The numbers say that fewer children are skipping school to help with the illegal trade.by Linas Jegelevicius 29 May 2012
PAGEGIAI, Lithuania | Just a couple of years ago, it was not unusual for groups of boys at the high school in Lumpenai, a few kilometers from the Lithuanian-Russian border, to run out of class as the teacher looked on helplessly.
The command usually came as an SMS to a boy as young as 15, using a pre-paid, easily disposable phone card, and even the teachers would know the content: the cargo is about to cross the border and “schuchers and cuckoos” – snitches and lookouts in Lithuanian prison jargon – are needed. The boy would jump up and hurry out, followed by a several others lower down in the gang hierarchy. Some would monitor the movements of border guards, others try to distract officers’ attention from the real business: smuggling cigarettes across the river from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
“In border schools, events like this in class were almost a daily occurrence. When brawls broke out among rival schoolboy gangs, teachers would shut up and simply walk out of the classroom fearing for their life,” said Rima Austriene, principal of Lumpenai’s Enzis Jagomastas secondary school.
Sometimes, cash-strapped teachers would join their gangster pupils to pick up a little spending money.
The days of teenage smugglers are past, the Lithuanian Border Guard Service insists. In just three years, with the EU pumping nearly 5 million euros into patrolling the 678-kilometer (420-mile) length of Lithuania’s border with Belarus and the 265-kilometer (165-mile) border with Kaliningrad, arrests of teen smugglers have dropped drastically in the Pagegiai district alone, where Lumpenai is located, from 144 in 2008 to 15 in 2011.
Giedrius Misutis, spokesman for the Border Guard Service, attributed the drop to a major strengthening of border defenses, including the acquisition of radar and thermal sensors, along with a beefed-up corps of guards.
But former border guard Arunas Jokubauskas cautioned that the official figures may not tell the whole story.
“Until 2010, when cracking down on contraband gangs was reinforced with this technology, the border was very porous,” Jokubauskas said. “So the actual numbers could be 10 times bigger than these.” He said smugglers have become smarter at outwitting the stepped-up defenses, including using divers to bring goods under the waters of the Nemunas River. “These ‘submariners’ pose a challenge even to the sophisticated border guard systems,” he said.
WHEN SMUGGLERS WERE HEROES
Teen smuggling may no longer be a critical problem in the border schools, but contraband remains a topic of daily discussion in class – and a point of national pride. Lithuanian children are taught all about the smugglers of the 19th century, who risked exile or death to bring in books under the noses of Russian soldiers. And not just any books: This contraband was printed material in Lithuanian, using the Latin alphabet that Tsar Alexander II banned in 1864, during the uprising centered on what today is Polish and Lithuanian territory.
Over four decades, until the ban on the Latin alphabet was lifted in 1904, smugglers brought countless Lithuanian books into Russian-occupied Lithuanian territory from nearby German-ruled Konigsberg, now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
Recently eighth- and ninth-graders from Lumpenai played smugglers and tsarist soldiers in a re-enactment of those 19th-century events.
“There is a huge difference between the staged smuggling and the real-life chasing of a scrawny, big-eyed 16-year-old with a box of illegal cigarettes from Russia,” said Rimantas Tyminskis, commander of the State Border Guard’s Pagegiai division.
Encouraged by the recent successes against smugglers, principals in some border schools have mulled inviting former schuchers to speak to their students.
But the principal of Algimantas Mockus secondary school in Pagegiai, Vaclovas Navickas, doesn’t approve.
“Personally, I don’t think this is a good idea. Those kids [former schuchers] should not be reminded of it, as most of them need to do some healing,” he said.
Mindaugas, a former smugglers’ helper who spoke on condition that his last name not be used, agrees. “No, I really don’t want to go back to it,” he said. “Even in my memories. Now I just need some inner solace and clarity as to what the future holds for me.”
A beefy 19-year-old, Mindaugas, who lives in a neaby town, said he worked for local smugglers for a year a half until border guards nabbed him in 2010.
