Six bodies are found in an east Berlin apartment, each bound and shot twice in the head. Another is spotted that night along a bridle path.
Three days later, three more corpses appear along a commuter train track in apparent revenge killings.All nine men, and dozens more killed this year, were part of the lucrative cigarette smuggling business. The death count in Germany is already higher than the previous four years combined.
Selling smuggled or stolen Marlboros, Gauloises and other brands at cut-rate prices is a huge - and increasingly violent - business across Europe, where smoking is still commonplace and cigarette taxes high.
Throughout Europe, the cost in lost taxes is between an estimated $4 billion and $5.3 billion.
Major busts illustrate the international scope:
- In April, French authorities seized about 600,000 packs of American brands in the port of Marseille from a container loaded onto an Egyptian cargo ship in Cyprus.
- In May, French officials seized 1.65 million packs hidden in three tractor-trailers carrying plastic tubes for a Portuguese company.
- Italian police estimate 100 to 150 motorboats each night are smuggling cigarettes into the country for the Mafia from offshore ships.
- The killing of a Pakistani clan leader in Copenhagen, Denmark, this year revealed an ongoing turf war between cigarette smuggling factions there.
But perhaps the biggest battlefield is Germany, especially in the east, where most of nearly 50,000 Vietnamese in the country live, most illegally. Authorities say two Berlin-based groups are trying to expand into other parts of Germany.
Turf battles between the Vietnamese gangs that control street-level sales have been blamed for the deaths this year of 40 Vietnamese, 15 in Berlin alone. Most were shot in the head.
"They are seeking more market share, more profit, more power," said Uwe Kranz, chief of police in Thuringia state. "They are fighting in a new manner."
Some of the Vietnamese were sent from North Vietnam to former East Germany as contract workers in the 1970s and '80s, then found themselves jobless after German reunification.
Thousands more arrived with the fall of the Iron Curtain, many having paid high fees to gang leaders back home to be smuggled into Germany.
For many, selling smuggled cigarettes is the only way to survive. They get their cigarettes through a variety of routes and countries, sometimes through front companies working directly with manufacturers.
Berlin police chief Hagen Saberschinsky estimates one truck loaded with 50,000 cartons can net a smuggler $550,000.
Police say efforts to fight the closely knit gangs are hampered by the language barrier and uncooperative witnesses who fear police and retaliation from the gangs.
Federal police plan to send a liaison officer to Hanoi this summer to get cooperation in fighting the gangs.
Appeals to Germans not to buy cigarettes from street vendors - who sell a carton for about 25 marks, half the legal price - go unheeded. The cost in lost taxes was about $1 billion in 1995.