“The EU doesn’t really know what Lithuanians are”

Why is the Baltic state of Lithuania the EU nation with the highest percentage of expats in jail in the 28-member bloc?

A Lithuanian gang is arrested on the Estonian border: (picture, copyright: Postimees.ee/Kristjan Teedema)

Algirdas is 60 years old. From Lithuania. Now he is living in Germany. He has been committing crimes since he was six. Theft and assault. When he was young, the life of crime was romantic. Once he was inside the milieu, he says it was easier “to live outside the law”.

Algirdas has spent half his life in prison. In Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

But in 2008, he left the post-Soviet space. He came to England. At first, he kept himself clean. No stealing. He was looking for work. He slept on the streets.

Then he landed a job at a hotel. His first ever legal job. But he became sick, and the hotel stopped paying him.

So he lost the job, and was living on benefits from the British state. And he kept getting picked up by the cops for assault and battery. On four occasions.

“I can't remember the last time,” he says. “I was drunk and I turned up at the police station with knives in my hands.”

When he commits a crime in the UK, his past record flashes up from his home country, detailing his previous convictions for theft.

“But there were many years,” says Algirdas, “when I didn’t steal.”

He says he has no regrets. He claims he only ever got caught because he was drunk. No one ever arrested him for thieving when he was sober.

Since he left jail in the UK, a Lithuanian police officer helped Algirdas find a job and and a home, but not everyone is so lucky.

“Sometimes life itself makes people steal,” he says.

Lithuania: top EU country for expat crime

In the EU, Lithuanians have the highest percentage of their expat population in jail.

From around 330,000 Lithuanian expats in the EU, around 2,000 are in prison, according to Eurocrimes estimates.

This percentage is at 0.59 - almost double the next highest countries, Latvia and Romania, on 0.39 per cent. This is not a massive number. This is not a crime wave. There is a margin or error here. But it does show a trend. And it doesn't look good for the Baltic state.

Lithuanians are highly involved in thieving gangs. Most of the goods are stolen in the other EU countries and brought back to Lithuania. The gangs target northern Europe - especially the UK, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland, but they have spread out across the continent.

We quizzed Lithuanian criminals with experience in Italy, Germany, France and the UK to give a snapshot on the lifestyle that has led to this top crime rate.

Lithuania: gangs 'traffic' thieves to the west

Algirdas has met about 100 Lithuanians behind bars abroad - a big number, he says. The only motivation for Lithuanians committing crimes is money, says Algirdas. In the UK, almost all of Algirdas’s friends were criminals. They were shoplifting and stealing cars.

“At first they'd steal expensive cars and drive them back to Lithuania, but once that alley was blocked [by the EU and state authorities], Lithuanians started disassembling cars and selling them in parts,” says Algirdas. “Lithuanians are very creative, they'll come up with a way.”

In one day, a thief can steal goods from a store worth about £1,500. The prime goods are: phones, computers, gadgets or building tools, says the ex-con.

“There are lots of Lithuanians here, but Lithuanians know how to wriggle out of sticky situations and they get caught very rarely,” says Algirdas.

In the UK, Lithuanians either sell the hot goods to local dealers or send them back home. “Buyers always know they are buying stolen goods, they just aren't worried about it,” he adds.

For many years, mini-buses packed with stolen goods were travelling to Lithuania, to be sold in local markets.

Since he was 16, Egidijus Mačiulis has been a thief. He has been in prison in Germany, the UK and is now locked up in Lithuania.

“It was always small thefts – from shops and houses,” he says. “I was too lazy to work, even though I had opportunities.”

Egidijus came to the UK when he was 28 in 2006. “There were some friends. Similar guys, colleagues, we started stealing. You get all the opportunities there.”

Mačiulis says Lithuanian criminals are in organised groups. Bosses recruit youngsters directly or through blackmail and extortion.

“In the beginning, they promise money and later the youngsters end up being in debt and have to work for them,” he says. “It’s a form of control. Later, they get forced into committing various crimes until they end up in prison.”

Lithuanians criminal bosses target vulnerable groups, often from the countryside, to pinpoint accomplices to steal and fence goods in the EU.

