While Cocaine Jet-setter Michael Dokovich fights his extradition to Croatia, the Balkan Cartel is on the rise

by Blaž Zgaga (Nacional)

contributions by Sylvain Besson (Tamedia), Joerg Schmitt (Der Spiegel), Mark Eeckhaut (De Standaard), Álvaro Sánchez Castrillo (infoLibre), Jan Meeus (NRC Handelsblad) and Mihailo Jovović (Vijesti)

– The hard drug-trafficking Balkan Cartel is now flooding Europe with cocaine at record levels, with experts stating “60 per cent of the narcotics market in Europe” is run by criminal structures from the Balkans

– Exclusive Swiss court documents confirm Montenegrin citizen Michael Dokovich is the suspected leader of an organized criminal organization which smuggled 600 kilograms of cocaine in a private jet to Europe

– Dokovich trafficked cocaine from South America during three flights using a Gulfstream V jet, according to Swiss prosecutors

– Dokovich owns a hotel worth 1.3 million euros in Montenegro, possibly paid for using funds of illicit origin

– Montenegrin sailors have been arrested by international police in anti-drug operations in such high numbers, that the Balkan state’s maritime force now face blacklisting in the U.S

“The Big Boss turned up at the spot. It was a mistake on his part, the goods had to be unloaded and then broken down between different buyers. There are few people in Europe capable of acquiring half a ton of cocaine,“ reveals a Swiss police officer specialized in narcotics, who wishes to remain anonymous, as he explains the biggest cocaine seizure ever made on Swiss territory.

“In principle these bigwigs never get their hands dirty. He was not expected to show up. It was a nice surprise. This guy is at the top of the hierarchy. The stopover [in Basel-Mulhouse, France] was not planned, it was a unique opportunity.”

Before the Swiss police intervened, the convoy was under international surveillance from the French side.

“The delivery was monitored,” adds colonel François Després, of the French gendarmerie. “After the landing, we let the product pass to the Basel side. This corresponded to the police operational plan set up by the Czech and Croatian authorities, who were leading the investigation codenamed “Familia”. The French gendarme praised this as a very good operation and excellent cooperation.

On 16 May 2019, three men from East Europe were arrested in the underground car park of the Grand Casino, in Basel, Switzerland, near the airport of Basel-Mulhouse, in France. They have just landed 600 kilograms of cocaine from a private jet, a Gulfstream V registered M-FISH, flying from Uruguay, with a stopover in Nice. The drugs were packed in 21 suitcases, with a street value of 18 million euros.

In July this year, Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List named one of the big bosses of the Balkan Cartel for the first time in connection with the Basel raid.

His name is Michael Dokovich and he allegedly led his criminal enterprise from rented penthouse in Zagreb, capital of Croatia. A citizen of Montenegro of Albanian origin, Dokovich has an extensive criminal past.

 

Michael Dokovich (photo: Facebook)

Busted in Basel

This trafficking operations shows the Balkan Cartel has adopted a sophisticated and professional approach to convoy narcotics. Instead of using slow container ships, which are usually the main transport method for cocaine smuggling, he used a private jet – the fastest method to move the drug.

In the operation, led and coordinated by Croatian FBI-like Police National Bureau for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (PNUSKOK), also placed under arrest were Croatian IT expert Silvijo Beljević and Czech pilot Aleš Sokolik. All three are in detention and unreachable for comments.

In early 2019, Dokovich founded an aviation company MD Global Jet in Zagreb, and hired Czech pilots who carried VIP passengers, accompanied by real flight attendants, to disguise his trafficking. The cost for renting the jet was 230,000 euros.

The Croatian Ministry of Interior confirmed to Nacional that PNUSKOK has filed “charges for criminal offenses of a criminal association and the commission of crimes within a criminal association, all in connection with the criminal offense of illicit manufacturing and trafficking in drugs”. They did not reveal any other details of this case.

Croatian State Prosecutor’s Office for the Suppression of Organized Crime and Corruption (USKOK) declined to comment due to the secrecy of investigation.

According to Swiss sources the Croatian Silvijo Beljević has already been extradited to Croatia and is currently in detention.

