FBI targets East Europe's mafia bosses

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The Independent Online
THE FBI has set up a task force in eastern Europe to fight the international mafias that threaten to destabilise post-Communist governments, and to prevent the gangs spreading west to the European Union.

Based in Budapest, Hungary, the international force will investigate alleged corruption in the financial networks run by former Communist party officials, which are suspected of laundering the vast profits criminals make from drug smuggling and other rackets.

"The biggest threat to the emerging democracies is money-laundering, and the black markets there. If those economies start failing it could lead to a non-democratic government which would not be friendly to the West," said one FBI official.

The task force, composed of dozens of FBI and other law enforcement agents, will have an initial funding of several hundred thousand dollars, but will reach a "multi-million dollar commitment", said Peter Tufo, US ambassador to Hungary. "This is a joint strike force which is intended to assist in the prosecution and trial of organised crime groups."

Five East European countries - Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia - are front-runners forEuropean Union membership, early in the next millennium.

All five countries contain organised crime gangs linked to former Soviet states. The nightmare scenario for the West is that the five's accession to the EU will provide the Russian mafia with a foothold in the EU's economy.

"There have been links between crime and government corruption. Organised crime is growing and it is difficult to see anything other than more growth. These governments need to tackle it, and tackle it hard," said one Western official.

In Hungary, officials have been implicated in a series of scandals concerning subsidised heating oil, and questionable financial practices at several national banks including Postabank, which posted a 13 billion forints (pounds 37m) loss last year and has now been taken over by the government.

The difficulties of persuading governments to tackle organised crime when some of their own officials may be implicated was highlighted at the launch of the FBI taskforce.

Mr Tufo was reported as saying: "Organised crime has penetrated the Hungarian government to some extent." ButHungarian government officials denied the claim.

The Hungarian capital is home to more than a dozen rival mafias, which run lucrative networks in drugs and weapon smuggling, prostitution, money- laundering and the illegal movement of refugees out of the developing world and into the West.

US officials fear that organised crime networks which use Budapest and other eastern European capitals as their base are also penetrating the United States economy.

The poorly paid and equipped police of eastern Europe are no match for thecriminals, who model their organisations on multinational corporations. Many of their crimes, such as the white-slave sex trade and money laundering, were unknown underCommunism.