To recruit, the bosses go to rural or small towns in Lithuania, where there is huge social exclusion, structural poverty and a high unemployment rate, says Karolis Zibas, research fellow at Vilnius’s Institute of Ethnic Studies. Gangs also target orphanages - a strategy that happens in Romania.

They will start with a test. Give the youngster a job to steal from a local village shop. The recruiter will say, 'let’s go for a drink, have a smoke of weed', and tell the kid:

‘You’re our guy, now steal a chocolate bar from a local shop,’ and after that, something more expensive.

“They try to get into a familiar relationship,” says Zibas. If they succeed, they send the kids to Norway or the UK.

“In that case - the victim does not think they are a victim anymore,” says Zibas. “They think they are doing it by their own will.”

In the region, Lithuania has a larger migrant network than Latvia and Estonia, and a higher level of poverty than its neighbour Poland. Around 22 per cent - 600,000 people in Lithuania - are on the poverty line.

“People are being brought from Lithuania to other EU countries not for forced labour or the modern slavery of sexual exploitation, but for implementing criminal activities,” says Zibas. “Part of the Lithuanian prisoners are not criminals, but victims of human trafficking.”

Algirdas argues there are no such gangs operating from within the UK, but from Lithuania. “In a lot of cases their bosses live in Lithuania and just send these people to England to commit crimes,” he says. “The 'command centre' sits in Lithuania and sends about 50 people, who don't know one another, to the UK. The boss has enough information about the UK and once he finds a thief, he gives him enough money to start his life abroad and strict instructions about crimes to be committed.”

Vy Lit

“In the EU, they pay more attention to the Russians and the Polish. They don‘t really know what Lithuanians are” - Vytautas Lukijanko, convict

EU: crime "easier" abroad than at home

40 year-old Vytautas Lukijanko was extradited from Italy to Lithuania and is now serving the last three years of a seven-year jail term.

In the port town of Klaipeda, Lukijanko was accused of drug dealing. So he fled abroad and hid out with a friend in Munster, Germany.

“Most of the time I lived in Germany,” he says. “It was good in Germany.”

But he adds that he was doing nothing there.

“What else can you do in Munster, if you‘re in hiding?”

So he decided to travel around Europe looking for new places to commit crimes in the shadows.

“I stayed in Italy for a few days and I was put in prison... It’s that kind of country... I don’t know how to explain,” he says, before explaining: “I was with a friend. My friend got into an argument with some Moroccans and Tunisians. I didn’t speak Italian. My friend did. [The Africans] called the police. The cops came and took us. They told the police that we were threatening them. Bullshit. Totally.

“There wasn’t even a translator in the prison. They brought some kind of an Englishman – I didn’t even speak English, what could I have told him? Nothing. That’s how I ended up in an Italian prison, until the extradition request came for us.”

Drug dealing is easier in mainland Europe than at home in Lithuania due to the low conviction rates, believes Lukijanko, although in truth this may not be the case for every country.

“In Lithuania you get eight to ten years for drug dealing - it’s insane!” he says. “[In Germany] the first time, you’re caught drug dealing you’ll get a fine, something around 300 Euro, second time you’ll be on probation, well, the third time they will give me a few years of jail time to teach you a lesson. Here in Lithuania? They catch you one time and you’re done. So there’s no surprise that everyone is trying to go [abroad] to earn money."

For Lithuanians abroad, crime is easier than at home.

“Here everybody from the police knows you, the detectives might be following you, and listening to your conversations.” he says. “There [in the EU] people don‘t pay attention to you. You can do whatever you want there. That‘s what people are playing on. They pay more attention to the Russians and the Polish. They don‘t really know yet what Lithuanians are.”

Paris: a better style of life for addicts

47 year-old Igor Inta was sentenced to ten years in France for dealing drugs. He is now serving time in a Vilnius jail until 2020. When he was caught in a drug bust, Inta was working in Saint-Denis, a Paris arondissement known as a hotbed for crime.

Inta gives an insight into how the Lithuanians at the poverty level survive, and how the addicts and alcoholics experience more of la grande vie in the Parisian capital than at home.