But the judgement of the Swiss Federal Court, which decided on Dokovich’s and Sokolik’s appeals for extradition on 29 October 2019, obtained by EIC partner Tamedia and exclusively published by Nacional, reveals many details of the criminal activities. This confirms Dokovich is one of the suspected bosses.

Swiss Federal Court – Dokovich – page 1

 

Dokovich fights extradition to Croatia

Swiss prosecutors state the following: “A. [which stands for Montenegrin national Michael Dokovich] is collectively accused of being the head of an international gang that smuggled large amounts of cocaine from South America to Europe with the intention of selling it in Europe. A. is said to have organized the purchase, transport and distribution of the cocaine.”

The Swiss Federal Court rejected Dokovich’s appeal against the decision of the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (Ministry of Justice) made on 6 September 2019, which approved his extradition to Croatia. The court also rejected Czech pilot’s appeal and both announced they will fight their extradition in front of the Swiss Supreme Court.

According to a Swiss document the County Court of Zagreb issued arrest warrants for suspects on 14 July and the Croatian Ministry of Justice forwarded it to their Swiss counterparts on 22 July this year.

Swiss Federal Court – Dokovich – head of international OCG – – page 2

 

Three days later the chief of the Zagreb office of PNUSKOK Alen Barta confirmed at a press conference that “two high-ranking members of Balkans narco cartel have been arrested.” One is Michael Dokovich and the other is his right hand man Pero ‘Pjer’ Šarac, who visited South America three times in 2018 to allegedly organize cocaine shipments, according to the Croatian press.

In a complex operation supported by Europol, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Frontex, 16 suspects in total have been arrested. Besides Croatia, which led and coordinated the operation, police forces from Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Belgium, Italy, France, Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, Paraguay and Uruguay collaborated in this operation which resulted in the confiscation of more than a ton of cocaine, along with two million euros in cash and one million euros worth of luxury goods like high-quality watches and cars.

Chief of PNUSKOK’s drugs crimes department Dražen Rastović revealed information about the Balkan Cartel at the press conference on 25 July 2019 in Zagreb. “60 per cent of the narcotics market in Europe is run by criminal structures from the Balkans,” he said. “This [the Balkan Cartel] is a structure with a fluid composition which, when necessary, brings together several different organizations for a particular job.”

On 19 June 2019, the Coordination Meeting concerning the case of the operation “Familia” was held at Eurojust, the main European prosecutorial coordination body. Representatives from states which cooperated in the investigation agreed that the prosecutions should take place in Croatia. It was found that the focus of both the investigation and the criminal activities of the persecuted group was in Croatia. Consequently prosecutors from other European countries agreed that three suspects arrested in Basel will face judges at the County Court in Zagreb.

Three flights of Air Cocaine to South America

But who is Michael Dokovich, one of the suspected bosses of the Balkan Cartel?

He was born 60 years ago in Montenegro as Ilmija Frljučkić and has used many different aliases throughout his life. He was known as Michael Illyriani, Michael Bugatti, Živko Jović and he created a false identity under the name of Radovan Trzin with the help of a Croatian policeman who was arrested this July. According to information obtained by Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, he is of Albanian origin.

After his brother Hamdija Frljuckić was arrested in the U.S. in 2003, his criminal activities included the biggest A.T.M. fraud in the U.S. in the 2000’s, which was worth at least 3.5 million Dollars – the details of which were splashed across pages of The New York Times. His gang stole the bank IDs of more than 20,000 Americans through ATM skimming, where they copied card numbers and pin codes. His accomplices were arrested, but Dokovich remained at large. “The main older brother flees with several million in a suitcase,” an investigator said to the newspaper.

According to Europol, the investigation “Familia” revealed that the Balkan traffickers were not only operating in Europe and South America, but also in Asia, where they facilitated and coordinated the maritime trafficking of multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine. A shipment with 421 kilograms of cocaine was seized in Hong Kong in April 2019. The confiscated cocaine in three operations had been shipped to the southeast Asian city from South America and investigators believe most of the drugs were intended to be smuggled to Australia by a private jet.

