Organized Crime Sets Up Shop At the Crossroads of Europe
Hungary sees spread of violence; some blame the West
BUDAPEST — On a recent cool, drizzly evening, all was quiet near the Danube riverfront. And that was just fine with one Budapest cop.
He and his partner roamed the ritzy shopping district, moonlighting as security guards to supplement their meager, $180-per-month salaries.
Tourists milled about, oblivious to the fact that the past several weeks have seen one mafia kingpin gunned down in broad daylight and a half-dozen hand grenade attacks scattered around the city.
"I avoid the bad places in town," says the beat cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "For such little pay, I won't run around when the gunshots fly."
He has the public's sympathy.
Unfettered capitalism and eroded respect for law enforcement is fueling a street-level brand of terrorism in Hungary's once-peaceful neighborhoods. While still a far cry from Moscow's lawlessness, Budapest - by virtue of sitting at an East-West crossroads - has become a battleground for a criminal underworld led by Russians, Ukrainians, Serbia's ethnic Albanians, and Hungarians. And they easily consolidate their operations as a flustered police force responds with visible, but ineffectual, force.
It's not surprising that so many Hungarians wax nostalgic about the calm of communism. Police were one of the great symbols of the totalitarian regime: Running afoul of society's rules might prompt a beating, then short shrift in court.
Crime in communist Hungary consisted mainly of sporadic burglary or theft, and the occasional domestic homicide. But in the mid-1970s, Hungary became a transit point for smuggling arms from Yugoslavia - a major weapons producer - to West Germany.
Hungarian and Polish burglary rings eventually joined forces and smuggled their loot to the West via similar routes, says Geza Katona, a Hungarian crime researcher.
But communism's demise and mass border openings unleashed a torrent of organized crime. Nowadays, not only do these "mafias" dabble in traditional rackets such as drugs, prostitution, gambling, and extortion, but they have also earned hundreds of millions of dollars from smuggling heating oil, stolen cars, and even nuclear materials. In addition, the war in the former Yugoslavia ensured the continuation of a brisk arms trade.
Today the public is gradually becoming inured to sudden bursts of violence. Crime is up by one-third in Central and Eastern Europe, and many folks are fingering democracy as the culprit.
"These things didn't come through the Iron Curtain; we saw it only in films from the West," says Gizella, an elderly Hungarian. "But now we're getting a taste of it. Everything is free, everything is allowed, and some people are taking advantage of it."
Russians and Ukrainians seem to have stepped up their efforts at greater inroads on the local scene. A spate of explosions - with Yugoslav-made hand grenades believed to be stolen from the Hungarian Army - have aimed to intimidate rivals and have not injured civilians.
But it culminated Nov. 1 with the midday, gangland execution of reputed Hungarian mob boss Jozsef Prisztas as he was getting into his car.
The police have responded with a well-publicized series of raids on trendy night spots and traffic checks on Budapest thoroughfares. Scanning identification documents of mostly foreigners, police have questioned thousands, detained hundreds, and arrested several dozen wanted criminals. But they've been only "small fish," says leading criminologist Istvan Szikinger, and still no arrest of a shooting suspect.
The heavy-handed approach, Mr. Szikinger says, is a macho communist-era holdover where the police "are used as tools, not as brains."
The government, careful not to criticize the powerful 31,000-member police force, has been reluctant to revamp its structure and leadership. Meanwhile, corruption is said to be rampant among younger officers, and human-rights observers accuse police of using excessive force on suspects to coerce confessions.
"They show strength without being strong and are not sensitive to personal freedoms," Szikinger says. "They know who the criminals are, but are unable to prove it by using their powers to police rationally and effectively."
The overriding emphasis, he contends, is on prosecution, not prevention. Police officials concede they've been overwhelmed by the new genre of criminal methods, including murder for hire, kidnapping, and the use of explosives. A convincing counterattack, they say, is impossible without improved pay, training, equipment, and legislation.
"We're overloaded and always one step behind," says Budapest Police Capt. Geza Jakab. "We have no time to think ahead." Captain Jakab says flooding the streets with more officers to catch criminals is one way to slow Hungary's spiral into crime.
How effectively that method works on seasoned, fearless crime syndicates is another question. Regardless, there is resignation among the police and public that mafia activity is here to stay. And while the elderly stay off the streets at night, the younger generation is accepting violence as part of the new Hungary.
"If they don't interfere in my life and just kill each other," says a young woman named Rita, "Who cares?"