ACTING on a tip, Russian customs police in March surrounded a truck near the city of Vyborg on the Russian-Finnish border. The vehicle's invoice described the cargo as cans of "meat and potatoes" from Colombia, but upon opening the containers authorities discovered more than a ton of cocaine.
The drugs had a street value of about $200 million, officials say. The cocaine's likely final destination, they add, was Western Europe, since few people in Russia can afford the drug.
"Never before have the [Russian] security services intercepted such a huge load of drugs," said Viktor Cherkesov, chief of the Security Ministry's regional office.
The drug haul may have been the largest ever recorded in Russia, but it was hardly an isolated incident these days. Russia's free-market reforms have prompted a sharp escalation in crime to go along with the burst of entrepreneurial activity.
"Experience shows that when a society is shaken by great changes, it has an effect on the growth of crime," Interior Minister Viktor Yerin said at a news conference.
Tales of murder and mayhem are daily fare in the Russian press. A recent Tass news agency report told of masked gunmen armed with automatic weapons who stormed into the Moscow office of a Russian import-export company and murdered four employees.
Statistics paint a gloomy picture. According to the newspaper Izvestia, a record 2.76 million crimes were registered in Russia during 1992, a 27 percent increase over 1991. Murders were up 40 percent in 1992 over the year earlier period, while robbery was 80 percent higher last year than in 1991. There were 30,000 drug-related crimes in 1992, almost five times more than a decade ago, though still proportionately fewer than in the West. Also, about 1.5 million firearms were illegally purchased in 1992, th e Interior Ministry says.
Russian law-enforcement officials - long accustomed to working under an authoritarian system that kept a tight lid on crime - have been slow to adapt to new conditions. But lately they have started to crack down. In mid-February, at a special gathering of law-enforcement officials, Russian President Boris Yeltsin formally declared "war on crime."
"Crime has become problem No. 1," Mr. Yeltsin told the meeting. "Crime has acquired such a scale and character that it poses a great danger for individuals and for the entire Russian state."
While street crime is a concern, by far the biggest problem facing Russia is organized crime and corruption, top officials say. About 4,000 organized criminal groups were identified in Russia last year, and Yeltsin said 40 percent of private businessmen, and 60 percent of Russian companies overall, are corrupt.
On a regional government level, Russian Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov said, corruption is a problem because in many cases the mechanism for reform and privatization is entirely in the hands of officials who receive relatively meager salaries.
Corruption and criminal behavior also are rife in the military, according to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. About 3,000 officers, including two regional commanders, have been reprimanded for engaging in questionable business practices, and 46 generals and other officers are facing criminal charges, General Grachev said in a television address.
"Corruption in the organs of power and administration is literally corroding the state body of Russia from top to bottom," Yeltsin said at the anticrime summit.
Waging their fight against crime will be difficult, officials agree. The biggest problem is a lack of money. Russia's government will be hard pressed to finance anticrime programs, given the nation's desperate economic condition.
Another big obstacle, Mr. Stepankov said at a news conference, is an outdated criminal code that last underwent a major revision in 1961 when the Communist Party was in firm control. In the current criminal code, for instance, bribery is ill-defined, Mr. Stepankov complained. Experts are working to revise the code.
TO combat street crime, the Interior Ministry plans to bring police ranks up to full strength, Mr. Yerin said. In Moscow, the interior minister pointed out, the police force is under strength by 8,000 agents.
Already, the Interior Ministry has introduced joint street patrols involving police and Army soldiers. A similar move two years ago was widely criticized as a step toward the reintroduction of the totalitarian system. But today, almost 80 percent of Muscovites polled favored joint patrols, the Interfax news agency said.
In addition, elite Interior Ministry troops have begun training for operations targeted at organized crime, according to Tass. "If we don't take decisive measures now, we'll arrive at a point at which the government will become ineffectual and the mafia will become the real power," Yerin said.
Meanwhile, President Yeltsin has authorized the formation of an Interdepartmental Commission whose chief task will be to uncover government corruption. The commission, which is subordinate to the Russian Security Council headed by Yuri Skokov, will have broad powers to investigate any official under suspicion of bribery.
Already there have been some high-profile arrests. Vladimir Panskov, first deputy chief of Russia's taxation service, was taken into custody in late February on bribe-taking charges, Tass said. Officials say tax evasion is costing the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.
But law-enforcement officials stress that the battle against crime is only beginning and will be widened in coming months.
"There have been results, but we aren't satisfied. We've only uncovered the tip of the iceberg," Stepankov said. "Measures taken by law-enforcement agencies aren't adequate to meet the current level of organized crime."
Talk about expanding the activity of law-enforcement agencies is unsettling to some legal experts, who worry about the possibility of officials' using the "war on crime" for their own political ends. Some authorities are portraying crime as a more serious problem than it really is, said Sergei Pashin, chief of the Judicial Reforms Department of the State Legal Agency. While the situation has worsened, he added, it's still not as bad as in a major American city, such as New York.
PERHAPS the greatest danger to Russia's nascent democratic institutions comes from the Interdepartmental Commission, some political observers say. The commission's ability to investigate government officials without strong oversight makes it susceptible to political manipulation, warned Izvestia political analyst Mikhail Berger.
"As a result of such a practice, there may well appear so-called `black dossiers' that often serve as a weapon in political struggles," Mr. Berger wrote recently. "All this may sharply increase the political influence and level of real power of the Security Council."
Some legal experts argue that authorities are missing the mark in their war on crime. Strengthening law enforcement and introducing tougher laws won't solve the problem, they say. The situation will improve, they add, only when the population begins to respect the law.
"What matters is not so much the law, but honoring the law ... and its mandatory character for all citizens," wrote legal specialist Anatoly Volobuyev in Izvestia.
"However, this country has never had, and doesn't now have such a thing as uniform observance of the law. For authorities there was always such a thing as `the unwritten law,' and that makes a great difference."