In collaboration with EIC partners Nacional has identified the flights of the Gulfstream V registered as M-FISH in The Isle of Man. The plane has been owned since 7 January 2016 by Czech company Osprey Wings, which is 99 per cent owned by Aero Partners Corp. incorporated in the tax haven of the Marshall Islands.

 

Gulfstream V used for cocaine trafficking (photo: The Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Croatia)

 

The flight data since January 2016 reveals that the Gulfstream has been identified as present in South America, mostly over Brazil, on the following days: 8 October 2018, 10 October 2018, 21 December 2018, 28 February 2019, 1 March 2019, 3 March 2019, and 13, 14 and 16 May 2019, when the cartel was busted in Basel. This data shows that the aircraft had at least three intercontinental flights to South America before its final flight on May 16, when it was returning from Uruguay.

Since 2016, the aircraft with the main base in Ostrava, Czech Republic, has flown extensively in Eastern Europe and Russia. It has landed also dozen times in Basel-Mulhouse, where it had its maintenance base. However, the most numerous were flights between Czech airport in Ostrava to Russian destinations. (see infographics)

 

Infographics Tamedia – English

 

Prosecutors corroborate these findings. Swiss court documents outline the following: “The members of the gang on 8 to 11 October 2018, 19 to 22 December 2018 and 28 February to 3 March 2019 with a previously acquired private jet and under the pretext of commercial passenger flights to South America flew to take cocaine there at a previously agreed place and to transport it by plane to Europe and to pass it on.”

The Swiss documents explain the police findings and add that the third flight in March 2019 was without cocaine, after it has been inspected at the airport in Asunción (Paraguay). Then a new flight was planned in May 2019.

“On 16 May 2019 members of the gang flew from Montevideo via Nice to Basel, where they are said to have loaded 21 suitcases from the aircraft into a Ford Transit rental car (license plate number 1). Subsequently, the complainant, C. and B. with the said car and a car Smart (license plate 2) drove to the city center of Basel, where at a police check in an underground garage in the 21 suitcases in the van 600 kilograms and 472 grams of cocaine had been seized,” the document about Czech pilot Sokolik reveals. The persons C. and B. are Dokovich and Beljević.

 

Suspects under police surveillance at Basel-Mulhouse airport (photo: Europol)

 

During a house search of Dokovich’s penthouse in Zagreb, the Croatian police found a letter of intent which reveals his company MD Global Jet planned to buy the Gulfstream V, registered as M-FISH, which they were renting, but was now on sale, so they could organize additional flights.

A 1.3 million euros boutique hotel in Montenegro

One of the alleged bosses of the Balkan Cartel, Dokovich, also owns the Liria Hotel in Tuzi, a small town close to Podgorica airport in Montenegro, which is mostly populated by members of the Albanian minority.

 

Liria Hotel in Tuzi, Montenegro (photo: Facebook)

 

Nacional can reveal this information due to the following discoveries: Annual financial statements of the Montenegrin company Liria-Hotel d.o.o., solely owned and managed by Dokovich, show that he obtained real estate worth 1.3 million Euro in 2014. This is the only Liria Hotel in this town.

Both the Liria Hotel and company Liria Hotel shares address at Tuzi bb ( “bb” is without number). Also on the Facebook profile of the Liria Hotel, a boutique hotel with 15 rooms and luxury decoration, Dokovich appears in three photos.

 

Interior of Liria Hotel, Tuzi, Montenegro (photo: Facebook)

 

Due to his alleged criminal past in the USA and his detention in cocaine trafficking in Switzerland, there is a suspicion that this hotel was bought with money of illicit origin. Therefore a suspicion of money-laundering exists. This is backed up by Dokovich’s claim in his extradition appeal at the Swiss court. He requested his legal costs should be paid by the Swiss taxpayers using the argument that because some of his money may be of illicit origin, his lawyers may not accept it. The Swiss judges decided that his attempt to receive free legal aid from the Swiss state for his litigation was futile.

Located at the same address as Liria Hotel at Tuzi bb is another company, according to the Montenegrin company register. Its name is Imperial Palace and it is owned 99 per cent by Dokovich’s sister and one per cent by a man who appears to be of Czech nationality. This company has been managed by the sister and Dokovich is listed as the company’s authorized representative. Dokovich is also a director in the company Infrastructural Project Finance and Management Limited, which has an address in the capital Podgorica and is owned by a Dublin based company with the same name. All these companies are now defunct.

