Read the article

The Documents

Saimaiti’s Archive


This investigative series is based, in part, on a trove of documents given to reporters by murdered money launderer Aierken Saimaiti. Here, for the first time, the documents he provided are released in full.

29 June 2020 Read the article

About the Project

"Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia” is a joint effort by RFE/RL's Radio Azattyk, OCCRP, and its Kyrgyz member center, Kloop. Over two dozen journalists from these organizations worked for months to make the investigation possible. Due to multiple threats received by reporters and editors over this period, their names are not disclosed.

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