Serbia's Drug Scene Thrives Despite Clampdown

High demand coupled with Serbia’s location on a prime smuggling route frustrate best efforts at policing.

Serbia's Drug Scene Thrives Despite Clampdown

High demand coupled with Serbia’s location on a prime smuggling route frustrate best efforts at policing.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

“I can get you heroin, ecstasy and weed. The dope you can have in five minutes, the pharmaceuticals will take a little longer.”

IWPR contributors had met Sasha, a Belgrade drug dealer, at a city centre apartment 20 minutes earlier. We were told he was well-connected in the local drug scene and could supply us with anything available on the illegal market.

Our conversation was frequently interrupted by his two mobile phones. “My customers keep me busy,” he said, smiling.

Sasha was one of thousands of drug dealers in Serbia arrested during this year’s massive police crackdown on organised crime. But his designer clothes and discreet jewellery suggested that business is booming again.

“Things are back to normal here,” he said. “I can get you the same product for the same price.”

The illegal drugs market in Serbia is thriving despite an unprecedented series of arrests and seizures in the first half of this year, following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic in March, allegedly by members of an organised trafficking gang.

IWPR’s interviews with users, rehabilitation therapists, law enforcement officials and international commentators reveal the extent of the drug abuse problem in Serbia, illustrating how social problems have boosted demand while supply is facilitated by porous borders, weak customs enforcement and domestic production.


Dr Ivana Aleksic, who runs Serbia’s leading private family-based drug rehabilitation centre, believes the leading cause of drug use among young people is family disputes resulting from social problems.

“The legacy of the Milosevic years – war, sanctions, the destruction of the former Yugoslav state and of society as a whole – had a tremendous impact on families,” she told IWPR.

“Drug use is linked to the breakdown of families. You don’t find drug addicts coming from functional families. In many cases you will find an alcoholic, normally the father, in the background of an addicted youngster. It is often harder for a parent to admit that he or she has a problem than for the son or daughter. Dysfunctional families play dysfunctional games.”

Not all the addicts come from troubled backgrounds – one Belgrade journalist told IWPR that she knew plenty of users from respectable families.

Dr Spomenka Ciric, a psychologist who works at Belgrade’s hospital for addictive illnesses and also chairs the government’s working group on young people and drugs, thinks drug-use patterns are rooted in Serbia’s recent history. “As in Milosevic’s time, social problems are ‘medicalised’,” she said. “During the Milosevic era, depressed adults who lost their jobs because of war and sanctions were prescribed medicines such as diazepam [Valium]. Now, youngsters here self-medicate illegally with ecstasy, which is a cheaper alternative to travel or even the cinema.”

Dr Ciric sees 1000 new patients every year, mostly heroin users. “They’re getting younger and younger. The classic scenario is that they start drinking at 13 and use marijuana or benzedrine [amphetamine] in combination with this. After that it’s ecstasy or heroin. Heroin is affordable for young people here. They begin with a bag called a ‘fifth’ [containing one fifth of a gram]. It costs very little and this quickly becomes their regular daily dose…. Drug abuse is a universal problem in society here,” she said.

A Belgrade journalist familiar with the drugs scene said that heroin is currently selling at about 30 euro a gramme, with a “fifth” costing 10 euro or less.

IWPR spoke to a number of other informed observers, whose remarks confirmed the doctors’ claims.

“Ecstasy is becoming more popular here for different reasons than in the EU [European Union],” said one former user. “Young people take pills as a distraction, to forget about their current situation and bad future prospects.”

“You often get a different crowd at dance clubs here than in the EU,” confirmed a dealer who has travelled widely. “Here, you’ll find kids dancing on ‘E’ [ecstasy] wearing old clothes and ruined trainers. Many of them are not smart clubbers. The sad truth is they would rather spend what money they have on drugs to have a good time, than on clothes to appear cool.”

One marijuana smoker told IWPR, “People are looking for an escape, for a downer to relax them. Until 2002 I could buy diazepam without a subscription in any pharmacy. Now you need a doctor’s subscription for diazepam so I switched to marijuana, which I prefer.”


All this was supposed to have swept away by Operation Sabre, the massive campaign against organised crime – including drug traffickers – which followed the Djindjic assassination.

