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November 10, 1996
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 266
Organized Crime

Cops And Robbers

by Filip Svarm

Radovan Stojcic Bidza, a Serbian police colonel-general, recently said that Belgrade, unlike other European capitals, had no quarters the police were afraid to patrol. The statement is quite true - your car can be stolen anywhere, shops in the city centre are being robbed in broad daylight, debts are collected with guns pointed at people's heads in their own homes and notorious criminals are executed outside theaters and shopping centres.

However, most Serbian citizens can feel safe. The average Serb is poverty- stricken to the extent that there is hardly anything worth robbing. The odd ones who do get robbed are victims of either desperate drug addicts or amateurs who tend to get aggressive when the plan goes wrong. Casualties among innocent passers-by are rare: criminals are executed with automatic weapons and all the bullets end up in the "right place". The authorities say that there is a fair amount of warfare going on between rival gangs, but decline to admit that there is such a thing as organized crime. The Belgrade police say that they are unable to keep track of and evaluate the proportions of crime-related business in the capital, which is why they are reluctant to use the above-mentioned term. Likewise, the authorities kept saying that Serbia was not at war at a time when people where being picked up and taken away by military and civilian police.

"Some of those things are very profitable. Drugs, car theft, armed robbery and extortion are the four major segments of crime in Belgrade, often related to embezzlement, financial abuse and other forms of economic crime", says Marko Nicovic, a former Belgrade police chief.

According to Vladan Vasiljevic, a prominent criminologist, money laundering, data base theft and arms dealing are among the most profitable criminal activities, followed by drug-dealing and gambling. He says that prostitution picked up only after the fall of the "iron curtain". "Although all forms of crime are flourishing, none of them are a novelty. Organized crime started back in the fifties with ranking officials using their position and legitimate business as a front to make big money from shady deals", Vasiljevic adds.

When a notorious character on the wrong side of the law is executed, he goes

down with the reputation of either a major boss, a renowned gunman, or a small fry. "The mere fact that we have a number of private protection agencies with legal ownership of automatic weapons speaks of organized crime. If I happen to be the owner of such an agency employing 50 people, and I decide to send five of them to do a job, we are talking about organized crime", says Tomislav Nikolic, the owner of the Toomax agency for the protection of individuals and property.

Criminals are mainly spoken of as tough guys, the heat on Belgrade's streets. Their trademarks are gold necklaces, guns, fancy cars and attractive girlfriends, namely blondes. Their average age is twenty, most of them are bald, non-drinkers, regular at the local gym and shooting galleries.

"How does one become a criminal today ? Two guys walk into a bar and start shooting into the ceiling, the inventory and the liquor. The owner calls the police, the police arrests the two fellows and locks them up. They are out in no time because their connection inside the police, usually someone with high ranks, says 'let them go'. They return to the bar and the owner will give them anything they ask for because he knows what he is up against", says Nikolic.

"Only the highest ranks in the police and those who actually give orders to the police know the situation with crime and decide what is a crime and what isn't. What we have is a process called the criminalization of politics. Back in 1992, the Serbian parliament included deputies who were notorious criminals", Vasiljevic says.

"The first and foremost thing is that everyone in the money extortion business is most definitely sponsored by the police. I once took the job of protecting a car dealer. Some criminals, not aware of the situation wanted, to racketeer the man but were told by the police to back off and later even apologized to me for threatening to shoot his knee caps off", the owner of the Toomax agency says.

Nicovic says it is quite probable the underground has the capacity to bribe individuals from the police. "Drug dealing is a global business and a slice of that cake remains in Yugoslavia, which has 40,000 registered drug addicts. Revenue from drug trafficking comes fast and in huge amounts. Heroin, for

example, is only six or seven percent pure when sold on the streets of Belgrade. One kilo of 90 percent pure heroin gives 20 kilos with a street value of 100 to 150 German marks per gram. The profit is enormous", says Marko Nicovic.

The former chief of police goes on to elaborate car theft. "Before a car is stolen, it is tipped off by an individual who tracks down expensive cars and their owners, and provides the information - where they park, what time, how long, etc.. Another individual picks his spot to open the car while the third party drives it to the person or organization that ordered the theft. I once tracked down a number of stolen cars being taken to the Czech Republic from Serbia and vice versa. Cheap cars are stolen for spare parts.

