Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Investigation: Will Europe Take on Bosnia's Mafia?
A modest black marble memorial in central Sarajevo reminds Bosnians of the last time anyone made a serious attempt to take on the powerful organised criminals who threaten the foundations of a still fragile state.
The plaque marks the spot where Bosnian deputy police minister Jozo Leutar was blown up by a car bomb in March 1998. It is believed the assassins were part of an organised crime ring – linked to senior Bosnian politicians – which Leutar was investigating prior to his death.
Nearly seven years on, mafia groups are still prospering – to the extent that they are described as a major obstacle to the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union.
Measures to reduce their influence have not fared nearly as well. Since Leutar's murder, few Bosnian officials have dared mount serious investigations into organised crime.
Mafia shoot-outs and bombings continue to shake Sarajevo, and people living here say they have not felt so unsafe since the 1992-95 war.
"There's more fear around," said Sarajevo resident Haris Zecevic, 32. "The gangsters shoot anyone they want to, and I don't see the police or politicians doing anything about it."
Bosnia has a range of agencies tasked with fighting crime, but none has made substantial inroads on the hold of mafia groupings.
This is perhaps unsurprising given that the two entities, the Federation and Republika Srpska, RS, maintain separate interior ministries and police are still poorly trained and overstretched.
What is more, some of the mafia organisations have links with powerful political groups — relationships that are rooted in the same wartime networks which now hide indicted suspects so successfully from Bosnian and international forces.
NATO's international peacekeepers, the Stabilisation Force, SFOR, has often played the role of super-police force, leading raids to net suspected war criminals.
SFOR was not involved in the war on organised crime, but when its EU-led replacement EUFOR was first conceptualised, its mandate included taking on the Bosnian mafia.
On December 2, EUFOR formally takes over from SFOR. Analysts were surprised to note that the formal objective of combating organised crime has been quietly dropped from the new force's remit.
Given that organised crime is widely seen as one of the country's greatest domestic and external problems, the decision to remove it from the European force's mandate will send alarming signals to Bosnian politicians, police and the criminals themselves.
ORGANISED CRIME SEEN AS PROBLEM NUMBER ONE
Most observers agree that organised crime has grown into a many-headed monster in the decade since the war ended.
An EU-commissioned survey conducted in July 2004 found that for the majority of Bosnians questioned, "crime and corruption [is] the greatest obstacle to Bosnia and Herzegovina's integration and possible future accession to the EU".
Local analysts agree. "Organised crime is the cancer that has been eating away at Bosnian society since the war ended in 1995," Senad Avdic, editor of Slobodna Bosna magazine, told IWPR. "It is central to our problems regarding EU integration."
Antonio Prlenda, a security analyst with Sarajevo's Oslobodjene newspaper, concurs, "Organised crime networks run a parallel economy in Bosnia which generates more money than the official state budget.
"Organised crime funds both war criminals and some present-day politicians."
The EU recognises that organised crime is a serious barrier to integration.
In the European Commission's November 2003 feasibility study on the readiness of Bosnia to negotiate a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA - a necessary precondition to further integration - organised crime was cited as "a major problem".
"Smuggling of high-tariff goods such as cigarettes, alcohol and petroleum products is widespread," said the report, citing estimates that smuggling revenues are between 150 million and 300 million euro – a staggering figure when one considers that it is equivalent to Bosnia's annual state budget.
A DIVERSIFIED BUSINESS SECTOR
The EC report gave a run-down of the diverse activities of Bosnia's organised criminals.
At the "top end", there are sophisticated schemes to embezzle government funds, for example in banking and public utilities. Such schemes cost the Bosnian and EU tax-payer tens of millions of euro, and implicate nationalist politicians as well as professional criminals.
Other groups better fit the classic mafia image, with violent gangs running rackets and smuggling narcotics and human beings across porous borders.
The Banja Luka-based newspaper Nezavisne Novine recently published a "black book" of murders, robberies, financial scandals and questionable police actions which ran to a total of more than 200 recorded incidents.
Crime reporters who monitored these investigations reported that not one high-profile case ended in a conviction.
