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

Serbia: Red Berets Disbanded

In a massive swoop on organised crime, police have dissolved Milosevic's former elite police squad and detained thousands of suspects.
By Bojan Dimitrijevic

Marking a new stage in its war against Serbia's heavily armed mafia, the authorities this week arrested the leading suspects for the murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and disbanded the Special Operations Unit, JSO, better known as Red Berets.


Zvezdan “Zveki” Jovanovic, deputy commander of the JSO and another member Sasa Pejakovic, were arrested on March 25. The same day the government disbanded the Red Berets after seizing their headquarters at Stolc, in Kula, in the northern province of Vojvodina. The action passed without incident.


The crackdown showed the government is taking decisive action against the mighty "war lobby" that once surrounded former president Slobodan Milosevic, and which on March 12 murdered Djindjic in a desperate attempt to arrest the country's democratisation and its policy of cooperation with the war crimes tribunal.


On March 26, media confirmed that a special police unit, the Gendarmerie, had assumed control of Milosevic's former elite police squad and their base in Kula. The Red Berets surrendered their military equipment in the course of the afternoon and left the base in civilian clothes.


Police and military sources said the danger of armed clashes between the police and Milosevic's former elite unit, whose leaders sided openly with the forces of organised crime, had been successfully averted.


"The Red Beret story is over. If anyone was involved in the murder of Djindjic they will be tried in accordance with the law," the new Serbian prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, said on March 26.


Government sources said the infrastructure at the former JSO base at Stolc was in good condition and the base would probably be transformed into a police training centre. Its equipment will be handed over to the Gendarmerie.


The government is unlikely to punish, or dispense with the services of most ex-JSO men, partly out of fears that they would make ideal recruits for underground gangs. Many of them will be offered positions in police units elsewhere.


The abolition of the JSO, which Milosevic set up in the early Nineties for use in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, marks a milestone in the government's showdown with the mafia.


It was closely connected to a lobby of suspected war criminals and mafiosi, which survived the fall of Milosevic's regime after key figures in the underworld helped the democratic opposition to seize power in October 2000.


In return for their services, the new regime offered them an unofficial non-aggression pact, under which Milosevic's old warriors were left alone with their criminal empires intact.


The pact was short-lived, however. Under international pressure, the government stepped up cooperation with The Hague and cleared the ground for a fight against organised crime.


Opponents of this course showed their muscle in November 2001, when the JSO used Hummer vehicles to block main roads and foment disturbances in Serbia, seriously rocking the government's authority.


A brief truce followed. But a new clash loomed as Djindjic's government readied itself for renewed struggle against the crime gangs and for fresh extraditions of war criminals to The Hague.


Police sources believe the disbanding of the Red Berets has removed the last trump card that the crime gangs could have played in their campaign to destabilise the state.


The same source said the police had broken up main force behind the assassination, the powerful gang from the Belgrade suburb of Zemun, led by a former Red Berets member Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic and its ex-commander Milorad "Legija" Lukovic.


Many Zemun gang leaders have already been arrested. Police also detained the founders of the Red Berets, Milosevic's former secret police chief, Jovica Stanisic and his close associate Franko "Franki" Simatovic.


Both men have been mentioned at trials before the tribunal as leading figures behind the execution of Serbian war aims in former Yugoslavia.


In addition to arresting Djindjic's suspected killer and his associate, police detained another 15 JSO members believed to be linked to the Zemun gang.


The police have also recovered the automatic rifle, a Heckler & Koch G-3 with telescopic sights, used to kill the prime minister.


In their large-scale sweep across the country, police have dealt with several major criminal gangs in Serbia and detained a total of some 3,000 people over the past two weeks.


Besides taking in the criminals themselves, police have detained mafia collaborators in the judiciary, the police department and the state security service.


The head of the Serbian parliament's security committee, Dragan Sutanovac, said on March 26 that the authorities would show "no mercy to anyone involved in any way with criminal activities".


Sutanovac said court proceedings connected with the recent wave of arrests were underway right across Serbia and announced the formation of new bodies for fighting organised crime.


Observers say a conspiracy of silence surrounding the mafia, which protected the gangsters from the government and the law, had been finally broken, and that this had been of great help in catching Djindjic's murderers.


They say new Serbian legislation concerning witness protection had made it much easier to extract witness statements concerning the activities of the gangs and their close associates. They hope a "domino effect" of confessions will shed light on many recent unsolved murders, as well as revealing how the criminal underworld functions.


Analysts say the termination of the Red Berets and the arrest of so many other criminals proves the government is successfully getting to grips with the most serious crisis the Serbian state has encountered since it came to power in October 2000.


They say the fight is now entering its final phase, which should be completed with the arrest of the remaining leaders of the Zemun gang.


Bojan Dimitrijevic is an associate of the Modern History Institute in Belgrade. Daniel Sunter is IWPR’s coordinator in Serbia.