Articles on the Kosovo Conflict




The Pink Panthers
By David Samuels
The New Yorker
April 12, 2010

Below are excerpts from a long article about diamonds, thieves, and the Balkans.
Included here are portions about the criminality of the Serbian state.

Criminal gangs became dominant forces in Serbia during the Balkan conflicts of the nineteen-nineties, and they were further empowered by Western sanctions, which gave them a stranglehold on the markets for gasoline, cigarettes, and other staples. After Slobodan Milosevic became President, in 1989, smuggling operations directed by the Serbian state pumped billions of dollars into the bank accounts of political elites. As Dejan Anastasijevic, an investigative reporter for the Belgrade newsweekly Vreme told me, “Milosevic, apart from being a very brutal autocrat, essentially criminalized the state completely.” Things got so bad that, by the late nineties, the Zemun clan, one of Serbia’s top drug-peddling gangs, had essentially merged with the J.S.O. — an elite special-operations unit that had its own artillery, armored vehicles, and helicopters. Together, the Zemun clan and the J.S.O. moved each month about a hundred million dollars’ worth of heroin and other drugs provided by Bulgarian, Albanian, and Bolivian cartels. When Milosevic was removed from power, in 2000, the climate of corruption that he had fostered remained remarkably intact. Meanwhile, a generation of young people, who had grown up in a state run by thieves, murderers, and other criminals, went looking for work outside Serbia’s borders.


[The movie] “Gorilla” channels the rage that many voting Serbian men must have felt for the European Union, which tantalized them with its wealth yet forbade them legal entry. The E. U. failed to stop the carnage in the Balkans, and then it applied sanctions to the recalcitrant Serbs and curtailed immigration. The invisible wall erected by the West kept the criminal elites of Serbia rich and the rest of the defeated country poor.

The hunger induced by hyperinflation led ordinary Serbs to draw out foreign currency from pillowcases and bank accounts. Meanwhile, Milosevic set up a parallel banking system, funded by worthless bills printed on state presses. On the street, these bills were instantly exchanged for Deutsche marks, dollars, and other forms of legal tender through teams of street-level money changers, who funnelled the proceeds to private savings institutions and six state-run banks. Many currency dealers worked directly for the state, in a vast system of theft organized by the Serbian government. The foreign-currency reserves accumulated by the Serbian state did not go to fund the regime’s program of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or warfare in Kosovo, as one might have expected. Rather, as Zlatan Perucic, a director of the Belgrade Bank under Milosevic, has said, “much of it went abroad.” Every week, briefcases and duffelbags stuffed with foreign currency were sent from Belgrade to banks in Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. Before sanctions, the state shipped off tens of millions of Deutsche marks packed into diplomatic baggage marked “Do Not Open.” After sanctions, it spirited the cash across the border into Romania, then flew it to Cyprus.

Once the Serbian state had transformed itself into a criminal enterprise, many Serbs turned themselves, willingly or reluctantly, into criminals. The ex-detective, when asked about the Panthers, said, “The recruitment centers are here in Serbia.” When I brought up the idea that many Panthers seemed more like ordinary Serbs than like specialized thieves, he mentioned Djordje Rasovic, who led the 2004 Tokyo heist. Rasovic was not exactly a rich man, he said, laughing: “For a living, he grows blackberries in Arilje.”

Later that day, I met Milos Vasic, who joined the Belgrade police force in 1967. “Belgrade was such a peaceful city then,” he recalled. After two years as a cop, he became a reporter. One of the founders of Vreme, he often writes about organized crime. Milosevic’s wars, he said, contributed to the criminalization of Serbia. “In my local police station, fifteen cops out of fifty got themselves killed in Croatia and Bosnia,” he told me, as we sat outside and drank beer. “You went for a three-month shift or else you were fired.” Felons, meanwhile, were released from prison to join the front lines; those who survived were allowed to remain at large.

Vasic had spent years documenting the Milosevic regime’s corruption. He told me that in March, 2001, soon after the regime’s collapse, six hundred and sixty kilos of ninety-three-per-cent-pure heroin, with a street value of more than a hundred million dollars, was discovered in a Belgrade bank, in a vault rented by state security officials. “Why the hell would somebody sit on so many kilos for so many years?” Vasic asked, before answering his own question. “It was their bank account.”

Even more lucrative was the trade in cigarettes, Vasic said. By 1993, cigarettes, which were subject to excise taxes, had become so expensive in Serbia that legal sales effectively vanished. The black market offered consumers a cheaper alternative, but one that was still highly profitable for the seller. Vasic described how the scheme worked. A Serbian dealer purchased cigarettes wholesale in Western Europe, for a few cents a pack. Then, he explained, “You load your legally chartered Ukrainian or Russian plane in Rotterdam.” The cigarettes were shipped to Montenegro, where fake excise marks were applied to the cigarette packs, to make them look like a legitimate product. The cigarettes were then sold for about three dollars a pack, with the government and its gangster friends pocketing the profits.

Western governments were complicit in the Serbian corruption. German troops and other peacekeepers on Serbia’s borders were notorious for turning a blind eye to smuggling, and even for profiting from it. I recently communicated with a former British Royal Marine who had served in the Balkans. The marine often visited the city of Nis, and he said that his superiors regularly provided him with a thousand dollars to elicit intelligence from local Serbs. A decaying industrial city, Nis was strategically important for its proximity to Kosovo and to the main smuggling route connecting Serbia to Asia Minor and Western Europe.

The marine, who had participated in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, said that he accompanied NATO officers to several meetings with Serbian officials in Nis and other cities. NATO commanders, he claimed, regularly traded information about the disposition of secessionist forces inside Kosovo; in return, the Serbs asked NATO to overlook shipments of fuel oil and other commodities whose importation violated Western sanctions. Some of those requests were formal, he said; others involved cash changing hands at much lower levels of authority.

