Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sandzak Police Failing to Tackle Heroin Scourge

Local police seem more concerned with directing the traffic than tackling the city’s spiralling drug problem.
By IWPR Balkans

Every summer afternoon, 20-year-old Albin goes to a park in the centre of Novi Pazar, capital of the Serbia’s Sandzak region.


Squatting on the ground in the ruins of an unfinished sports hall, the heroin addict takes out a syringe and a piece of rubber, injecting himself in full view of the main police station and the mayor’s residence.


He ignores the bemused glances of passers-by. "I couldn't care less about these people, they can report me to the police, but the cops will let me go home the same day!” he said.


“What happens? Nothing! Who cares about a junkie?"


Reliable statistics on drug addiction in Novi Pazar are hard to come by.


Sandzak, an impoverished region of Serbia long neglected by the republican authorities in Belgrade, has around 100,000 inhabitants. Local institutions and groups charged with monitoring drug abuse say there are between 1000 and 7000 addicts.


Serving and former police officers have told Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, that they believe the true figure to be around 3000.


“However, it is a sign of the authorities’ indifference that no proper study has been made,” said Seadetin Mujezinovic the organiser of Together Against Drugs, a citizen pressure group that was recently endorsed by the municipality.


A worrying trend over the past few months has been the development of a “street” drugs culture where users openly inject in public places and buy narcotics in cafes.


In the latter, buyers pay between five to 20 euro for a cellophane wrap containing southwest Asian heroin mixed with paracetamol.


Drug dilution is a cottage industry in Novi Pazar where pure heroin smuggled from Turkey is combined with paracetamol at locations throughout the city.


“Pure heroin is brought into Novi Pazar in trucks and buses containing specially-built compartments designed to thwart drug sniffing dogs and other customs detection devices,” said former Novi Pazar police chief Sead Bulic.


“These compartments are fitted in the Turkish city of Bursa and can be adapted to most coaches and HGVs.


“They cost 10,000 euro to manufacture but can hold up to 200 kilogrammes of heroin.”


Former and serving law enforcement officers investigating the narcotics trade blame both well-organised networks of local dealers - with connections in Turkey, Kosovo, Sarajevo, Belgrade and Western Europe - and corrupt Milosevic-era security officials who turn a blind eye to the smuggling.


In the past, most of the heroin processed in Novi Pazar would be trafficked to other parts of the region and beyond, but increasingly the drug is being sold in the city.


Resad Hazirovic, a psychiatrist at a local health centre, says there are 190 addicts receiving treatment as outpatients. "All of them are using heroin," he said.


Fikret Niksic, head of local mayor Sulejman Ugljanin's cabinet, says the authorities are determined to tackle drug abuse. "The municipality will make every effort to help solve this problem," he said.


However, Mujezinovic thinks that the authorities are not doing enough. “You can see in the streets what the problems are,” he told BCR. “The drug users and dealers feel that they can continue unmolested.”


Several parents have joined Mujezinovic’s anti-drug campaign, speaking publicly about their children’s addiction.


One of them is Senad Sadovic, the father of two former addicts, “I’ve decided to speak out about this problem because I believe this will help other parents recognise that their children are in hell and that they should do something about it, to get to grips with this evil."


Although heroin use appears to be increasing on the streets of Novi Pazar, the city’s police chief, Muamer Nicovic, told BCR that he did not see narcotics as a major policing issue.


“This is not a big problem, people dramatise the situation,” he said.


Nicovic blames the judiciary for the public perception that drug dealers go largely unpunished.


“Recently we had a case where a music teacher was found with a large amount of heroin, but the court handed down a [light] sentence,” he told BCR.


“How can we expect to get big drug dealers when the penalties imposed by the courts on smaller dealers are so low?”


Novi Pazar district court presiding judge Camil Hubic admits there have been no criminal charges against big drug dealers, but blames the police for the lack of convictions. “It is up to officers to investigate and arrest drug dealers in the first place,” he said.


Senior serving officers who wished to remain anonymous said that they are aware of the identities of many of the major drug dealers in Novi Pazar and gave their names, the make of the cars they drive together with their registration plate numbers to BCR.


“The reason why there are not more arrests is because the police rank and file don’t believe that they will get the necessary support from their bosses if they go after and arrest these big fish,” said a former senior officer.


“There’s a real problem with narcotics in Novi Pazar,” confirmed Dr James Lyon, director of the International Crisis Group, ICG, whose recent report, Serbia’s Sandzak: Still forgotten, noted a downturn in the authorities’ willingness to tackle drug-trafficking.


“The [local] police answer to the republican authorities in Belgrade and until Belgrade orders the Novi Pazar police to take decisive action don’t expect any change in the status quo,” he told BCR.


“The situation in Novi Pazar is very transparent,” said Mujezinovic.


“Everyone knows who the drug dealers are - the police, the politicians and the citizens,” he said.


“But every evening as you can see, people working with narcotics can conduct their business freely and without much interference from the police who seem more concerned with directing the traffic than solving the biggest problems in this town.”


Amela Bajrovic and Sladjana Novosel are trainees with IWPR’s localised project the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. Hugh Griffiths is BIRN investigations coordinator.


More IWPR's Global Voices