If Slovakia has a Mafia Godfather, the police say, it is Miroslav Sýkora. A stalwart six-footer with cropped dark hair, Sýkora is believed to be one of the founders of organized crime in Slovakia in the early 1990s along with a former wrestler, Ján Takáč. At the outset, the pair agreed not to work with the Russian mafia, but the ink on their “deal” was scarcely dry before Sýkora broke it. His bad faith led to a split with Takáč, forming two competing mafia groups in the Slovak capital that would eventually become known as the Sýkorovci and the Takáčovci.
Sýkora came by his Russian contacts honestly. His father, Jaroslav, had served as an advisor at the Czechoslovak embassy in Moscow in the 1980s. Sýkora himself attended the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), leaving in 1985 without graduating. In the same year, one of Sýkora’s friends, Alexander Belovič, also graduated from MGIMO.
Sýkora attended the Comenius University School of Journalism in Bratislava in the late 1980s, but again left after his third year without graduating. His former female colleagues remember him as a charmer. “He was a little bit older than the rest of us, so he took care of us, and when we would go out he would always make sure we had what we wanted,” said one.
One of his original associates, today a senior member of the Sýkorovci, remembers Sýkora particularly for his intelligence. “He had this habit of knowing what you were thinking before you said it,” he said. “He was very bright and very direct.”
But as intelligent and charming as he could appear, Sýkora was also ruthless, according to police sources, and ran some of Slovakia’s most lucrative mafia scams of the 1990s.
Sýkora was one of the first alleged Slovak mafia bosses to officially go into business. In keeping with his Russian connections and his intelligence, his first company, Altro Bratislava, wasn’t a pub, a gym, a construction company or a casino, but an import-export firm trading all over the former Soviet Union and even with North Korea. In October 1993, Sýkora took over as the managing director of Altro from his friend from his Moscow schooldays, Alexander Belovič.
Altro Bratislava was owned by a certain Nir Alon, whose brother Barak was charged in the 1990s with defrauding a Czech bank of eight billion crowns. The Barak family, which hailed from Israel, had strong Russian contacts, and father Shlomo helped negotiate the settlement of the debt that Russia owed the Czechs. Barak Alon and Alexander Belovič were also managing directors of the Alitrans firm in Bratislava in the early 1990s.
“Miro and Alex were good friends,” said a source who knew both men. “Miro didn’t drink or do drugs, and he had a deep Russian side – he spoke Russian, read Russian literature, listened to Russian music.”
In addition to Altro, police records show, Sýkora also had more typical mafia sources of income such as extortion and racketeering. In Bratislava, the Takáčovci had control of the Ružinov district, while the rest of the city basically belonged to the Sýkorovci, under lieutenants Jozef Svoboda (BA I), František B. (BA V), Martin F. (BA III) and Peter Havaši (BA surroundings).
“He was into land,” said Sýkora’s former associate. “No one knew when it would explode, but Miro studied it. It was his thing.”
Perhaps the first major local scam that Sýkora got involved with was the sale of heating oil as diesel fuel, which has provided the mafia in Slovakia with an estimated Sk100 billion crowns in revenue since the early 1990s. The Russian-designed fraud had been started in Slovakia by Tomáš Vída of Dunajská Streda. According to police sources, Sýkora soon wanted in on the action, but the only one of the Dunajská Streda gang who could talk decent Slovak was a relatively minor member, Tibor Pápay. His connection with Sýkora, who was by then the Russians’ chosen man in Slovakia, elevated Pápay within the Dunajská Streda underworld, and led to a conflict that saw both Pápay and Vida slain in 1999.
Sýkora himself did not often take part in the rough tactics, but life around him was anything but safe. SPEX interviewed a man who had been shot one morning while sitting in his car with his son, apparently by a sniper who mistook him for Sýkora.
“It was a small caliber bullet, and it smashed my front teeth before lodging in my throat,” the man said, showing off a scar at the back of his neck where doctors had finally removed the bullet. “At first, I didn’t even know what had happened to me. When they heard it was a gunshot wound, none of the hospitals wanted to take me. I still have fragments of metal in my tongue.” The man remembered Sýkora as someone who kept to himself but would always greet him civilly on the street. He asked that his name be withheld because he feared retribution from Sýkora’s successors.
