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Illegal trade of arms and connected crime

 

by Colonel Laszlo Nagy

 

Introduction

 

Although certain forms of crime existed in Hungary during the era of communism, just as in any other country on this planet, violent criminal acts which include the use of firearms or explosives did not show up in large numbers until 1990. The murder of a police officer by the Soσs-Nιmeth gang in the late '70s, and the act of two teenagers taking hostages in a dormitory in the town of Balassagyarmat in the '80s shocked the public, which indicates the extent to which such criminal activity was unknown in Hungary. Communist politicians were busy saying that crime which involved firearms and explosives could only be found in the decadent West.

 

The year 1990 bought many changes to Hungary, the most important of which was the change of system. The transformation from a highly controlled, 'Big-Brother-always-watching-you' system to a country which respects civil liberties, such as the right of free movement within and out of the country, and protection against unreasonable questioning and search, took the Hungarian law enforcement agencies by surprise. There were several reasons for their failure to adapt:

 

a. In a dictatorship, working beyond the limits of the constitution and outside the law is normal for the police. However, these methods cannot be used in a free society, because the results of an investigation achieved by illegal methods are null and void in a courtroom. Stopping people and vehicles on the street, questioning and searching them is also illegal during peacetime. Those policemen who were used to the old ways were simply unable to catch up with the rules of the new democratic trend.

 

b. The opening of the borders, which was necessary to stabilise the Hungarian economy by letting foreigners come into the country bringing capital with them, also helped criminals to move more safely and easily. Until the '90s, the borders – especially that between Austria and Hungary – were crossed by relatively small numbers of people. The change of political system increased the numbers of those wanting to come into or leave Hungary. It became practically impossible to check every person and each single vehicle as was done before, because the reintroduction of that process would cause huge traffic jams at the border and in the long run Hungary would become economically sidelined.

 

c. The new forms of crime, which include illegal trade of arms, cannot be prevented by traffic controls and checking ID cards. The use of wiretapping devices, internal informants, undercover agents, and the co-operation of several agencies is essential. Unfortunately from this viewpoint, democracy bought with it the principle of the free market. Many officers - who were sent to foreign countries (United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel) in the early '90s to get experience from agencies already familiar with these forms of crime - left the force because they could make more money working for newly formed private security firms.

 

d. Another reason why the police failed to adapt properly was the destruction of the network of informants. Since the police and the secret service – as is usual in a dictatorship - were involved in keeping an eye on those who opposed the system (e.g. anti-Communists), many politicians demanded the opening up of the activity of these agencies - which included organisations like the infamous Main Department III/III - and the removal of those officers who were members of them. As a result, many files were destroyed so as not to be used for political blackmail, and the informant network collapsed too. No one wanted to co-operate, fearing that their identity might become public knowledge, thus representing a great danger to themselves.

 

The source of illegal weapons

 

A. Weapons from internal sources

 

1. The old stuff

 

During the XXth century, Hungary participated in two world wars (in 1914-18 and 1941-45), and experienced a revolution (1918), a coup d'ιtat (1919), a counter-revolution (1919-20), and an uprising (1956). Many weapons and explosives were left on the battlefields, and later gathered in by civilians. However, this did not raise the level of armed criminality, since the explosives slowly became useless or were confiscated by the authorities, and the firearms – usually bolt-action military rifles, double-barrelled shotguns and low-energy handguns – were kept rather as mementoes of military service, as a means of poaching, or for defending one's home and their threat to person or property was negligible. It must be noted, too, that from 1920 to 1945, Hungarian law allowed the possession of firearms for self-defence under quite reasonable conditions (e.g. clear criminal record, full age), while the communists – following the lead of other dictatorships – prohibited the possession of any firearms by any person other than a high-ranking communist (police and military officers were obliged to be party members, too).

