Corruption at border checkpoints: when the system throws you out the door

The confessions that surfaced yesterday regarding corruption in the customs system look like a clash between two rival gangs. Marius Ungureanu, a former shift chief at the Giurgiu border checkpoint, who served a jail sentence for alcohol and cigarettes trafficking, now accuses Vasile Marica, a dubious trade union leader, of taking his share from the bribe collected by customs officers. Through the years, there have been other confessions – made by more honest people – about the dirty things going on at border checkpoints, but they were simply ignored.

A few years ago, two former inspectors of the Bucharest Customs Department were seeking justice with state institutions, but all they got in return were patronising smiles, commiseration at best. What was their story? They were terribly ill-fated. Though they were off shift, they were urgently summoned to the Ostrov Border Checkpoint, to replace some fellow customs officers who could not go to work that day. As their day off had been ruined anyway, they went on with their job, stopped the first lorry that came along and asked the driver to present the transport documents. When they saw the papers, they could not believe their eyes. The whole merchandise – a lorry full of Turkish items, from blue jeans to shoes etc. – was undervalued at some EUR 3,000. As there were obvious problems with the pricing, and the whole affair looked very much like tax evasion, they started asking questions – where does the freight come from, what is its destination, who is the beneficiary. While they were checking the truck, their direct superior called on the phone and started to swear and curse at them, asking why they are working when they should have been at home. They did not have the time to tell the chief that they were just replacing some fellow officers, because they were sent home and forced to stop any verification concerning the undervalued merchandise from Turkey. Shortly after that, they were sacked and were not allowed to work in any Romanian customs office anymore. They did not take it lightly and filed criminal complaints, told their story to the press and sought justice in Romanian and international courts, but to no avail.

Their story is an excellent example of how the system works. No customs officer operates on his own. Each truck that enters the country with contraband freight is known (and protected) by the whole chain, from the border police or customs checkpoint officer to the chiefs of customs departments. It is obvious that the bribe paid by smugglers cannot be hidden from the eyes of their chiefs. Another lesson taught by this case is that the customs system has the most effective methods of eliminating those who decided to break the law of silence, from various reasons.

Two customs officers who unveiled a contraband network were pushed to the edge of society and nobody cared to listen to them. Police, prosecutors, the other institutions of the state which could have investigated the things that happened at Ostrov preferred to turn a blind eye. At that point, what would an investigation at the Bucharest Customs Department have revealed? If it were a honest investigation, many heads would have rolled and some contraband networks would have been dismantled.

What do we learn, by comparing the two situations? That, if you are a vulnerable member of the system, even with a prison sentence in the past, and you go on TV to tell things about corruption at border checkpoints, the whole country listens to you and the criminal probe advances, be it even by just one page.

On the other hand, if you are an average citizen and you shout out loud that law is being infringed, you are simply thrown out the door. (‘Romania libera’)

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