It gives globalization a whole new meaning.
A team of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation began working side by side with Hungarian police in Budapest this past week. Their main mission: to go after Russian mafia gangs who are using this eastern European capital as a gateway to the West.
To get at the roots of international criminal operations, American G-men are now fanning out across the globe. Bureau agents are working on assignments in 44 countries, mainly as legal attachs in US embassies. But the Budapest team takes the commitment to a new level and indicates the enormity of the challenge. Never before has the FBI set up a permanent operation to work on a variety of cases with a foreign police force.
"This is the first time the FBI has operated in this parallel way," says US Ambassador Peter Tufo. "Basically, they'll be doing the same job in a different place - identifying criminal activity, investigating it, going after criminals, and prosecuting them."
The National Unity Task Force, in which four FBI agents work alongside eight Hungarian police officers using the agency's database and crime-fighting techniques, will act as a model for similar task forces in a new, globalized FBI offensive, officials say.
The task force has the potential for "tremendous returns both to Hungary and the United States and to many, many other countries that are affected by organized crime," FBI Director Louis Freeh said Wednesday, during a visit to Budapest.
It's main target will be Russian and Ukranian organized-crime groups that have flourished since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, building a network of international operations ranging from money laundering and prostitution to drugs, arms, and people smuggling.
Building on 'Quantico East'
The new FBI presence builds on a close relationship that began in 1995 with the US-funded International Law Enforcement Agency (ILEA) in Budapest. Known as "Quantico East," it is the only FBI-directed law-enforcement academy outside the US, and has trained personnel from across the former Communist bloc and Central Asia.
FBI Director Freeh, in Hungary this week to celebrate the ILEA's fifth anniversary, also met with a group of Eastern European interior ministers to discuss organized crime. He later traveled to Prague, the Czech Republic's capital, where a similar task force is said to be in the works.
Newspaper reports have said an operation in Poland is also being considered, while ILEA-type training institutes are being planned in countries as disparate as Thailand and Botswana.
The FBI's expanding role comes as many East European police forces, hampered by porous borders, patchy legislation, and in many cases, bribable public officials and officers have proven ineffective against well-financed gangs.
In the past decade, Hungarian police have yet to arrest a single high-ranking crime boss, experts note. This, despite knowledge of several active crime groups and a two-year turf war of bombings and assassinations that culminated in a July 1998 car-bomb attack that killed a top police informant and three bystanders in a crowded Budapest tourist district.
"Of course, some midlevel people have been sentenced, but there has been no breakthrough, no success," says Istvn Szikinger, a former police instructor and prominent expert on East European police corruption.
Mr. Szikinger says the problem in Hungary has spiraled in recent years because police have little civilian oversight and because salaries - $350 per month on average - have been dwarfed by safer jobs in the private sector.
The reputation of police officers, meanwhile, is a subject of popular ridicule.
One recent jest making the rounds: A daughter asks her father if he wants to hear the latest joke about police. "Now, dear," he gently chides, "you know that I am a policeman."
"Don't worry, I promise to speak real slow," she replies.
Police, in their defense, say their hands have been tied by a criminal code that did not even have a definition of money laundering until 1994, when the first post-Communist code was adopted. The use of undercover agents was not legalized until 1998.
Cops can't cope
"The tax office, the Hungarian police, and many other authorities were simply caught unprepared for a massive wave of criminality following the political changes," says Lt. Col. Lszl Gyllai, deputy director of the organized-crime directorate with the Hungarian National Police, which oversees the new task force.
Multiple wars as its southern neighbor, Yugoslavia, broke apart did not help, Colonel Gyllai says. The conflicts pushed the "Balkan route" of drug smuggling northward and created a robust trade in contraband weapons.
Officials will not discuss the task force's specific cases, but Russian suspects at the center of US investigations into the laundering of at least $10 billion through the Bank of New York - perhaps the largest money-laundering scheme ever uncovered in the US - are likely candidates.
At the center of that investigation is Russian and Israeli citizen Semyon Mogilevich, who was named as the leader of one of 25 so-called "Eurasian" organized-crime groups operating in the US at a 1996 Senate hearing.
Mr. Mogilevich, whose wife is Hungarian, lived in Budapest for much of the 1990s. He is also at the center of investigations into Newtown, Penn.-based YBM Magnex. US federal agents raided the firm in 1998, saying it may have been a money-laundering operation.
Mogilevich reportedly moved back to Russia after Hungarian tax authorities raided one of his Budapest firms, Cruman Magnetics, last year.
He told a Russian newspaper he is "just an average businessman" and claimed that the FBI pressured Hungarian authorities to force him to leave the country.
Global problem, global solution
Hungarian police, meanwhile, say they are eager to deepen their cooperation with the FBI.
"I'm really eager to try out some of the FBI's solutions," says Gyllai.
"I'm not saying this critically, but there's not a single police force in the world that is prepared to take up this fight alone. Until police forces coordinate all over the world, we won't be able to restrict this type of crime."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society