While in Nis, the marine said, he often hung out with Serbian recruits and paramilitaries: “We would go, shoot off a few rounds, and talk about tactics.” The Serbs used derelict apartment towers in Nis for sniper training, he said, and he occasionally gave them tips. Many of the men he trained did not strike him as normal soldiers. “They would pick your pocket as a joke and then give you your wallet back,” he said, laughing. (Milos Oparnica, the head of Interpol in Belgrade, dismissed the marine’s account as “Hollywood nonsense.”)

The man eventually left the Royal Marines and got a job as a bodyguard at a luxury hotel in Paris. One night, he claimed, he went out drinking and ran into some of the Serbs he had traded war stories and tactical advice with in Nis. The Serbs told him that they were now in the business of robbing jewelry stores. They seemed serious - sober, even - and the improvement in their appearance and demeanor was striking. “When I knew them in uniform, they acted like criminals,” he said. “When they were criminals, they acted more like soldiers.” He gave them his phone number and agreed to stay in touch.

A few years later, the man said, he was living in London, when he got a call from two of the Serbs. They went out drinking again. “Then Graff got robbed,” he explained. Two of the people involved in the robbery contacted him, and stayed with him before they fled the country. In exchange for his hospitality, they gave him a diamond brooch, which he offered to a jeweller in Brighton, through a middle man. The jeweller, he said, gave him what he described as a “nice piece of money.” The middleman affirmed that the transaction took place. The jeweller has declined repeated requests for an interview.

To better understand how young men from the south of Serbia might find their way to luxury shopping districts in Tokyo and Dubai, I decided to drive to Nis. According to Miles Oparnica, of Interpol, three main groups of Panthers came from Serbia. The Nis faction was, apparently, the most foolhardy: many of its first generation of operatives are currently imprisoned in Western Europe.

I arrived in Nis midmorning. The highway leading into town was empty, and lined with stores selling motorbikes and diet supplements. The city felt far re moved from Belgrade, with its Austro Hungarian façades and well-ordered criminality. Nis was wilder, and had more of an ethnic mix: Albanians, Macedonians, Gypsies. The city’s most famous landmark is the Skull Tower, which was built by the Turks, in 1809, out of quicklime, sand, and nine hundred and fifty-skulls of Serbian fighters. On the uneven sidewalks, girls in heavy makeup tottered along in high heels, their loutish boyfriends following closely behind.

Across the Nisava River were the decaying apartment blocks where Serbian snipers had once practiced with the former Royal Marine. The buildings, fifteen stories high, were concrete slabs daubed with soccer graffiti and nationalist slogans. Groups of young men drank beer in the street. One of them, a Serb, had a T-shirt emblazoned with a brace of pistols and the word “Wanted” in gaudy silver lettering. A brand-new Audi was parked nearby. Audis are favored by young Serbian gangsters, which may explain the rented cars in the video of the Dubai heist.

Men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five appeared to be missing from the city. Aside from the motorcycle-repair shops, the busiest places in town were the slot-machine parlors. I counted four of them within a hundred feet of the mayor’s office, which is in a handsome, decaying stone house near the river.

The mayor, Milos Simonovic, is a bright-eyed thirty-six-year-old. He grew up in Nis, which used to be the center of the electronics and engineering industries in Yugoslavia, employing thirty thousand engineers and skilled manufacturing workers. “We had cooperation with Philips, with Siemens, with I.B.M., and all other famous companies of the world,” he recalled. ‘We produced a personal computer called—I can’t remember the name, but it was two years after Commodore 64.”

Now, out of a total population of three hundred thousand, thirty-three thousand adults in Nis are unemployed. The anchor of the local economy is a cigarette plant. Drug smuggling is also popular. “Nis was really a good place to have this merger between authorities and criminals,” Simonovic explained. Man younger citizens of Nis, having watched their parents lose their jobs, and growing up in an atmosphere of wholesale corruption, have embraced the idea of going to Western Europe and becoming thieves. They think, Simonovic said, that “it’s really good to be a criminal, because you can go in E.U. or some other country to make some money. Then you get back here and you have cars, you have buildings and other things. It’s really, really good.”

Zoran Zivkovic, who is forty-nine, was the mayor of Nis under Milosevic, as well as a leader of the opposition movement that eventually toppled the regime. After Milosevic’s successor, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated, in 2003, Zivkovic became Prime Minister, and put into action a plan called Operation Sabre, designed to decapitate the Serbian Mafia and sever its connections with the state. Nearly four thousand suspects were charged with criminal activity, and tens of thousands of weapons were seized, along with hundreds of kilos of explosives. I met with Zivkovic, who is now a businessman, in his clean, modern office, where bottles of wine from a vineyard that he owns were on display. He wore a navy-blue blazer and had a burnished complexion, looking less like a politician than like a Mediterranean yachtsman who had somehow got marooned in the middle of Serbia.

“By definition, organized crime is connected with the state,” Zivkovic said, in a charmingly pedantic way. For years, he said, criminal clans in Serbia had their own police officers, lawyers, judges, doctors, journalists, and financial advisers. He spoke of a doctor in Belgrade: “If somebody was to be eliminated from the gang and survived the shoot-out, the doctor’s job was to give him a lethal injection when he reaches the hospital.” Zivkovic readily admitted that few of the people who were picked up in Operation Sabre remained in prison. He told me that obdurate forces within the Serbian establishment “are determined to keep Serbia in this Balkan state of isolation, because this is the only Serbia that suits them.”



Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index





Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links