Lessons learned from a life in contraband smuggling

  • 2012-06-27
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

FIGHTING BACK: Border guard efforts today include work to keep kids out of illegal activities that ultimately lead them nowhere.

KLAIPEDA - Just a few years ago, the level of educational activity at Lumpenai secondary school in the Pagegiai district, which is a few kilometers from the Lithuanian-Russian border and is the EU’s easternmost frontier, could not have been any worse. With just a call from a contraband ringleader, a 15-year-old schoolboy in the ninth grade would jump up in the middle of class and run out, followed by a throng of his male classmates. The assignment has come and work needs to be done!

Schuchers and cuckoos
The order would usually come in through an SMS to a phone with a pre-paid phone card, a card which would be hastily discarded after the mission is complete. Even  teachers knew the contents: cargo is about to cross the border and “schuchers and cuckoos” - Lithuanian prison jargon meaning snitches and lookouts - are needed to help get it safely across to the Lithuanian side, monitor the border guard movements and distract the police’s attention.

“In border schools such a course of events in class was nearly a daily occurrence. With brawls among rival schoolboy gangs breaking out, teachers would hush up and simply walk out of the classroom. Some even would fear for their lives,” remembers Rima Austriene, principle of Lumpenai’s Enzis Jagomastas secondary school.
Some say some cash-strapped teachers would join their gangster pupils for some quick extra cash, as contraband often wasn’t even deemed a criminal activity.

Cutting-edge border technologies employed
This, however, can be chalked up to the recent past, in 2006-2008. With the EU pumping nearly 5 million euros into guarding its easternmost borders - a stretch of 678 kilometers on the Lithuanian and Belarusian border, and 265 kilometers on the Lithuanian and Russian frontier - the teenagers’ smuggling activities dwindled drastically, from 144 in 2008 to 15 in 2011 in the Pagegiai district alone.

Giedrius Misutis, spokesman for the Lithuanian Border Guard Service, says the drop of the contraband-related border youth criminal activity is due to a significantly stronger enforcement of the border. “Cutting-edge border guard technologies, like radar and heat-sensors, monitored by an increased number of border guards have caused the decrease,” Misutis says.

However, Arunas Jokubauskas, a former border guard, cautions the numbers can be tricky. “First, they are only the tip of the iceberg, as until 2010, when with the technologies cracking down on the contraband gangs was reinforced, the border was quite porous. So the actual numbers could be ten-fold bigger than these. Second, the smugglers have become a lot smarter, sneaking the goods through the border under the waters of the Neman River. These kinds of ‘submariners’ pose a challenge even to the [most] sophisticated border guard systems,” Jokubauskas says.
In fact, “submariners” now make up the bulk of all detainees crossing the Lithuanian-Russian border.

Contraband in the classroom
Teenager smuggling activity may not be a disastrous issue any more for the Lithuanian border schools, but contraband, nevertheless, remains a hot topic in them. It is being brought up radically differently now: re-enacting Lithuanian book smugglers of the 19th century, when under the Russian czar’s reign, with Lithuanian books banned, book smugglers risked their lives to bring Lithuanian books from the former German-ruled Konigsberg into Russian-oppressed Lithuania.

In the latest theater - like performance at Lumpenai secondary school, 8th and 9th graders had to show all their spryness and creativity in smuggling “banned” books through a makeshift border precinct. But, unlike their less fortunate peers 125 years ago, when caught by the Russian czarist border guards, played by Bardinai border precinct guards, they got away with… a smile and a promise to never engage in smuggling in the future.
“There is an indescribable difference between the staged smuggling and the real-life chasing of a scrawny, wide-eyed 16-year-old with a box of illegal cigarettes from Russia,” says Rimantas Tyminskas, commander of the Lithuanian State Border Guard Unit’s Pagegiai Division.

A lost generation
Vaclovas Navickas, principal of Pagegiai’s Algimantas Mockus secondary school, says that, at the peak of the contraband activity, from 2006-2008, senior schoolchildren would miss nearly 100,000 classes in an academic year.
“That’s an awful lot. Sometimes teachers would see classrooms semi-empty, often with very few, or no, boys. And those who would turn up would usually be sleepy after spending the whole night on lookout at the border,” he remembers.
According to the principal, smuggling ring leaders most often tried to attract 14-16-year-old kids who had not broken the law before: to have them escape from going behind bars easier, if caught.

The principal, however, calls these children “a lost generation.”
“Having missed plenty of classes, they were not able to catch up with their peers and a lot of them dropped out of school,” he says, adding, “It’s not true that only boys from socially vulnerable families took part in contraband. There were a lot of kids from normal families as well. Most of them now have decamped in search of a better life in the West, or Scandinavia. I happen to hear that occasionally they have a brush with the law there as well.”

