BUDAPEST, Hungary — Ukrainian authorities have launched an investigation into a tunnel network running from its border into neighboring Slovakia, a member of the European Union. There has been mounting international concern that organized crime groups from the former Soviet Union smuggle people, weapons, drugs, cigarettes and other goods into the European Union.
Ukraine's secret service, SBU, says it has discovered a suspected smuggler tunnel running from the western Ukrainian border village of Mali Selmenci into Slovakia.
In a statement, the SBU says the tunnel's entrance was beneath a retail store, ironically called 'Europa.'
The store sold clothing and household merchandise. But the SBU believes the real purpose was to hide a dangerous, four-meter-deep, underground tunnel, to smuggle goods or people into the European Union.
Ukraine, which is not an EU member, has come under pressure to crackdown on organized crime.
Slovaks found an even more advanced 700-meter tunnel last month, explained Slovakia's Interior Minister Robert Kalinak.
The tunnel was equipped with a small train and tracks running from the western Ukrainian border town of Uzhhorod into Slovakia. Minister Kalinak says, "it was capable of transporting various kinds of goods" and he "suspects also people."
Investigators in Slovakia and Ukraine say "sophisticated mining-technology" appeared to have been used to dig out the tunnel, which ran about six-meters below ground.
It underscores that crime groups are finding new ways to reach the European Union, where many border controls between member states have been removed.
Slovakia, which joined the visa-free EU zone several years ago, claims it has taken adequate steps to protect it.
But Finance Minister Peter Kazimir acknowledges that tax authorities lost millions in revenues in the recently discovered tunnel network.
He claims 13,100 cartons containing 200 cigarettes each were seized in the July raid, the equivalent of more than two-and-a-half million cigarettes. Kazimir estimates excise tax evasion could reach up to $61-million if "the tunnel was used for a year."
The minister has compared the tunnel to those built by drug cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. Police say the owner of the Slovak warehouse involved in the operation was detained on site, along with a truck driver in a different location.
But officials caution a joint investigation with Ukraine is expected to reveal that many more individuals have been involved in the underground operation.
Slovakia shares a nearly 100-kilometer-long border with Ukraine and security forces say its remoteness and deep forests are often used by smugglers of drugs, cigarettes and refugees from east to west.
American and European diplomats are also concerned that weapons and nuclear material from aging, Soviet-era, facilities are illegally transported from the ex-Soviet Union.
Back in Ukraine, residents are upset about the smuggler tunnels.
A worker constructing a home near the discovered tunnel in the Ukrainian border town of Uzhhorod says he often saw a mini-bus arriving there with well-dressed passengers. The man complained he "thought they were intelligent people, but look at what they did."
Local residents claim corrupt officials, including mayors and judges, must have known about the tunnels but were paid to look the other way. They also fear authorities will blow up the tunnels or flood them with sewage water to hide evidence. Giving and taking bribes, locals say, has become a way of life in the region following the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.
That does not surprise watchdog group Transparency International
, which ranks Ukraine among the world's most corrupt nations.
Concern over Ukraine's borders has added to international pressure on neighboring EU members Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Hungary to step up efforts to keep the 27-nation union safe from illicit trade.