PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — The two-car convoy sped past a U.N. police patrol, ignoring the speed limit and the foreign officers who are technically the law in Kosovo.

The U.N. police chased after and stopped them, but the VIP inside didn't like that at all. He got out and demanded to be allowed to leave. The officers didn't recognize him, called for backup and blocked the road. The bodyguards got belligerent.

"I'll kill you," one bodyguard said as he drew his pistol, according to a police report obtained by the Associated Press. The other officers screamed in unison: "Put down the gun!" According to witnesses, who spoke on condition they not be identified, one policeman stuck his pistol near the bodyguard's neck, persuading him to drop the gun.

NATO peacekeepers ultimately intervened, then told the police to release the convoy. The police didn't arrest the bodyguard. If they had, odds are that not much would have happened to him — even if he wasn't a bodyguard of Agim Ceku, former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This is Kosovo, where there is little law or order and plenty of despair — especially among the police officers who have come from around the world. They are risking their lives to protect people who have made a science of distrusting authorities, a legacy of a decade of oppression under the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The province recently recorded its highest number of murders in a single week — 22 — since NATO-led peacekeepers arrived in June. Talk of kidnappings and the arrival of organized crime has emptied the streets after dark. Reports of vigilante slayings are popping up in local newspapers.

NATO peacekeepers are supposed to provide security for the southern province of Yugoslavia where Milosevic's forces killed an estimated 10,000 people during an 18-month crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Investigations of murder, rape, arson and other crimes are supposed to be handled by U.N. civilian police. The United Nations, however, has been able to recruit only 1,896 officers, far below the 4,700 requested by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The officers aren't issued riot equipment, even though mob violence breaks out frequently. They don't get proper handcuffs. Their handguns do not make much of an impression on civilians armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

Ammunition is in such short supply that some police officers have resorted to bartering with NATO military units, trading bottles of imported whiskey for a few spare bullets.

Kosovo's unruly elements have started to catch on. In the Serb enclave of Gracanica, about 6 miles south of Pristina, the provincial capital, a crowd rioted and surrounded a police station after one of their number was detained for assaulting an American officer so severely he suffered broken ribs.

The riot ended when the crowd got what they wanted: The police took the suspect's photograph and sent him home.

In another recent incident, some 30 people stormed into a police station in Zubin Potok, about 30 miles northwest of Pristina, demanding that officers free a suspect.

"They let him go because they were trapped by the crowd," said Andrzej Stepien, a U.N. police spokesman. "They could not defend themselves."

The police face immense challenges in investigating crime in Kosovo. Milosevic's forces took all the forensic equipment — and everything else — while fleeing the province ahead of NATO's arrival.

If officers want pictures of a crime scene, they have to bring along their personal cameras. At Station 2 in central Pristina, the officers all had to pitch in to buy pens, paper and other office supplies.

Only a handful of the U.N. officers speak Albanian, making person-to-person contact virtually impossible.

They don't have to look hard for criminals, many of whom have poured over the province's borders along with convoys of returning refugees. Human rights experts say the police are so overwhelmed they usually arrest only people caught in a criminal act.

Odds are, though, that suspects will walk away within hours. A virtually all-Albanian judiciary is unwilling to put fellow Albanians behind bars, law enforcement officials say. Many Albanian judges insist on a confession in order to hold a person for trial, one expert said.

By October, four months into the U.N. and NATO mission, only 13 trials had been conducted in Kosovo, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a recent report. The number of pending criminal cases was in the thousands, it said.

"They are arresting people and there is no system of justice to prosecute them at the rate that is needed," said Sandra Mitchell, director of human rights for the OSCE's mission in Kosovo. "The system just can't cope with the numbers."

Albanian judges refused to apply Yugoslav law because they considered it an insult and a reminder of the war that remains so fresh in their minds. They reverted to laws that governed the province before 1989, when Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy.

Recognizing the defiance was threatening all court action, the top U.N. administrator, Bernard Kouchner, retreated in mid-December and decided to let the judges have their way — even though the U.N. resolution that established the peacekeeping mission specified that Yugoslavia's criminal code be the law of the land.

U.N. officials argue it will take time to build a functioning justice system and say a lack of money has been slowing things down. Judges are paid the equivalent of $165 a month, while security guards who stand outside the offices of international aid groups earn $680 a month.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Kosovo needs more police officers, said William G. O'Neill, a senior adviser to Kouchner.

To fill the gap, U.N. officials had planned to hire some 600 ethnic Albanians, many of them Kosovo cops who were fired when Milosevic swept into power.

The plan bogged down, however, when the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, and representatives of Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, quarreled over who would control the patronage, Western officials familiar with the talks said.

O'Neill said recruiting officers from abroad has been hard, particularly since most cities and towns — in the United States at least — are loath to give them up. It is likely to get tougher.

"Part of the problem is that word has gotten out," said U.N. officer Leon Strigotte of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the station commander in the tense city of Kosovo Polje. "It has discouraged other people from coming here."

Kouchner and the NATO commander in Kosovo recently announced they would create more joint patrols composed of NATO soldiers and U.N. police. Kouchner also said he would hire 400 new judges.

In the meantime, the United Nations' inability to even control Pristina's chaotic traffic jams, much less more serious infractions, has not escaped the notice of the homegrown powers.

Members of the former KLA say they are stepping in to round up alleged criminals, and a previously unknown group, the National Eagle, claimed in mid-December to have summarily executed a man who confessed to having taken part in 42 kidnappings.