Ex-schuchers wanted for contraband prevention
Even during the years of contraband frenzy, he says he would explain to others kids that the lucrative business is temporary and leads nowhere but to a bunk in a minors’ penitentiary.
“Not all, however, listened to that [warning], as the power of the ‘easy’ money was very strong,” Navickas acknowledges.
Uplifted by the recent success in fighting contraband involvement among schoolchildren, some border school principals even mull inviting ex-“schuchers” to smuggling prevention events and ask them to speak of their previous experiences. “I’ve heard of such intentions, but I personally believe it is not a good idea. Those kids should not be reminded of it. Most of them need to do some healing,” says the principal.

Former snitch needs solace
Mindaugas, a 19-year-old beefed-up lad and former “schucher,” shakes his head disapprovingly: “No, I really do not want to go back to it. Even in my memories. Now I only need some inner solace and clarity as to what the future holds for me.
He revealed that he had been engaged in border contraband activities for nearly a year and a half before being nabbed by border guards in 2010. “As with a third of my male classmates, I’d serve local contraband ringleaders as a snitch. Stationed in trees or on house roofs, my duty was to be a lookout for police or border guard cars - monitor the surroundings through night vision binoculars. Upon seeing an approaching law enforcement agency vehicle, I had to immediately warn the ringleaders,” remembers Mindaugas, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.

He would be paid as much as 100 litas (about 30 euros) for his nightly mission, one which sometimes would last up to 4 hours. And then back to school in the morning. “To make nearly 400 euros a month so easily was not a bad thing for a 16-year-old. With the money, I could significantly contribute to my family [budget], that was constantly running low. My parents would silently disapprove of my activity, but they never insisted for me to give it up, for a single reason: with no jobs in our little town, they relied on me. Otherwise, they had to get involved into contraband themselves. A lot of entire families would do that,” the Pagegiai dweller says.

Contraband’s aftermath is still felt
A Pagegiai community activist, who did not want his name to be mentioned in this article, claimed that despite the crackdowns on smuggling, contraband cigarette vendors have not been affected in the local market. “If you were to look around, it all appears like it did 3 to 5 years ago – with all those elderly and very young vendors soliciting passers-by,” he says.

The impact of the once prosperous smuggling business is still strong in Pagegiai. “The contraband business has been curtailed, but the rates of unemployment and, therefore, criminal activities have risen. Especially theft of gas, all kinds of metal. I’d say that the local community is partly to blame for this, too. With the smuggling activity peaking, even people not involved in it would be very lenient on it, or even approve of it, saying that contraband is not a big crime. Now, we all are reaping the fruits. It will take many years to root out the aftermath of smuggling,” he said.

Youngster escapes prison
Monitoring the surroundings, Mindaugas notes, was an easier but considerably less-paid stint than getting the goods through the border. “Sometimes grown-up smugglers, in order to avoid the severity of law, would entrust teenagers to drive the cargo through the border and deliver it to a secret location. If caught, the teenagers would usually see serious charges against them dropped,” he said.

However, with at least two chases with teenage boy-driven contraband-goods-laden vehicles resulting in crashes and their drivers’ deaths in 2010, the criminals have nearly abandoned the practice. Apprehended in 2010, Mindaugas escaped bars, but the burden of paying a fine of nearly 2,000 euros weighs heavily on his shoulders.
“I know I will get rid of it later or sooner. I am not concerned as much about it as about what the future holds for me. The involvement in the gang activities has definitely left an imprint on my psyche,” he admits. Differently from his buddies who dropped out of school, with some of them now in juvenile correctional facilities or in adult prisons, he managed to complete his secondary education and get a regular day job. The past, he claims, still haunts him, though.

“Whatever happens in this small community, I’m always under bigger scrutiny,” Mindaugas admits. He adds: “I am really thinking of getting out of here. However, many of my gang peers who have left for a better life to the UK got hooked into the local criminal structure, and are already serving sentences in adult correctional facilities there. Is that where I am gonna end up?”

Black economy doesn’t pay
“Indeed, some of the kids have spoiled their lives for good. With the contraband money flowing in their pockets profusely and easily, some of them now do not imagine earning money in a different way. Nevertheless, what makes me cheerful is that their younger siblings haven’t followed their footsteps, as the situation now is completely different. The kids still get involved in contraband. However, they don’t smuggle cigarettes and liquor, but books, following the example of 19th century book smugglers,” Navickas says.

In Lithuania, where the black economy is estimated at 300 million euros a year, or one-twentieth the national budget, contraband smuggling, the Lithuanian Statistics Department claims, is slightly in decline, but the country tops the EU statistics according to the most widespread consumption of illegal cigarettes.