THE Baltic nations have become a magnet for some of the most dangerous organized crime groups in the former Soviet Union.
The main attraction for crime gangs is geography. The newly independent Baltic states are an ideal location for smuggling, directly in the trade path between Eastern and Western Europe, and the governments of the Baltic states and Russia do not have the resources to stop them or even to hire enough investigators to staff customs posts.
``Five years ago it was paradise here,'' says Toomas Sildam, an Estonian journalist who covers crime in Tallinn. ``Most of the deaths were domestic incidents. Now the mafia has spread everywhere.''
Interior ministers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania initialed agreements in early October to improve information-sharing between the countries' law enforcement authorities. Similar agreements with Russia and republics of the former Soviet Union have been in place since April 1992.
The mafia, or crime gangs, moved into the Baltic states in force in 1987-88, when Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policies allowed the Baltic independence movement to gain momentum.
Originally Russian-led, these gangs split along ethnic lines when the Baltic states gained independence in 1991. In Estonia, Azerbaijani gangs control the lucrative black-market currency trade. Russian gangs focus on car thefts, prostitution, and weapons. And Estonian gangs are battling other gangs for control of the highly profitable export of industrial metals from Russia, Mr. Sildam says. Competition between rival gangs for business is intense, and often leads to violence.
The numbers chalked up this year are chilling. The beautiful Estonian capital of Tallinn had the third-highest murder rate in the world in 1992, behind only Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. And murders are up 40 percent in the first eight months of 1993, says Ain Seppik, director of the Investigation Department of the Estonian Interior Ministry.
In Lithuania, more than 45,000 crimes have been reported in 1993, a 17 percent increase from last year. While overall crime figures in Estonia and Latvia are down slightly from last year, violent crimes are up in each country.
But what has grabbed the attention of both law enforcement officials and the public in the three Baltic countries was the Oct. 12 murder of Vitas Lingys, the deputy editor of the daily Respublika in neighboring Lithuania, who had led a campaign against organized crime. His death seems to signal a new era in crime.
``Earlier one could have seen that for the sake of personal security, one had to keep a distance from illegal goings-on,'' said Lithuanian Prosecutor General Arturas Paulauskas. ``This distance no longer exists. Today a journalist, tomorrow a prosecutor, then a member of parliament. This is a warning that we have become targets.''