A Yugo windshield cost 1,000 marks in Croatia during the war in the former Yugoslavia", Nicovic says.

Boza Spasic, a former national security agent, now a private investigator, admits that former Yugoslav security services supplied criminals with passports and enabled them to leave the country. In return, they performed certain services for the state such as setting ablaze buildings and houses owned by political and national adversaries and executing them when necessary. Spasic says for himself that he used to be a "state liar and executioner". He feels no remorse, but he regrets that he hasn't done a few more jobs.

"The authorities did and still are using some members of the underground to do their dirty work for them. We are talking about things which happened in Bosnia and Croatia during the war and in some cases cooperation withforeign criminal organizations", Vasiljevic says.

However, it would be unjust to blame the entire police force for taking part in the crime boom or tolerating it. "Many of those tough criminals cry, squeal, beg and rat on their mates when they are caught. There are some great inspectors and great professionals in the police who can't forgive themselves for having to keep quiet and turn a blind eye on things that are going on", Nikolic says.

"They can't forgive themselves when a criminal they arrested walks into the captain's office without even looking at them. Infiltration into the underground and undercover work is the backbone of an efficient police force. When a crime happens, the police will not go to a scientist to ask questions, they will go to the underground. You will let of the hook a guy who might have robbed a kiosk but helped you bust an army of drug lords or someone who robbed hundreds of flats. A policeman must never find himself working for a criminal, it should always be the other way round", Nicovic says.

In that context, he mentions Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, who did a number of

useful things for the US armed forces in Italy during the Second World war. "However, he remained a criminal for the FBI and he was deported to Italy never to return to the United States", Nicovic adds.

Many criminals who did similar things for our authorities now have the reputation of heroes and patriots. None of them have been deported, let alone tried and convicted for crimes they committed. What is more, many of them were given police identification, which sometimes made it virtually impossible to distinguish between cops and robbers. The death of three policemen over the past few years is a telling example of the situation.

Rodoljub Lukovic was killed in the line of duty when he made a brave attempt to apprehend one Predrag Janjic, armed with a gun and a hand grenade. Goran Radulovic, a plain clothes police officer, was killed by Zeljko Maksimovic, who was acquitted with the excuse that he wasn't aware that the man who tried to arrest him was a policeman because he didn't show any identification.

Rumour has it that Maksimovic, who survived a number of assassination attempts, did a lot of dirty work for the state on Bosnian battlefronts. Finally, a reputable homicide inspector, Dragan Radisic, was killed outside his apartment and his assassins have still not been found. Radisic's murder is a blueprint copy of spectacular murders which rocked Belgrade in 1995 and this year.

"We have had a number of professional assassinations on our streets. They are not the work of trigger happy youngsters looking to make a name for themselves, but professional killers whose only trade is murder. The mannerin which a number of individuals were assassinated reveals that the perpetrators were highly trained and skilled professionals who never made the slightest mistake. Their targets had no chance of surviving while they had all the chances of getting away. They always picked the right time and place - no police around. All the assassinations happened in streets crowded enough for the executioner to blend in, but hardly ever did anyone except the target get hit. All the victims were shot in the most vital parts of the body with precision typical only for highly trained professional killers, good in handling weapons under stress and able to mix with the crowd and disappear in no time. All these facts point to one conclusion only - the assassinations were carried out by special forces or special police units. The profile of the people killed in Belgrade this way is quite specific. Common people are killed with axes or clubs for personal reasons and motives, this kind of murder is organized on a higher level", Nikolic says.

"Some people seeking glory join the national service or a similar organization, but get eliminated once they become burdensome to their bosses. I cannot say that such murders are masterminded by the police, that is a dangerous thing to say. Organizations like that have a typical hierarchical structure. One group orders the hit, another one plans it, the third group prepares and secures it, and finally the last group comes through with the execution", Vasiljevic explains.

"If a conflict arises between an individual and the group that gives orders, the individual's fate is sealed. In other words, people who know too much are executed because they could jeopardize the entire organization. If they started talking, they could reveal the dirty work and all details related to such activities because they remain close to the very top echelons for quite some time. I believe that the leading members of the underground, some of the most notorious criminals of our era, were the targets of the spectacular assassinations in Belgrade. Perhaps even more notorious characters will end up the same way one day", Vasiljevic says in conclusion.

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