Danube Fishermen Net Cash at Night Smuggling to Serbs

The smell of gasoline fills the air on the river as Romanians defy UN sanctions

THE signs of an economic boom are everywhere in this once-poor fishing village.

Cement mixers churn away next to the muddy track that serves as a high street. Everyone is building, turning modest fishermen's abodes into villas. Satellite dishes stand proud on the rooftops, and the ugly old Dacia cars, the only vehicles available during the regime of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, have been traded in for Alfa Romeos and BMWs.

The fishermen may still work the Danube River in their little boats, but they no longer catch fish. Instead, they bring home deutsche marks, earned by smuggling gasoline across this 60-mile stretch of river into Serbia, in violation of United Nations sanctions.

''Everyone has been doing it,'' says one woman whose garden is full of empty gasoline canisters. ''The embargo has completely changed our lives.''

While the villagers are making hay in the face of sanctions, there are other motivations. The villages are home to a large Serb minority, who see their trade as supporting their brothers. Others, like the ragged Gypsies on the highway to Timisoara, 60 miles to the east, carry soda bottles filled with gasoline. They are small-time smugglers, simply putting bread on the table.

Romanians return to smuggle

But the big money is in Moldova Veche and the other villages dotted along the Danube. Locals stand around on the street smoking Western cigarettes and drinking Coca Cola. The smell of gasoline is in the air. No one works. The nearby coal mine is badly understaffed because no one wants to toil there when more lucrative and easier work is available.

The rewards are so high that a number of Romanians who escaped to the West in the 1980s have returned to join in the benzina bizness, the gasoline business.

The smugglers, known as contrabandistas, wait until night to set off across the river. Their boats can hold as much as two tons of gasoline. The smugglers sell it to the Serbs at three times the Romanian price. A full load brings a profit of around $2,500 a trip, and many smugglers make a number of trips a night. The average Romanian earns about $100 a month.

''It started about a year and a half ago,'' says Marin Stefan, a fisherman and former member of the Coast Guard, the branch of the Romanian military that patrols the river. ''A senior Serbian government official was in Bucharest, and then we all got the word - everything opened up.''

But why is this blatant busting of UN sanctions not stopped?

UN Sanctions-Assisting Monitors (SAMs) are based just 60 miles down the river. Their mandate is to assist the Romanian government in upholding the sanctions. Kasimir Kruhl, head of the SAM mission in Romania, says local authorities have acted against the sanctions-busters.

''The Romanian government has stamped out smuggling on the Danube,'' he says. ''There is nothing going on now.'' In Pescari, another river town, ''they confiscated 1,500 boats. It will take more than a year for the smugglers to come back from this crackdown,'' he says.

After dark, a busy river

While locals confirm that recent actions by the authorities have slowed down business, there is still plenty happening on the river at night. Driving along the river road, one can see gas tankers and trucks waiting on the Serbian side. Trucks loaded with fuel still rumble through the Romanian countryside filling up boats that still cross the river.

A senior local official, who refused to be named for fear of reprisals from authorities and smugglers, criticizes the UN SAMs.

''They come here once a week and ask a few questions but don't really do anything,'' he says. ''They could give us concrete help with boats and personnel, but they don't.''

The official says a lack of resources lies behind the failure to wipe out the illegal traders. ''In Ceausescu's time, this border was tightly sealed. Few dared to try and escape across the river. But now we need more boats and more people to protect the coast.''

The smugglers are well organized and set off in large groups. The coast guards have only four speed boats to pursue the smugglers. Even those that are caught are only charged with attempted fraud and are released on bail or pay a small fine

Just 300 yards from the river lies the local coast guard camp run by the military. The SAMs have no mandate to intervene or arrest; it is the coast guards who have the responsibility for stopping and catching the smugglers.

But locals suggest that the coast guards collaborate with the smugglers. Last week the commander of the camp, a Major Mutuzac, was suspended and replaced by a new man from Bucharest.

''He made a lot of money from smuggling,'' Mr. Stefan says. ''He even bought a vineyard near Bucharest. Everyone knew what he was up to.''

Stefan says guards turn a blind eye in return for payoffs.

''My daughter gave up her job to move here and smuggle,'' he says. ''You can make a lot of money, but you also have to bribe a lot of people. She couldn't afford the bribes and went back to her job.''

Maj. Scrieciu Cornel, spokesman for the Moldova Veche coast guards, refused to be interviewed. But he did say that Major Mutuzac was suspended for ''internal organizational reasons.'' And he denied any smuggling was taking place.

''Nothing moves on the Danube,'' he said. When asked to explain the presence of scores of gasoline tankers in the area, he said with a smile, ''This is an industrial zone.''

Around the coast guard camp, civilians with briefcases arrive in sports cars and enter the compound to chat with officials. At the gate a group of smugglers is waiting for word on when they can go ''fishing.'' One man, known as ''Chief,'' emerges from the camp and tells the smugglers there will be ''fishing'' tonight, and he will be in touch.

Later, at the local police station, Chief is there again, standing at the entrance with the head of the police. A request for an interview with the police receives a blunt ''no,'' and Chief makes it clear it would be a good idea for the reporter to leave town immediately.

The smugglers defend their business with force. In March, a coast guard officer was set upon by a gang, beaten with an iron bar, and hospitalized for a week.

Smuggles face risks

The contrabandistas themselves risk dangers. Several, usually novices from outside the area who aren't familiar with the river, have drowned. The number of burned-out vehicles in the area illustrates the perils smugglers take traversing rough local roads in vehicles overloaded with fuel.

Locals say that no action from the UN or local authorities will stop the trade. Peace in the Balkans and the lifting of sanctions appears to be the only way to stop it.

''Even if the war stops, it will take over a decade for Serbia to be back to normal,'' says one smuggler, Gheorghe. ''And Romanian fuel prices will be cheaper [than in Serbia] for a long, long time.

''If it stops being profitable, well, I guess we will go back to fishing,'' he says with a grin before speeding off down the dirt track in his Chevrolet.

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