In storybook rural Germany, thefts prompt concern over gun restrictions

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2012 

— Not long after the Polish border crossing into Germany fully opened in 2007, the Russian mob arrived. But it took until this summer for people in this newly capitalist German region of farmland, forests and lakes to start fighting back.

Small businesses have lost millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural and construction equipment to thieves from beyond the German border. The thefts have made some Germans wary of their neighbors and triggered an unprecedented debate on gun use, as well as the installation of private fences, electric gates and surveillance systems.

Residents have lost a lot of sleep. Some, such as farming contractor Gerald Rueckert, are even afraid to go on vacation

“Do we have to live in fear?” said Rueckert, whose employees, upon arriving at work one morning, discovered an idling tractor-trailer filled with $750,000 worth of stolen equipment about to pull away. “It’s hard to feel at home anymore.”

Germany’s eastern border is a Grimm’s fairy tale-like landscape, a place where some people are comfortable bathing nude in the isolated and crystal clear lakes, and where most people, police included, are surprised at the brazenness of the crimes. It’s worth remembering that just two decades ago, this region was part of a police state.

In the most famous case in the recent crime wave, contractor Reiner Haeusler, tired of the thefts, installed GPS tracking on trucks worth more than $100,000 each. He watched his equipment – blips on a computer screen – slowly move into Poland, then vanish. Police on both sides of the border said they couldn’t help him.

The more common problems, though, are similar to the case of a new baler sold by Michael Branding’s agricultural machinery store. The baler should have symbolized what’s right in Germany these days: prosperous farmers buying German-made machinery from German merchants, strong evidence of Europe’s most robust economy.

Yet after getting the machine home, the customer called to ask why it wasn’t working. Branding’s mechanics needed only a few seconds to figure it out: Beneath the shiny, green exterior, the baler, which had arrived at the company lot in perfect shape a few days earlier, had been stripped of every usable part.

It’s not just big stuff, either. Everything disappears, even the diesel in the fuel tanks. To the locals, the old eastern bloc has become their version of America’s Wild West.

“I can’t leave my equipment out at work sites,” said Udo Schellner, a 48-year-old logger whose truck was stolen from a job site. “I have to lock up each night. Others say I should get my weapons, but these gangs are well-armed. They think no one can stop them. Maybe they are right.”

Police note that the bandits aren’t local ne’er-do-wells but highly organized, sophisticated criminal enterprises out of Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. They say that businesses around the old Soviet empire appear to make out wish lists, and then, using the newly open and unprepared East German countryside as a market, the thieves show up for nightly shopping sprees.

“Listen, when we lost cars, that made sense to us,” Branding said. “People use cars. But when they steal specialized logging trucks, or high-end combines or backhoes, the market for these is very limited.”

What to do about the thefts is a big issue.

“Every argument ends up with people mentioning guns,” Branding said. “Now, of course, if we use one to threaten a thief, we can be criminally charged. Still, it’s just a matter of time.”

Gun laws require owners to prove need, expertise and stability. But Gorlitz prosecutor Martin Uebele warned that armed self-defense could result in a more dangerous problem.

“This is what they do in the United States,” he said at a recent meeting about the thefts. “And look how many gun deaths they have each year. This is not how Germans want to live, is it?”

More than 30,000 deaths by firearms occurred in the U.S. in 2009, according to the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Branding started a petition of businesses along the border that experienced theft and quickly had 90 signatures. Provincial and federal officials took note and have stopped by to talk about solutions.

Making agricultural theft a priority, along with trade policy and national security, in discussions with other nations was one idea. Tougher criminal laws was another, because if thieves know they’re about to be arrested, they often try to get caught not in Poland, but in Germany, where prison terms are generally shorter.

Branding points out that few Germans blame the Poles. The goods move through their country, but Polish businesses suffer from the thefts as well, he said.

Some aren’t so easy on their neighbors, though. They say such problems have to be expected when a richer country opens its doors to a poorer one.

All in all, it’s been a learning, and eye-opening, experience. Schellner said the loss of his logging truck, which he later recovered, was partly the result of his own naivete. He said he’d always left his equipment at job sites, a common practice of the old state-run logging company when the area was under the control of Communist East German authorities before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Having grown up during an era of state control, Schellner and others acknowledged that they’re still learning the nature of private business.

“In school, the teachers would tell us about life in the west: unemployment and corruption and drug use and everyone stealing everything,” he said. “We knew it was only propaganda. We all had relatives in the west. Of course, maybe they had a point or two.”

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com

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