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Bosnia: Smugglers Find Way Round Border Clampdown

A drive to halt the bustling illegal trade across the Drina river has met only partial success.
By Srdjan Papic

Golub has been fishing the waters of the Drina, near Bijeljina, in northeast Bosnia, for years. But this stretch of the river dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, near the Pavlovica bridge and Popovi village, is not only good for fishermen. It is also favoured by smugglers and other criminals who criss-cross the frontier illegally every day.

"I can see them in boats and on rafts every night, and sometimes by day," said Golub. "Five or six years ago, they were carrying petrol in jerry cans, then it was barrels as well…later it was cattle. They transport everything, from cattle to cars, petrol, coffee and even girls."

As the fisherman's tale suggests, criminals from all over the region have long made use of the porous borders between Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. And the frontier between eastern Bosnia and Serbia along the Drina remains one of the smugglers' favourite.

The contraband trade was most intense in 1992, according to Branko Torodorovic, head of the Helsinki Human Rights committee in Republika Srpska, RS. In the early months of the Bosnian war, criminal gangs under warlords such as the late Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic moved in from Serbia. In April that year, Arkan and his paramilitary group, the Tigers, invaded Bijeljina and oversaw the brutal ethnic cleansing of the town's Muslim population.

Arkan developed Bijeljina as a training ground for his troops for their operations elsewhere in Bosnia. Some of his followers settled there permanently, sparking a burgeoning trade with Serbia. The traffic in weapons, drugs, people and other goods carried on without impediment for years. The situation only altered over the past year, as the Bosnian State Border Service, DGS, strengthened its control over the border.

The Serbian police and the DGS tightened security measures even more after the assassination of the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, on March 12. Since then, border service units have clamped down on a number of illegal activities on this part of the frontier.

The DGS spokesperson, Alma Efendic, says the organisation's units have seized drugs, weapons, ammunition, stolen vehicles, forged car registration documents and a variety of smuggled goods, including sugar, cigarettes and alcohol. They have prevented 129 people from crossing the border and pressed several criminal charges.

Meanwhile, Bosnia's top western mediator, High Representative Paddy Ashdown on April 23 expressed concern that some of the suspected criminals rounded up in Serbia following Djindjic's murder may be released from prison now that the state of emergency is over and attempt to flee and settle in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ashdown urged the Bosnian authorities to ensure that border units are extra vigilant, and said Serbian police would hand over details of those due to be released who have family or business relations in Bosnia.

Golub says while improved controls at the Pavlovica bridge may have stopped most of the smuggling that used to go on there, the bulk of the business has merely shifted downstream a few kilometres towards the village of Amajlije.

According to Todorovic, the smugglers mainly use six border crossings between Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia, at Popovi, Balatun, Janja, Amajlije, Medjasi and Crnoljevo. He says the criminals held responsible for Djindjic's assassination may have used one or more of them for their getaway.

"Extensive information points to the fact that members of criminal and mafia gangs linked to gangs in the Republika Srpska illegally crossed the Drina river into Bosnia the day after the prime minister was murdered," he said. "Some stayed in Bijeljina, while others carried on into the interior of the RS."

Speaking from experience, Golub says he can testify to the fact that the smugglers rarely appear afraid of the police. "They look as if they are working together," he said. "The police come, chat away with them and then leave."

Todorovic blames corruption among the police, the DGS and other official bodies for the impunity with which the smugglers continue to trade across the Drina. The border service admits it has fired 17 officials who worked on the Bosnia-Serbia frontier over the past few years alone.

Most of the dismissals were linked to illegal activities and abuse of official positions. One policeman in Bijeljina who was placed in charge of an operation to close the Drina to smugglers says his superiors pressurised him to let the criminals go and even tried to bribe him.

The policeman, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said that after he had detained several men for trying to smuggle cattle into Bosnia, a senior police official told him the arrests should not have taken place. He added that after going home, his doorbell was rung at midnight. "When I opened the door, I found an envelope containing money," he said. "When I tried to report this at the police station and said someone was trying to bribe me, the officers in charge laughed at me. They tried to convince me I had dropped the money myself."

The RS interior ministry has refused to comment on such reports but they do not surprise the local residents. "The government is corrupt in all its structures," said Petar, a Bijeljina resident, whose views are shared by many local people.

Srdjan Papic is a freelance journalist based in Bosnia.

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