“I’ve been in the fight against drugs for 14 years, but I’ve never seen such amounts of cocaine”

During the last months European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), of which Nacional is a partner, has conducted an extensive investigation on cocaine trafficking in Europe with many interviews with policemen, prosecutors and representatives of major police international organizations. Many wish to remain anonymous.

In recent months this scene has become routine in European ports and airports. Black sports bags are extracted from a cargo ship, a truck or a private jet, before being lined up and exhibited by the police as trophies. Inside the bags are cocaine bricks sometimes decorated with images glorifying the narco-bosses, such as the likeness of Tony Montana, the anti-hero of the film Scarface, discovered in Basel this May, when the alleged boss Dokovich was arrested. These logos allow the traffickers to distribute their batches of drugs among different criminal groups before transporting the goods all over Europe, including to Croatia.

 

Cocaine brick seized in Basel (photo: The Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Croatia)

 

In 2019 so far, all the major records for cocaine seizures have been broken. Alongside the 600 kilograms of the Balkan Cartel from Uruguay intercepted in Basel in May, on 17 June US Customs seized nearly 20 tons in Philadelphia on a ship of the Geneva based company MSC on its route to the Dutch port of Rotterdam. The main suspects were again from the Balkan Cartel, but apparently from another clan. Four Montenegrin sailors, including an officer of the ship, were arrested. Since January, nearly 45 tons of cocaine have been seized in the port of Antwerp alone, which is one of the main gateways for drugs in Europe. At this rate, Antwerp is on track to surpass the record amount of 51 metric tons seized in 2018.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. At best, according to Europol estimates, the authorities discover only 15 per cent of the quantities circulating on the market. “I’ve been in the fight against drugs for 14 years, but I’ve never seen such amounts of cocaine,” says Andres Bastidas, an Interpol expert from Columbia. “That scares me. There is simply too much money to be gained from this traffic.”

Cocaine: a 300 billion euros industry

With some 300 billion euros in annual turnover – according to estimates from one Western intelligence agency – cocaine is by far the most lucrative drug for criminal groups. These huge profits allow them to buy whoever they want – crews, port employees and even government officials. “Drug trafficking generates immense amounts of illicit cash. DEA and our counterparts have always been concerned with the global flow of drug proceeds throughout Europe and elsewhere, particularly given the close connection between terror financing and drug trafficking. Through our drug investigations, DEA has seen terrorist organizations tapping into criminal networks for funding. This is happening in Europe and all over the world,” says Kevin Scully, director of the US anti drug agency DEA for Europe. According to Europol no more than two per cent of drugs money is confiscated.

At the origin of this flood of cocaine is the explosion of world production. It has doubled since 2011 to around 2,000 tons a year, of which at least 600 or 700 go to Europe. In Colombia, coca crops have quadrupled, thanks – paradoxically – to the restoration of civil peace in the country.

Simultaneously, the traffickers reorganized themselves. They managed to hack the global trading system and its most efficient vector, large container ships, to ship increasing quantities of cocaine across the Atlantic.

A favorite new method for cocaine trafficking is called “rip-off”. It consists of opening legitimate containers of goods (such as fish, wood, fruit, wine, cardboard …) in South American ports to hide drugs. “They slip 50 bags of 50 kg of cocaine into the containers, the drug travels with real goods and it is relatively easy to withdraw,” says a Swiss policeman familiar with these issues.

 

Bags of cocaine in container inspected during seizure of MSC Gayane in Philadelphia, U.S., 17 June 2019. (photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

 

On arrival in Europe, the container loaded with cocaine is identified by its serial number, which traffickers transmit to their accomplices at the port of arrival. Then the accomplices recover the drugs and place false seals on the container doors to make the break-in undetectable. Most often, the carrier and the owner of the container are not aware of anything.

The advantage of the rip-off method is that it can carry a lot of drugs with very few people. This is the opposite of the ‘mule’ method, where people transport a few hundred grams of cocaine in their possession, or inside their bodies, with a high risk of detection. The other advantage of the rip-off is that it prevents police identifying the sender of the cocaine. Even if the shipment is caught, the authorities do not know who organized the transport or from where the cocaine originates.

