UK experts sent to new front line in war on mafia

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The Independent Online

For thousands of British visitors who pour in on budget flights every week, Prague is the new European city of culture. Classical concerts, Bohemian bars and sights including the 600-year-old Charles Bridgeattract more Britons as foreign visitors to the Czech capital than any other nationality except Germans and Italians.

For thousands of British visitors who pour in on budget flights every week, Prague is the new European city of culture. Classical concerts, Bohemian bars and sights including the 600-year-old Charles Bridgeattract more Britons as foreign visitors to the Czech capital than any other nationality except Germans and Italians.

But Prague has also become a magnet for organised crime from Russia, Albania, Ukraine and China. The mafia gangs are attempting to take advantage of the eastward expansion of the European Union to increase smuggling of drugs, weapons and prostitutes to Britain. The Czech Republic is expected to be admitted to the EU within two years.

According to the Czech interior ministry, international criminals in the country are "well organised and ... becoming more aggressive". One report states: "The leaders of criminal organisations will endeavour to infiltrate state structures with the objective of legalising their activities. They use various ways to manage this aim: corruption in all its forms, extortion, blackmailing, subsidising interest groups or individuals."

Two of Britain's most senior organised crime specialists have now been posted to the city to help co-ordinate the fight against the gangsters.

At his new office in the Czech Interior Ministry, Superintendent John Mottram said: "There was a vacuum left when the old authoritarian set-up collapsed that was quickly filled by criminal gangs who saw the opportunities, particularly when the new governments adopted policies of privatisation and business expansion."

The advance of the mafias represented a real threat to British interests, he said. "What has a direct impact on the UK is the smuggling of people into the sex trade where the destination is Western Europe or the UK. Then there is the smuggling of tobacco, cigarettes and of course drugs."

At the Ministry of Finance, one of Britain's foremost experts in the criminal trafficking of drugs is helping the Czechs to unravel the complex methods used to launder illicit profits. Tony White, former head of the drugs unit at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said the Chinese crime gangs – linked to people smuggling from the Czech Republic to Britain – could be using the food industry as a front.

He said: "There are lots and lots of Chinese restaurants here and the one thing they seem to have in common is that they are always empty. Nobody is supposed to be eating there. A lot of it is straightforward movement of money but equally it's probably providing some sort of cover for unlawful activities like drug smuggling or smuggling in human beings."

Supt Mottram and Mr White are at the vanguard of an unprecedented deployment of British law enforcement officers to Eastern Europe in an attempt to disrupt the organised crime gangs at source.

A web of British immigration and intelligence officers is also being set up across the Balkan states to combat the Turkish and Kosovan gangs who are smuggling thousands of migrants to the UK.

The nine immigration liaison officers will work with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to identify the gang leaders and their network of forgers, couriers, and safe houses throughout the region.

In Romania, which is an important staging post for the migration of people from Afghanistan – the most common nationality of asylum-seekers in Britain – Byron Davies of the UK's National Crime Squad is helping organise local police strategy against the mafias. Other British officers are tackling organised crime in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Lithuania.

At Ruzyne airport, near Prague, last week, a team of British immigration officials was checking every passenger attempting to board flights to Stansted airport. The unique British "consular" office was set up at the airport six months ago when the introduction of cheap flights between London and Prague precipitated a surge in asylum applications from Czech citizens. In a 10-day period last month 85 people were refused permission to board by the pre-entry team.

Since the overthrow of Communism, the sex industry has grown dramatically In the streets around the 12th century St Martin-in-the-Walls church in Prague's Nove Mesto (old town) last week, art nouveau architecture and designer stores could not disguise the activities of the many street prostitutes. Close to the German border, near the town of Teplice, other women worked the lucrative E55 highway. The expansion has coincided with the emergence of British-Czech paedophile rings. Britain is seeking the extradition from Prague of the former Radio 1 DJ Chris Denning, 60, who is wanted for questioning in connection with child abuse allegations.

Weapons smuggling is another concern. Supt Mottram said: "Czechoslovakia was always a very famous manufacturer of arms and explosives and there are an awful lot of firearms in this country."

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