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.
On the last night of his life, Khusan Kerimov had a package to deliver: $1.6 million in cash.
Late in the evening on October 22, he headed to Manas International Airport, a half hour outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
It was a routine the 39-year-old taxi driver had down cold, having made the trip dozens of times.
Usually, it ran like clockwork: He would call a prearranged number, meet a man in the terminal, take the cash from him, and board a plane for Istanbul. Before it took off, he would take a selfie and send it to a handler to prove that he — and his precious cargo — were safely on their way.
But on that October night, his handler waited and waited. The selfie never came. Kerimov was gone.
The handler, Aierken Saimaiti, was a 37-year-old professional money launderer. He employed an entire network of couriers like Kerimov — more than a dozen working-class men who regularly flew the Bishkek-Istanbul route with taped-up packages stowed with them on board. Each bag contained what -- especially in Central Asia -- is a considerable fortune: from a few hundred thousand to several million U.S. dollars.
Saimaiti’s network had operated for years in almost complete secrecy. But after Kerimov went missing, Saimaiti wanted to tell his story. As proof of his courier business, he provided reporters with dozens of Turkish and Kyrgyz cash declaration forms his men had filled out.
A joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Radio Azattyk, OCCRP, and Kloop used the cash declaration forms, flight data, border service records, and other documents, as well as a series of interviews, to paint a larger picture.
Saimaiti was just one player in an entire underground industry of cash-transfer specialists who facilitate the daily movement of millions of dollars out of Kyrgyzstan with minimal scrutiny.
An analysis of the documents obtained by reporters shows the removal of $77 million out of Kyrgyzstan by courier. The true amount is certainly far higher. Saimaiti claimed that over the years his network alone had moved over $1 billion.
The couriers mostly work on behalf of the vendors and wholesalers in Kyrgyzstan’s ubiquitous bazaars, who hire them to take their cash to Turkey and China to pay for goods. These merchants, whose trade is the lifeblood of the country’s economy, use this informal method to keep their business activity in the shadows.
Though this practice is widespread, it is illegal under Kyrgyz law. In depriving the state of customs revenues, it represents a loss to Kyrgyzstan’s taxpayers. It also has serious implications for the country’s ability to investigate the origins of these financial flows.
“This money is hidden,” said Samat Isabekov, a former official who had been responsible for internal investigations at Manas airport. “Firstly, from customs fees. Secondly, taxes. And third, from the financial intelligence service.”
Moreover, precisely because the couriers carry cash, it’s impossible to be certain about the origins of the millions of dollars they funnel through Kyrgyzstan’s airports every year. Though some of the money represents peaceful -- if illicit -- trade, large sums are also known to pass through the system after being smuggled into Kyrgyzstan from abroad. The courier networks are also vulnerable to exploitation by organized criminal groups.
Prior to moving to Istanbul, Saimaiti used the same technique to move cash out of Kyrgyzstan on behalf of a secretive Uyghur clan, the Abdukadyrs. He showed reporters how he had moved the proceeds of the family’s underground cargo empire abroad through both wire transfers and couriers.
Read more about how the Abdukadyr family used Saimaiti’s cash couriers.
Even the limited information available shows that the courier system has corrosive effects on Kyrgyzstan’s fragile rule of law. Its functioning depends on the acquiescence of paid-off civil servants, especially in the customs service, who profit handsomely from the trade, according to multiple accounts.
The portrait afforded to reporters by Saimaiti represents an unusually detailed look at how such systems operate.
Khusan Kerimov was not the only man in the courier business to have disappeared on the job. Less than a week prior, the body of Khufur Abdurakheman, a 37-year-old trader, was found far from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan’s poor and sparsely populated Naryn region.
Abdurakheman had gone missing two weeks earlier after leaving Bishkek’s Madina bazaar where, according to its head, he operated a small textile business out of a repurposed shipping container.
But he wasn’t just a simple merchant. According to Saimaiti and several other sources, Abdurakheman was a “collector” who regularly bundled together other traders’ savings for transfer abroad.
According to a person who knew him, he had spent years as a cook at a small restaurant inside the market and had earned other vendors’ respect for his religious observance.
