On a recent cool, drizzly evening, all was quiet near the Danube
riverfront. And that was just fine with one Budapest cop.
He and his partner roamed the ritzy shopping district,
moonlighting as security guards to supplement their meager,
Tourists milled about, oblivious to the fact that the past
several weeks have seen one mafia kingpin gunned down in broad
daylight and a half-dozen hand grenade attacks scattered around the
"I avoid the bad places in town," says the beat cop, who spoke
on condition of anonymity. "For such little pay, I won't run around
when the gunshots fly."
He has the public's sympathy.
Unfettered capitalism and eroded respect for law enforcement is
fueling a street-level brand of terrorism in Hungary's
once-peaceful neighborhoods. While still a far cry from Moscow's
lawlessness, Budapest - by virtue of sitting at an East-West
crossroads - has become a battleground for a criminal underworld
led by Russians, Ukrainians, Serbia's ethnic Albanians, and
Hungarians. And they easily consolidate their operations as a
flustered police force responds with visible, but ineffectual,
It's not surprising that so many Hungarians wax nostalgic about
the calm of communism. Police were one of the great symbols of the
totalitarian regime: Running afoul of society's rules might prompt
a beating, then short shrift in court.
Crime in communist Hungary consisted mainly of sporadic burglary
or theft, and the occasional domestic homicide. But in the
mid-1970s, Hungary became a transit point for smuggling arms from
Yugoslavia - a major weapons producer - to West Germany.
Hungarian and Polish burglary rings eventually joined forces and
smuggled their loot to the West via similar routes, says Geza
Katona, a Hungarian crime researcher.
But communism's demise and mass border openings unleashed a
torrent of organized crime. Nowadays, not only do these "mafias"
dabble in traditional rackets such as drugs, prostitution,
gambling, and extortion, but they have also earned hundreds of
millions of dollars from smuggling heating oil, stolen cars, and
even nuclear materials. In addition, the war in the former
Yugoslavia ensured the continuation of a brisk arms trade.
Today the public is gradually becoming inured to sudden bursts
of violence. Crime is up by one-third in Central and Eastern
Europe, and many folks are fingering democracy as the culprit.
"These things didn't come through the Iron Curtain; we saw it
only in films from the West," says Gizella, an elderly Hungarian.
"But now we're getting a taste of it. …