This story appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine.
This February, a 30-year-old former wrestler and scrapyard owner named Dinko Valev rose to international notoriety after uploading cellphone videos of his migrant hunting in the remote, mountainous Strandzha region of Bulgaria, near its border with Turkey. In one of his films, initially posted on his Facebook account, he interrogates a 20-something Afghan man he has captured, before delivering him to the authorities. "You're a terrorist?" Valev asks. The man widens his eyes and laughs uncomfortably. "Me? No." In another, filmed like a homemade extreme-sports video, Valev gallops atop his ATV before the video cuts to the 15 migrants—his captured quarry—whom he has made lie facedown in the dirt, one after another. "Me and my boys were riding today and look what we found," he narrates. "Who are these people? How long is this going to continue?"
Valev's videos have the same disturbing quality of amateur brawls or other dispatches from the deep web, but their most frightening quality may be that they've made him a hero in Bulgaria. And Valev isn't alone. A group of camo-clad nationalists called the Organization for the Protection of Bulgarian Citizens (OZBG) has also made a sport of capturing groups of migrants on its playfully named "walks in the woods" since September 2015. In March, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov publicly praised the group and instructed the head of Bulgaria's border police to present the men with an award for their "volunteer" service. While officials have since backpedaled on their praise, and Valev was charged in March 2016 with allegedly violating human rights, the government's newfound opprobrium hasn't done much to halt the spread of the migrant-hunting phenomenon. In Valev's case, it seems to have even increased his burgeoning folk-hero status. A recent Bulgarian TV poll found that 84 percent of the respondents approved of his and others' volunteer-patrolling actions. One well-known Bulgarian news anchor described him as a "superhero" who fights off migrants "with his bare hands."
Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in the EU. It also has the misfortune of sitting on the front lines of Europe, sharing a 139-mile land border with Turkey and a 292-mile mountainous border with northern Greece, territories through which as many as 50,000 asylum seekers have passed since 2011. In their mounting alarm, the government has built 50 miles of razor-wire fence along the Turkish border, which the executive director of Frontex, the European Union's border agency, has called "the most important land border in the EU." Bulgaria plans to finish the fence this summer. Meanwhile, as government officials waffle on how to deal with migration and vigilantes, others are exploiting the desperation for profit. In February, a video was leaked showing 60 people crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border with the help of traffickers, as border guards apparently looked on. In March, a probe from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior led to the arrest of five border police officers, including a commander, for smuggling.
Amid this confusion and chaos, some Bulgarians on the southern frontier have taken it upon themselves to make the country as inhospitable to asylum seekers as possible. Approaches like Valev's, in this sense, echo the attempt by some anti-immigrant activists in the United States to make the country so unpleasant that migrants choose "voluntary deportation" over resettlement. Valev and the OZBG are the most prominent faces of this effort, but other armed-vigilante patrols have been sprouting up and following their lead, also hoping to be turned into patriotic heroes. Bulgaria is a "failure, the government is corrupt, and you have an oligarchy ruling the country," says Iliana Savova, the director of the Refugee and Migrant Program for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. "The easiest way to divert attention from your own doings [is to focus on] someone who is easy to spot and put the blame on them."
There is talk of erecting a statue of Valev in Yambol. His admirers compare him to Vasil Levski, the country's 19th-century national-liberation hero who fought for the ideals of the French Revolution and dreamed of a pluralistic, ethnically heterogeneous, and religiously tolerant Bulgaria. In late March, when Valev was brought in to a local-police precinct for questioning on charges stemming from his ATV rides, a crowd of several dozen people gathered to support him, donning Bulgarian flags as capes and chanting, "Heart and soul of Bulgaria!" and "Dinko is a hero!" "The Helsinki Committee are total losers," Valev told news cameras as he arrived, flashing a winning, Donald Trump–like smile. "I just don't care... I did what should've been done."
Yambol is a reedy little burned-out city of ruined Communist-era manufacturing plants and warehouses near the southeastern Turkish border, on the banks of the overgrown Tundzha River. It isn't well regarded in the rest of Bulgaria, and before, people knew the town only for a comically bad music video filmed there, where an Uncle Fester–like local rapper mugged around the streets with a stuffed raven on his shoulder, droning, "Yamboolllll... it's the city."