“He was a ‘qari,’” the man said, a term used to describe people skilled in reciting the Koran aloud. “He had a collection of Koranic books…. Since he was а qari, local Uyghurs said he couldn’t cheat and they decided to store their money in a safe in the [restaurant].”
“He was doing this kind of work,” he said. “For example, if I say to transfer $50,000 to China, he gets around $50 [as a fee].”
When he was killed, Abdurakheman was headed toward Dordoi, a vast and colorful Bishkek market -- the largest in Central Asia -- where businessmen working out of shipping containers sell everything from lingerie to home furnishings.
Bazaars like Dordoi, the Uyghur-dominated Madina, or the southern market of Kara-Suu lie at the heart of Kyrgyzstan's economy. According to a World Bank estimate from 2012, the money that changes hands there represents a “staggering 33 percent” of the country’s gross domestic product. The bazaars not only provide employment and income for the wholesalers and vendors who work there, but serve as hubs for a range of other industries, such as garment production.
But few, if any, of the goods sold in these sprawling markets originate in Kyrgyzstan. They are largely imported wholesale from China and Turkey.
For many vendors, bringing cash abroad in person is the most cost-effective way to pay for these goods, allowing them to avoid bank transfer fees, Western Union charges, or official inspections. In trades with razor-thin margins, like garments, these savings can be critical.
Some sellers just travel themselves and buy the goods in person.
“When I started,” said one of Saimaiti’s former couriers, who also worked as a market vendor, “I would travel to Turkey and stay there for a week.”
The courier quoted here filled out three of the cash declaration forms Saimaiti provided. Reporters spoke with him to better understand the cash-transfer system. The man, who is not named here for his protection, denied being a courier, describing himself as a market vendor. Reporters are in possession of seven cash declaration forms bearing his signature that total just over $7 million.
But in time, a more standardized system developed that, though unofficial and illegal, has become a part of the weekly rhythm of market activity in bazaars across Kyrgyzstan. Sources described a routine in which, on certain days of the week, operators collect money for delivery by courier to its ultimate destination. Abdurekhman, the pious cafe cook, was one such collector.
“Whoever has money [now] sends it by couriers [to buy goods],” Saimaiti’s former courier said, explaining that vendors no longer need to make the trips themselves. “You can choose goods from Turkish shops on WhatsApp. You can buy and order goods like that.”
Most people interviewed for this story -- including the couriers themselves -- spoke only anonymously for fear of repercussions. Their fears highlight the underground and informal nature of Kyrgyzstan’s cash pipeline.
Once it’s picked up, the cash -- always U.S. dollars -- is sealed and packaged in bundles, each marked with the amount of money inside and labeled with codes that may designate which vendors it came from.
For those in the know, the couriers’ presence in the airport was obvious and ubiquitous.
“There are many who travel and carry stuff back and forth,” Saimaiti’s former courier said. “Some 100-150 guys who travel regularly…. If you go [to the airport] you’ll see for yourself who does what. People make a living this way.”
Bishkek’s Manas International Airport became a focal point for the courier business. Cash picked up in the city was taken straight there for travel abroad. Money originating elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, such as in the southern bazaar of Kara-Suu, would first be brought to Manas on a domestic flight.
In some cases, a hand off was made to another courier who would make the international trip (this was Kerimov’s role). In others, the arriving courier could wait in the airport for the next flight. One man described spending hours in the VIP hall, sleeping or drinking tea as he waited to take his package onward.
In one meeting with reporters in Istanbul, Saimaiti continually took calls related to the movement of cash -- presumably making arrangements with his courier network. At the same meeting, he showed reporters a large stack of cash declarations his couriers had filled out.
Because many of his men were still operating, Saimaiti declined to let reporters examine most of the forms. But the forms he did provide, which document $49 million moved over several months in 2016, 2018, and 2019, provide a glimpse of the much larger system.
They show that his couriers moved an average of about $1 million per trip. The largest amount carried on a single trip was $2.9 million.
Reporters were able to find additional sources to document another $28 million in courier transfers. Most took place within a single month, May 2018.
The frequency of the couriers’ travel is illustrated by flight records that show five couriers making 72 trips between January and March this year, though these records do not indicate how much cash they carried.
The true total moved by Kyrgyzstan’s cash couriers is certainly far higher than what is known.
