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Professional crime gangs from eastern Europe are targeting German cities
LEONHARD MÜLLER, boss of Askania, a Berlin watchmaker, no longer frets about thefts from his three shops during opening hours: they happen once a quarter. It is the four big break-ins since 2011 that shock him. Twice in four weeks this spring, professionals broke into his secure outlet at Tegel airport at night and cleaned it out. When he closed the store and opened one on the posh Kurfürstendamm, thieves promptly broke in there and made off with historic watches that are almost priceless.
Overall crime has long been falling in Germany, as in most of Europe. In each of the past two years Germany has recorded fewer than 6M crimes. But these numbers hide counter-trends. First, the north suffers more than the south. The German average is seven crimes per 100,000 people, but it is 14 in Berlin, next to five in Bavaria. The police are also better at solving crimes in the south.
The second trend, of which Askania’s travails are one example, is a sharp rise in specific property crimes. One fast-growing category is pickpocketing. In Berlin last year robbery involving tricks (such as children asking for help while an accomplice dips in) rose by 39%. And break-ins of single-family houses, rising since 2006, increased by 32%, with every 76th house affected.
The new factor, says Christian Pfeiffer, director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony in Hanover, is the eastward expansion of the European Union, with full rights of free movement. Eight countries joined in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Romania and Bulgaria, in particular, have sophisticated crime syndicates, with training and scouting networks reaching deep into the nearest rich EU countries, Germany and Austria. Of the suspects in Berlin’s trick-robbery cases last year, 75% were non-German; 31% came from Romania. (Only 24% of suspects in overall German crime cases were foreign.)
These eastern syndicates have local contacts and mark their targets, especially along motorway or railway escape routes. Then they strike with stunning professionalism, says Mr Pfeiffer. They go where the return on risk is highest. They avoid Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, where homes are wealthier but better protected with alarms and there is a faster police response. Instead they go north, where police are overwhelmed and the risk of being caught and convicted is about one in 100.
Crime often spikes in a city for a few days or weeks, before the gangs move to a new place or go back home with their plunder. Mr Müller, who calls his contacts with the Berlin police disappointingly sparse, says that his watches are turning up in eastern Europe.
– The Economist