This Valentine’s Day, the Justice Department announced that 40-year-old Andranik Aloyan, of Los Angeles, had been convicted for his role in one of the largest racketeering conspiracies in the country’s history. The scheme targeted elderly people, stealing their financial information and then drained their bank accounts; prosecutors said victims lost a total of $25 million. Aloyan did not act alone—quite the contrary. His was actually the 78th conviction stemming from a massive crackdown on the Armenian Power gang, a Los-Angeles-based group that grew over the past decades from a street gang of recent immigrants to an international crime ring with an estimated 200 members.
Armenian Power may not have the highest national profile, having gotten little media attention outside of California, but what gang’s dirty deeds lack in notoriety they make up for in variety. This particular conspiracy for which Aloyan was convicted “involved a host of illegal activities such as sophisticated fraudulent schemes of bank fraud, identity theft, debit-card skimming, manufacturing counterfeit checks and laundering criminal proceeds,” according to the Justice Department’s press release. “In addition, [other] defendants in the case were allegedly involved in a variety of violent crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion and firearms offenses, along with other crimes including drug trafficking and illegal gambling.”
Armenian Power came from humble beginnings, says the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force, a cooperation of several local, state, and federal law enforcement entities in Southern California. Armenian immigrants to East Hollywood and Glendale in the 1980s formed a street gang for protection in an area rife with many other gangs organized along ethnic lines. But while other gangs battled over turf, this one quickly developed larger ambitions. It forged an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang that controls much of California prisons’ drug trade. The Mexican Mafia provided “protection and status” to Armenian Power members in jail, and Armenian Power provided the muscle when the Mafia collected dues.
In 1991, reported the Los Angeles Times, the gang “took over the parking lot of a mini-mall in East Hollywood and turned it into their headquarters,” intimidating customers and shop-owners alike. The Times’ Michael Krikorian wrote:
To thousands of Armenian Americans whose parents and grandparents came here after escaping the horrors of World War I and genocide, the existence of an Armenian gang is a stain on the tight ethnic community that has achieved success beyond its small numbers in politics, art, business and farming.
To thousands of recent Armenian immigrants who fled the war-ravaged streets of Beirut, the political upheavals of Iran and the Armenian homeland itself, the gang is a painful reminder of the lawlessness they sought to leave behind.
Armenian Power members, who authorities thought numbered about 120 at the time, presumably weren’t too concerned about the “stain” they were spreading. They were too busy teaming up with other local L.A. gangs for a bank fraud plan that involved impersonating elderly customers, requesting new blank checks to be sent to their homes, and then stealing those checks out of the customers’ mailboxes.
Not satisfied with those small-time schemes, the gang also got involved in the drug business, packaging hundreds of pounds of marijuana out of an auto body shop in Los Angeles. Several of the members grew marijuana plants out of their homes, too. Landlords and property owners were often threatened and extorted into looking the other way. Armenian Power also set up high-rolling gambling tournaments in secret locations in the San Fernando Valley. Cops would later find a poker table branded with the gang’s own “Power Poker” logo and an Armenian crest.
Meanwhile, as the sons and grandsons of the original gangsters grew up, but the original gangsters maintained their ancestral ties, the gang expanded and innovated. “The younger generation has helped to advance the organization’s technological abilities to commit fraud and to facilitate Internet crimes,” reads a report by the Crime Task Force (via Araratmagazine.) “This technical savvy, coupled with their language capabilities and ability to interface with their countries of origin, makes them difficult to detect.”
This savvy has included various credit-card “skimming” crimes, where gang members collect credit card numbers from unsuspecting store customers and gas-station pumps. In one scheme, Armenian Power members would visit various branches of 99 Cent Only stores in Southern California, distract the cashiers, and surreptitiously install a card-skimming device at the registers. They would return a few weeks later, collect the equipment, and then use the customers’ information to create counterfeit credit cards. Authorities say the gang stole $2 million from 99 Cent Only customers alone—victims who were probably not the most well-off people to begin with.
Of the gang’s lengthy and varied rap sheet, task force Special Agent Louis Perez said back in 2011, “There is no crime too big or too small for this group.” Then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said, “The common denominator among these defendants and their criminal enterprises is their willingness to commit any crime for profit and to use any means of violence and intimidation to further their goals.” When people didn’t pay up, or play along, with their schemes, Armenian Power members would routinely kidnap, threaten, and beat people into submission, prosecutors have said. Gang members have been charged in relation to several drive-by murders as well.
All of this information about the Armenian Power gang’s wide-ranging frauds and felonies came to light after a massive sting operation by the Eurasian Organized Crime Task Force. "Operation Power Outage," as it was called, involved years of undercover work and phone wiretaps. The task force announced charges against 99 defendants in February 2011. As the gang members’ identities were revealed, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., highlighted some of their nicknames, including “Capone,” “Stomper,” and “Thick Neck.” An Armenian news site revealed some more: “Hollywood Mike,” “Gator,” “Horse,” “the Drink,” and “Stutter” are all on the list.
As for Andranik Aloyan—a.k.a. “Andy,” a.k.a. “Ando”—he is set to be sentenced this June following this month’s conviction. Five more defendants still await trial this year. Seventy-seven are already behind bars. But, even after being sentenced, Armenian Power members don’t necessarily hang up their proverbial brass knuckles. The U.S. Attorney’s office in California says that two defendants convicted and imprisoned as a result of the massive 2011 sweep were later “accused of using smuggled mobile phones to coordinate bank fraud schemes while still in prison."