Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Prague, Crime Is a Major CIS Export

PRAGUE - Gangs from the former Soviet Union are dominating a boom in organized crime in Prague, Czech police say.

The authorities estimate that around 3, 000 Ukrainians, Russians and various groups from the Caucasus are operating in the Czech capital.

Aside from the former Soviets, Vietnamese, Chinese and Bulgarian gangs also have an established presence.

"Now it looks as if there's a real battle for territory, with citizens from the former Yugoslavia trying to muscle in", said Josef Doucha, the head of a special intelligence unit to counter the growing presence of organized crime rings.

Most notoriety about increasing crime in the former Soviet bloc has been linked to Russia where the overall crime rate has nearly doubled in the last eight years. In the Czech Republic, however, the rate has risen even faster, more than tripling since the Communists left power and their pervasive security system broke up after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution".

The Yugoslavs traditionally control the drugs and weapons trades, Doucha said in an interview. Prostitution is the domain of the Russians. Fraud and extortion is handled by a mix of nationalities. Ukrainians are active in smuggling radioactive materials.

Most of these eventually find their way to Western Europe, where radioactive matter brings high prices in sought-after hard currency.

One increasingly profitable racket is blackmailing local businessmen by threatening violence and, in many cases, exposure of shady business practices.

"I would say that most of the blackmailed businessmen are scared of telling the police", Doucha said. "Perhaps it's not worth their while to draw police attention as their own activities might not be so clean".

Numerous businessmen pay the gangs a monthly protection fee, usually 30, 000 to 50, 000 Czech crowns ($1, 000 to $1, 675).

A recent article in the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes said the blackmail and extortion business was controlled by a Ukrainian organization whose leader runs the operation from Budapest.

One police officer said that organized criminals were increasingly using the proceeds from crime to set up legitimate front businesses which can serve to launder dirty money.

"Their business dealings are almost unfathomable - the police are powerless against them", said the officer, who did not wish to be named because he is working undercover to crack the gangs.

One month before Czechoslovakia split into two independent states at the end of 1992, federal police reported that the Italian Mafia had secretly signed a deal in Prague with underworld gangs from the former Soviet Union.

Police then said the idea was to protect new illicit trade and its routes through the post-communist countries of Central Europe by creating a lethal squad of killers from the ranks of agents previously employed by the KGB.

At a three-day conference in Warsaw at the end of March, Polish Senator Edward Wende told senior officials and policemen that Eastern Europe was counting on sharing the experience of Western police forces in dismantling new and traditional organized crime groups.

"The liquidation of Mafia structures is a condition for Central-Eastern Europe's successful shift to democracy", he said. "We simply do not have time to waste".

One of the reasons for the boom in crime, the authorities say, is a police force that has been shrinking steadily.

A special intelligence unit to counter the growing presence of crime rings began operating last year and was strengthened and reorganized in April. But it already seems outmanned and probably outgunned by the criminals it is fighting.

"We need more people", said unit chief Doucha. "Police salaries are not very high and the new private security firms, for example, can pay a policeman far more for his services than the Interior Ministry can".