BUDAPEST — IN a renovated gym in a leafy section of the Hungarian capital, six men dressed in identical black shorts and white T-shirts are playing pickup basketball.
It's far from just a game, though. The men belong to a 33-member class at the International Law Enforcement Academy. They are in training.
The academy, which began operations in April, is a pioneer project in cooperation between American law enforcement agencies and officers from formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe. American and Western leaders say they are racing to beat out organized crime, which has been oozing throughout the region since European communism's collapse in 1989.
Some American agents warn that the growing power of Eastern European gangs could cause problems in America. The recent arrests of Russian mobsters in the New York City area has reinforced their concern. "Russian organized crime is exerting more and more influence, particularly in the New York area," said Alan Ringgold, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's deputy assistant director for criminal investigations, in a telephone interview from Washington.
Organized criminals "have found the openness of the capitalist system to be lucrative," Mr. Ringgold said. "Lets get in front of the power curve," he added, referring to the FBI's efforts to beef up law enforcement in Eastern Europe.
Students from across the region come to Budapest for eight-week sessions to study Western crime-fighting methods at the academy, supervised by the FBI.
The academy is small in scale, but officials hope it will play a pivotal role in the effort to contain the burgeoning influence of organized criminal gangs. Many FBI officials portray the battle against organized crime as a key to stabilizing the region.
Police blotters across Central Europe provide a grim picture of how gangs have quickly adapted to new political and social conditions. In Poland, for example, authorities in recent months have been making large drug hauls in seaports along the Baltic coast, confiscating hashish, cocaine, and crack cocaine. In one June raid, police found roughly 480 pounds of Colombian cocaine, with an estimated street value of $32 million, dangling in waterproof bags from the keel of a ship.
The drug problem is regionwide. "The recent unrest in the former Yugoslavia has caused drug traffickers to abandon the traditional Balkan route and open several new diversionary routes," the World Customs Organization said in its 1994 annual report. "Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary have all become major transit countries."
Authorities suspect the high-profile busts are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the quantity of narcotics now flowing through Eastern Europe to Western markets. Some estimates say as much as 95 percent of Central European trafficking goes undetected.
Regional leaders sometimes paint the trafficking situation in dire terms, warning that organized crime threatens regional political and economic reforms. "There are lots of mafia networks interested in using our country as a transit route, and we are concerned about maintaining stability," said Nicolae Vacaroiu, Romania's prime minister.
American officials concur. "It destroys public confidence in a government's ability to protect the population's interests," says Jim Pledger, chief of international training at the FBI's training center in Quantico, Va.
Romania's experience shows how democracy may be undermined by organized crime. Mr. Vacaroiu cited organized crime as a key reason that earlier this year the Romanian secret police were given expanded powers to monitor the activities of citizens. Government critics, however, say the new powers are subject to abuse and could hinder opposition political activity.
Taking the crime battle abroad, instead of training Central European crime fighters in the United States, is the most cost-effective way to combat organized crime, FBI officials say. The US pays the Budapest academy's $3.5 million annual budget. In addition to the FBI, agents from other US government bodies - including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Drug Enforcement Agency - are involved in the training.
The academy is now running its second eight-week session. The current crop of students, who are scheduled to complete the program in early September, come from Hungary, Romania, and Latvia. Eventually the academy hopes to train crime fighters from every nation in the former Soviet bloc.
The academy also concentrates on detecting white-collar crimes - such as money laundering - and on ethics and public relations. Participants are on a projected fast-track to positions of authority. The academy aims to create a regional network of graduates who will be able to use the personal ties forged at the academy to bolster international crime-fighting efforts.