A Wall Street Journal article about theft across the German-Polish border amused me today. Not that theft is amusing, but their description of the illicit traffic of luxury cars and heavy equipment from west to east as a “new war” tickled my funny bone. You see, this “trade” in stolen goods has been going on ever since the Berlin Wall collapsed, despite the claims of some that it started with the easing of border controls between Poland and Germany a couple years ago.
I worked in Vienna in the late 1990s and tales of rampant car theft were common in the Austrian capital. My office had a Plymouth Voyager minivan that I drove regularly across the border into Slovakia. Turned out it wasn’t the only Voyager crossing that particular border. My security officer cautioned me to always be careful where I parked, making sure it was in a secure location. Voyagers were in demand, it seemed, by the Ukrainian mafia, which was using them as “troop carriers” back east. In one two-week period, 25 Voyagers were stolen off the streets of Vienna and some were later spotted in Kiev. A van belonging to the American ambassador in Austria was stolen after it was parked on the street in Bratislava.
It wasn’t just the Ukrainian mafia. Bratislava in those days was divided into spheres of influence controlled by the local Slovak mafia and interlopers from the Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Italy (and probably others I never heard about). They each used a hotel in their part of the city as a headquarters and, if you parked in that hotel’s garage, you were pretty much assured protection. Ironically, I think my van was usually protected by the Ukrainians.
Things worked differently if you had an expensive or rare personal vehicle. I drove a BMW roadster in Austria and made an early decision never to drive it to the east, though I did make nervous exceptions for brief excursions into Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. The Albanian mafia was especially active in thefts of BMWs, Mercedes and the like, though the Poles did a good business in stolen cars to the north of us. The local wags in Vienna swore that the official Albanian tourism slogan was: “Visit Albania. Your car is waiting for you!”. In fact, cars stolen from Austria and Italy could be found in huge impromptu “lots” on Albanian beaches and owners sometimes found their vehicles and bought them back.
Nope. The stolen car trade is nothing new.