By Ed Staskus
When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. But as soon as they were gone in December 1991, it was a different story. The next day the Lithuanian Mob popped up like poisonous mushrooms after a spring rain.
You couldn’t operate a pint-sized kiosk built onto the side of your house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. They would appear in their track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except or else meant they would burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.
Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, he was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about.
If you paid up, you could sleep quietly at night. If somebody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they could point the way.
It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, although everyone else called it extortion. It was like 1930s Chicago, set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.
“Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at Birute’s bouse, who was a friend of my mother,” said Rita Staskus. “Her husband built her a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, although they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”
Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania achieved independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force.
Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe has long prided itself on its trustworthy police services. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement. Lithuania introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country continued to believe crooked lawmen were still widespread.
If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining. Unless he’s Colombo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.
“One of my cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”
It was winter when she picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out. She didn’t notice, sloshing through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. There wasn’t a badge in sight. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness.
Another cousin had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and got involved with the Mob.
He owed them money but wasn’t able to pay up. They were looking for their loot. When they got tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to explode. The next morning, when he started it, it blew up, but they hadn’t used enough explosive. Gytis was burned and hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.
“I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking and coughing up a storm.”
They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which aged fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were barely roads, at all. They ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
“Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.
“It was dark as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere. I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”
After more than hour, Gytis and his friend came back with a bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of her Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly flinging the Trabant’s back door off the hinges.
By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left the first one after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. She was unhurt, although he was a mess.
Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant there melted down into a core fire. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, decorating and cleaning it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress to find him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she gave up and stayed a widow.
“My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”
“Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.
“You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”
“No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day until you do.”
Her cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. They will stop you even if you haven’t done anything.”
The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed him home. They were after his birthday money.
“Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” said Mikolas.
The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window.
“You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky and Our Gang used to say.
When Mikolas asked what he had done, they said, “Nothing, really, and make sure it stays that way.”
Edvardas was an honest policeman and he couldn’t handle or condone the corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you have to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way.
When Rita asked her Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts.”
But there were lots of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.
After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up.
In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including scooping up public property for themselves. Everything was on tap on hand on deck. In the new century the worm turned. They put away their tracksuits and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t stealing cars. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It was the high life cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering.
They stashed their brickbats and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.
Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Three years ago, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.
They operated out of Kaunas, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy.
The mobsters used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a police statement reported.
The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary.
In the end, inside police stations and in the dock, few kind words were spoken. There was rude spanking on the horizon on the way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, had the last word when asked if he had any last words for the evildoers.
“Yeah, uh, see ya!”
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.