BUDAPEST — It doesn't match the Unabomber hunt, but it's a start.
A Czech and a Polish police officer were talking shop when the conversation turned to a recent spate of car thefts in their respective countries. The pair realized they'd stumbled on an international car-theft ring. They then launched their police departments' first joint investigation.
Their FBI instructors at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest must have been beaming. If their students have learned anything, it's that the tentacles of organized crime reach beyond borders. And for a year now, the battle has not been theirs to wage alone.
Their newfound allies, an American-led team of Western crime fighters, are lending their expertise.
The academy is the US government's first overseas training facility, and it's no altruistic venture. A growing portion of crime in the West - such as drug smuggling, money laundering, and car thefts - has been traced to Eastern Europe and has spawned an open exchange of information.
"Trouble on the far side of town is a plague on everyone's house," US Attorney General Janet Reno said April 22, while in the Hungarian capital to mark the academy's first anniversary. "As the world grows ever smaller the far side of town quickly becomes everybody's backyard."
The former Soviet bloc is a particularly troublesome neighborhood. Six years after the fall of European communism, organized crime is routing the region's once almighty police departments.
Under totalitarian rule, officers had free rein to terrorize the public into submission. Today, their loosened grip on society has ushered in an epoch of lawlessness. Open borders, rising unemployment, and declining living standards paved the way for traffickers of drugs, arms, prostitutes, even nuclear materials. And nascent financial systems have been fertile ground for high-tech schemes that bilk billions from businesses and public coffers.
Crime in Central and Eastern Europe has leapt more than one-third overall since 1990, threatening to undermine developing economies in countries like Russia and Ukraine. Police forces, lacking sufficient training and modern technology, have been no match for these increasingly sophisticated and violent networks. Many cops, demoralized by their meager pay and loss of prestige, succumb to corruption. So it's little surprise that they have turned to their cold-war rivals for help.
"The Americans have 80 years of experience fighting organized crime," says Tibor Balogh, head of the Budapest Police's drug-investigation unit. "We've had only five."
For several years, Central and Eastern Europeans have been invited to train at the FBI academy in Quantico, Va., but their home countries could afford to send only one or two per year. When FBI director Louis Freeh toured this region in mid-1994, Hungarian Police Commissioner Sandor Pinter broached the possibility of hosting an FBI training center.
The idea went over well in Washington. The US government committed $10 million for the academy until the year 2000, plus $2.5 million to renovate a dilapidated, red-brick police academy in suburban Budapest. The Hungarians contributed $500,000 to the renovation.
So far, the academy has graduated 132 officers from 10 countries during four eight-week courses. Students are outfitted in black sneakers, khakis and burgundy polo shirts stitched with the FBI logo. They sit in amphitheater-like classrooms and can don headsets for a simultaneous translation by interpreters.
Coursework is similar to what is offered at Quantico but condensed. The FBI flies in lecturers a week at a time from various US and Western European law-enforcement agencies. The Germans, for example, discuss nuclear smuggling; the Italians, organized crime; the British and Irish, community policing; the Canadians, media relations. The participating US agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Secret Service.
NOT all has gone smoothly, however. The FBI had to tinker with the curriculum early on because most students complained it was too rudimentary. Planners had anticipated low-level officers, but instead were sent the region's best and brightest, each with five-plus years experience.
And participants have griped that some discussions were irrelevant to the students.
"It was interesting to hear about the drug war in Colombia and problems with gangs like the Hell's Angels, but it was useless for us," says Hungarian police Maj. Tibor Padar, a graduate and now president of the academy's alumni association. "We live in Central Europe, and we need to know about the Russian mafia."
In this case, the academy responded quickly. The following week an FBI expert on Russian organized crime was flown in from Brussels to lecture.
Still other discussions leave students scratching their heads. The FBI shows how to follow the "paper trail" of documents left by check-forgery and credit-card scams. But in this part of the world most people continue to stash their cash at home. Only recently have some countries introduced bank cards and ATMs.
"We want to at least expose them to these crimes," said FBI Special Agent Harry Burton, an instructor who is normally stationed in the bureau's New Orleans office. "Then when the crimes come to their countries, the officers will recognize them like, 'Hah! I smell a rat.' "
The instructors have made their point. Graduates agree their minds have opened to global crime trends. Moreover, they've begun to create long-term strategies for countering crime. "Before we used to say 'Let's get drugs, let's get drugs,' and not focus on the men delivering the drugs," said Mr. Balogh, the Budapest drug expert. "Now we see that you can put out the fire, but the ultimate aim is to prevent them."
That task may become easier with a growing network of academy grads. Each course groups neighboring countries together - the current course combines Ukrainians, Belarussians and Hungarians - to reestablish ties. Bilateral agreements among Warsaw Pact nations dissolved along with communism, and police relations broke down completely. Today they vow to assist each other when they return to their jobs. A quick telephone call to a fellow academy alum, they say, sure beats a time-consuming request to Interpol.
"Now I know who my colleagues are on the other end of the telephone line, and that they'll respond as soon as they can," said a member of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's organized-crime unit in Kiev, who requested anonymity.
To combat the crime syndicates, though, requires more than neighborly relations. These officers must be armed with laws and extradition treaties. That infrastructure doesn't yet exist. As each formerly communist nation rebuilds its society, the legislative priority has been on economic life. Despite the explosion of mafias of all stripes, no country in the region has an antimob weapon resembling America's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).
Western police experts expect the public here to push for tougher laws only when the crimes become more sensational, like the antiterrorist laws enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing and the calls for strict gun control following the April 28 massacre of 35 people in Tasmania.
Until adequate laws are in place and police work is up to snuff, the FBI is here to stay. And Secretary of State Warren Christopher has suggested that Central America be the site for a new FBI facility.
Though the academy's founders are not yet claiming victory, they are growing more confident. "We'll have to live with [organized crime] forever," said Hungarian police commissioner Pinter. But with support from the academy, "we'll fight until our last breath to beat it back."