Shipping containers: vehicle for up to 90 per cent of cocaine

Between 70 to 90 per cent of the cocaine that arrives in Europe is transported in containers, according to estimates by Western intelligence services. Each trip can bring 400, 800 kilos, sometimes more. “In the past, we were talking about an average of 60 to 100 kg,” says a report written by a police officer in Antwerp in 2017. Currently, the average weight of a load is greater than 600 kg, with some shipments with more than one ton.

Seizures have increased everywhere. For 18 per cent in Spain between 2017 and 2018, and in Latin America it went up for 40 per cent, according to the Spanish internal intelligence agency. In Antwerp, the catches have doubled every year between 2013 and 2016.

However, these seizures are not enough to stop the flow of cocaine. The huge quantities seized show that traffickers are getting bolder because most of the cocaine passes unnoticed. Big ports such as Antwerp, Rotterdam or Hamburg have millions of containers passing by each year of which only a tiny fraction is controlled by customs.

Also the organization of cocaine traffickers has changed. The cartels and hierarchic mafias of the former period have been replaced by a myriad of groups (Italian, Nigerian, but today also Serbian, Albanian, Dutch, Moroccan and others) who place emissaries in South America to buy cocaine directly. Among them is also the Balkan Cartel with its fluid composition and increasing presence.

These groups sometimes come together “to do their shopping together and organize transportation to Europe together,” explains Kevin Scully of the DEA. The use of encrypted applications on smartphones has simplified communications between criminals, despairing police officers trying to monitor them.

These group purchases explain the logos and emblems found on cocaine packages. They serve to distribute the orders between different distributors once the cocaine arrives at the destination. This distribution operates near major ports such as Antwerp or Rotterdam. Then cocaine reaches the final customer, via couriers and semi-wholesalers.

To be efficient, the rip-off system requires an elaborate chain of accomplices in the ports. Mariners, dockers, customs, logistic companies: everyone is tempted to earn a few tens of thousands of euros to pass the “good” container loaded with cocaine.

1.1 million euros in cash in a Lidl bag

In Antwerp, “criminal organizations are actively recruiting on Facebook, in fitness centers and coffee shops,” according to drug prosecutors Manolo Tersago and Ken Wiptas. And a lot of people are interested. Just to move a container, a job that takes a few minutes, a forklift driver can earn 25,000 to 75,000 euros. Truck drivers, also corrupt, then take over to put the container and its drugs out of port.

In 2017, a Dutch customs employee, Gerrit Groenheide, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for smuggling at least four tons of cocaine into the port of Rotterdam. His work was crucial in allowing shipments to pass through the customs checks. He needed to identify the containers by means of a color code, from white (without risk) to red (mandatory control) through orange – the marginal cases, where the customs officer must individually decide which containers should be inspected or not.

On the day of his arrest, the police found 1.1 million euros in cash in a Lidl bag hanging in Gerritt Groenheide’s kitchen. But the customs officer says that money was not his only motive. He also felt threatened. Traffickers “knew everything about me, including where my children went to school and where they worked,” he told investigators.

These implicit threats sometimes become concrete. In the Netherlands, where the main heads of European cocaine trafficking are based, people are now murdered in the middle of the streets. On 18 September 2019, attorney Derk Wiersum was shot several times in the head as he climbed into his car in a quiet part of Amsterdam. He defended Nabil Bakkali, a prosecution witness in an investigation against the “Mocro mafia”, a criminal group in the Netherlands and Morocco that is active in cocaine trafficking.

The witness’s brother had already been shot dead in Amsterdam in March 2018. Other cocaine-related murders have been reported in recent months in Spain and Germany. Some of these murders are related to a street war between two criminal clans (the Kavački and the Škaljarski), part of the Balkan Cartel from the Montenegrin coastal city of Kotor.

The rise of the Balkan Cartel

Many interviewed experts and officials warn about a rise of Albanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Croats and other nationalities from the Balkans in cocaine trafficking to Europe.