 

At the present day, arms of this kind might be found in a few homes, but they are largely obsolete due to their age, their design and their lack of effectiveness. The 'heavy' criminals who obtain their armament on the black market would laugh at them. These 'old timers' do not constitute any serious threat.

 

2. Equipment of the Red Army

 

Being a member of the Warsaw Pact, contiguous with the Western world (the Iron Curtain ran down the Austrian-Hungarian border), units of the Red Army were stationed in Hungary until 1991. As the Soviet Union began disintegrating in the late '80s it became clear that the foreign troops would be withdrawn, and the officers and men began to think about their financial prospects after returning home. It was clear to them that, due to the economic hardships in the Soviet Union, they might face unemployment, or would have to live under harsh conditions (remember those officers who had to live in tents and railroad cars due to the lack of apartments). To be financially secure for a while, they sold pieces of equipment and spare parts that they could find in their garrisons. Unfortunately this 'sell-out' included many small arms, as they were welcomed in the black market, and were easy to hide. Pistols, assault rifles and hand grenades passed into wrong hands.

 

3. Hungarian equipment

 

As the level of the salaries and other benefits of the armed forces and the police remained low due to economic hardship, there were Hungarian officers and non-commissioned officers who tried to sell war material without permission. Fortunately these illegal transactions – although some have taken months to investigate – have been uncovered by the state agencies, and the weapons re-possessed

.

4. Reactivation of demilitarised weapons

 

It is legal for a Hungarian citizen, when of age, to buy any firearm without license and registration, provided the weapon has been demilitarised (i.e. deactivated for good). A deactivated firearm has its firing pin shortened so that it cannot strike the primer of the cartridge; the chamber has been plugged by metal so that a cartridge cannot be inserted and the barrel has been drilled out. The authorities later found out that many of these weapons had been converted back to usable ones. Sometimes people with experience in this field (such as former military armorers or police officers) helped with or carried out these conversions, then sold the weapons to anyone ready to pay for them.

 

B. Weapons from abroad

 

1. The Balkan wars

 

As the members of the Yugoslav Federation began declaring their independence one by one they were designated as rebels by the Belgrade regime and attacked by the Yugoslav People's Army. Although the new states had some industrial capacity, they needed weapons from abroad to equip as many soldiers as they could. During the ensuing wars many arms fell into wrong hands, since the weapons of those killed in action often went reported as 'lost'. Moreover, as these countries needed as many men as they could draft, they employed people with questionable backgrounds, especially in paramilitary or mercenary units, who 'forgot' to give their own or captured weapons back after their military service was over. After the war this surplus of weapons found its way into criminal hands, as the possessors tried to make a profit on them and sold them to organised gangs, or to individual muggers and highwaymen.

 

2,. The Western connection

 

Weapons are sometimes smuggled in from the West, but it must be said that they do not have a high salience in Hungary. Although air rifles can be bought in the majority of western countries with relative ease, a Hungarian citizen must wander in the 'bureaucratic labyrinth' for two or three months and pay two or three times the price of an average air rifle for a license. So these smuggled arms are for the lowest of criminals. Real gangsters want something hard (i.e. guns shooting solid projectiles), and there are eastern models available, like the PA-63, the P9R and the TT pistols, the VZ-61 – better known as `Scorpion` – sub-machine gun, and the variants of the AK-47 assault rifle.

 

The use of illegal weapons and criminal connections

 

Organised, Mafia-style gangs – which are involved in drug-dealing, prostitution, and the smuggling of humans and weapons - generally favour automatic firearms. Especially valued are sub-machine guns, for their combination of high rate of fire and miniature size; hand grenades, which are often used as 'warning signals' to damage property owned by a rival gang; and recoil-less anti-tank weapons used for the same purpose. Lone criminals or lesser gangs generally work with different styles of handgun: they use air pistols or revolvers, low-energy weapons such as air guns or Flobert-guns, or guns which fire solid projectiles.

