BY RYAN C. BERG
Many criminal groups in the Balkans trace their roots to the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the conflict that ensued. Under a new generation of criminals, these erstwhile local groups, criminals, and paramilitaries expanded in size, purpose, and capability, muscling their way into profitable illicit markets and moving up the value chain. In a significant development in the world of organized crime, Balkan criminal groups are now deeply connected to Latin America’s prolific drug trafficking networks. Criminal groups throughout Latin America now count Balkan organized crime groups as some of their most valued international partners.
Balkan criminal groups present attractive partners to Latin American drug cartels for four principal reasons. First, they are adaptive and work well with local groups at the source. Second, the Balkans are an important crossroads for drug trafficking by serving as a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. Third, Balkan criminal groups maintain a strong presence in most European port cities used as transshipment points from Latin America to Europe, including those in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Fourth, because of this presence, they are able to move illicit products end-to-end without the need for further intermediaries, reducing the complexity of trafficking operations and the likelihood of missteps.
Signs of a Balkan-Latin American criminal nexus have been growing in recent years. In March 2020, European authorities dismantled a Balkan criminal network based in Montenegro, predominantly trafficking cocaine to Europe. In May, German authorities seized 500kg of cocaine on a Montenegrin ship that had departed the port of Santos, Brazil — one of the principal ports at which Brazil’s largest criminal organization, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), operates. This incident follows the April 2020 arrest of Gilberto Aparecido dos Santos in Mozambique, a high-level associate of the PCC, where he allegedly sought connections with Serbian organized crime to smuggle cocaine to Europe via the Balkans.
Yet the burgeoning connections run deeper than mere alliances. Entrepreneurial criminals from Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia have gone directly to the source in Latin America, integrating themselves into the supply chains and distribution networks of cartels in Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. A new report on the Group of America from the Balkans, one of the largest drug trafficking groups in Europe, goes so far as to claim that Balkan organizations maintain close ties with intelligence agencies in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, but also with foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA.
Expanded illicit activity in the Balkans has affected both politics and citizen security for years. In the wake of the Democratic Revolution in Serbia in 2000, which resulted in the collapse of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, a democratically elected government declared a war against Serbian criminal groups by appointing special prosecutors and courts to target hardened criminal networks. Criminal groups, especially the Zemun Clan, retaliated by assassinating Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who had introduced the reforms.
In Bosnia, Edin Gačanin, considered one of the world’s top 50 drug traffickers by the Drug Enforcement Administration, allegedly received protection from the Federation Police Directorate in Bosnia as he moved about the region. And in Montenegro, where opposition leaders continue to decry pro-Western President Milo Djukanovic’s strong ties to organized crime, a bloody turf war between the Kavač and Škaljari cartels has contributed to more than 40 deaths since 2015.
Regrettably, enduring corruption and rule of law challenges in the Balkans will continue to make it a fruitful region for money laundering through real estate, tourism, and gambling. Increased drug trafficking by Latin America’s cartels, even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, threatens to exacerbate these regional challenges. Simply put, a failure to curtail criminal activity in the Balkans from its present levels would represent a grave threat to the region’s desire for accession to the European Union (EU). Since Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia have yet to join, the EU should work with these countries to develop and strengthen anti-corruption bodies and provide a bulwark against organized crime wrapping its tentacles around political parties and vulnerable democratic institutions. Without the EU’s support and encouragement, Balkan countries may be less likely to work toward the dismantling of criminal networks.
Further, unresolved disputes between Serbia and Kosovo not only distract from efforts to combat criminal groups, but also provide fertile ground for illicit criminal activity. For myriad reasons, it is of the utmost importance to solve this frozen conflict. As the Kosovo dialogue continues this week in the White House, the Trump administration should raise concerns about the power of organized crime in the region.
Ultimately, Balkan countries are responsible for their own political futures. Absent greater political will to curtail the baleful effects of organized crime on the region’s economic and political development, EU accession may remain wishful thinking.
Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.