After the shooting in Mukachevo big smugglers went into hiding. The Focus went to Transcarpathia to understand how this illegal business works, and what role Ukrainian border guards play in it
One kilometer from the office of the Chop border guard detachment, in the neighbourhood, which in Uzhgorod is called Halahury, there is a nice one-storey house at Zaporizka st., 57. Now it looks uninhabited, although a few years ago not only Ukraine, but also neighboring Slovakia was buzzing about it. The manor was the center of a large-scale smuggling from the territory of which a huge tunnel was dug under the Ukrainian-Slovak border. It was built according to all the rules of engineering sciences: special electric trolleys were running in a 90 cm wide collector and the rail length was about 700 m. In 2012, Slovak border guards discovered the tunnel, and now, after the smuggling showdown in Mukachevo, it came to the fore again. At the meeting of the Parliamentary special commission to investigate the incident it was revealed that only three people were sentenced for the involvement with the "hole into Europe". And all of them received suspended sentences.
– How could three people organize the construction and operation of a 700-meter-long tunnel to another country?! – Anton Gerashchenko, the Adviser to the Minister of the Internal Affairs asks. – Were the three of them, like the Count of Monte Cristo, digging the 700-meter-long tunnel for ten years, welding the rails, laying the wiring, loading trolleys and so on all by themselves? Because each builder, welder, electrician is a member of an organized criminal group that deliberately violated the law. Who was the commissioner and the beneficiary of the tunnel on both sides of the border?
In 2012, a tunnel in length of 700 m and a diameter of about one meter was discovered under the Ukrainian-Slovak border
The representative of the Security Service of Ukraine, who was present at the commission meeting, did not answer any one of these questions.
However, it is still unknown how long the tunnel was operating and how much contraband was smuggled through it. At the trial, they only found out that the site, where the entrance to the tunnel was dug, belonged to a resident of the village of Rakovo Yulia Stihur, and she died long time ago. Two brothers, who would come there to feed the dogs, were accused of the crime.
– Outside, there was nothing suspicious here – Major Vitaly Grigoriev, who has been working at the Chop border guard detachment for seven years, says, looking at the house. – There was an ordinary construction, trucks were taking out debris and earth.
But the Major seems disingenuous. In Uzhgorod, everybody says that the tunnel was operating with the consent of the Security Service of Ukraine, and most of the profits would go to Kyiv. This is also evidenced by the fact that the land in Halahury adjacent to the border was granted by Uzhgorod City Council to the Security Service of Ukraine back in 2004. So the smugglers’ neighbors were mostly employees of special services. And the investigation into the "construction of the century" was carried out by the Security Service of Ukraine, so it is not surprising that the names of its main instigators were never found out.
Illegal migrants, heroin, cigarettes
Transcarpathia is the only region in Ukraine, which borders with four countries: Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. There are two border guard detachments there: Mukachevo and Chop. The bulk of the work is the fight against drug trafficking, illegal migrants and cigarettes smuggling. People are trafficked mainly from Ukraine to the EU, and the drugs run in both directions: to Europe – heroin, hashish, opium, to Ukraine – mostly synthetic stimulants, like amphetamines and ecstasy. But most often, they catch cigarettes here – they bring smugglers the highest profit.
The main parameter which characterizes the work of Ukrainian border guards is the amount of contraband detained already on the other side of the border, that is, in the neighboring state. According to Oleh Slobodian, the Assistant Head of the State Border Guard Service, during the last year, our "green berets" deliberately understated the amount of smuggled goods from Ukraine detained by Slovak, Hungarian, Polish and Romanian border guards.
The situation changed only after the showdown in Mukachevo. All five border guard detachments of the Western Regional Department of the State Border Guard Service suddenly set an absolute record: in July alone they confiscated more than 1,400,000 packs of cigarettes, while in the previous six months – just 679,000 packs.The work on the other side of the border also intensified. Hungary Prosecutor’s Office arrested 18 employees of its customs office and three civilians involved in the smuggling of Ukrainian cigarettes.
Cigarettes and vodka – only for personal use
Border guard officers carefully examine from their Range Rover the queue at the checkpoint "Uzhgorod – Vysne Nemecke." Most cars are with Slovak transit license plates, although many of them are driven by Transcarpathians. Most of them are residents of the 50-kilometer border zone, which includes Uzhgorod.
– Of all these cars, that old Volkswagen is the most suitable for smuggling, – Major Vitaly Grigoriev evaluates the situation. – Moderns cars are hard to be "packed" with cigarettes. Typically, there are very few recesses in them. But there are enough in ones like this Volkswagen: you can hide a hundred packs in the bumper alone. In addition, any car, in which a cache is found, is subject to forfeiture. Nobody would risk with an expensive car. And an old "rattletrap" is not going to be missed.
