Ex-Yugoslavs Control Euro Smuggling Rackets

The arrest in Sweden of a Serb murder suspect underlines former Yugoslav gangs' continued domination of cigarette smuggling across Europe.

Ex-Yugoslavs Control Euro Smuggling Rackets

The arrest in Sweden of a Serb murder suspect underlines former Yugoslav gangs' continued domination of cigarette smuggling across Europe.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The arrest of Serbian national Darko Milicevic in Sweden is the latest in a series of incidents highlighting the dominant role ex-Yugoslav gangs continue to play in pan-European crime rackets.

Milicevic, 26, was arrested in the port city of Gothenburg on August 31, at the request of the Belgrade authorities. Swedish police said he was wanted for a number of murders in Serbia, without elaborating.

But the Serbia's interior ministry said it had requested his arrest on a warrant naming him as a member of the infamous Zemun gang who was suspected of involvement in the March 12 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic

The Zemun gang is believed to have run a major network which smuggled anything from cigarettes and fuel to guns and drugs, both in Serbia and beyond.

Milicevic was first arrested in Sweden together with two ethnic Albanians in connection with the August 2000 murder of two rival drug dealers in Gothenburg. He was later deported for using a false identity after the case against him collapsed.

Although it might seem a strange alliance given the bitter recent history of Serb-Albanian relations, the Zemun gang is thought to have cooperated with ethnic Albanians in the past. Drug dealers in Belgrade familiar with the gang's modus operandi have told IWPR that Albanians in Macedonia provided Zemun members with a steady supply of heroin following the Kosovo conflict.

Swedish police are holding Milicevic while they decide whether to charge him with any crimes committed within their jurisdiction, but their counterparts in Belgrade are confident that he will be extradited after the detention period expires.

Organised crime groups originating from the former Yugoslavia have a long record of operating in Sweden. As well as a string of murders, their activities have been highlighted by regular seizures of narcotics, cigarettes and arms by the Swedish authorities.

Serbia's most notorious gangster, indicted war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, was a pioneer, leading at least five bank heists in Stockholm and Gothenburg during the 1970s when he was nicknamed "the smiling bank robber" by Swedish police.

Swedish-based associates of Arkan, such as Dragan Joksovic and later Milan Sevo, gained notoriety in the Swedish media, and were regarded as Stockholm's leading gang bosses.

Beginning in 1997, Arkan and Joksovic went on to form part of a pan-European cigarette smuggling network. That first year, the number of cigarettes smuggled into Sweden more than doubled, reaching close to 40 million according to Swedish customs. A single Macedonian lorry intercepted at the port of Trelleborg was found to be carrying 16 million cigarettes.

"We know that Arkan and Joksovic represented the Serbian and Swedish control points of network which smuggled cigarettes from the Balkans into northern Europe," said a Swedish customs official working in the Balkans, who asked not to be named.

Joksovic was murdered in Stockholm in 1998 in a dispute over smuggled cigarettes, and Arkan was killed in Belgrade in January 2000. Sevo is currently serving a prison term for weapons offences. The same week that they detained Milicevic, Swedish police took Sevo's brother into custody following the discovery of an arms cache that included assault rifles, grenades and ammunition.

Despite the removal of such key players, Swedish customs officers say that ex-Yugoslav gangsters still dominate cigarette smuggling across much of Europe.

"We have a number of cases which make it clear that the import and distribution of counterfeit cigarettes is controlled by people from former Yugoslavia," IWPR was told by investigator Tomas Petersson, Swedish customs' foremost expert on tobacco smuggling.

Petersson said Sweden is a transit route for counterfeit cigarettes smuggled onwards to Norway and the United Kingdom.

As the gangs have matured, they have diversified away from their traditional trafficking routes through the Balkan countries. Petersson explained how crime bosses have used the money and expertise gained from earlier operations to open up new networks in Poland, the Baltic states and Belarus.

"I think that with some of these new countries entering the EU, this will get highlighted more. These big guys from the former Yugoslavia move up and station themselves in these countries. I know they have some people in Poland, close to the distributors, just to make sure the money runs the right way and the right guys get the right payment," he said.

While former Yugoslavs manage the trade, other nationalities are used for menial work.

"As soon as you have to use your hands, do any kind of real work, they prefer to let someone else do it - Lithuanians or Poles. But it's the ex-Yugoslavs - and in one case we had Kosovo Albanians - who are taking care of the money question here in Sweden," Petersson said.

Magnus Ramebaeck, a Swedish prosecutor who has handled a large number of cigarette smuggling cases, confirms this hierarchy. The people he prosecutes are typically drivers from Poland or the Baltics, but "from our investigations we know that we have not yet reached the key ex-Yugoslav persons high up in the hierarchy. Arrested suspects have talked about former Yugoslavs during questioning, but their information is not enough on its own for us to take action against these people."

Despite the occasional killing or arrest, the smugglers remain in business. On September 3, Estonian customs officers seized 640,000 cigarettes on a ship bound for Sweden.

Hugh Griffiths is investigations coordinator for IWPR.

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