“Operational knowledge about the smuggling of cocaine from South America into the EU indicates that organized crime groups from several countries in the Western Balkans have a significant role in this,” according to a statement from the Croatian police to Nacional on the subject of trafficking and the Balkan cartel. “It is estimated that organized crime groups from Montenegro and the Republic of Serbia are in the lead in the organization of cocaine smuggling and are connected with criminal groups or individuals from other countries in the Western Balkans, and consequently from the Republic of Croatia, which are less frequently placed in the hierarchy in relation to other members of organized crime groups.”

Spain is also a country where criminal gangs from the Balkan Cartel operate. For example, in September 2019, a joint operation of the Spanish National Police, Civil Guard and Tax Agency took out almost 800 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a sailboat chartered by a Serbian mafia group. Nine months earlier, in December 2018, another investigation culminated in Barcelona with the arrest of Nenad Vinčić, considered one of the representatives in southern Europe of the Balkan Cartel. In 2017 five Montenegrins were sentenced for lengthy prison sentences after the seizure of 3.5 tons of cocaine two years earlier.

A senior official of the Spanish domestic intelligence agency CITCO explained the role of organized criminal groups from the Balkans in Spain. They identified the significant role the Serbs plays in distribution of coke. “When the goods arrive in Spain, of which 60 per cent arrive by sea, they are usually distributed mainly by road, by means of trailers or double-deep cars, depending on the quantity,” says the official. “In fact, the Serbs, who are increasingly positioning themselves in the cocaine market, take a trailer, climb up the container and cross Europe with large quantities of cocaine until they reach Serbia, where they begin to distribute it.”

He adds also that some Balkan groups operating in Spain are of various nationalities. “We have groups from countries of the former Yugoslavia dedicated to cocaine that use Spain to collect and transport it. There is a group of Serbs led by Serbs, there is a group of Croats, but then there is also a group with various nationalities: Croats, Bosnians and Serbs who work with cocaine.”

“These groups, which are moving quite a bit, are worrying us more and more. They even occasionally go to South America to make contacts directly. It is not yet the most problematic, but we see that there is a movement in the Balkans that concerns the whole of the European Union. In fact, in the EMPACT, Europol anti-crime cooperation platform, there are anti-crime groups in the Balkans because that area is a problematic axis due to the supply of drugs or weapons.”

He also answered a question about possible involvement of politicians from the Balkans in organized crime. “Yes, there may have been the collusion of politicians with criminals. But every time politicians try to get less involved, they try to separate themselves as much as they can from these organizations. In fact, there is now a lot of pressure in the European Union on Albania, for example, to do more work in the fight against organized crime.”

“The influence of the Balkan Cartel is currently growing particularly strongly”

Officials from international police agencies who wish to remain anonymous also warned about the rise of the Balkan Cartel. “One of the largest groups in Europe at present is the Albanians. They are behind much of the coke deliveries to Europe. We see many Albanians flying to Latin America to do business there. In our view, the top networks in the coke business in Europe are currently from Albania, Netherlands, Morocco, Pakistan. That means there are a few traditional players in the business and a few new ones,” explains one official.

“We see in the cocaine trade not only the traditional organized criminal groups like Turks, or the Italian mafia who also have their hands in the heroin business. There have been added new groups, especially from the Western Balkans, but also groups that were not even active in the drug business. But there is just so much to earn in this business,” says the other official. “The influence of the Balkan Cartel is currently growing particularly strongly. In the past, they were often just helpers for the mafia, for example, and today we see these groups in all stages of the cocaine trade.”

“The main organized criminal groups in the coke business in Europe are: Ndrangheta, Dutch, Albanians, Moroccans and organized criminal groups from the Balkans (Montenegro, Serbs, Croats),” the third official of international police organizations explains. “And this form of cooperation between the cartels now affects not only Europe. We now see groups from the Balkans in South America acting. They coordinate and monitor transports there.”

A major asset of the Balkan Cartel: Montengerin sailors

There are many different criminal clans in the Western Balkans where populations still suffer heavy economic and social problems after the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Many war criminals were never prosecuted, economies have been facing double digit unemployment for decades, former Yugoslav republics also see an exodus of its younger and educated population to Western Europe and corruption remains widespread. This appears to be a perfect fertile ground for organized criminal groups which infiltrate many parts of societies. Often a criminal activity is the only way for some people to earn enough for a decent life comparable to Western European living standards.

