In the Balkans, gangs at the heart of state system
By Rémy Ourdan, Le Monde
August 3, 2021
Since the fall of communism and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Balkan
mafias have grown so much that they are now considered a major player in
international organized crime.
Serbian, Montenegrin and Albanian gangs, which began to thrive three decades ago
from arms and cigarette trafficking, are now at the heart of the arrival of
South American cocaine in Europe.
They also traffic heroin and produce marijuana and synthetic drugs. Their
profits are such that they have invested in large parts of the legal economy.
Serbian and Montenegrin groups have got their hands on drug trafficking from
South America, becoming key players in organized crime in Europe. A rise in
power was achieved concerning the government, before the outbreak of a murderous
war of clans.
The reasons for the outburst of violence in recent years between gangsters from
Serbia and Montenegro sometimes remain mysterious. Shootings in cafes, car
explosions, corpses found in the streets of Belgrade, Kotor or Podgorica, not to
mention an unknown number of missing persons: seven years of gang wars,
assassinations and revenge have left at least fifty dead.
The main triggers are known, however, and both occurred in 2014. On the one
hand, the disappearance of at least 200 kilos of cocaine in the Spanish port of
Valencia began to divide the cartel led by Darko Saric and marked the outbreak
of the “Kotor War” between two rival gangs, the Skaljari clan and the Kavac
clan. On the other hand, the arrest of Saric himself has caused a war of
succession between his most faithful men – who run his empire while he is in
prison – and ambitious people dreaming of more autonomy and the profits that
The gang war took on further momentum two years later, in 2016, after the
assassination of Aleksandar Stankovic, known as “Sale Mutavi” (Sale the Mute)
the leader of the Janjicari (“Janissaries”)
gang, formed by the fiercest supporters (ultras) of the Belgrade football club
Traditionally, in Serbia, groups of ultras are a breeding ground for the
underworld, as they were for paramilitary militias during the wars of the 1990s.
The icon of this parallel world was, during the reign of president and warlord
Slobodan Milosevic (1989-2000), Zeljko Raznatovic, known as “Arkan”, leader of
the supporters of the Red Star, the other football club in Belgrade, the then
Arkan Tigers, a paramilitary group that worked on the orders of the Serbian
secret police. Arkan, indicted like Milosevic for crimes against humanity by
international justice, was murdered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade,
shortly before the fall of the Serbian President, by a killer who, like him, had
a mafioso gun in one hand and a police badge in the other.
Milosevic was the godfather
If the criminals of Albania initially derive their influence from the links
forged with the Italian Mafias, those of Serbia and Montenegro initially have an
original “asset”, which can only be found at this level in Russia: their close
link with the State. Built in the time of communism by the Yugoslav secret
police, reinforced at the time of the wars by Milosevic’s secret services, this
link remains extremely strong. Experts even wonder whether Serbia and Montenegro
can be described as “mafia states” and, given the financial power acquired by
the world of organized crime, whether it is still gangsters who are in the
service of the state, or whether it is now these two states who are in the
service of the gangsters.
In Serbia, three different periods can be observed. “Milosevic was the godfather
of criminals and paramilitaries. Then, in 2000, [Prime Minister Zoran] Djindjic
tried to start fixing the problem, so they murdered him [in 2003],” said Vuk
Cvijic, an investigative journalist with Nin magazine. During the reign of the
Democratic Party, between 2000 and 2012, “while there was still corruption,
there was no longer a direct link between the Serbian government and organized
crime”, the journalist believes. Two major police operations took place at that
time, in cooperation with Interpol and foreign police services: Operation Sabre,
against the Zemun clan and the Djindjic assassins (2003), and Operation Balkan
Warrior, against the Darko Saric cartel (2009).
“Today, under [President Aleksandar] Vucic, the state and the mafia are
cooperating again to such an extent that there is no longer a clear difference
between the two,” says Vuk Cvijic.
One might even wonder whether the mafia has not become stronger than the state.”
In Montenegro, the story is different because the same man, Milo Djukanovic, has
been in power since the fall of communism in 1991.