“It‘s international there, a lot of people. Arabs, Russians, Georgians and Ukrainians,” he says. “There‘s a lot of stuff going on in Paris. There are lots of Lithuanians - but more Polish. They get wasted under the bridges, they don‘t care about life.

“In the Boulevard Barbès, they deal in contraband cigarettes from Russia and Belarus, where the price is 2.5 Euro a pack. Uptown – Chateau Rouge, there are the hookers. Downtown, next to the La Republique, there are associations that give methadone to drug addicts. At Gare du Nord, there are buses that give away methadone and [heroin substitution drug] subutex.”

“If you want to work, you‘ll always get a job. Always. There are some people who simply don‘t want (to work). Why should they? If you have hepatitis, you get free treatment. There are places in France where you can eat for free. All kinds of organizations come, next to Gare du Nord and La Republique. And they make a living out of that. For them it‘s enough to have 400 Euro per month, 200 Euro more in food stamps. With them you can buy any kind of food, except cigarettes and alcohol. [The French] give you a place to stay. Even the homeless. Some live on basketball courts. Under the courts are pipes. The ground is warm all year round. They live in tents.”

“They drink, they need money, so they steal. If you go from Boulevard Barbès to Pigalle, through this park, there are Russians and Lithuanians – wherever there’s is a shop, where they can steal something and drink it on the spot. They get caught, but after 20-30 hearings in court they’re free. They took what – some sausage and a bottle of wine? So what?”

Originally, these people were planning to earn money in their new country. “But somewhere deep inside they like to drink – they start and can’t stop. Then they find other alcoholics. They say, look, here’s a place to sleep, here’s a place to wash yourself, you can steal there and you’ll never be hungry.”

Brexit: an “excuse” to round up Lithuanians

Algirdas has a theory that the UK was not paying much attention to Lithuanian crime - until the Brexit vote on 23 June this year, when the UK voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union.

“Once the UK EU Referendum started approaching, they figured they needed to do something about it,” he says. “Social services, which take care of the homeless and needy people, also got to know about the crimes these people had committed. Scotland Yard had been gathering information about criminals, but didn't touch them, if they hadn't harmed anyone seriously.”

Now more Lithuanian criminals are put behind bars in the UK. “Recently they've started massively locking up Lithuanians and other immigrants, because they have been sitting on this information for long and they had to act immediately,” he argues. “Hundreds of Lithuanians are sent to prisons."

Prisoners: in Britain "we had everything"

For Algirdas, prison is his home. Even if the bars and the cells are in Lithuania, Russia or the United Kingdom. But he says that in the UK, the jail feels more like a guest-house than a deprivation of liberty.

“Once I got there, I couldn't figure out where I was - I had everything, just that I was locked up in a cell,” says Algirdas. “[In Russia] I have spent 90 days in solitary. I had no soap, towels, even sheets, just - pure concrete and food every second day. That's what I call a true prison.”

After a year and a half of stealing, the police caught Egidijus Mačiulis and he was sentenced to jail in the UK. But he was also surprised about the niceties of the UK system.

“They set me free really fast, because the sentences are really light there,” he says. “You don’t even feel it and you can start all over again… In their system, if you’re sentenced under six years, you spend half of the sentence and you're free. The youth look at the [length of the] sentences. We go to commit crimes, so, let‘s look up what‘s going to happen to us. We know that the first time they let us go, nothing happens. That‘s how they do it. Last time, I had to stay a bit longer – I got sentenced for 2.5 years. I have stayed there for one year and four months, half of the sentence.”

But this did not work out in the way that Mačiulis expected.

“After that, I wasn’t free, I got deported and went straight to a Lithuanian prison.”

All the convicts believed that time inside an EU prison was more accommodating than at home. Mačiulis was impressed by the assistance and personal attention he encountered in British jail system, which he has spent three spells exploring.

“Every time the prison tried to put me back on track." he says. "They asked, what do you need? Do you need rehabilitation? Do you need accommodation? Do you need work? Do you need education? They provided me with everything. They gave me the foundation. They didn’t see me as a migrant, even though I’m no one there, and I don’t even have full rights. This is what we lack here in Lithuania.”

The name of Algirdas has been changed

Part of
The Black Sea Eurocrimes project financed by Journalism Fund