In the wake of the killing, the authorities blamed members of Serbia’s biggest trafficking organisation at the time, known as the Zemun gang, for the murder, naming its leader Dusan “Siptar” Spasojevic and his associate Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, ex-commander of the elite police Special Operations Unit, also known as the Red Berets, of coordinating the assassination squad.

Spasojevic was shot dead by police on March 27, apparently while resisting arrest. Lukovic disappeared on the day of Djindjic’s assassination and is still listed as a fugitive.

Amid the broader sweep which saw thousands arrested, police ran the biggest anti-drugs operation in the country’s history. The short-term effect was a shortage of illegal drugs, which received wide publicity with desperate addicts besieging treatment centres and raiding pharmacies. The first half of 2003 saw record drugs seizures, with more heroin confiscated between January and June than in the whole of the last seven years.


Operation Sabre resulted in the arrest of thousands of alleged drug dealers and crippled the Zemun network, which had controlled a huge share of drugs sales in Serbia. State prosecutors say that prior to the operation, at least 50 per cent of the domestic heroin market was controlled by the Zemun clan. According to the interior ministry, the gang operated the largest and most efficient supply network in the bigger towns and cities.

The authorities claim that the gang became top dog by getting Red Beret men to pick off its rivals, and through the high-earning criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion, car theft and drug dealing.

A dealer familiar with the gang’s business explains how it began trafficking heroin, “At the beginning of 1996, Dusan Spasojevic got seriously involved in heroin. He started making trips to Bulgaria, buying heroin with money he got from stealing cars.

“At first the amounts were relatively small - one and a half kilograms at most. But the market was extremely lucrative… the margins were higher than for car theft. Spasojevic and his associates then made deals with Albanians in Macedonia, increasing the reliability of their supply, and that’s when they were able to focus more of their attention on the internal market.”

The gang’s network in Serbia quickly expanded in the late 1990s.

Belgrade deputy public prosecutor Dragoljub Stankovic, in charge of investigating the Zemun narcotics network, told IWPR that the gang had pioneered the large-scale sale of heroin in Serbia.

“The Zemun gang were efficient. They worked by the just-in-time principle, which meant that even large amounts of drugs from abroad could be sold on the street very quickly. Dealers were not allowed to acquire more drugs than they could sell in a short space of time. Spasojevic and his associates enforced this discipline ruthlessly,” he said.

By the time Operation Sabre brought an end to the gang’s domination of the market, their vast import and distribution network had helped lower the street price of heroin to an average of 20 euros per gram, less than a quarter of it would have cost eight years before.

The destruction of this sophisticated network during Operation Sabre was hailed by government officials as a major victory in the war on drugs - a claim that seemed to be supported by the spectacle of addicts flooding treatment centres and robbing pharmacies in the face of shortages.

IWPR interviews with dealers, however, indicate that the contraction in the market was short-lived, and that talk of supply networks being choked off was premature.

“The importance of Zemun was overestimated. They dominated a part of the market but they were never sole supplier here,” said one dealer, who like his colleagues in the industry preferred to remain anonymous.

“The real problem during Sabre was that the police were everywhere and they were stopping and searching people, you didn’t know who was going to be next,” another dealer told IWPR. “When the state of emergency began, we thought, ‘big deal, it can’t be worse than war and sanctions’ – but we were wrong. People were getting picked up everywhere, for anything. So dealers stayed off the streets, and that’s why some of the junkies with poor connections got desperate.”

According to Dr Ciric, trends in the numbers of drug users seeking help indicated that the change in the market was more of a blip than a lasting shift in availability.

“In late March and early April, we noticed an increase in people coming in for treatment at our clinic. However, by the end of April the number of people who were serious about rehabilitation had fallen back to what was previously. People were again able to buy drugs at the same price and in the same quantities as before,” he said.

All that seems to have happened is that numerous lower-level dealers moved in to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Zemun gang.

“Lower-level criminals have re-established a foothold in the market and have moved up the supply chain,” an international official knowledgeable about the Serbian narcotics market told IWPR.

Street prices checked by IWPR confirm that after a price hike caused by the temporary shortage of drugs on the market, supply increased to satisfy the demand and bring prices down.

This follows the longer-term trend of a steady decline in street prices over the past few years. One dealer explained the fall in economic terms: as marijuana has become more popular, more has flooded onto the market and competition between the rising number of dealers has caused prices to plummet.

