The favoured pursuit of Balkan mobsters during the late 1990s, until the profits available from human trafficking became too tempting to miss. The porous borders of former Yugoslavia lent themselves to the illicit trade, which enriched several cronies of Slobodan Milošević. Certain politicians in today's Serbia and Montenegro also appear implicated in the network of gangsters.

The Montenegrin Connection

Some smuggled cigarettes are manufactured by three factories in Macedonia, traditionally a centre of tobacco production. From here they may go out from Serbia to central Europe, but the greatest volume of tobacco is trafficked via Kosovo into Montenegro, where the Italian and Albanian mafias collaborate to transport it across the Adriatic Sea.

Other cigarettes are imported from multinationals such as Philip Morris or British American Tobacco, ostensibly for purchase in Yugoslavia but in fact transferred into criminal hands. American cigarettes pass overland from Rotterdam to Koper in Slovenia, and are taken by ship to the Montenegrin port of Bar, from where they are sped across into Italy.

In 1996, an Italian ringleader of the Sacred United Crown organisation was arrested, possibly at the behest of the tobacco multinational Philip Morris, in Bar. The immediate crackdown, however, had little effect on the better connected gangsters to whom the Montenegrin authorities turned a blind eye.

A second wave of arrests in 1999 saw the Montenegrin politician responsible for foreign affairs, Branko Perović, indicted and facing interrogation by Italian courts for his involvement in a smuggling ring which made some 6 million DM every month from their deals; not that anyone, including the case's prosecutor, reasonably expected that Perović might show up.

The Italian government complained that Montenegro harboured the gangsters themselves and the motor launches in which they made their midnight flits across the Adriatic. At the time, tobacco smuggling supposedly accounted for 60% of Montenegro's national income, which perhaps gave Perović's cash-strapped colleagues enough of a reason in itself to protect the guilty men: each bundle of cigarettes leaving Bar is supposed to have provided the government with 55 to 70 DM.

It has even been alleged, by the Croatian weekly Nacional, that Milo Đukanović, now Montenegro's president, was able to build up the highly trained police force and the power base which has enabled him to push for Montenegrin independence by rendering assistance to a notorious tobacco smuggler, Stanko Subotić.

Bambi And The Tigers

Moreover, nobody would be advised to cross the shady characters in control of the Serbian side of the operation if they were particularly concerned about their life expectancy. The leading lights, who also smuggled oil across the Balkans in violation of international economic sanctions, included Arkan, the commander of a feared paramilitary unit during the wars in the first part of the decade.

The so-called Tigers, recruited from hooligans on the terraces of Red Star Belgrade, took part in the bloody siege of Vukovar, in Croatia, and assisted ethnic cleansing in the north and east of Bosnia.

Married to the turbofolk singer Ceca, Arkan was shot dead outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade on January 16, 2000; the attack, one of an ongoing series of unattributed assassinations of Belgrade gangsters, was widely believed to be linked to his connections with the Serbian underworld.

One theory common at the time of Arkan's death was that he had intruded on the turf of Marko Milošević, Slobodan Milošević's playboy son in whose name the ships on the Rotterdam-Koper leg of the tobacco route seem to be registered. Marko, who seemed to fancy himself as a Yugoslavian Jacques Villeneuve, used his ill-gotten gains to turn their home town of Požarevac into an entertainment empire.

Until locals shut them down when his father was ousted from power in October 2000, Marko's Požarevac portfolio included an amusement park called Bambiland, and a gigantic and garish discotheque by the name of Madona by which one Mrs. Ritchie was apparently not amused. Marko himself is now believed to have taken refuge in Russia or Belarus.

In 2001, Đukanović's government finally took action against illegal imports: one would be forgiven for wondering whether it had realised it was losing more money through tax evasion than it was recouping from the smugglers. An unexplained cigarette shortage, strangely enough, was the result, until middlemen found a way to reopen their warehouses and raise prices by more than 50%.

Balkan Colombia

Continuing Italian investigations into tobacco smuggling, using the testimony of ex-mafiosi, reached Đukanović himself in 2002, which may have helped the European Union persuade him to sign a loose federation agreement with Serbia rather than go the whole hog towards total separation. Đukanović's supporters claimed in response that the probe was an attempt to destabilise the republic and make her appear an untrustworthy 'Balkan Colombia'.

Similar allegations were laid against Zoran Đinđić, the prime minister of Serbia, in July 2002 by a private investigator, Vukašin Minić. Minić further claimed that several of the Belgrade assassinations, against state security officials, took place because they knew too much about the cigarette gangs.

Estimates from 2001, when the EU prepared a lawsuit against the tobacco firms Philip Morris and R J Reynolds for conniving in the smuggling of their products, suggest that the traffic lost Europe some $3.4 billion over two years in lost excise duties and sales taxes. It is even possible that the narrowly averted conflict between ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian state in 2001 was partly prompted by disputes over the control of the route to Kosovo.

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