Most of the couriers declared the money they carried as their own. A search of Kyrgyz business records confirmed that none of the men owned companies that could explain such amounts, corroborating Saimaiti’s description of them as couriers who transported money for others.
In return for their work, the couriers earned surprisingly little — some made just 5,000 Kyrgyz soms ($70) per trip, though others received as much as $200 (the average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is $240).
“There’s no other work,” one courier said. “There’s nothing to do. We don’t have anything of our own, no businesses. We live like peasants.” Even his close relatives didn’t know the nature of the work, he said. “If they knew, of course they would worry.”
It’s no wonder that some couriers drove taxis or held other jobs during the day, since their ranks were drawn from Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished and underemployed.
The circumstances may raise the question of why a courier might not simply keep the money he had been entrusted with. One reason is that their lives are deeply entwined in the social fabric of the markets they work in.
“Kara-Suu is a small place,” said Saimaiti’s former courier, who worked in that southern Kyrgyz bazaar. “Almost everyone knows each other…. My family is here, people know my house. Besides, my nephews’ shop isn’t far. My younger sisters have shops. We all work in the market, we all live by selling.”
Another courier raised moral and religious considerations.
“We never have such thoughts,” he said of the temptation to keep the money. “We believe in Allah. This is haram.... We’ll have to answer in this world and in the next.... We don’t need this. We need clean income.”
Saimaiti, too, was philosophical about the possibility of losing money along the way. “[The businessmen] send it and say, ‘Trust in Allah,’” he said.
Saimaiti said he charged market vendors $25 for every $10,000 his couriers transported, netting $2,500 per $1 million transferred.
But much of this was eaten up by expenses. A portion was spent on plane tickets and on payments for couriers. And nearly half -- $10 to $12 per $10,000, he said -- went to customs officials as bribes.
Their acquiescence, after all, was what made the scheme possible.
Not all couriers carried their cash openly and declared it at customs. Sometimes they smuggled it onto the plane as baggage while paid-off customs officers looked the other way.
“Everyone turns a blind eye,” said Samat Isabekov, the former official who had been responsible for internal investigations at Manas. “At Manas airport we saw with our own eyes how money was regularly getting through. The video footage we took could serve as evidence.”
Based on his observations, Isabekov said, cash couriers smuggled between $30-$40 million to China through the airport each week during his time on the job. The cash, he said, was taken on regular flights to Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region.
He emphasized the importance of customs officers’ cooperation if the system was to work.
“It’s hard to hide money in an airport. When the baggage goes through the X-ray they see it and know it’s money,” he said. “The flight to Urumqi is carefully checked. That’s why the large businessmen got in touch ahead of time and said: ‘On this day, on this flight, I’m sending this many millions.’”
This bribe would then be divided further.
“I heard that [officials] take $2,000 for every $1 million [transferred],” Isabekov said. “I know for sure that the customs service took $1,000 out of this sum.” The rest, he said, was distributed among officials in other services and departments.
The Kyrgyz Customs Service did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
An Investigation Is Killed
Customs officials have also been accused of preventing other agencies from investigating the cash courier issue.
Two former border service officers who worked as shift heads at Manas airport — Major Aibek Kamchybekov and Senior Lieutenant Marlis Osmonbekov — told reporters that they began their employment in late 2018 with official encouragement to aggressively pursue criminal activity. Their boss, they said, called them “young patriots” and said he wanted them to fulfill his hopes.
“Since that day,” Osmonbekov said, “we started investigating the illegal activities at Manas airport. We found out many things and tried to stop many things. We stopped what was under our control.”
“Every day we used to look at how many times [the couriers] enter the country and how often they leave,” Kamchybekov said. “Overall, they enter and exit the country about 10 to 15 times a month, once every two or three days.”
Over the course of their monthslong investigation, the two men said, they had identified several couriers they believed to be under the protection of Raimbek Matraimov, an influential former customs official Saimaiti had also implicated as an important figure in the service’s corruption.
This became clear when they tried to question the couriers, who they said had no documentation.
“The only document they had was Raim Matraimov and his name,” Osmonbekov said. “They kept saying his name.”