 

Explosives are used by organised groups only. The materials and their detonating devices are used to eliminate rival gang members, or destroy property as a 'warning signal'. These gangs try not to harm outsiders, although there are occasions where this tactic fails and it is unclear whether this happens by accident or on purpose.. There are signs that some novice bomb-makers and vendors are turning professional, including some who came from a foreign secret service. For instance Dietmar Clodo, a former Stasi agent, was charged with misuse of explosives. Bomb-making materials are sometimes smuggled in from abroad and sometimes come from sources inside Hungary like a mining company or a badly guarded military depot - but this is unusual. Bomb-makers know that with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry and the use of a textbook it is not a hard task to make a device from legally obtainable materials.

Hungarian legal regulations

 

The Hungarian Penal Code contains three paragraphs dealing with weapons: 263/A: "Misuse of 'guns' and ammunition"; 263/B "Arms smuggling"; 263/C "Misuse of weapons prohibited by international treaty". As far as I know paragraph 263/C has not yet been invoked since no such occasion has arisen. Although individuals have tried to smuggle radioactive material through Hungary, those materials came from nuclear reactors used for civilian purposes. Smuggling of Bacteriological or Chemical weapons has not happened yet. The law would punish such an act by 5 to15 years imprisonment, or in serious cases for life.

 

A new Act that regulates 'guns'1 more strictly was enacted on March 1st, 1999. This provides that the illegal making, selling, buying and possessing of a 'gun' and ammunition is punishable by a jail term from 2 to 8 years. This punishment can be increased to 5 to 15 years if the crime is committed for systematic profit-making, in an organised gang, or by an individual with criminal record. Arms smuggling is punished by 5 to 15 years imprisonment if it is committed for profit, or by a criminal conspiracy; and from 10 to 15 years if it is committed as a member of a criminal organisation, or by someone with a criminal record. A two-month amnesty period was provided, whereby those who turned in their illegally kept weapons and ammunition would be treated in a 'soft manner'. This meant that the weapon would be checked, and if no crime had been committed with it, the one who turned it in would not be prosecuted. (By way of comparison: when the British people were asked to hand over their illegal weapons, huge containers were placed where everyone could drop the weapons in without revealing their identity, and no questions were asked).

 

As could have been expected, the law – amnesty period included – had no effect and was a huge disappointment to the authorities. During the 60-day period only 8(!) firearms were turned in – two of them from the '20s or '30s - and not a single gangster deposited his weapon. The number of illegal firearms in Hungary is currently estimated about 200,000. The misuse of firearms, ammunition and explosives is also on the rise despite the higher jail terms. The Statistics Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs has provided the following figures for misuse of firearms year by year:

 

1993: 1296 1994: 1493 1995: 1435 1996: 1429 1997: 1587 1998: 1623

 

Conclusion

 

The previous and current administrations have shilly-shallied over the solution - an even more restrictive gun law is under preparation and will be presented to the Country Assembly (parliament) in the autumn of this year. Currently an ordinary Hungarian citizen is practically prohibited from possessing a firearm, so the stricter law will not affect them. Criminals have already bought and can still buy their weapons on the black market, so the stricter law will not affect them either. It would be reasonable to leave the law-abiding citizen alone, since it is not legally kept weapons that form the basis of the criminality. It is the illegal arms and the criminals who use them, and they can be stopped by the traditional police methods: by well-trained border policemen, informants, undercover agents, and secret service devices.

 

 

1 In Hungarian legal terminology, 'gun' (lofegyver) means a weapon which has a barrel, shoots a solid (not gaseous, nor a liquid) projectile, and has a muzzle energy higher than 7.5 Joules. Of course it is not synonymous with the word 'firearm' (tuzfegyver), because air guns are not firearms. This produces strange consequences. For example, an air gun with 9 Joules muzzle energy falls in the same penal category as a revolver of calibre .44 Magnum. The statistics presented above make no such distinctions; they represent the sum of criminal acts committed.