The four animals – a pair of adult lions and their two young – were lifted into metal boxes for transportation to a zoo outside Bucharest. The adult lions were named Simba and Bagheera, after Disney films The Lion King and The Jungle Book.At that time, in February 2013, mafia boss Ion Balint was not at home in his residence in the Ferentari district of Bucharest. The authorities and Vier Pfoten took the opportunity to seize the lions, as Balint had been arrested by the police a few days earlier.“Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique case. There are others who want to feel powerful and acquire social status by having lions – the king of the animals – in their backyards.
It’s completely idiotic,” says Kuki Barbuceanu, project manager at Vier Pfoten, 18 months later.There were no documents showing where Ion Balint had got his lions from – nor the two bears seized by Vier Pfoten at the same time. Kuki Barbuceanu thinks that Balint bought them from a zoo or a circus.The lions were first sent to a zoo in Ploiesti, around 60 km north of Bucharest, for a few months. They were then sent on to a zoo in Galati, near the border with Moldavia and Ukraine.Before the lions were seized, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) visited Ion Balint’s private zoo. Journalist Paul Radu is the head of OCCRP in Bucharest:“They showed us around and we saw a space under the cage where they said they put people. They smiled and said that their enemies end up there. We don’t know whether that was just an idle boast,” he says.
The empty lions’ cage is still there, behind the white walls that surround Ion Balint’s mansion, when Expressen visits the area in late summer. Ferentari is in sector five, the poorest of the six administrative districts into which the capital Bucharest is divided.This was where Ion Balint, 50, and his younger brother Vasile Balint, 46, began their climb up the gangster ladder. In Romania, especially here in Ferentari, the brothers nicknamed Nutu and Sile Camataru are both famous and infamous. Nutu is Romanian for “Little John”, Sile is a short form of Vasile and the name Camataru, which roughly translated means “loan sharks”, has been passed down through the family for generations. Camataru hints at how the clan earned its money, but the brothers’ activities span large areas of organised crime.