The Bosnian State Court is currently hearing a number of high-profile cases relating to police corruption and money-laundering. An international official who declined to be named told IWPR that the cases merely "represent the tip of the iceberg".
IWPR's enquiries reveal a complex pattern of market segmentation and regional specialisation in the criminal world.
Eastern areas of RS serve as the manufacturing centre for narcotics, as was shown earlier this year when large amounts of the chemicals used to produce heroin were seized. The problem has become so acute that SFOR has had to start monitoring transit shipments of acetic acid anhydride - a substance that is inter alia the key precursor chemical for making heroin - to ensure that they left the country.
Synthetic drugs such as ecstasy are also produced in the same part of Bosnia. There are allegations that government officials and senior police officers in the Serb entity are linked to groups smuggling precursor chemicals.
Over the administrative border in the Federation, gangsters originally from the Serbia's Muslim region of Sandzak dominate the drug trade, according to Sarajevo canton police.
Lara, a women's support group based in the RS town of Bijeljina, reports that trafficking in sex workers continues apace in Bosnia, with local gangsters cooperating with international criminal groups. Now that police have begun raiding night-clubs, prostitutes have simply been rehoused in private apartments, restaurants and motels.
British police officers working for the European Union Police Mission, EUPM, told IWPR that protection rackets which have a hold over shops, bars and the like in Sarajevo are in the hands of two Kosovo Albanian clans.
One of them is particularly active, trafficking women, gold, stolen cars and weapons through Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. EUPM officers said they believed the group had good contacts with Federation police officials.
Car theft is the speciality in Sokolac, again in eastern RS. The town is the focus for a crime ring which steals cars in the Federation and Serbia. Rather than sell the cars on, the gangsters usually phone the owners to negotiate a price for the return of the vehicles.
Many of the larger groups have evolved into parallel-economy businesses which some international officials describe as "oligarchies".
These networks are organically rooted in the paramilitary units active during the Bosnian war, and their operations can be seen as a continuation of the control these groups exercised on the ground over the movement of illicit goods.
Links with corrupt police and nationalist politicians also date from this time. Thus, when such politicians feel under threat — for instance when Leutar began investigating them — they are able to call on secret police connections as well as the mafia for protection.
Although political relations between Bosnia's two entities continue to reflect the bitter legacy of ethnic warfare, the criminals are much more pragmatic. Gangland murders and shoot-outs between police and criminals in both the Federation and the RS usually involve people of the same ethnicity.
"Most of the killings are Serb-on-Serb or Muslim-on-Muslim," said an EUPM official.
And gangsters from the two entities have no problem with regional cooperation - working out complex swaps with their counterparts in Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia that often involve a three-way exchange of stolen cars, drugs and firearms.
The EC's feasibility study drew a depressing conclusion, "The fight against organised crime will... be long because of a symbiotic relationship between crime, business and politics."
THE INTERNATIONAL ROLE
Bosnia remains a protectorate with the Office of the High Representative - headed by Lord Paddy Ashdown since 2002 - in ultimate charge of governance and judicial matters. With international military and police forces overseeing security, one would have expected organised crime to have been significantly curbed over the last decade. But although everyone seems to be aware of the threat that it presents to the future of Bosnia and the wider region, neither the international community nor local authorities have built the capacity to fight it effectively.
On paper, there is no shortage of instruments for achieving this aim: as well as the EUPM, the OHR has two anti-crime units, and the military peacekeepers — SFOR and now EUFOR — also perform significant quasi-policing roles.
Some international officials in Bosnia argue that much is being done to tackle the problem.
A British diplomatic source in Sarajevo told IWPR that there have been significant international civilian efforts to tackle organised crime, citing the Anti-Crime and Corruption Unit, ACCU, and the Criminal Investigation Unit, CIU, both OHR departments that have been investigating organised crime networks.
But other sources at the OHR said that both units are short-staffed and are able to tackle only a small fraction of the problem.
The mandate of the EUPM - which took over from a similar United Nations force in January 2003 - is to provide Bosnian police with training and other assistance, and its operational involvement is limited to monitoring the performance of the local force. For one source within EUPM, who asked not to be identified, that restricted remit was flawed from the start.