Every year, 5 to 10 billion cigarettes are smuggled from Ukraine
The Volkswagen is driven by an employee of Uzhgorod Regional Hospital. She flatly refuses to say her name. She says that she is not carrying anything for sale, everything is only for personal use.
– I smoke, and while waiting in this damn queue, I can smoke a whole pack – the woman says. – After the euro rate rose, it has become unprofitable to go shopping to Slovakia. – But food there is of a better quality. I like Slovak flour, sometimes I buy some clothes in supermarkets there.
The Volkswagen safely escapes in-depth inspection and hides on the Slovak side.
Winston goes to heaven
One of the most popular ways of smuggling is smuggling by air. Not long ago, gliders were used for this purpose in Transcarpathia. However, catching criminals in the act is no easy task. Locals still remember how in 2013, current commander of the Transcarpathian 1st Battalion of the "Right Sector" Roman Stojko, who was involved in the shootout in Mukachevo, and now is on the run, flew by glider from Slovakia. Border guards detained him immediately, after which Stojko said that he was just returning from night fishing. But in Transcarpathia even children know that gliders are used to carry cigarettes across the border.
Yet the risk of being caught forces smugglers to look for new, safer ways to deliver illegal goods. Instead of gliders, they now often use drones. Drones are now imported to Ukraine free of duty – ostensibly to be used in the ATO area. However, in Transcarpathia they have different purpose: each drone can carry 10-15 cartons of cigarettes. Since the beginning of the year, officers of the Chop border guard detachment have recorded 14 flights of drones and hang-gliders – half of all cases in the Western Regional Department. And not long ago, near the crossing point "Uzhgorod – Vysne Nemecke", border guards detained four Ukrainians transporting a drone control unit: hardware, laptop, navigator with GPS. However, they did not have drone itself, apparently it had already flown to Slovakia. Border guards seized the equipment, but its owners were released, because carrying drone control devices is not a criminal offense.
While the majority of Ukrainian border guards rely on acute hearing and sharp eye, Slovaks and Hungarians are intercepting drones with special stations jamming radio waves of smuggling aircrafts. In Ukraine, borders guards do not have such stations. So, at the moment, drones are the most effective means of contraband.
598 illegal immigrants were detained by border guards of the Western Regional Department of State Border Guard Service during six months of 2015
Last year, according to the World Customs Organization, Ukraine ranked second in the world (after Tunisia) by the number of seized cigarettes – smuggled or produced illegally. This is an extremely profitable business. A truck with contraband tobacco, which arrived from Ukraine to Italy, brings no less than 470 thousand euro of net profit on the black market.
Ukrainian legislation also contributes to illegal export of cigarettes to the EU. Demid Pashynny, the deputy head of the department of risk analysis and combating customs offenses of the Transcarpathian customs office, says that since 2012, when the new Customs Code was adopted, the word "smuggling" is no longer applicable to cigarettes. And if anyone carries more than the allowed quantity, he or she is only a violator of customs rules. Criminal responsibility is not provided. A person faces only confiscation of illicit goods and a fine equal to 100% of the goods. If they find that a person tried to make a cache, say, in a car, this car will also be confiscated.
Looking for contraband
– Want some cheap goods from Europe?
In addition to architectural and historical monuments, guests in Transcarpathia will be offered a bargain purchase. Typically, points of sale are hidden in markets and warehouse blocks. They sell everything here – from kitchenware and household products to expensive alcohol, and usually such goods are 2-3 times cheaper than in supermarkets.
A year ago, a corresponding of the Focus visited one of the outlets in Svalyava, on the market near the resort "Sonyachne Zakarpattya". The kiosk in area of a few square meters actually accommodated a whole supermarket. Sausages, venison, dishes, cleaning supplies, coffee, pasta, all sorts of goodies, luxury alcohol and so on. Almost everything was from Europe and several times cheaper than in supermarkets.
To check whether the war against illegal trade declared by the authorities scared off Transcarpathians contraband sellers, I decided to pay a visit to the miracle store.
I was fortunate. The outlet was working. The range remained virtually the same, with one exception – whiskey, brandy, vodka and other alcohol disappeared from the counter.
– I would like "Jack Daniels" – I whispered to the shop assistant.
She made a long pause and then answered:
– No, we do not sell that – although she probably meant: "Better to be safe."
After the audit I made the following conclusion. The flow of contraband at least from the other side of the border has not stopped. And the protection of contraband distributors by the police has not disappeared anywhere.
Changes in legislation will hardly stop the flow of contraband. After the shooting in Mukachevo, almost the entire management team in the Transcarpathian border guard detachments has been replaced, and the total number of detained illegal goods has increased significantly. But the average salary of border guards remained the same – 2,5-3 thousand hryvnia – this is the main drive to cover smuggling. Although large dealers now lay low, soon they probably will start to build bridges with the new officials in green berets.