However, before long, Kamchybekov and Osmonbekov’s work came to a crashing halt after photos of some alleged couriers’ passport details and customs declarations were posted on a Facebook page in June. The anonymous post accused the couriers of carrying money that belonged to Matraimov. “Sensation!” the post began. “Matraimov clan takes its treasures abroad!” (Matraimov did not respond to requests for comment for this story but has publicly denied any wrongdoing.)
When two of the couriers complained, accusing border service officers of posting their private information, Kamchybekov and Osmonbekov were hauled before an investigator working for the Military Prosecutors’ Office. They said he accused them of disseminating the photos and that he strongly implied that pressure to sanction them was coming from above.
“From the day we were summoned, [the investigator] threatened us, saying that...the orders were coming from ‘the top.’ He kept making this sign,” Osmonbekov said, crossing his fingers to symbolize prison bars. “[He said], ‘guys, you will be jailed.’”
Both Kamchybekov and Osmonbekov denied posting the photos and, after being suspended from their positions, they fled the country in July.
Ularbek Sharsheev, the head of the state border service, confirmed that Kamchybekov and Osmonbekov had been suspended as a result of an investigation into the leaked photos. He said that though they were supposed to continue coming into work they then disappeared, after which they were charged with deserting their posts. He said he did not know Matraimov.
In response to reporters’ inquiries, a representative of the border service referred the media to military prosecutors investigating the case. Emirbek Aliev, the investigator at the prosecutors’ office who had questioned Kamchybekov and Osmonbekov, declined to comment for this story.
“We hope all of [the information we collected] will eventually come out at the end of this,” Osmonbekov said. “God willing, all of it will come out in the future.”
The Man In The Medical Mask
When Khusan Kerimov, the taxi-driver-turned-courier, headed for the airport on October 22, those who knew what he was doing had good reason to worry.
Just over a month earlier a similar assignment had almost cost him his life. As he arrived at his home with a package of cash, he was beaten and robbed by several armed assailants. Saimaiti said that several men attacked his courier with a bat, fired a gun, and ran off with the money before Kerimov and his neighbors gave chase. The robbers dropped the heavy bundle as they ran.
So when Kerimov failed to pick up the phone, his brother dropped everything and raced to look for him, frantic with worry.
This account of Kerimov’s death is reconstructed from several sources, including Saimaiti’s recollections, security camera footage, police statements, and the testimony of another courier who cannot be named to protect his safety. Kerimov’s brother declined to comment for this story and his full name is not revealed to protect his identity.
He saw Kerimov’s Honda Accord in the airport parking lot, everything seemed alright. He went inside the terminal and asked around, but no one knew anything about him.
Kerimov’s brother filed a missing person report and continued his desperate search. The following day he was joined by law enforcement officers.
It wasn’t until evening, when he and several officers went back to Kerimov’s car, still parked in the airport lot, that the courier’s fate became known. On opening the trunk they found his battered body inside, his hands tied together.
Airport security camera footage shows that Kerimov never made it into the terminal building.
Instead, it shows another man, wearing a medical mask, walking inside. A different camera records the courier from Osh arriving with his white package. The handover is not recorded but another clip shows the masked man leaving the airport. As he exits the terminal, carrying the package meant for Kerimov, he begins to run.
What exactly happened to Kerimov is unknown. But Saimaiti said that after his package was intercepted the courier was still alive. He knew this because Kerimov had called his contacts in Osh and told them that everything had gone as planned.
“They took out [his] mobile phone,” Saimaiti said. “[They] made him say ‘done, I took the money.’ And they killed him.”
Saimaiti recalled Kerimov’s earlier beating. This time around, he said, “the poor guy couldn’t get back his money or his life.”
The murder brought the hardened money launderer nearly to tears.
“My head hurts,” he said, his voice breaking. “He shouldn’t have died. He had four children.... All right, beat him, take his money. But should you kill a person for money?”
A little more than two weeks later, Saimaiti himself was murdered in Istanbul.
The documents Aierken Saimaiti provided prior to his death formed the basis of a wide-ranging investigation into the money he had laundered — and who he had done it for.
Click here to read about the hundreds of millions Saimaiti funneled out of Kyrgyzstan.
“Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia” is a joint effort by Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; OCCRP; and OCCRP's 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.
Plunder And Patronage In The Heart Of Central Asia