"EUPM's mission is to monitor the police. It doesn't do organised crime. The mandate and the institutional culture don't allow for it," said an EUPM source.
"The EUPM mandate sent a bad message to the hard men in Bosnia. It said that the EU was going to do even less about organised crime than their predecessors in the UN International Police Task Force."
WEAK POLICING ROLE FOR SFOR AND NOW EUFOR
Leading experts on European security matters told IWPR that organised crime must be tackled by the international military contingent, not by civilians alone. They call for the international troops to be given a tougher mandate.
Since their arrival in 1995, NATO peacekeepers have made little effort to deal with organised crime, focusing instead on apprehending indicted war crimes suspects.
"We got information on crime networks, but we were only interested in the indicted war criminals; we were not ordered to go after mobsters," a US Department of Defence contractor working with SFOR told IWPR earlier this year.
With SFOR closing up its mission on December 2, many hoped that the new EU-led security force would tackle organised crime.
Until recently, the EU was saying explicitly that ridding Bosnia of organised crime would be a top priority for EUFOR. In a report to the EU Council of Ministers in February this year, European foreign policy chief Javier Solana outlined his vision of a "new and distinct mission" for the forthcoming force.
One of the two "fundamental objectives" Solana listed for EUFOR was a "particular focus on the fight against organised crime".
Similarly, Ashdown – who as well as being High Representative is also the EU's Special Representative in Bosnia – emphasised in March that "the mandate of EUFOR troops should be changed in a way that would enable the troops to fight organised crime in a more firm manner than SFOR did".
And in a televised address to Bosnians in July, Ashdown spelled out what this tough new mandate would look like, "The EU force will continue to work very closely with NATO, for instance to bring war criminals to justice. But the role of the European Union force will also go beyond just peace implementation.... It will work with the European police mission to strengthen the rule of law in [Bosnia], especially in fighting organised crime."
The reason, Ashdown continued, was that "your criminals here in southeast Europe are our criminals in the European Union. Europe's thieves know no borders. They use Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans to smuggle people, drugs and even arms into the European Union. So it makes absolute sense for us to fight this common enemy together."
NEW FORCE, OBSOLETE MANDATE
Yet despite these strong and unambiguous recommendations, the fight against organised crime has been dropped from the shortlist of key objectives for the new force. It now appears that EUFOR will treat organised crime in much the same manner as its SFOR predecessor.
An EU Council Secretariat fact sheet on the new mission, from October 2004, makes no mention of organised crime. Instead, the wording of the document has been simplified from previous versions, so that the listed objectives are to "provide deterrence" and "to contribute to a safe and secure environment".
The mandate adopted by EUFOR is based on the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement military annexes. "The key objectives of EUFOR are to provide deterrence and continued compliance with the Dayton Peace Agreement and to contribute to a safe and secure environment," EUFOR spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Chris Percival told IWPR.
Political analysts in Bosnia argue that the language used in the document reflects obsolete thinking, since it is the same terminology used by NATO since the end of the war — while the situation has changed radically.
"Bosnia has changed since 1995, the EUFOR mandate based on the Dayton agreement simply is not appropriate in Bosnia," said Emir Suljagic, an investigative reporter with Dani magazine.
A source close to the EU's military committee told IWPR that the formal commitment to fight organised crime had been watered down because of squabbling between the largest EU and NATO member states.
"Some states, including Germany, wanted a force with an updated mandate that would better reflect Bosnia's current security challenges," the source said. "But there were disputes between some of the larger EU states and with NATO, and the lowest common denominator that could be agreed upon was the old 1995 mandate."
The change of heart appears to be confirmed by EUFOR commanders in Bosnia itself. When IWPR asked the new mission's commander General David Leakey what role it would play in the war on organised crime, he replied that this was task for Bosnian institutions, with EUFOR playing only an auxiliary role.
"The fight against organised crime lies in the hands of the local authorities. It is their primary responsibility," he said. "However, we will offer the local authorities intelligence and advice when appropriate."
Local observers are horrified at EUFOR's weakened mandate. "If EUFOR were serious about bringing Bosnia closer to Brussels, they would have specifically targeted organised crime, " said Suljagic.