“Like a third of my male classmates, I used to work for local contraband ringleaders as a lookout. I’d be stationed in a tree or on a roof, where my job was to be on the lookout for police or border guards’ cars, using night vision binoculars. As soon as I saw a law enforcement vehicle approaching I’d warn the ringleaders,” Mindaugas said. He agrees that the number of teens involved has dropped recently.
He said he could earn as much as 100 litas, the equivalent of 30 euros, for night lookout shifts lasting up to four hours.
“To make nearly 400 euros a month so easily was not a bad thing for a 16-year-old,” he said, noting that it helped prop up his family’s sagging finances. “My parents silently disapproved of my activity, but they never insisted I give it up. For one reason: with no jobs in that little town, they relied on me. Otherwise they would have had to get involved in contraband themselves. A lot of entire families would do that,” he said.
A Pagegiai community activist, who agreed to speak anonymously about an activity that many still rely on, said that despite the crackdown on smuggling, contraband cigarette vendors have not been affected in the Pagegiai bazaar. “If you were to look around in the bazaar, it all looks like it did three or five years ago, with all those old and very young vendors soliciting passers-by,” he said.
Though contraband goods are not displayed openly in the market, a buyer need only ask about “cheaper cigarettes” to be directed to an idle elderly person or youngster at a customer-less stall. Smugglers tend to recruit retirees and teenagers as vendors because they get lighter sentences, when they are prosecuted at all. After a searching look to assess whether the buyer is an undercover cop, the seller will take him or her to a nearby vegetable stall or to a car in a nearby parking lot where the deal will take place.
Lithuania’s gray economy is among the largest in the European Union, worth an estimated 8.6 billion euros ($11 billion), or 30 percent of the country’s GDP, according to a 2011 study by the A.T. Kearney consultancy and an economist at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria. It is fed by persistent high unemployment and lower prices and taxes on goods across the borders.
An EU leader in contraband cigarette shipments, Lithuania is an entry point for organized groups in Kaliningrad, which Europol calls a “hotspot for cigarette smuggling,” into the EU. According to the Lithuanian Customs Department, nearly 20 million euros’ worth of goods was smuggled into the country in 2011, nearly all of it cigarettes.
Though official border crossings are well-guarded, smugglers manage to sneak the goods into the EU using false car trunks or by stuffing contraband into legitimate shipments of goods like flour and grains. A relatively small percentage of smuggling goes on through unguarded crossings, customs officials say.
In addition to the Lumpenai border post, smugglers use a handful of crossings within a 40-kilometer radius of the town.
His job as a lookout, Mindaugas says, was much easier and much less well-paid than actually moving the goods across the border.
The smugglers sometimes recruited teenagers to drive the cargo across the border and deliver it to a secret location, he says.
“If they were caught, the teenagers would usually see serious charges against them dropped,” he said.
However, after at least two chases of contraband-laden vehicles resulted in crashes and the deaths of the boy drivers in 2010, smugglers have apparently given up the practice.
Arrested in 2010, Mindaugas escaped jail but is burdened with a fine of nearly 2,000 euros.
“I’m not concerned so much about that as about the future, because the involvement with gang activities definitely left an imprint on my psyche,” he said.
Unlike some of his ex-smuggler friends who dropped out of school and are now in juvenile detention centers or adult prisons, Mindaugas managed to finish high school and get a legitimate job.
“The past still haunts me,” he said. “Whatever happens in this small community, I’m always the one everyone suspects. It sucks.”
He added, “I’m really thinking of getting out of here. But some of my gang peers went to the UK for a better life, then got hooked into local criminal networks and are already serving sentences. Is that where I’m gonna end up?”
“Indeed, some of these kids have ruined their lives for good. With the contraband money flowing freely, some of them now can’t imagine getting any other job,” school principal Navickas said.
“But what reassures me is that their younger siblings haven’t followed in their footsteps. And the situation is generally different now. The kids still talk about smuggling, and even imitate it. Not with cigarettes, though, but with books.”