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Serbia: Mafia's Days Numbered?

The assassination of Zoran Djindjic could presage the end of organised crime in Serbia.
By Daniel Sunter

Over 750 people have been arrested since a state of emergency was declared in Serbia following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic last week. Slobodan Milosevic's former chief of state security, Jovica Stanisic, and the founder of the notorious Red Berets special police unit, Franko "Frenki" Simatovic, are among those detained in an operation, which could finally spell the end of organised crime in Serbia.


Zoran "Vuk" Vukojevic and Dragan "Prevara" Ninkovic, key members of the Zemun gang, which the police suspect of involvement in the assassination, were arrested on March 17 along with the popular folk singer Ceca, widow of slain crime boss Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, who's alleged to have close links with the crime syndicate.


Arrests have been made across the republic with mafia suspects picked up in the towns of Uzice, Pozarevac, Zajecar, Jagodina as well as Novi Sad, in an attempt by the authorities to break up nationwide criminal rackets, a police source said.


"We are taking advantage of a unique opportunity to clean Serbia of not only the Zemun gang but also smaller but still dangerous criminal groups," the source said. "It's the most important action in the history of the Serbian police."


Over 750 hundred suspects have so far been apprehended in the police swoop, filling prisons the length and breadth of the country.


The Serbian government have, meanwhile, revealed for the first time the extent of the Zemun gang's activities in the country, saying members were involved in drug smuggling, murders and kidnappings.


"This state of emergency has been declared against criminals, not ordinary citizens," said deputy leader of Djindjic's Democratic Party, Zoran Zivkovic, who's tipped to be the next premier, told a press conference on March 16. "Personally I would like to keep the emergency period as short as possible (he suggested it could last until the end of April), but everything depends on how long the fight against organised crime takes."


Many commentators believe that an unspoken truce between the government and organised crime followed the ousting of Milosevic, after a number of gangs and security groups assisted the opposition.


Left to their own devices, a conflict broke out between two powerful gangs, Surcin and Zemun, named after the Belgrade suburbs where they are based. Ultimately, the latter emerged on top.


Recently, Djindjic had come to publicly acknowledge the power and influence of organised crime in Serbia, admitting that the drugs barons had enough money to afford better tapping and bugging devices than the police.


In the middle of last year, the government started taking concrete steps to fight the mafia. A special prosecutor was appointed and a number of senior secret service members suspected of close ties with the Zemun gang were dismissed.


In northern Serbia, one of the largest synthetic drugs factories in Europe, believed to have been a major source of income for the Serbian mafia, was destroyed.


But before a major showdown could develop, the mafia decided to strike first. On March 12, unidentified assailants shot Djindjic in the courtyard of a Serbian government building. The finger was immediately pointed at the Zemun gang, led by Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic and his ally the former chief of the Red Berets Milorad "Legija" Lukovic .


Warrants have been issued for both their arrests. On March 14, the government ordered the demolition of a shopping centre and residential complex on Silerova Street, owned by Spasojevic.


Large numbers of police were on hand as excavators and bulldozers tore into the complex, which stands in front of Spasojevic's luxurious villa and swimming pool. Hundreds of people looked on approvingly.


During the weekend, the Belgrade authorities also closed down the weekly Identitet - believed to be financed by the Zemun gang - which two days prior to Djindjic's murder published a story suggesting that he would be targeted by accomplices of Serbs detained in The Hague.


Public support for a crackdown has also been borne out in polls carried out by the press and electronic media over the last few days. Almost all of those questioned said they expected the government to capture Djindjic's assassins and crack down on organised crime.


Djindjic's funeral, which took place in Belgrade on March 15, became an occasion for both the public and the international community to rally behind the crackdown.


Over seventy foreign officials attended, including the chairman of the EU Council of Ministers, George Papandreou, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, the leader of the British House of Commons, Robin Cook, and former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, joined the funeral procession which was estimated to number some several hundred thousand people.


Support was pledged in various ways, including a demand from Council of Europe secretary-general Walter Schwimmer that Serbia-Montenegro be admitted unconditionally to the organisation.


Belgrade analysts believe that such an unprecedented level of international and domestic support gives the authorities a unique opportunity to stamp out one of the thorniest legacies of the Milosevic era once and for all.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR's Serbian project coordinator


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