Valev met me in front of the tiny mall of Yambol in a green-camo tracksuit. He resembles Vin Diesel—his favourite actor—and has a giant tattoo of an ornate Orthodox cross on his chest, as well as a full sleeve of tribals, which he shows off at every opportunity. His goonish right-hand man, Dennis, accompanied him. Local men seemed to come out of nowhere to shake Valev's hand and congratulate him. Inside the mall, a grandmother watching her granddaughter on a kiddie ride whipped around and said, "Dinko's here!" and came over to shake his hand and tell him what a good boy he was. Inside the mall's cafe, two young baristas doted on him as he leaned back in his chair and ordered cake.
Valev insists that he was spurred to vigilante action one day when, while riding his ATV through forest trails along the border, a group of migrants allegedly jumped out of the bushes and tried to stab him. After that, he began patrolling with a group of friends on ATVs. On the first patrol, they detained around a dozen migrants. Soon, he claims, a jihadist website put a $4,000 bounty on his head. "I had seen them before, but I didn't start hunting them until they attacked me," he said. "I'm basically a nobody, but it needed to start somewhere."
He was agitated because he said the border police had been harassing him, something he attributed to their corruption and involvement in smuggling. "The border police are being paid off to smuggle in migrants, one hundred percent," Valev said. Even though little evidence exists that border corruption is as widespread as Valev asserts, a real demographic fear underlies the hysteria. With the closure of the Western Balkan transit route from the Greek Aegean islands up through Macedonia and into Western Europe this March, many of Bulgaria's politicians and citizens are worried about the country turning into a major alternative pathway for migrants. On the Greek border, the Bulgarian police have been holding drills with water cannons where hundreds of actors pretending to be migrants throw stones at the officers. Bulgarian officials have also begun holding naval exercises along the country's eastern Black Sea coast in preparation for the possibility that migrants will begin using the route en masse. "If smugglers find a way to transport people via the Black Sea like they have over the Mediterranean," says Yavor Siderov, a political scientist based in Sofia, "it's not out of the question" that that route could become a major corridor.
After finishing his cake, Valev had to go to work at the junkyard he owns and operates. We hopped in his white Mercedes CLS350, with a crucifix and Orthodox icons dangling from the rearview mirror. Before my trip, I'd read about his fleet of vehicles, which, in addition to the Mercedes, includes a Hummer, a Porsche SUV, a decommissioned armored personnel vehicle, and of course, ATVs. He also has 20 horses. There are various rumors and questions of how he could make so much money running a junkyard. Some, such as Savova from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, allege that he is actually involved in smuggling himself and the vigilantism is a front, an accusation he calls "bullshit." Other allegations link him to the Bulgarian mafia. The paper Capital purported that Valev's hidden junkyard business partner is likely Kamen Zhelev, who a couple of years ago pled no contest to running a nightmarish, Godfather-style debt-collection company called Creditline. According to Capital, "debtors were beaten with slaps, punches, kicks, stripped of their clothes, and threatened with fornication, cruel punishment, setting their legs on fire, and extraction of their fingernails with pliers."
The scrapyard, on the edge of town where Yambol meets grassy fields, is a vast, bus-filled blacktop surrounded by the husks of abandoned factories. About a dozen employees tore apart buses with sledgehammers and blowtorches. When Valev stepped out of his car, his employees swarmed around him. He doled out stacks of cash and talked into the various cellphones they held out to him.
"Hey, little Gypsy, come over here," he called out. "I'll fuck your mother." His employees were at-will workers, paid 50 to 60 leva per bus they broke down—around $32. Most were Roma men—still subject to widespread prejudice and occupying the bottom caste of Bulgarian society—but there was one recently arrived African man, Jamal, from the Ivory Coast.
I asked Valev how he could employ immigrants in his business while he was hunting others on the border. His answer reminded me of the kind of thing people say in America. "I have nothing against the people who already live here," he said. "It's the people who are invading that I have a problem with."
