Gangster Era Over?

After a decade of smuggling, looting and murder, many of Serbia's gangsters are believed to be thinking about "going legit"

Gangster Era Over?

After a decade of smuggling, looting and murder, many of Serbia's gangsters are believed to be thinking about "going legit"

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

In the aftermath of Slobodan Milosevic's fall from power, the mafia dons who thrived under his rule have gone to ground.

The bosses have been waiting to see what Serbia political changes mean for them, according to Vojislav Tufegdzic, top crime reporter for the daily Blic and the author of the best-selling Kriminal, an expose of Serbia's underworld.

"If our country becomes a serious state of law, the prospects are poor because they are the product of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and their future is not good," he said.

If that proves to be the case, then the recent deaths of mafia kingpins Jovan "Simenda" Simendic and Vladislav "Vanja" Bokan will mark the end of a decade of gangland bloodletting.

Stalked by a gunman for several days, Simenda was murdered on the October 4, on the eve of the revolution. Two days later, Bokan was gunned down by two men outside his house in Athens. As he lay sprawled by his car, he was finished off with a couple of shots to the head.

While mafia guns may have now fallen silent, Marko Nicovic, a former Belgrade chief and now closely associated with Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, believes some of the capital's hit-men might not be unemployed for long.

He suspects elements of the former regime with criminal connections may consider sponsoring a gangland led crime wave to undermine DOS, enabling the Milosevic loyalists to strengthen their position ahead of Serbian elections, scheduled for December 23.

The links between the former regime and Serbia's underworld date from the early 1990s.

Connections with a number of criminals, such as Arkan, who also worked as a hit-man abroad for the Yugoslav secret services, were exploited to recruit and build paramilitary units outside the regular military and police structures.

These were then deployed as shock troops to do much of the dirty work of ethnic cleansing in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

According to Tufegdzic, the result of this co-operation between the state and gangsters was that, "the regime destroyed police dignity. Policemen were in a desperate position. They arrested gangsters but were ordered by politicians to set them free. Or judges set them free because they were corrupt or part of the regime."

The result of this was the emergence of powerful groups of armed mafia barons who subsequently carved up Serbia between them, co-operating with the authorities when it suited them. However, while by the mid-nineties there were some ten big bosses, their constant internecine warfare meant that almost all of that generation are now dead.

In 1995, as Tufegdzic's wrote the first edition of his book, an extraordinary documentary on the underworld was made. By the time the film was completed, most of the gangsters featured in it were dead, so interviews with them were interwoven with footage of their funerals. Fittingly the film was called, "See you in the Obituaries!"

When Arkan was killed many speculated that his murder was a purely political affair. Tufegdzic wasn't so sure. "It was not political, but the fact is that some politicians had to give some kind of permission because Arkan had become too powerful and was interfering in their jobs and businesses."

Tufegdzic adds that Arkan "had become an irritation and headache for many of them. He started to oppress other gangsters and if he had not been assassinated he would have finished all of them off. He was actually killed by a man he had wanted to kill six months earlier, Zoran 'Skole' Uskokovic."

With the death of Bokan, one of the alleged financiers of the murder, one particular chapter in the history of the Serbian underworld appears to have closed.

The deaths of the big bosses have resulted in a fragmentation of the Serbian mafia. There are now believed to be some eighty small-time bosses, and it is they who are now waiting to see what will happen.

A few, however, appear to have made a prescient early move and to have already transferred their loyalties to the coming generation of Serbian leaders.

One source, who, fearing retribution asked for anonymity, said that he was horrified when he began noticing gangsters and former members of special police units who had been used in ethnic cleansing operations during the wars, now being employed as security guards for key DOS figures such as Zoran Djindjic and Milan St.Protic, the new mayor of Belgrade.

"Of course," said the source, "there is a need for bodyguards. These people are bodybuilders and are trained, but they are coming over to get some benefits. They offered themselves and were accepted. It is terribly compromising for DOS and I'm deeply shaken by it."

The source added that these are ingratiating themselves with the new authorities to cover past tracks and secure privileges for themselves in the new Serbia. And, indeed, it appears that the former opposition is prepared to use them for more than bodyguard duties.

Immediately following the fall of Milosevic, DOS seized control of the Yugoslav customs service. Mihalj Kertes, the former head, was ejected from his office and left without putting up a fight. However, the source noted that a unit of twenty armed men supplied by Captain Dragan, who had led his own paramilitary force in Krajina in Croatia in the early 1990s, was on hand just in case.

Serbia's gangsters rode to power and riches on the back of state-sanctioned plunder during the wars of the former Yugoslavia. Those wars are now over and Serbia is bankrupt. "There is no money in Yugoslavia now and while the mafia like to do business abroad they can't because the police across Europe will be on the look out for them," said Tufegdzic.

So, for the moment Serbia's gangster sip coffee quietly waiting to see how things develop. Some might be employed by Milosevic die-hards to undermine the Kostunica administration, but many are believed to be considering "going legit".

Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.

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