The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime published report ‘Hotspots of Organized Crime in the Western Balkans: Local Vulnerabilities in a Regional Context’, which provides an overview of the current situation in the Western Balkans, as well as some general information on the main illicit flows.
This report is based on information gathered by a network of local experts who conducted around 350 interviews with police, prosecutors, judges, politicians, public officials in different levels of administration, journalists, locals living in the hotspots analyzed in the report, and representatives of civil society.
The report focuses on the six European Union accession candidates from the Western Balkans region, sometimes referred to as the ‘WB6’, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Among other things, the report speaks about major intersections of organized crime in the Western Balkans - mostly bigger cities and capitals, coastal towns and places where major highways intersect - and takes a deeper dive into vulnerable locations, such as Sarajevo, three ports along the Montenegrin coast, northern Kosovo as well as the triangular region where North Macedonia meets south Serbia and Kosovo.
Authors concluded that illicit flows through ports, cities and border crossings in the Western Balkans are enabled by a political economy of crime that is deeply entrenched in most countries of the region.
The report reads that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a transit point for trafficking in drugs, weapons, persons, alcohol, cigarettes, cars, counterfeit goods and money.
“The region around Bijeljina and Zvornik is often cited as a smuggling route for migrants, cattle, wood, drugs, cars as well as counterfeit textiles and money. It is also known as a hub for cigarette smuggling. The Raca crossing point between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, where there is a high volume of vehicle traffic, is considered particularly significant for illicit activity”, the report reads.
Furthermore, the report reads that the Trebinje region of eastern Herzegovina - which includes a 70-kilometre stretch of border with Croatia and a 130-kilometre border with Montenegro - is an ideal location for the transit of drugs coming from Montenegro to Bosnia as well as to Croatia, and from there to other parts of the EU. “There are said to be strong ties between groups operating in the Trebinje region and Dubrovnik, which is just 32 kilometers away. Since 2015, Trebinje has also been used as a route by migrant smugglers”, concluded authors of the report.
In a section titled ‘Grand Theft Auto: Sarajevo’, authors labelled car thieves as the most dangerous criminals in Sarajevo.
“In 2017, at least one car was stolen in Sarajevo every day. The thieves are increasingly brazen, and even stole vehicles belonging to the local Sarajevo police, the State Investigation and Protection Agency and the Ministry of Defense”, the report reads.
Revenue from car theft over the past 15 years was estimated at EUR 50 million, making it one of the most lucrative forms of crime in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as car theft seems to offer low risks and high rewards.
Cars stolen in Sarajevo are usually taken outside the city limits. In some cases, the stolen cars are used to carry out other crimes and then destroyed. In other cases, the owners are contacted to buy back their cars.
“It is perhaps no coincidence that there is a high concentration of car repair shops along the border region of Bosnia and Herzegovina - many of which are operating illegally. It also appears that many of the profits from vehicle theft and extortion are laundered through businesses that relate to cars, such as auto repair shops, car washes, taxi companies and rental agencies”, the report concludes.
The Balkans, according to the report, is also a source for firearms smuggling. “The legacy of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, civil unrest in Albania in 1997 and instability in North Macedonia in 2001 has left the region awash with millions of weapons. Some of these weapons are smuggled into the EU, often for use by other criminal groups, such as biker gangs in Nordic countries or Italian mafia groups. Weapons from the Balkans have also been used by Islamic terrorists”, the report reads.
Furthermore, “the Balkans has a reputation for being a source of hitmen”. “Because of the legacy of war and the economic vulnerability of certain regions, there is a pool of young men - particularly from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia - with access to weapons and explosives. Young men from the region have carried out professional assassinations, both within the region and in Central Europe”.
Authors underlined that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is fragile as the country remains deeply divided along ethnic lines. “The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be watched closely - not only in terms of political consequences, but also the role played by spoilers who profit from instability”, the report concludes.