Later in the afternoon, a Bulgarian TV crew showed up. Valev gave an impromptu interview about being stopped by the border police a couple of nights before for an expired registration on his car. "The refugees cross the border, and what do the police do? Nothing," he said. "I'm just disappointed they're looking for a fight with me." When a Der Spiegel video crew arrived, Valev tried a couple of words in German, before reverting to English: "Whatchu want from me? Whatchu want now? You wanna see me on the ATV?"
The next day, I visited an asylum center on the edge of a tiny border village called Pastrogor. Here, people wait for months while a government panel processes their asylum applications, watching their video interviews in order to decide whether or not they've been through enough horror to be permitted to live and work in Europe. I'd been told that Syrians were given priority over other nationalities. A rusting, military-like bunker, surrounded by a metal fence, buttressed by mountains and fields, and protected by a guard, it looked like a minimum-security prison. On arriving, some residents gathered around a large open window to wave.
In Bulgaria, there are currently around a half dozen migrant centers for those attempting the legal asylum process, and three detention centers for those who have been apprehended while trying to cross illegally (this is where those caught by vigilante groups typically end up). Most of the facilities are in bad shape, being formerly disused buildings or barracks, in out-of-the-way areas, and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reports that one near Yambol, in the village of Elhovo, was temporarily closed down for violations and "deplorable sanitary and living conditions," according to Savova. According to Bordermonitoring Bulgaria, an NGO, white-power graffiti and swastikas covers another facility in the capital of Sofia. Asylum seekers are provided with meals, but there are no kitchens and few other support services, as they wait and try to gain the legal right to stay in Bulgaria.
Officials refused us entry into the Pastrogor facility, but two men ventured out in the light drizzle to say hello: Idriss, a cheery middle-aged gentleman in a green smock from the Ivory Coast, and a Kurdish man who went by Rom, who had fled northern Syria. Idriss described himself as the "senior refugee" in the center; he had been there for four months, telling and retelling his story to officials, and then waiting to see if he would be given refugee status. He had converted to Christianity back in the Ivory Coast before leaving his family behind to come to Europe. Both he and Rom had elected to come in over the official border crossing at the nearby town of Svilengrad and had gotten caught on purpose, the first step in the official asylum process.
"Everywhere in Europe is now barbed wire," Idriss said. "Crossing the frontier is now very risky. I'm here in Bulgaria, and I'd like to stay in Bulgaria." He spoke a little Bulgarian, and knew of Jamal, the man from the Ivory Coast who worked for Valev. I asked him why he had chosen to come here instead of attempting the treacherous Aegean crossing to Greece, like many others, in the hopes of landing in countries with a more robust support system for refugees, like Germany or Sweden. The very real fear of drowning, he suggested, had determined his route (1,361 have died or gone missing in 2016 alone). "Before you do something, you have to think very deeply," he said. "With the sea, you don't know what could have happened by now."
(Savova later told me that it was unlikely that Idriss would receive refugee status—no one from the Ivory Coast had been granted asylum in Bulgaria.)
Rom spoke very little English and no Bulgarian, but he indicated that he hoped to make it to Germany. Several months earlier, he had fled Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, where locals are conscripted into militias, because he didn't want to fight ISIS, or Daesh. "Syria good, very good, but the government not good," he said. "Huge problem of Kurds with Daesh. Fire, fire."
"What he's trying to say," Idriss interrupted, "is that for the Kurds, Daesh is attacking them." He put a hand on his friend's shoulder and smiled. "This one, he's not a fighter." Everyone laughed.
While Idriss and Rom were in a purgatorial position, others have been far less lucky. Vigilante groups have captured more than a hundred who have entered the country illegally. Bulgarian border guards, according to Human Rights Watch, have beaten and extorted others. In October 2015, a border guard shot one Afghan asylum seeker dead, and this March, two bodies were discovered near one of the mountainous "forest highway" crossings by a town called Malko Tornovo. That same month, according to the BBC, the mayor of a village, Topòlovgrad, asked the ministry of defense for 30 AK-47s, armored personnel carriers, and other military gear to equip his "volunteer border patrol" of 200 local men. The town wanted to take control of two frontier stations and turn them into patrol-training centers. The mayor eventually withdrew his request, claiming it had been misunderstood, but it seemed that the situation was only getting more dangerous.