“Djukanovic is the boss. All Montenegrin clans have the same employer: the
president of the country, allege Jovo Martinovic, a famous journalist who has
been investigating organized crime for twenty years. The difference with Latin
America is that Pablo Escobar was a gangster acting against the state. In
Montenegro, Pablo is president …
The close relationship between the political powers and organized crime is
obviously difficult to prove since, even if some investigations sometimes go
back to a minister or a businessman, “the organic link historically passes
through the secret services”, notes a European diplomat who has long known the
intricacies of the Serbian and Montenegrin powers. “The traffic is orchestrated
by the governments of Serbia and Montenegro. Many criminals have secret service
or police badges. The two presidents work together and have common interests,”
says Jovo Martinovic.
Experts also point to the role, alongside each president, of their respective
brothers, who run family affairs. Andrej Vucic, in Belgrade, and Aco Djukanovic,
in Podgorica, thus play a pivotal role on the intersection between politics,
business and dirty money.
“Drugs are one thing,” says the diplomat. But Djukanovic has undoubtedly built
his fortune even more on privatization than on traffic. His brother Aco is a
billionaire.” “No one on the international stage knows how to deal with the
issue of organized crime in Serbia and Montenegro,” says Stevan Dojcinovic, an
investigator with the Serbian investigative website Krik, “because no one
understands the heart of the problem: it is not a problem of corruption of
individuals, it is a state system. This was already the case in Milosevic’s
time, and it continues with Vucic and Djukanovic. It is a state operation that
is difficult to prove.
The Italian judiciary, which has tried on several occasions to elucidate the
relationship between politicians and criminals in the Balkans, particularly with
Milo Djukanovic in cases concerning its own Mafias, has broken its teeth there.
Other European judiciaries have never gone beyond the notorious traffickers.
Those who have long been investigating organized crime in the former Yugoslavia
also believe that, since these cases involve state secret services, other
intelligence services, American and European, protect them in exchange for
information, or even through political deals.
Chaotic Galaxy “The West is trying to bring Serbia to Europe, while Aleksandar
Vucic has close relations with Moscow and cordial relations with Beijing. And
Milo Djukanovic is historically and sincerely the most pro-Western, pro-European
Union and pro-NATO leader in the region, analyzes a European diplomat.
In the name of geopolitics, we turn a blind eye to the illicit activities of
these otherwise fragile states.” Beyond the very opaque issue of the
involvement of the secret services in criminal cases, understanding the
intricacies of gangs is not an easy task for investigators. “Balkan organized
crime has never had an Italian-like Mafia, with a capo di tutti capi. There are
independent cells, which evolve quickly, within groups that themselves divide
and recompose. There are about 300 criminal groups in the Balkans,” says Stevan
Dojcinovic. “There is no Balkan cartel, it is a cooperation between gangs, whose
main task is the transport of cocaine from Latin America to Europe,”
confirms Sasa Djordjevic, from the Belgrade office of the Global Initiative
Against Transnational Organized Crime, an independent organization based in
In Serbia, after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and
Operation Sabre, the Serbian trafficker of Montenegrin origin Darko Saric has
established himself as the only one to succeed in somewhat unifying this chaotic
galaxy. Saric was considered the most powerful drug lord these countries had
known in thirty years. In prison since 2014, he was sentenced to fifteen years
for drug trafficking in 2018, then to nine years for money laundering in 2020,
these sentences still being subject to cancellation or appeal proceedings.
Meanwhile, on the Adriatic coast, the patriarch of Montenegrin traffickers,
Branislav Micunovic, has established himself as a powerful coordinator between
the clans that watch over the arrival of cocaine. He ages peacefully in Budva,
residing on the top floor of his hotel-casino, the Splendid.
The reign of Darko Saric was a blessed time for criminals, despite the hostility
of the Belgrade government of the time.
“Some Balkan groups have risen through the ranks for two decades, from small
thugs and courier to become major drug dealers,” notes Global Initiative Against
Transnational Organized Crime, in its report “Transnational Tentacles” in 2020.