“The current price of heroin is the same as before,” said Milos Oparnica, director of Interpol in Belgrade. “The difference is that since Sabre there has been a change of bosses.”

The results of IWPR’s research in the field suggest that the underlying problems that allow Serbia’s narcotics market to operate remain unsolved, and that certain factors that stimulate the market are yet to be effectively addressed.


An international official told IWPR that the porous nature of parts of Serbia’s borders facilitates the importation of narcotics, feeding the country’s illegal markets.

Drugs come into the country by two main routes. Heroin – most of it from Afghanistan - comes from the south through Bulgaria and also Macedonia. Marijuana, which is mostly from Albania rather than further afield, reaches Serbia via Montenegro in the west. A third category, synthetic chemicals – ecstasy and the like – are often produced within Serbia rather than imported.

The marijuana crosses from Albania to Montenegro via Lake Skadar on the border between the two countries. “There is good quality marijuana coming over from Skadar which ends up in Serbia and the European Union,” said Oparnica.

One dealer involved in the marijuana trade told IWPR how the drug – commonly cultivated in Albania – first enters Montenegro. “The Albanians can bring 300-400 kg at a time across Lake Skadar on a single boat, travelling at night,” he said. “They use aluminium catamarans which mean they can come right into shallow marsh waters. These are the same boats they previously used to smuggle two cars at a time, before they moved into cigarettes during the 1990s, so you can fit a lot of dope onto them.”

As the supply from Albania has grown, prices have fallen and traffickers have either sought economies of scale by transporting larger volumes of the drug, or else diversified into other, higher-return narcotics.

“In 1998, we were smuggling grass in spare car tires - 3.5 kg in an Audi, 2.5 kg in a VW Golf. But that’s no longer profitable,” said the dealer. “What you find is that because the market is flooded, people are moving out of dealing marijuana and into other drugs such as ecstasy and heroin because the profits are higher and the drug is easier to conceal.”

An international official familiar with the region explained why the lake is so popular with smugglers, “The thing about Skadar is that there are a large number of jetties – both man-made and natural – where deliveries can be made. The locals on both sides know the large marsh area very well, and have years of experience of sanctions-busting.”

A lack of resources for policing also contributes to making the lake a smugglers’ paradise. “The customs patrol boat on Skadar crashed and was not replaced,” said the official. “And although there is a police boat, it is extremely difficult to monitor the entire lake with that alone.”

According to the dealer interviewed by IWPR, smuggling has recently become easier. “During Milosevic’s time and subsequently, the border between Serbia and Montenegro was more tense, and was patrolled by Montenegrin police and customs on one side and Serbian forces on the other. We ran the risk of being checked,” he said. “Now, because of better relations between Podgorica and Belgrade, that border-crossing problem no longer exists.”

He explained how the drug is transported onward from Montenegro on to Belgrade, “We buy pressed grass [marijuana] which is slightly more expensive because it is compact and you can fit more of it into concealed spaces. We pack 40 kg into the spare tire of a lorry, and drive a couple of lorries up to the outskirts of Belgrade where the tires are unloaded.”


The ability of Serbia’s customs and police authorities to stop drugs coming into the country has been enhanced recently. But there is still room for improvement, and institutional failings still contribute to the wide availability of narcotics.

The European Union and individual member states are currently investing heavily in Serbia’s customs and frontier police infrastructure so as to strengthen state revenue collection and prevent the illegal movement of narcotics, firearms, and other smuggled items – as well as people - transiting Serbia on their way to the EU.

A new law to be introduced by the Serbian government will see customs officials assuming responsibilities currently held by the police at border crossings. A customs intelligence unit with regional officers stationed across the country is also being created. Using a model pioneered in Sweden, it is hoped that detection and seizure rates will continue to increase.

Serbian customs and police drug statistics show a dramatically improvement in confiscations over the past seven months. In the first half of 2003, police seized 432 kg of narcotics – more than 40 times as much as they did in the same period in 2002. The 2003 figure includes 189 kg of heroin, seven kg more than the total amount seized in the previous seven years.

The customs authorities, as well as police, played a significant role in these seizures. “The police seized lots of small quantities of drugs during Operation Sabre, but many of the larger seizures were the result of good customs detective work,” said an international official who asked not to be named.