One evening, I found myself on the back patio of the only posh hotel-restaurant in Topòlovgrad. The town is mid-size and pleasant, like Yambol, minus the rapper and his stuffed raven. I had come here and been introduced to an ex-smuggler who I'll call Tim. (I agreed not to reveal his identity as a condition of our interview.) For the entire half hour that we spoke, Tim ate nothing, drank nothing, and didn't smoke.
He said he had gotten into the business when some smugglers sidled up to him at a local cafe, accompanied by a translator, and said, "Hey, can I ask you something?" They gave him money and said he could keep it if he helped guide some strangers through the forests and into Bulgaria. He agreed. On his first trip, he said he made around $800 per person, to lead a group of five across the frontier. Someone had placed numbered stones in the forest, he explained, and he was told to wait at one to pick up the group of refugees. He said a Turkish man in the border city of Edirne coordinated the whole thing. "Sometimes there is a deal between the cops, and sometimes there isn't," Tim said. He said he would sometimes see border agents in the woods when he walked migrants through the pine trees. "They might see me," he said, but then they would "walk away from me as if they hadn't."
As he continued to work for the smugglers, however, the number of people he trafficked increased while the price per person decreased. "The price varies," he said. "It's one price when the refugees come alone, but the prices go up if they bring their families." Eventually, due to the construction of the border fence, the traffickers shifted from the forests to a system of minibuses and trucks. Police evenutally caught Tim driving a minibus full of refugees, and he's now on probation.
Oddly enough, I had been introduced to Tim by an acquaintance of Valev's—Dimitar Semerdjiev, one of Topòlovgrad's most prominent businessmen. A fit middle-aged man with a Paulie Walnuts tracksuit whose nickname is the "Boss," he was the deputy for the local mayor who had announced the formation of a volunteer patrol. I was also curious about Semerdjiev's alleged mafia connections—he said he owned several hotels, and I read that he kept a pet tiger and was the brother of the right-hand man for one of Bulgaria's most infamous mafia figures, Brendo, a.k.a. the "Cocaine King." When I'd asked him what people like him in Topòlovgrad thought of those who were involved in the smuggling trade, he'd quipped, "Do you want to meet one?" Ten minutes later, we were at Semerdjiev's hotel with Tim. The nature of their relationship was unclear, but Tim called Semerdjiev the "Boss."
It's easy to understand why someone like Tim would get into smuggling, and why someone like Semerdjiev would "hate" smugglers, as he told me he did. One-fifth of the Bulgarian population makes under $170 a month—less than a fifth of the amount Tim received for one day of smuggling work. Meanwhile, 2 million Bulgarians are migrants themselves, going elsewhere in Europe to make money—often to the same countries in Western Europe where refugees hope to end up.
Before I left Bulgaria, I went with Valev to the country's capital, Sofia. A group of concerned citizens planned to award him a medal of honor for his migrant hunting. We arrived at the monument of the Tsar Liberator, across from the Bulgarian National Assembly, where about 20 or so nationalists held an unpermitted rally around PA speakers blaring military anthems. One guy wore a shirt that said: "NO ISLAM IN EUROPE!"
As Valev strutted up to the podium and began his speech, it occurred to me that migrant hunting for him seemed primarily like a kind of sport rather than a real political or ideological commitment—one that, however cruelly, fit into his concept of Bulgarian patriotism and was reaffirmed with widespread fame and respect. After all, he hung out with and employed immigrants, and the tally of people he's apprehended was only in the double digits. As such, his actions seemed intended to function mostly as an advertisement to would-be migrants (Don't come to Bulgaria) and as an advertisement for his own supposed manly prowess. This, perhaps, is why Valev has become a hero to some: He's conveying a popular if morally repugnant message of xenophobia that many in Europe are increasingly embracing. And yet this message is also wishful thinking. As the wars in Iraq and Syria continue unabated, and the EU seems unable to address the refugee crisis, Bulgaria will increasingly find itself caught up in the conflict.
"We need to protect our homeland," Valev shouted out to the crowd of cheering supporters, before peeling out in his Mercedes and fleeing the scene. "I want people to stay here in this country, and not leave it."