Germany becomes battleground in a gang war: A senior policeman explains to John Eisenhammer in Wiesbaden why his country has acquired the status of being a hub for organised crime in Europe

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IT COULD HAVE been an estate-agent's hard-sell. 'Ideal central location; prosperous area with good access; liberal local regulations.' But Hans-Ludwig Zachert is not in the business of purveying some Rhineside des res. He is stating, grim-faced, why Germany has acquired the dubious status as the hub for Europe's fastest growing industry - organised crime.

The 55-year-old head of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany's Federal Police Agency, knows what he is up against. 'It is public enemy number one,' he says. And he is not the only one furiously pulling at the alarm cord. 'Organised crime has reached frightening proportions,' Wolfgang Schauble warned recently. He is one of the most influential politicians in the governing Christian Democratic party. 'It is now threatening the foundations of our freedom and security far more than any extremism from the left or right.'

Rather than 'multi-cultural', Mr Zachert prefers the notion of the 'multi-criminal society' to describe Germany today. 'In the 400 serious cases of organised crime that we have dealt with in the past year, over half involved foreigners,' he says. The Turks run the drugs business; the Poles and Romanians dominate the car-theft sector; the Yugoslavs have made most serious German pimps redundant, while the Italians run the money-laundering.

Mr Zachert adds: 'God forbid that I should give the impression that only foreigners do this. Germans are involved everywhere too, though they have lost control of most of it. It is a truly international business.'

The effects of opening up to the vast, uncontrolled markets of the east can best be seen from the explosion in car theft: 63,000 cars were stolen in Germany in the first six months of this year; the same amount as in the whole of 1990. 'You walk around Warsaw, and the place is crawling with BMWs and Mercedes. But the Poles are supposed not to have money,' says Mr Zachert. It is not just cars. Some 10,000 young girls have been enticed, mostly from eastern Europe, into Germany, on the pretext they will get proper jobs. 'Instead they are forced, with unbelievable brutality, into prostitution,' he says.

The hallmark of organised crime, says Mr Zachert, is its professionalism, be it in the use of the latest technology, or the readiness to employ boundless brutality. Wars among the pimps or car gangs has brought a new dimension to criminal life in Germany. 'People are casually blown up or shot to pieces on the streets,' says Mr Zachert. In Frankfurt, over the past nine months, there have been nine murders within the Yugoslav gangs. In Berlin, the Russian mafia, the Tschetschen, are liquidating each other with similar alacrity.

Outside of the classic operating areas of organised crime such as drugs - the number of drug- related deaths this year has already reached a new record - Germany's non-existent laws against money-laundering and, by contrast, its extremely strict laws on waste disposal, offer lucrative business opportunities.

The recent uproar over the dumping of illegal waste in France by the 'rubbish mafia' highlighted the other expanding sector. The gangs, posing as recycling firms, can make money twice over on the same, often toxic, refuse. The first time is when a hospital, for example, pays them to take the waste away, ostensibly for recycling. Having mixed and mashed it up, the gang, posing as another firm, then sells it on, usually to Third World countries, as building material.

'This is a grotesque crime,' says Mr Zachert. 'There are houses somewhere out there being built with toxic materials.'

Particularly close contacts have been forged between the BKA and the Italian authorities. For the Mafia is increasingly using Germany not just as another area for business, but as an operational centre in its own right, a base for hit squads. The killers of the Sicilian anti-Mafia judge, Rosario Livatino, were dispatched from Germany, and later arrested there by the BKA.

The completion of open borders in the European Community in 1993 will make little difference for the gangs. 'They already behave as if frontiers do not exist,' says Mr Zachert. Along with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he has been one of the strongest exponents of a European police force so as to combat 'like with like'.

The present red-tape 'makes a joke of our best efforts'. Mr Zachert uses the example of a criminal making a getaway from Aachen, and travelling rapidly through nearby Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. 'Our policeman would have to consult his regulations all the time, because in one country he can travel for 10 kilometres (6 miles), in another for half an hour, and in another he cannot make an arrest,' he says. But Mr Zachert has few illusions about fast progress towards a Europol. 'Our British friends are especially reticent,' he says.

It is in Germany itself, however, that he feels some of the most urgent changes are needed. Electronic surveillance by the police is, for example, banned, unlike in most other Western European countries. Mr Zachert calls the regulations on police procedure in Germany a 'magna carta' for organised crime.

'I am not one of those shrill voices calling for ever-harsher measures whatever the issue,' he insists. 'But the politicians have to recognise that we have a problem here. The balance between liberal laws and the protection of the citizen has been upset.'

This leaves the police, he says, running breathlessly behind the gangs, and never catching up. Striving to sound as optimistic as possible, he says: 'We hope not to lose the battle.'

(Photograph omitted)