As things stand, Suljagic views the change from SFOR to EUFOR as "one ineffectual organisation replacing another".
On the snow-covered streets of Sarajevo, the mood is similarly pessimistic, despite the billboards across the city advertising EUFOR's arrival with the slogan "From Stabilisation to Integration" — a theme reiterated in a public relations campaign through the media.
"I've seen the EUFOR poster promising to take us from stabilisation to integration, but I don't see EUFOR really helping us against the men with guns and bombs," said Mirsad Hafizovic, 39. "They will let Bosnians take the risks and talk about their mandate in their comfortable bases, like they did during the war."
Senad Slatina, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says that even the official title of the EU security mission, Operation Althea, does not bode well for the future.
In Greek mythology, Queen Althea was "a doomed, tragic figure", he said. "Despite a premonition when her son is born, she ends up killing him after he kills her brother. Then she kills herself.
"This is not an auspicious name for a peace-keeping operation in Bosnia, given the country's recent history. With a name like Althea, it is hard to give EUFOR the benefit of the doubt."
A NEW APPROACH TO COORDINATION?
IWPR's British diplomatic source argued that EUFOR's role was only one component in a new, EU-led umbrella security structure which is now being created and which will lead to better civil-military coordination in the fight against organised crime.
"As EU Special Representative, Paddy [Ashdown] has a different institutional relationship with the EUFOR commander than with the SFOR commander," said the source. "The new EU structures, together with the fact that both Ashdown and [EUFOR commander] Leakey are from the same country will help facilitate cooperation between the Italian Carabinieri in EUFOR and the organised crime investigators working for Ashdown."
A spokeswoman for the office of the EU Special Representative, EUSR, confirmed that new structures are in place to help coordinate international efforts better.
"EUFOR is part of a new, comprehensive EU assistance package for Bosnia which will be coordinated by the EUSR, Paddy Ashdown," said Irena Guzelova, communications director for EUSR. "The advantage of EUFOR is that we will now be able to lock in the military, political and economic dimensions of reform in Bosnia."
EUFOR confirmed that in his role of EUSR, Lord Ashdown will play a significant part in the new arrangements. "General Leakey will be working closely with Lord Ashdown and there is going to be a strong working relationship at all levels between EU counterparts," said spokesman Percival.
Thomas Muehlmann, EUPM's chief political advisor, echoed this view, saying, "The challenge was to coordinate the wide variety of EU instruments we now have in Bosnia. So Paddy Ashdown is in the chain of command which goes from EUPM commissioner Kevin Carty to Lord Ashdown and up to Secretary General Javier Solana in Brussels."
However, other international officials caution that that talk of increased international coordination is nothing new for the Balkans.
They warn that the inherent timidity of the existing EUPM mandate could set the pattern for future EU behaviour in the face of tough challenges.
As IWPR's source in EUPM put it, "EUFOR cannot afford to be seen in the same light as EUPM."
DESPITE REFORMS, ARE BOSNIAN POLICE UP TO THE JOB?
International officials stress that ultimately, it is up to local Bosnian institutions to take on the organised criminals. But Bosnian officials have told IWPR privately that they are unable to tackle the problem themselves.
Optimists in the international community point to the consolidation and development of state-level agencies. For instance, in the past three years, Bosnian politicians have agreed - reluctantly, and with some international pressure - to bring the fragmented border and intelligence services together under a single roof.
The new state-wide ministry of security has three main components: the State Border Service, SBS, the State Investigation and Protection Agency, SIPA, and the Intelligence and Security Agency, OSA.
The most active of these are the border guards. "The SBS is quite literally on the front line," an EUPM adviser to the frontier force told IWPR.
"As they guard Bosnia's borders, they are responsible for intercepting one of the most important strands of organised crime in this country - smuggling and trafficking."
But critics argue that the structure of the SBS, as designed by the UN, prevents it from effectively tackling smuggling or catching the indicted war criminals who frequent the border areas.
"Here you have an organisation tasked with intercepting traffickers, smugglers and indicted war criminals while they are crossing Bosnia's highly porous borders. The geography of the eastern border in particular - remote, mountainous with plenty of rivers, lakes and unofficial crossing points - would suggest the need for a mobile border patrol, something like we have on the US-Mexico border," said an agent from the US Department of Homeland Security, who asked not to be named.