Balkan groups have become key players in organized crime in Europe, Turkey,
Latin America, and as far as in South Africa and Australia. For South American
cocaine, they operate mainly from Colombia and Ecuador, as well as Uruguay, Peru
and Brazil. For the arrival of drugs, they are present on the Spanish, Italian,
Greek, Albanian and Montenegrin coasts.
video illustrates this relatively peaceful time before a gang war shattered the
fragile balance between criminal organizations. The wedding video of Safet
Kalic, a Montenegrin gang leader from Rozaje, shows all the Balkan criminal
leaders, including Darko Saric, kissing and feasting. The video, posted on the
Internet in 2010, caused a scandal because it also shows the presence at the
party of Zoran Lazovic, then assigned by President Djukanovic with the fight
against crime within the secret services, and of Ljubisa Mijatovic, who will
become its head of security. The President defended himself by claiming that
they were on a mission to spy on the thugs, without convincing anyone though.
Politics, Football and Underworld
After the Valencia affair and the arrest, under American pressure, of Darko
Saric, who had become too powerful, the balance was upset and the “Kotor War”
broke out. It opposes the clans of Skaljari and Kavac, named after two villages
in the vicinity of the Montenegrin seaside resort. Kotor has carved out a
special place for itself in the world of drug trafficking by relying on its
maritime culture. A young sailor from the surrounding area has little choice but
to become a trafficker.
In addition to a conflict between gangsters for drug money, the experts’
hypothesis is that the Skaljari clan rose too quickly after the arrest of Darko
Saric and began to dream of a certain autonomy vis-ŕ-vis the Serbian and
Montenegrin secret services. Belgrade and Podgorica then favored the Kavac clan,
born from a split within the Skaljari clan. Kavac’s men are notoriously close to
both hooligan groups linked to Vucic’s networks in Serbia and with the secret
police in Djukanovic, in Montenegro.
On the Belgrade side, it is clear that the police have mainly targeted the
Skaljari clan. Its then leader, Jovan Vukotic, was arrested in Turkey in 2018 at
the request of Serbia, extradited to Belgrade and tried for a trivial reason
(using a false passport). Members of the Skaljari clan hunted down in Serbia
have taken refuge all over Europe, and some have been tracked down and murdered
in Spain, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Greece.
While no one knows who murdered Aleksandar Stankovic, the leader of the
Janjicari, reputedly close to the Kavac clan, the disappearance of “Sale the
Mute” has also led to a recomposition within the Belgrad criminal world. The
eyes obviously turned to the powerful Luka Bojovic, at the time head of the
Zemun clan and close to the Skaljari clan. Since then, Stankovic has been
replaced by Veljko Belivuk, known as “Velja Nevolja” (“Velja the Problem”), and
Bojovic, imprisoned in Spain, has entrusted the leadership of the gang to Filip
Korac, the man who has been climbing into the Serbian underworld in recent
If the participation of the Serbian government in this gang war is difficult to
prove in court, the Janjicari, renamed the “Principi” (named after Gavrilo
Princip, the Serbian assassin of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand
in 1914 in Sarajevo) by Belivuk, have gained power since the arrival in power of
Aleksandar Vucic in 2012. Janjicari were hired as security at Vucic’s
inauguration ceremony, and his son Danilo regularly appeared in public with gang
connection between the state and the Principi was established, according to
journalistic investigations, by Dijana Hrkalovic, a former secret police officer
promoted by Aleksandar Vucic as Secretary of State at the Interior Ministry,
until her resignation in 2019. Hrkalovic was a close friend of both the leader
of the Janjicari and a senior officer of the gendarmerie, Nenad Vuckovic, known
as “Vucko” (“the Wolf”), a member of the Partizan supporters’ club and a close
friend of the gang’s successive leaders, Sale the Mute and “Velja the Problem”.
Hrkalovic, who describes President Vucic as “a man who surpasses us all by his
genius,” has resigned and has been quiet since the revelation of embarrassing
One such case is the discovery, on the organic farm in Jovanjica, Vojvodina, of
a twelve-hectare field where 65,000 marijuana plants that were hidden behind
crops of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, a laboratory and 600 kilograms of
drugs, as well as weapons and high-tech surveillance equipment. The owner of the
farm, who was regularly visited by government officials, had a fake police badge
and police license plates provided by officers working for Dijana Hrkalovic.
