Looser borders and more lenient penalties have created a haven for organized crime syndicates and international drug traffickers in Poland since the breakup of the Soviet bloc. The threat to the international community posed by these criminals has spurred United States officials to cooperate with Polish authorities in combating crime within Poland's borders.
One of the most significant steps toward working with the Polish police is the recent opening of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attach, or legat, office in Warsaw. The office is the newest of 30 FBI offices abroad, located on six continents in cities ranging from Bonn to Bangkok.
"People can commit crimes in Warsaw that have an impact on people in Chicago without ever setting foot in the States. Americans have to realize that we have an interest [in fighting crime internationally]. If not, we're creating havens for criminals to pick and choose where they're going to start operations from," says Steve Baczynski, a US Justice Department prosecutor in Warsaw who advises Polish police and legislators.
The problems of organized crime, drug smuggling, and money laundering were once virtually unknown in Eastern Europe. "In the post-cold-war era, Poland experienced rapid growth in organized crime - with criminal elements using new political and economic freedoms to their benefit, victimizing Poles, Americans, and other nationals," says Alan Ringgold, the FBI's deputy assistant director for international relations.
"There has been a recent dramatic growth in international crime, terrorism, and nuclear smuggling, and the FBI has been assigned responsibility for extraterritorial offenses involving Americans and property transcending international boundaries," says Mr. Ringgold.
Since Poland has become one of Europe's main drug-transit countries, Polish and American officials have identified drug trafficking as a key target. Traffickers use the country as a pipeline for everything from heroin produced in Afghanistan's Khyber Pass to Colombian cocaine - almost all of it bound for Western Europe and the US. "We're a good transit country because we're in the middle of Europe, we have good train lines and roads, open borders, and a liberal criminal code. Smugglers know we're open and take advantage of it," says Wieslawa Tkaczyk-Sztylkowska of Poland's Drug Affairs Bureau.
Poland has been part of Europe's largest heroin-smuggling route since 1990. Beginning in 1987, heroin destined for Western Europe and the US moved from the chaotic Afghan-Pakistani border through Pakistan to Iran and then Turkey. From there, the "Balkan route" moved drugs through Bulgaria and Romania to Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia and on to Italy, Austria, or Greece.
When the crisis in the former Yugoslavia erupted, smugglers began to look for alternative routes. According to the Interpol report on drug interdiction in Europe, smugglers have benefited from the freer movement of goods and capital through Eastern and Central Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Poland has quickly become part of a heavily traveled northern route moving heroin from Istanbul up through Eastern Europe on its way to almost any destination in Europe or the world.
The Cali cartel, based in Colombia, allegedly uses Poland as one of its major local cocaine smuggling hubs, and marijuana grown in Africa and Central Asia is also routed through the country.
In addition to the FBI operations, the US has taken several other steps to address the drug- smuggling problem in Poland, including inviting Polish police officers to the Drug Enforcement Agency's El Paso training center in Texas and donating $80,000 worth of night-vision gear, drug-testing kits, and search equipment.
Another cooperation program addresses problems in the Polish legal system that have hampered Polish and international efforts to curb drug smuggling and other international crimes. At the request of the Polish parliament, the US State Department stationed Mr. Baczynski, a veteran Justice Department prosecutor, in Warsaw as an adviser to Polish legislators. He is working to improve the Poland's criminal code.
"Transnational crime is going to continue to be a problem in the 21st century," Baczynski says. "In the US, someone running a continual criminal enterprise - a drug kingpin - can get 25 years to life. In Poland, for the same crime, the maximum penalty is 10 years, and you are virtually guaranteed to get off on parole in half that time."
In addition, Poland's drug laws - written in 1985 - still allow possession "for personal use," an as-yet-unspecified amount that makes prosecution of smugglers caught with drugs difficult. Baczynski's efforts contributed to the toughening of drug laws in a criminal code released in April, though to the dismay of Polish police, possession of small amounts of drugs remains legal.
Despite the efforts of the FBI and the Polish police, a decrease in drug crimes in Poland is not yet evident. Drug-related crimes rose 60 percent last year.
But many involved in the US-Polish cooperative effort are hopeful. "I think that these types of programs, trying to get the international community to talk to one another, are steps in the right direction," Baczynski says.