Sýkora was also allegedly seen in the company of Ivan Lexa, the former director of the Slovak secret service (SIS). Police sources say that senior SIS officers were also seen at the Hotel Junior in Bratislava, which belonged to the Sýkora group.
According to one former policeman who investigated organized crime in the 1990s, these contacts were no coincidence, as politicians close to the 1994-1998 ruling coalition needed an underworld ally to do their dirty work. Marek Ľ., who served as a driver for underworld figure Peter Križanovič, a.k.a. Duran, testified that Sýkora had ordered the murder of former policeman Robert Remiaš in 1996. Remiaš was a go-between to a key witness in the 1995 kidnapping of the former president’s son, which the SIS was suspected of having arranged.
“I learned from Križanovič that Sýkora had an interest in this individual [Remiaš],” the witness recounted. “Križanovič told me we just had to put him in a car, and Sýkora would know what to do with him. (…) Along with Križanovič, Ľuboš and three others from Nitra, we were hired to keep tabs on this individual. Križanovič later told me that Sýkora needed Remiáš for the SIS.”
In 1999, Jaroslav Ivor, then the head of the police investigation department, said that Sýkora had arranged to have the bomb planted in Remiaš’ BMW that killed him on April 29, 1996. Ivor claimed that Lexa had ordered the murder, but a court later found no grounds for this assertion.
According to police sources, Sýkora also played a role in the privatization process, operating as a government bag man to ensure that buyers paid their cut to politicians as well. In return, he was paid either in cash or with shares in the privatized companies. For example, his accountant, Martin A., held a seat on the boards of such privatized companies as Tlakové nádoby in Žilina and Chemes of Humenné.
Ladislav B., who remains a senior member of the Sýkorovci, was charged with extortion in the mid-1990s along with several accomplices in a case where they beat a privatizer so badly that he went to the police. “At this point we began to understand how it all worked,” a source close to the investigation said.
Eventually, Sýkora allegedly grew restless with his fringe role in privatization, and began to agitate for a stake in the pending sale of one of Slovakia’s financial institutions. Whether this had any role in his demise remains an open question.
At the age of 33, Sýkora was shot dead outside the Holiday Inn in Bratislava on February 6, 1997, along with his bodyguard, Ivan R. (25), who died shortly after arriving at hospital. He was buried in the Slavičie údolie cemetery in Bratislava six days later. The Hotel Danube, where he had been a regular guest, flew a black flag from its roof in his honor.
Two explanations were offered for Sýkora’s death. One was that he had outlived his usefulness to his political masters, and was becoming a liability. The other was that he had squabbled with Križanovič, a former ally, over the division of the proceeds of the Sk173.5 million robbery of the VÚB bank in Nitra in January 1996. It was again Marek Ľ., whose brother had been recently shot and killed, who provided the key testimony.
Križanovič, a former Slovak wrestling champion, had survived an assassination attempt in 1996, in which he lost a leg. He believed that Sýkora had been behind the attack, and went around saying he would kill the mob boss in revenge, until he himself was killed on April 17, 1997 by a bomb planted in a Seat parked beside his Mitsubishi.
Following the departure of Ivan Lexa and his senior managers from the SIS, as well as of the Vladimír Mečiar’s HZDS party from government in 1998, the Sýkorovci are believed to have lost some of their former power. On the other hand, the Takáčovci, formerly confined to Ružinov, grew stronger through economic crime, to which they had been forced to turn for lack of turf in the capital. The Takáčovci also seemed to have stronger connections within the new government and the new SIS leadership. Ľubomír K., a university graduate who has been considered the boss of the Takáčovci since Ján Takáč’s murder in 2003, was the business partner of Igor Grošaft, a man close to Dzurinda’s SDKÚ party, while Martin B., a lawyer who spent several months in custody following a raid on the Takáčovci in 2004, was a business partner of former SIS inspection chief Anton Rázga.
The Sýkorovci seem to have remained vulnerable under the Fico government as well. A senior member of the gang, who spent several days in custody last year on what he called trumped up charges before being released, claimed that his arrest had been police harassment arranged by the Takáčovci. Police sources denied the charge.