Another case was the revelation that “the Wolf” was discreetly using a police
shooting club to train with the leaders of the Janjicari, Stankovic and Belivuk,
as well as Novak Nedic, the secretary general of the Vucic government.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic knows well this world that evolves between
politics, football and the underworld. As a young man, he was a supporter of the
Red Star in Arkan times.
Engaged in politics alongside Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian far
right and a paramilitary militia similar to that of Arkan, Vucic was a minister
under Milosevic. Today, he seems to be using the ultras of Partizan, the club
being traditionally close to the secret police because it belongs to the state.
However, two developments have taken place this year in the SerboMontenegrin
criminal world. In Belgrade, the police arrested Veljko Belivuk and about twenty
Janjicari in February, to everyone’s surprise. The justice accuses “Velja the
Problem” of murder, kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. Since his
arrest, media close to the government have been relaying the testimonies of the
families of disappeared victims of the gang. “It is not yet known why the state
decided to put an end to this criminal group after years of protection,”
comments Stevan Dojcinovic. In addition to the discovery of a place of execution
in a house in Ritopek, on the outskirts of Belgrade, one hypothesis is,
according to one expert, that “Belivuk’s group, which was in the service of the
State, went too far in racketeering of businessmen close to the government”.
The deadly potion of “Doctor Death” In Montenegro, Slobodan Kascelan, the head
of the Kavac clan, was arrested in April. There, the reversal of the situation
has a rational explanation: president Djukanovic’s party having lost the 2020
legislative elections, the dinosaur of Montenegrin politics finds himself, even
if it retains an influence on the secret services and the judiciary, in a
situation of cohabitation with a government that is hostile to him. “The state
no longer controls organized crime. Djukanovic no longer has full powers,” said
Vanja Calovic Markovic, the Director of the National Council against Corruption.
Kascelan was arrested on the orders of Dritan Abazovic, the Deputy Prime
Minister who coordinates the security services. The young and courageous
Abazovic revealed that, in the wake of the change of government, Kavac’s clan
offered him, through relatives of the patriarch of traffickers, Branislav
Micunovic, to meet him. Following his refusal, he received a message: “We’ll see
each other, one way or another…” Soon after, an assassination attempt was foiled
through telephone tapping that revealed a plan to use a sniper, as in the case
of Zoran Djindjic in Belgrade almost two decades ago. Dritan Abazovic said he
was “willing to pay any price to defeat organized crime.” In particular, he
dismissed Zoran Lazovic, the director of the police’s department for combating
organized crime, the man who appeared on the video of Kalics’ wedding, which has
long been considered, according to a source close to the government, to be “the
link between the state and organized crime” in Montenegro.
The relationships between the men of power and the underworld sometimes take a
very strange turn. An old story still makes Belgrade howl with laughter – or cry
with rage, depending on the interlocutor. Twenty years ago, a small thug,
Veselin Bozovic, was targeted by a burst of Kalashnikov in a street in the
Serbian capital. He was still alive when he arrived at the hospital, as the
shooter’s bullets had not reached any vital organs. His wife, son and two
bystanders, also hit by the bullets, also survived their injuries. A miracle.
This was without counting on Dr. Zlatibor Loncar, who was off duty that day but
suddenly arrived at the hospital emergency room. An hour later, Bozovic was
dead. The police investigation proved that Doctor Loncar had injected him with a
deadly content. “He told us: “I’m going to finish him…” “ testified a repentant
criminal. Ten days later, the doctor received an apartment in consideration for
his services. He denied the charges and was never prosecuted due to lack of
evidence, according to the police.
Doctor Loncar was actually working for the Zemun clan, at the time the most
powerful gang in Serbia. Then the man whom the Serbian tabloids nicknamed
“Doctor Death” became a loyal follower of President Aleksandar Vucic. Today, he
is minister of health.