Berlin struggles to snuff out cigarette wars

After more than 40 deaths in Berlin's notorious cigarette wars, 16 members of the city's top Vietnamese mafia appeared yesterday in a bullet-proof courtroom, opening the biggest trial in post-war Germany against organised crime.

Hiding his face from the cameras, "Ngoc the Merciful" led his soldiers into the room. Mr Ngoc, whose real name is Le Duy Bao, was allegedly the leader of the eponymous Ngoc Thien gang, the terror of the Berlin underworld.

His men controlled three-quarters of the illicit cigarette trade worth 1.5bn German marks annually. Mr Ngoc and his cohorts, including his 16- year-old girlfriend who collapsed in court yesterday, are charged with nine counts of murder, extortion, kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons.

By the time Mr Ngoc, 26, and his closest aides were arrested in a raid last September, more than 40 Vietnamese had been ritually murdered in the internecine battle for Berlin.

The police were clueless. They were led to the gang's hide-out by a Vietnamese woman whom they had kidnapped.

Even with the boss behind bars the war continued, until most of the rest of the gang were wound up during a shootout in December with a rival group. About 30 of Mr Ngoc's alleged associates are still at liberty, but appear to have been silenced recently by their foes.

The origins of the conflict go back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Vietnamese students and guest workers in East Germany were left suddenly without a livelihood. Profiting initially from the low price of cigarettes in Eastern Europe, the Vietnamese set up a simple smuggling operation, and started to appear on Berlin's street corners flogging their wares.

By 1993 the cottage industry had grown into big business, sparking the first clashes among groups organised along regional lines. The Quang-Bihn gang from central Vietnam managed to rub out the leader of the North Vietnamese mafia. It was in response to this killing that Mr Ngoc allegedly set up his own outfit, reorganising the North Vietnamese into a potent military force.

Mr Ngoc's group proved unstoppable, taking more than 800 out of Berlin's 1,200 selling points. Each cigarette vendor had to pay up to DM14,000 (pounds 4,700) to the organisation for a street location protected by the mob. Those who did not pay up were beheaded.

The other groups called up reinforcements from the old country. Soon several armies were fighting it out. The death toll stood above 30 when Mr Ngoc made his biggest move in May last year, allegedly dispatching seven people, all suspected Quang-Bihn soldiers, to their deaths. The victims were found tied up with two bullets each in the head.

The Berlin police set up a special task force to fight the mobs, but their ensuing success owed more to gang rivalry than diligent detective work. Mr Ngoc and his people were shopped by their underworld enemies.

The trade is now believed to take place in flats in East Berlin's housing estates and there are signs the gangs are expanding to other cities in the east.

The police's task against the invisible enemy has become harder. All they know is that the Quang-Bihn gang are the new masters, and their soldiers have been spotted in Leipzig and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, smuggling is becoming a white-collar crime, employing sophisticated accounting tricks to evade the law. Only a small portion of the cigarettes, which sell for half their shop price, reach Berlin via the "ant-trade" - hidden in columns of cars crawling past the border points from Poland.

Most of the goods, arriving by ship from the US, are loaded onto lorries at bonded warehouses in Rotterdam. Posing as legitimate importers, the mobsters' agents avoid excise duty in the Netherlands. The cargo then goes directly to Berlin and vanishes. Or it is loaded onto boats heading for Lithuania, where it is reloaded onto a lorry, mysteriously avoiding Lithuanian tax. The lorry then goes to Poland where the cigarettes are packed into furniture bound for Germany. Even with the biggest gang behind bars, reports of the death of the illicit cigarette trade seem premature.