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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smugglers Exploit Russia's Eastern EU Border

APA Lithuanian border guard jeep lying in a ditch after being rammed by smugglers.
PAGEGIAI, Lithuania -- Shots are fired almost every night on the Nemunas River, as boats ply the narrow waterways under the cover of darkness, dodging the border patrol's searchlight. The murky river that snakes through wooded landscapes, creating a natural frontier separating the European Union from Russia, is the front line of Lithuania's fight to stem a multimillion-dollar trade in cigarettes smuggled in from the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Lithuania -- an EU member since May -- broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, but tensions simmer along the border because of the cheap, counterfeit copies of Marlboros, Camels and other brands that cross the river and flood markets from Austria to Norway's northern tip.

Armed with helicopters, automatic weapons and night-vision scopes, Lithuanian border guards try to find an invisible army of smugglers who use high-speed boats, diving suits and mobile phones to push their wares across.

"Things are getting worse here as prices go up in Lithuania," acknowledged Colonel Genadijus Kuznecovas, chief of the Pagegiai Frontier District for the Lithuanian Border Guard Service. "Smuggling's become even more profitable after Lithuania joined the EU."

Patrolling the 110-kilometer border that separates Lithuania from the Russian region of Kaliningrad is not easy.

"We will never beat them completely, but it's worth a try," said Major Antanas Albrektas, who navigated his four-wheel-drive vehicle along the flat banks of the Nemunas. "Lithuania loses millions of euros every year, and smuggled cigarettes are sold on every corner."

Albrektas claims he has detained dozens of smugglers who are willing to risk their own and others' lives. In December, he and two colleagues had to open fire at two Russians who were trying to smuggle 12,500 packs of cigarettes aboard a high-speed boat. The smugglers rammed into the border guards' boat, prompting Albrektas and his team to shoot out the smugglers' engine. The traffickers were arrested.

In the past months, no border guard has been killed. But on Dec. 1, several guards were injured when smugglers pushed their SUV off the road by hitting it from behind with a Land Cruiser. Three smugglers were later arrested and charged with assaulting officers.

To the Lithuanian and Russian gangs, it's worth the risk because huge money is at stake. So far this year, the Lithuanian border guard has seized more than 3 million packs of cigarettes along the country's borders with Russia and Belarus. That figure is only about 10 percent of the number smuggled into the country, according to unofficial tallies.

Mindaugas Kulbis / AP

A border guard officer showing cartons of cigarettes seized from Russian smugglers.

According to a survey by Vilnius-based tobacco company JPI Baltic, every third cigarette smoked in Lithuania came into the country illegally.

"That's what we took out of the river in the last two months," Kuznecovas said, walking through a huge warehouse packed floor to ceiling with muddy black boxes of cigarettes. "On the other side of the river, a pack of Russian-made St. George cigarettes costs about 18 U.S. cents. When they get here, the prices triple," he said.

Legally imported cigarettes go for about $1.30 per pack, but in a country where the average monthly wage is just $465, smuggled cigarettes are popular.

"Not everyone can afford to smoke those," Albrektas said, exhaling a cloud of blue-tinted smoke from his Parliament Lights, pointing out the official seal of importation on its back.

Cigarettes from Kaliningrad -- chiefly Russian-made or counterfeit cigarettes -- are typically floated to Lithuanian shores by swimmers wearing black diving suits and dragging caravans of waterproof crates.

Their accomplices are waiting on the opposite banks with trucks to take the load to secret warehouses in the small villages that line the river. From there, they are distributed nationwide.

Kuznecovas says the smugglers are wily and work hand-in-glove to avoid capture. But with more time, technology and money, he said the border guard can seize more.

"We cannot build a wall in the middle of the river, but we can put up surveillance cameras," he said. "All we need is a little more time and money to defend the border of the EU properly."