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. When anybody tried to muscle in on the action the KGB shoved them into a boxcar with a free ticket to Siberia in their pockets.
But as soon as the Commies were gone in December 1991, it was the same story less the boxcars. The next morning the Lithuanian Mob popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The homeboys were just as poisonous as the Russians.
Nobody could call his own tune in a kiosk, no matter how pint-sized, built onto the side of their house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. The gangsters would appear in their grim track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except “or else” meant they might burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.
Like Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, they always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, Little Scotty was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t an arsonist, either. It was only a slapdash kid’s movie.
If you paid up, you could sleep soundly at night. If anybody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man about it, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they pointed the way to fake Dubble Bubble.
It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, like they were doing you a favor, although everybody else called it extortion. It was the same as 1930s Chicago but 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 my friend Birute’s house,” my sister Rita said. She was a travel agent in Cleveland, Ohio. She often visited the native land leading tours of emigrants. “Her husband built 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, even though they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”
Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania won independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own special jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force. There was rot top to bottom.
Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe had long prided itself on its trustworthy policemen. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement than Lithuania. The nation introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country’s citizens continued to believe crooked lawmen were widespread and oozing spreading fast.
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 Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one, too. “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.
Lithuania’s policemen wore coats full of holes. The graft was like moths, eating away at the wool. They needed new coats in a bad way.
“One of our 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 our cousin 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 of the wagon. She didn’t notice, trudging through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. There wasn’t a badge in sight. When she called the local station, nobody answered. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness. None of the streetlights were working.
Another of our cousins had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and had gotten involved with the Mob. He owed them money but was unable to pay his debt. They were looking for their loot. When they got sick and tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to blow up. The next morning when he started it, it blew up, but the gangsters hadn’t used enough dynamite. They also stuck it under the trunk instead of the front seat. Gytis was 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 of all people? 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 Bulgarian cigarettes and coughing up a storm.”
They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which had a reputation for getting old 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 hardly roads, at all. They weren’t paved. The Trabant ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
“Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.
“It was pitch black 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 an hour, Gytis and his friend came back with an open bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of our Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly ripping the Trabant’s back door off its hinges.
By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left her first husband 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. That didn’t work, either. She was unhurt, although he was a mess, and had to be hospitalized.
Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, cleaning and decorating it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress and found him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she got the message, giving up and remaining 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 and night until you do.”
Our cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. If their pockets are empty, and even if they aren’t, they will stop you no matter if you have done something, or not.”
The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed Mikolas 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,” he said.
The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over to them 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, backing over them on his way out.
“You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky used to say and would have said. When Mikolas asked the cops what he had done, they said, “Nothing, and make sure it stays that way.” They were in the thievery business, not the law-and-order business.
Edvardas was an honest policeman. He couldn’t condone or handle the rampant corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you’ve got to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way, just because it says so.
When Rita asked our 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 peanuts I couldn’t afford to pay.”
There were loads 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. His jailers lost the key and he stayed locked up forever.
In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including pocketing public property for themselves. Everything was on hand on deck in play. In the new millennium the worm turned. The Mob put their brass knuckles away 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 bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It wasn’t stealing used cars. It was the new dodge of cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering. They stashed their brickbats in the basement and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.
Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Several years later, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of nearly a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Elite Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing wrinkled 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.
The hoodlums operated out of Kaunas for the most part, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy and themselves living the high life. They 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 Kaunas Police Department news release said.
The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a gun and a kind word 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. They didn’t even know how to spell the word.
In the end, locked up inside police stations and handcuffed in cages in courtrooms, few kind words were spoken. There was some rude spanking on the horizon on their way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, his hair neatly parted down the middle, always had the last word when asked if he had any last words for evildoers.
“Yeah, see ya!”
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”