"And yet the internationals in Bosnia have designed a static force concentrated on fixed-point locations. That means the SBS does not have the required mobility. The best example of this is that they have only four mobile teams to cover Bosnia's 1,500 kilometre border."
Prlenda argues that the SBS badly needs international assistance in the form of helicopters, infra-red monitoring eqipment, and mobile units with the capacity to take on "well-armed smugglers and war criminal supporters".
The EUPM's Muehlmann disagrees with the critics, saying, "The SBS is a success story. It has shown Bosnians that it is possible to develop state level institutions with international support and that these institutions can really function."
EUPM officials point to a number of SBS successes this year, including the break up of a smuggling ring in north-eastern Bosnia, some of the profits from which are believed to have funded fugitive war crimes suspects.
The record of the SIPA, billed as a "Bosnian FBI", is also questioned by the experts, who say it has remained on the drawing board since its inception in 2002.
"SIPA and the ministry of security don't actually function," said Avdic. "Most importantly, they have achieved nothing concrete in the way of results since they were officially introduced."
Earlier this the year, IWPR was shown a organisational chart detailing the distribution of SIPA's future personnel — 75 per cent of whom were to be assigned to VIP protection and administrative work, with only a small proportion dedicated to investigating organised crime.
"I don't think this structure is correct," said an EUPM advisor who asked not to be named. "If it's a case of Bosnia fighting organised crime, then SIPA should not be spending so much of its resources protecting local politicians and dignitaries."
Muehlmann told IWPR that SIPA's organisational structure had changed since that document was produced, and that it would now have departments for criminal and financial intelligence as well as war crimes. But he conceded that the bulk of operational staff would remain in the VIP protection unit.
The structure of Bosnia's police - currently consisting of 19 separate forces serving two separate interior ministries; one for each entity - is next on the list for a shake-up.
Ashdown has ordered a single, state-level interior ministry to be established by the end of this year. In preparation for this, he announced in July the formation of a commission which will decide whether the separate Federation and RS police forces will be disbanded or merely subordinated to the central ministry.
He explained the rationale for the police reorganisation in stark terms, "At the moment, organised crime has the upper hand in this country. Bosnia and Herzegovina's police forces are divided, over-staffed, under-resourced.... Bosnia and Herzegovina's criminals are united, well-resourced, and operate across borders with impunity."
SUSPENDING JUDGEMENT OR DISBELIEF?
"Organised crime poses a major threat to Bosnia's integration," said Doris Pack, an influential German member of the European parliament. "There are many criminals in power, so it is hard for honest Bosnian police to act on their own."
With Bosnian police reforms still in flux, some of the work of fighting organised crime must surely fall to their European backers for some time to come.
Do the Europeans have the will to do it?
"I am not positive about EUFOR," said Neven Kazanovic, a security analyst with the Bosnian parliament. "EUFOR is not led by the Americans, and it has been shown here in Bosnia - during the war and the UN peace-keeping mission - that European-led forces were unwilling to take on war criminals and their mafias."
However, an EU official told IWPR that EUFOR is anticipating just this kind of negative view of a European-led mission - and that concrete action would be taken to show the Bosnians it means mean business.
"I am expecting a big operation by EUFOR here in Bosnia, something that shows muscle-flexing, because the EU have a credibility problem here and they are aware of it," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Slatina fears that failing to put fighting the mafia on EUFOR's list of objectives will send the wrong signals to local officials who want to tackle the problem but are currently too scared to do so.
"The murder of Jozo Leutar sent an unambiguous message to all Bosnian officials with the guts to take on organised crime," said Slatina.
"Leutar began his investigations after strong encouragement from international officials. But the internationals were not around when he needed them. And despite international promises to the contrary, his murder remains unsolved.
"I think it is pretty clear which is the stronger message here."
Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR investigations coordinator. Nerma Jelacic is IWPR's Bosnia country director. IWPR trainees Aida Alic, Aida Sunje and Ilda Zornic contributed to this report as part of their investigative reporting training with IWPR.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight