East-Central European Crossroads of Crime. The Czech Republic Case

East-Central European Crossroads of Crime. The Czech Republic Case

PhDr. Miroslav Nožina, IIR

(First draft)

Since the communism fell, all East-Central European member states of EU, I mean the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, had to deal with a growing problem - that of organized crime. What we are facing in the last decade in the Central Europe is a virtual “clash, respectively binding of cultures of crime” of various origins and sorts, cultural background, operating on different levels. The Central European territory became a „crossroads of crime“ where local underworlds meets with criminal groupings from the former Soviet Union, Balkans, Italy and Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Sub Saharan Africa to create a new, much more developed crime industry. The organized crime have a tendency to penetrate administrative structures of the states and their economies. It is in a position to “buy” members of parlament, bribe government officials and thus secure impunity from investigation and prosecution, to create parallel power structures..
Far from remaining a local issue, organised crime represents a direct threat to the security and stability of the Central European states, in its broader dimension, to all of Europe.
I will analyse the situation in the Czech Republic mainly, but the problem is more or less identical in all post-communist states of Central Europe - so I will try to give you a comparative picture of the situation in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary - and in Western Europe as well.

Where are the roots of the problem
Some criminological studies suggest, that OC did not exist at all in communist Central Europe. This is far from true. “Socialist style” OC has always existed. Just its face was different.
In the totalitarian police states, the activities of OC were highly restricted because of strong police and social control; however, some criminal groups at various levels of organisation successfully developed their specific activities.
The „communist“ OC was not engaged in such activities as the trafficking of drugs, car theft or kidnapping. The main reason were the hermetically closed borders efficently blocking bigger imports of drugs or exports of stolen cars and strong internal control. In the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary, there was no black market for drugs in the classical sense. The availibility of drugs produced from various medicines was limited, as they were peddled mainly in closed circles in which knew everyone each other and the producers were consumers as well. The situation was slightly different in Poland, where more open borders allowed imports of drugs on small scale before political changes in 80´s. Criminal activities as contract killing or racketeering were virtually unknown.
On the other hand, the criminal networks at various levels of organisation were engaged in a wide spectrum of illegal economic activities including imports and distribution of consumer goods, illegal money exchange, illegal exports of articrafts etc.
This type of crime could not be successfully performed without contacts, as well as the support of some police and state administrative officials. Strong corruption networks, willing to work for anybody who possessed a sufficient amount of money, were established far before the democratic changes of the end of 80´s. It is significant that many of these people have been co-operating behind the legal lines until now.

The democracy brings changes
The wave of democratic revolutions in 80´s dramatically changed the “status quo on the Central European criminal scene. All CE states experienced a dramatic increase in crime after democratic changes – though – what is important - only by “local standards”.
Why local standards? During the communist regimes crime rates were very low and far below the levels of crime in Western countries. For exemple - according to criminal statistics, the total number of criminal offences in the Czech Republic, is actually not dramatically higher than in countries like Sweden which has the same sized population and a reputation for law-abiding citizens. The rise in the CEu is spectacular, however, when compared with the low level of criminality before 1989.
Far more dangerous is the emergence of organised crime networks which had reached alarming proportions by the end of the 90´s. Especially transnational organized crime attacked the CEu with full force. This territory became very attractive for it because of several reasons:
- after the fall of communism, the CEu represented a territory with permissive laws, unprotected frontiers, an advantageous geographic proximity to the European Union, and a police force inexperienced in the investigation of OC.
- Together with it, the social changes allowed many shadow businessmen, corrupt communist officials, smugglers or black market currency dealers to legalise their money and enter the legal sphere, leaving the criminal business in the hands of lower level criminal delinquents. There was virtually no competition among criminal groups and it was easy to find sufficient amounts of people eager to make easy money.

In the result of it, the main motor of OC activities in the CE at the beginning of the 1990s was not the domestic underworld. The situation was more or less same in the all CEu countries. For exemple – in the Czech Republic:
· between 1990 and 1992 international OC groups almost exclusively dominated Czech territory. Domestic OC did not represent more than 20% of the total OC activities in the country. Czech citizens started to co-operate with these groups early, working as servicemen, drivers, goods keepers, local advisers, etc.
• by 1993, the Czechs already represented nearly half of all OC group members - in most cases, occupying the lower levels of organisations.
• According to experts´ estimations, currently there are approximately 75 – 100 organised criminal groups operating in the Czech Republic with 2000 – 2500 members. The number of „external assistants“ will be approximately same. More than 1/3 of the organisations are highly developed.
Most of the foreign groups have a fixed delegation of tasks; with a few exceptions a fixed composition of members – particularly concerning core members – and they have also often been in operation for several years. They do not, on the whole, confine their operations within national borders. At the same time, the members of the criminal groups are themselves often likely to be different nationalities. Heterogenous groups consisting of suspects from different countries have become the rule rather than the exception in CEu in last years.

Organised crime structures
The most numerous foreign organised crime element in the Czech Republic represent ex-USSR citizens, in particular deliquents from Russia and Ukraine then the former Yugoslavia´s citizens, Bulgarians, Albanians, Vietnamese and Chinese. Presence of other groups from Balkans (Turkey, Romania, Greece), Italy, Middle East, Sub –Saharan Africa and Latin America together with groups from ECE states have been also registered. The largest groups identified in the Czech Republic are three with a Russian origin, each with about 100-200 members. Russian and Ukrainian groups of a smaller volume, with about 50 members, are observed to be active in some parts of the country. Half of the groups have mixed Czech – foreign composition, including even quite exotic nationalities such as Chinese and Vietnamese, „slightly more“ than 1/4 are composed exclusively of foreigners. It indicate cross-border activities with all neighbour countries at least, as well as with countries outside of Europe.
Operations are often seen as involving the Czech territory as a transit area from east to west, where target countries are primarily these near by: Hungary, Italy, Spain, France. Further traffic from the Far East and Africa is routed over Czech Republic to the USA and the Caribbean etc. Illegal migrants are often gathered in Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, Asia and Middle East and eventually smuggled across Slovakia, Hungary and Poland to the Czech Republic and then to EU countries. Strongest contingents of Czech criminal deliquents engaged in organised crime operations have been registered in France, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania.
Slovakia also reports well-organised hierarchical structures of organised criminal groups. The Slovak police has at their disposal information on approximately 50 groups, which are active on Slovak territory, comprising 600 members. Many group leaders are typically Slovak nationals, however, groups involved in drugs offences have a foreign leader, mostly from Albania/Kosovo, or former USSR countries. Groups sizes range from 5 to 50 members, in average 15 members per group.
All of the territory of Slovakia is divided between organised crime groups, in particular the biggest cities. Slovaks also co-operate with foreign groups in Europe as well as outside of Europe. In Europe, all neighbouring countries are enumerated as general partner countries. Cooperation with organised criminal groups in other European countries varies according to relevant commodity. Romania is used for stolen cars; Germany, Italy, Spain and Netherlands are partners for trafficking of women; other EU states are used for trafficking human beings; and contacts with Scandinavia, Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania are mentioned for drug trafficking. Non-European countries include drug producers such as Columbia and other Latin American countries, and Asian countries.
According to the European Committee on Crime Problems Hungary enumerates eight tens active organised crime groups with altogether 2000 individuals suspected to be involved. Six massive groups were observed, with 100-300 members each, the largest ones operating in the Budapest metropolitan area. More than half of organised crime groups consiss of Hungarian citizens only. One-third has mixed membership and 7 groups consist of foreign national exclusively. The largest group of foreigners participating in the organised crime scene is formed by persons from former Yugoslavia (in 11 groups). Citizens of Ukraine are also numerous. Links to Slovak organised crime groups are often noted to involve violent crimes; Slovak groups are also very active in the trade of large volumes of arms and explosives. Further, Arabs, Turks, Germans, Russians, Sub-Saharan Africans, Albanians, and Rumanians were observed.
The Poland Bureau for Fighting Organized Crime registers more than 500 organised criminal groups with 6000 members. Approximately 100 groups are internationally heterogeneous or of foreign origin. As a whole, organised criminal scene in Poland is composed of foreign nationals from over 30 countries, Ukrainians and Belorussian preponderate (25%). Other main nationals are Germans, Turks, Russians, Lithuanians, Italians, Vietnamese.
There is a high degree of international co-operation between the OC groups in the CEu; even between the groups earlier considered insular and self-sufficient (for instance Chinese, Vietnamese and Albanian groups). Domestic and transnational organised crime is accelerating its activities in the CEu, working hand by hand on the base of mutually advantageus contracts.

Criminal activities
The IOC groups play very important role mainly in drug trafficking, illegal immigration, trafficking in human beings and various forms of commodity smuggling, fraud and money laundering.
Over 70% of all the heroin dispatched from the Middle East to Western Europe have been passing through the Czech Republic and the other Central European countries. The „classic“ domestic drug underworld is suppressed by transnational criminal groups. About 3/4 of drug trade in the Czech Republic is in the hands of foreigners. Drug dealing has become more sophisticated and organised, in many ways similar to drug dealing in Western Europe and the U.S.A. The prices of heroin are four or five times lower in Prague than in Berlin or Zurich and there is a „considerable surplus“ of drugs.

Organised crime in the ECE society
We have been enregistering several very dangerous tendencies in the sphere of international organised crime activities in the post-communist CEu.
The tendency to create a stable base in the CEu is common to nearly all international criminal organisations. The OC gang members´ interest in the CEu has mainly two reason – easy access to European Union countries (you can travel across Western Europe without any restrictions with a Czech, Polish, Hungarian or Slovak passport) and the CEu criminal business potential.
For example, the Hungarian territory is frequently used by Russian speaking groups to cover their activities. The activity of these Russian speaking criminal groups is allegedly one of the principal reasons for establishing the FBI branch in Budapest.
Information gathered by Poland Bureau for the State Protection indicates that Russian organised criminal groups operating in the United States are efforcing to get criminal groups operating in Poland under their control and stabilise their position in the country. Again beacause of easy access in bothe directions - to the West and to the East. Poland also faces the danger of the expansion of ethnic Asian gangs – in particular gangs from Vietnam and China.
The same problems exist in the Czech Republic. There are more than 150 Czech – Russian joint ventures in Prague, a considerable amount of them acting as a respectable front for criminal activities. Russians invest in hotels, pensions, casinos, restaurants and other real estate properties in Prague and the well-known spas of Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázně.
After settling, the tencency of some organised crime bosse to penetrate political and economic life of the CEu follows.
Especially in the last few years, the Czech police has registered ROC attempts at penetrating state control mechanisms. According to the Czech Ministry of Interior‘s confidential report, their goal is to gain control over the trade in strategic raw materials, banking and through mediation of investment companies, funds and contacts with the governmental sphere, to gain real power in the Czech Republic.
Also the principal Slovak problem in suppressing organised crime, according to the Slovak official sources, may be corruption and the links of organised crime representatives to the state structures.

We know still very little about this phenomenon. In fact, all CEu gevernements realise this danger and tries to submit lagal regulations which should combat organised crime, restrict corruption, control effectively state administrative structures.

The proportions, composition and spheres of criminal activities in the CEu states are actually very similar to the proportions of OC in the European Union countries. There exists clearly visible tendency to the unification of criminal structures in Western and the post-communist Central Europe. The relations between democratic systems of governments and modern forms of organised crime activities have probably much more profound roots than we ever expected. In this view, the rising of organised crime in the CEu states is a “tax” to democracy. How high this tax will be is still a question for the future.