“There is now a good exchange of information between some people in Serbian customs and their counterparts in Bulgaria, and cooperation is developing with Hungary,” said another international advisor, noting that a number of the recent seizures were the result of joint cooperation work between different national customs services.

Richard Fiano, European director of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, told IWPR that he was very impressed with some of the Serbian police and customs officials he had met. “Some of their young police and customs officers have the attitude necessary to make a difference. They are committed and aggressive, and there are real signs of progress here,” he said.

However, higher confiscation rates at the border appear not be having much impact on the domestic market. An international official told IWPR out that the street price of heroin in Serbia remains stable, despite record seizures along the borders, suggesting that the hauls are not having a significant effect on the amount of drugs actually entering Serbia’s own black market.

“The problem for domestic Serbian law-enforcement,” he said, “is that the increase in seizures simply reflects the fact that Serbia is once again a major transit route. Detection rates have improved, but you’ve only got to look at which customs posts the drugs are being confiscated at to work out that most of them are destined for the EU market.”

Most drug seizures have been made at entry points from Bulgaria and Macedonia, such as Gradina and Presevo, or at the exit points for transit to the EU such as Horgos on the Hungarian border.

Criminal police department chief Mile Novakovic confirmed at a press conference that the increase in seizures is largely due to the revived fortunes of a popular route for smuggling heroin from Afghanistan to Western markets via the Balkans. This route – which runs through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia – had previously begun falling into disuse when the break-up of the former Yugoslavia led to war, sanctions, tight border controls and a lack of commercial traffic, all of which made smuggling harder.

Richard Fiano echoed Novakovic’s claims, saying the DEA had seen an increase in the quantities of south-west Asian heroin passing through Serbia on the northern Balkan route.

“Since 9/11 there has been an increase in the production of south-west Asian heroin emanating from Afghanistan,” he said. “It's becoming more available and cheaper, and therefore it's logical to suppose that more of the substance will transit Serbia on its way to European Union markets.”

On the western border, improvements in Serbian customs practices are undermined, some say, by institutional failings in Montenegro and a lack of cooperation with the authorities there. “While the Serbian customs service is improving in many areas, the same cannot be said for its Montenegrin counterpart,” one international official told IWPR, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another official said, “The Serbian and Montenegrin customs services are not unified and are at different stages of development, and police cooperation is not always as it should be. Belgrade and Podgorica officials have to communicate more if they want to limit the illegal importation of this substance.”

A third international advisor put it more bluntly, “Serbian customs are improving and the Montenegrins are not.”

Suzana Sukovic, deputy director of Montenegrin customs, rebuffed such criticisms, “It is not true that Serbian customs are more developed more than the Montenegrins.” But she admitted that a lack of technology makes tackling smugglers difficult.

Police in Montenegro say the country remains a prime conduit for drugs from Albania heading east to Serbia or west to the EU. They claim some success in fighting the trade, seizing over 500 kg of narcotics in the second half of 2003, according to a report in the Belgrade paper Danas in December. But they confirm that the removal of the Zemun gang has had little effect on prices and availability of drugs.

Besides the limited abilities of law-enforcement agencies to curb the flow of narcotics at the point of entry, there are also concerns about some of the methods employed by Serbian police to tackle drug dealing and abuse.

“The police attitude to drug users is not a progressive one,” said Dejan Anastasijevic, a crime analyst with the respected Belgrade weekly Vreme. “There is a tendency to extract information on dealers further up the food chain by methods not consistent with democratic policing.”

An international official told IWPR he had heard such complaints before, echoing consistent allegations heard in interviews with drug users that the police use brutal methods to extract information.

Rade Todorovic, deputy head of the Serbian police’s narcotics department denied the charges of abuse, saying, "That is not true. The mere fact that we arrest them in possession of drugs means criminal charges can be brought against them and they can be taken to court.” He added that under new legislation detainees always have the right to have a lawyer present when they are interviewed.


If naturally-based substances like heroin and marijuana are smuggled into the country, illegal domestic producers appear to be playing a major role in keeping chemically-based drugs such as ecstasy on the streets.

In February 2003, Belgrade police chief Milan Obradovic announced that his forces had taken part in a raid on a synthetic drugs factory in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia. It was the largest such laboratory plant ever to be discovered anywhere in Europe. But the operation appears to have done little to curtail domestic production of the drug in Serbia.

