Source: San Fransisco A FLOOD OF DRUGS

Slovakian City Turned Into Drug Warehouse

Russian Mafia uses  unlikely couriers for shipments west
By Eric Geiger
Chronicle Foreign Service

Last year, police in Austria seized 81 Kilograms of heroin that had been
smuggled into the country (up from 47 kilograms in 1995) and a record 72
kilograms of cocaine. An additional 236 kilograms of hard drugs were
confiscated by border guards.

* In Vienna alone, police estimate that 1.5 tons of heroin (with a street
value of $120 million) are being consumed annually.

* Officials estimate that 60,000 Austrians are regular cocaine users.

* The number of deaths from drug overdoses in this nation of 8 million was
put at 241 last year.

 Bratislava, Slovakia.
Twice a week, the conservatively dressed  Slovakian mother, accompanied by
her two small  children, boarded a bus for the 90 minute ride to Vienna.

And for quite a while she apparently  had no trouble blending  in with the
crowd of foreign tourists and returning shoppers usually jamming the coach.

Austrian drug investigators eventually discovered the reason for the
frequent family excursions a bag containing a pound of heroin, worth about
$100,000 on Western European streets, that was hidden amid baby food and
lipstick in the woman's purse.

The woman admitted making similar smuggling trips in the past. But she kept
mum on the identities of her bosses in Bratislava and the recipients of the
heroin shipments in Vienna.

She got herself tangled up in a deadly, sinister game,"  said an
investigator. ~She knows that if she talks, her life won't be worth a

The young mother's arrest has focused attention on what investigators have
said is a largely foolproof scheme used by international drug lords to
smuggle narcotics originating from Central Asia, Turkey and South America
to Western Europethe called "Ameisen," or ants, a virtual army of small
time drug couriers who travel with their contraband by bus, train or
private car. A few get caught, but most do not.

Austrian antidrug agents believe that the Russian mafia and other Eastern
European crime groups who are believed to control most of the illegal drug
trade in Europe have set up large narcotics depots in the former Eastern
bloc city on the Danube a few miles from the European Communlty's southern

Investigators are convinced that Bratislava has become a cross roads of
both the socalled Balkan drug route that ferries heroin westbound by truck
from Turkey, and the Afghan route, on which "brown heroin" is brought to
the West via Russia from Central Asia.

A Vienna police official said the drug lords have adapted to the rigorous
border controls set up by Austria since it joined the EU in 1995 by
switching from trucks to harmless looking individuals smuggle  drugs on the
last leg of the route."

Investigators say the modestly compensated "ants" often recruited from the
ranks of petty crooks and excons in Slovakia, and nearby Hungary,
generally are deemed to be expendable, as are the relatively small amounts
of drugs they carry. Their absolute  silence is guaranteed by threats of
severe reprisals, including death.

 0nce in Vienna, part of the drug shipments are turned over to local
dealers serving the Austrian market. But the bulk reportedly  is smuggled
by truck and private car to Germany, andother EU countries, which have
largely abolished customs controls at their borders.

Austrians have long regarded Bratislava, the capitol of newly Independent
slovakia, primarily as a shopping mecca thatthanks to favorable currency
exchange rates offered great food and wine bargains.

Its new role as a hub of international narcotics smuggling was spotlighted
recently by continent wide publicity surrounding an unprecedented police
antidrug operation in Vienna that confirmed Bratisalava as the point of

The crackdown featured housetohouse searches, extensive wiretapping and
raids on ritzy discos and clubs catering to celebrities and the upper
crust. More than 70 people were arrested for drug dealing, and another 50
were charged with* drug abuseincluding prominent attorneys, entertainers,
TV stars and journalists.

Among those caught up in the police dragnet was worldclass ski jumper
Andreas Geldberger, 34, who admitted on state television to sniffing
cocaine in one of Vienna's most popular discos.

Another was popular pop singer Tony Wegas, 31, who allegedly arranged the
smuggling of heroin by Austrian "ants" from Bratislava to Vienna both to
service his own addiction and to distribute it to others. Currently
awaiting trial, Wegas is facing a maximum sentence of 15 years.

"At society events they no longer merely offer caviar and champagne but
increasingly also cocaine," said Austria's top police official, Michael
Sika, even though it is also becoming available In public housing

~Authorities are even more disturbed by the rising narcotourism that
brings hundreds of addicts across the Slovakian border every weekend.
Addicts simply travel to Bratislava, get themselves a heroin shot there and
subsequently buy an additional small amount to smuggle it back home across
the border to sell," said Walter Fuchs top drug investigator of Lower
Austria police. ~That way they finance their own addiction."

The system is made possible by the huge differences in the street price of
drugs in Bratislava and in West European cities. A gram of heroin that
sells for roughly $29 in Bratislava costs about $67 in Vienna. Cocaine in
the Slovakian city is available for $66 but costs more than $100 in Vienna.

The Bratislava area reportedly also has become a production center for such
synthetic drugs as Ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamines. The crime groups have
re portedly enlisted highly paid Western chemists to supply most of the
designer drugs increasingly found in Western European schools, discos and
at techno dance parties.

Despite scoring some successes, Austrian antidrug officials admit they are
fighting an uphill battle.

"We know all about the existence of the narcotics depots set up by the
drugsmugglng kingpins in Bratislava," said Karl Lesjak , a top interior
Ministry official. "But our colleagues In Slovakia are unable to locate

Analysts, academics and Journalists say the apparent untraceabilty of the
depots and the easy availability of narcotics in this city of 500,000 may
be partly be the result of mafia payoffs to police officers . a charge
Slovakian officials  brand as "unfair defamation.~

 But it's no secret among residents that drug dealers are carrying out
their activities without much hindrance at the main station  and at discos
and pool halls.

We all know what theyare doing, and we hate it," a middle aged Slovakian
said angrily as he watched several young men, some of them carrying mobile
phones huddled together in a corner of the station "But let's be honest. If
there wasn't such  big demand from Austrians and other Western Europeans,
they wouldn't be in business in the first place."