A decade ago one of the main Serbian clans was led by Montenegrin Darko Šarić, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 by a Belgrade court for trafficking 5.7 tons of cocaine. This was a big blow and his clan is allegedly led today by his close associate Goran Soković who is still at large. A Slovene citizen of Montenegrin nationality Dragan Tošić, leader of Šarić’s Slovene branch of clan, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2019 in Ljubljana.

The Bosnian clan “Tito and Dino“ received attention this summer when Bosnian online media Zurnal.info published parts of judicial documents based on the Dutch request for international legal assistance, which show that this clan had 14 tons of cocaine confiscated by different police forces during the last two years. Dutch law enforcement estimates that the Bosnian clan smuggled 100 tons of cocaine to Europe during the same time and that this clan is connected to the Dutch Mocro mafia, Italian Camorra and Irish Kinahan family.

The Tito and Dino clan is also being investigated by DEA, one document reveals. According to Žurnal this clan is allegedly led by a Bosnian citizen, who spent most of his life in Netherlands, Edin Gačanin, currently resident in Dubai, who strongly denies these allegations. His brother Mirza Gačanin threatened the journalist Avdo Avdić that “they will search for him in ditches” in October this year, what triggered strong condemnations from journalistic organizations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The tiny Adriatic country of Montenegro is a country where many criminal clans of the Balkan Cartel have its roots. Assassinations in a street war between the Kavački and the Škaljarski clans in the city of Kotor have now transferred to western European cities.

However, one of the main logistical strengths of the Montenegrin criminal gangs are its seafarers. According to estimates by the newspaper Vijesti, 7,000 Montenegrin sailors work for global maritime companies and earn cumulatively between 200 to 300 million euros annually. In a poor country with the average net salary of 515 Euro per month (or 6,180 Euro annually), an annual average salary between 35,000 and 42,000 Euro makes seafarers rich citizens. But how do they resist the temptation to earn such or bigger amount in a single day with helping criminal gangs in trafficking cocaine? It seems many do not.

It appears that wherever there is a big seizure of cocaine in the world, Montenegrin sailors are involved. In the biggest 20 tons catch this year in Philadelphia, worth about 1.3 billion Dollars, the second officer of MSC ship Gayane Ivan Đurašević and sailors Boško Marković, Aleksandar Kavaja and Nenad Ilić were arrested.

Container loaded with bags of cocaine during the biggest seizure in Philadelphia, U.S. (photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

In 2015 Vinetu Čoković, Vladimir Marjanović, Veselin Pavličić, Dejan Djonović Petrović and Marija Matić were arrested after they organized a transport of cocaine which was dropped from cargo ships, collected near the Spanish coast by small yachts and finally delivered to Spanish ports. All were sentenced in 2017.

A year later Dalibor Dalović was sentenced in Amsterdam to six years in prison for using similar methods of trafficking with fishermen from the Dutch town of Urk, which collected 261 kilograms of cocaine from a cargo ship. All the sailors mentioned above are Montenegrin.

Montenegrin sailors ‘blacklisted’ in U.S.

The involvement of Montenegrin seafarers into cocaine trafficking seems to be so significant that after June 2019, when 19.76 tons of cocaine were seized, the USA informed major global container shipping companies that ships with crews formed in the majority by Montenegrins are not wanted in USA anymore.

MSC Gayane (photo: U.S. Customs and Border Patrol)

Additionally, global shipping company MSC started replacing Montenegrin sailors from ships on route to South American ports with sailors from other countries. Even the Association of Naval Captains of Montenegro publicly protested because reputation of Montenegrin seafarers has been damaged because some “seafarers” are involved in criminal activities.

Besides the few clans mentioned above many other Western Balkans clans operates in secrecy and unnoticed by police investigators.

With so much money earned by cocaine trafficking and weak economic prospects, high unemployment and low salaries in Western Balkans countries it seems the Balkan Cartel with all its different clans will thrive for a decades to come.

 

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