Thirty people were arrested during the Vojvodina raid, including the alleged ringleader Milan Zarubica, who is currently in jail. Police claimed to have seized over two million ecstasy pills from the underground facilities, and estimated that in the period it was in operation, the factory had produced drugs to a value of 50 million euro.

This was a big operation with several agencies involved. “The US Drug Enforcement Administration participated, as did our board for control of pharmaceuticals,” said Oparnica. “In addition to Interpol and the Serbian police, Serbia’s Security and Intelligence Agency, BIA, provided surveillance equipment for the operation.”

Despite the closure of this huge ecstasy production line, street prices for the drug in Serbia remain amongst the lowest in Europe. IWPR was offered individual pills at Belgrade riverside clubs for between four and five euros. Bulk purchases of 100 pills or more would have reduced the price to one euro per pill.

“While the Zarubica operation was a success, it did not curtail domestic production because Zarubica was producing for foreign markets,” said an anonymous international law-enforcement official.

“Zarubica was producing for export and his primary market was the Middle East,” confirmed Interpol’s Milos Oparnica. “There, ecstasy is marketed as an aphrodisiac rather than a dance drug.”

Extremely low seizure rates for ecstasy along Serbia’s borders suggest that imports are insignificant and this, combined with the low price of the drug in Serbia, seems to support claims that ecstasy is produced within the country itself.

A wide cross-section of informants - from dealers and other underworld sources to drug therapists and international officials - told IWPR that other ecstasy factories still existed, and these were producing for the domestic market.

“We don’t know about the new factories yet, but we can now check more efficiently who is importing controlled substances or precursors used in the production of drugs such as heroin, ecstasy and amphetamine,” said Oparnica.

“One of the problems here was that after 1993, there was no Interpol in Serbia and far less international cooperation in general, making monitoring and control of such substances more problematic. In addition to this, there was a simple lack of knowledge. Until recently, many customs officials simply did not know which drugs were used in the production of heroin.”


A number of commentators suggested to IWPR that improved methods of closing off the supply channels, would not in themselves be enough to combat the problem as long as demand remains high.

Former drug users and rehabilitation specialists agree that the drug abuse culture has as much to do with the high demand created by social problems as it has to do with the ease of supply.

“The EU can support a better law-enforcement and customs infrastructure to limit supply, but the truth is that no country in the world has won the war on drugs. As long as you have demand, the dealers will find a way to supply,” said Anastasijevic.

The DEA’s Fiano confirmed this dynamic, “My 33 years in the drug enforcement business has taught me that a good criminal justice system is not enough. You need to work on prevention and rehabilitation, you need what we call demand-reduction.”

Dr Aleksic agrees that more effort should be made to educate young people about the dangers. “A large section of young people here are criminalised because of their consumption habits and are made more afraid of the authorities in general. This isolates them further and can make treatment seem less available,” she said.

“What we have to do as a society is promote a real awareness of this problem. It is a war, but it is not a war on drugs, it is a war on ignorance. Young people don’t know about the risks involved.

“Whether they are labelled ecstasy or heroin, these drugs are not pure. Heroin in particular remains cheap, but it is cut with other substances – usually paracetamol, but sometimes with more deadly chemicals such as rat poison.”

Dr Ciric similarly argues that not enough resources have been allocated for prevention. “Our voluntary group, Step by Step, attempts to reach out to young people and make them aware of the dangers of drugs before they start. But the situation here does require more international cooperation and support,” she said.


Meanwhile, IWPR’s original drug dealer contact is preparing to holiday with some friends at the seaside in Montenegro. He’s looking forward to a four day house music festival in Budva featuring an array of famous British DJs.

“Last year, the police searched us when they heard our Belgrade accents,” he said. “We were just lying on the beach. We didn’t have any drugs.

“I just laughed to think of those hundreds of kilograms of dope coming over Skadar less than 40 km away and here’s a couple of hick Montenegrin cops opening my mobile phone to see if there’s any grass stashed inside.”

Hugh Griffiths is an investigations coordinator with IWPR. Daniel Sunter is an IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade. Boris Darmanovic, IWPR’s project manager in Podgorica helped with the report.

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