Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Organised Crime Knows No Boundaries

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Nov 14 2008 (IPS) - Inter-ethnic hatred has remained alive among many Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs through the years since the wars of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia. But the ‘brotherhood’ imposed by communist rulers to keep people together remains alive in organised crime that knows no boundaries, or religious and ethnic divisions.

This was evident again in the killing last month of Ivo Pukanic (47), owner of the weekly Nacional. His paper ran a campaign to expose organised crime in the region.

Two weeks before Pukanic was killed, a young female lawyer Ivana Hodak died in a mafia-style ambush. She and her father, also a lawyer, were involved in one of the most spectacular cases against war-time generals-turned businessmen, who were accused of abusing state funds for private purposes at the time of Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s.

Investigation of the latest killing, the first violent death of a journalist in Croatia since its independence war of the 1990s, has exposed a close-knit network of Bosniak, Croat, Montenegrin and Serb criminals who conspired in the act.

A Bosniak Muslim put together a bomb that was placed next to Pukanic’s car by a Bosnian Serb. It went off in downtown Zagreb Oct. 23, killing Pukanic and his advertising manager Niko Franic (35) instantly.

Three Croats, the Bosnian Serb who planted the bomb, and a Serb of Montenegrin origin who allegedly tried to help one of the Croats flee Croatia in the aftermath, were charged by the Croatian prosecutor’s office with the killing of Pukanic and Franic.

Days after the crime, Croatian police arrested the first three of the accused: Robert Matanic, his cousin Luka Matanic and their friend Amir Amalfani.

The Bosnian Serb who planted the bomb, Zeljko Milovanovic, went into hiding after his name was released by media in the region, following the Croatian police charges against the five.

The Montenegrin Boban Djurovic, also charged, was waiting at the Croatian-Serb border with false papers to take Matanic into Serbia after the crime. Bosniak Elvis Hodzic was pinpointed by Croatian police as the man who put the bomb together. He was arrested in Bosnia and is in custody.

“The killing of Pukanic showed two things,” organised crime analyst Milos Vasic told IPS. “The first is that there are no boundaries or ethnic disputes between organised crime figures in the Balkans. Second is the fact that the level of organised crime stands as a major obstacle for the region’s desire to join the European Union (EU).”

Vasic was referring to the profiles of the conspirators. The first Croat arrested, Robert Matanic (31), has been arrested several times in Serbia and Bulgaria, but was released due to lack of evidence. Most of the allegations described him as a hit man for organised crime, who participated in the killing of several mafia bosses in Bulgaria.

Italian prosecutor from the southern city of Bari, Giuseppe Scelsi, indicated why Pukanic may have been killed. He described Pukanic as “the key witness in the investigation of the Balkans mafia.” The Italian prosecutor led an investigation earlier into cigarette smuggling between Italy and Montenegro in the 1990s.

The killing of Ivo Pukanic has prompted Croatia’s Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic to declare a crackdown on organised crime. That came after the EU strongly warned Croatia to tackle organised crime if it hopes to join the union.

“This is a clear step back for Croatia’s quest for membership,” said Hanes Svoboda, the European Parliament’s Croatia monitor. “Either the government must impose some stability and order, or Croatia will not be able to join the EU anytime soon,” Svoboda said in an interview with Croatian official radio.

The EU French presidency has called on all Balkans countries aspiring to join the 27-nation bloc to establish tight cooperation in their fight against organised crime.

At an urgent meeting of EU representatives and justice and interior ministers from the Balkans countries convened in Croatian capital Zagreb a week after the death of Pukanic, EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot said the Balkans countries must clamp down on organised crime and corruption if they wish to join the 27-member bloc.

“Across the region, a lot of progress has been made…At the same time common challenges, such as boosting the fight against organised crime and corruption must be given adequate attention,” Barrot said.

“Regional cooperation of criminal networks should be answered through regional cooperation of the concerned police forces,” French interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie told journalists after the meeting in Zagreb.

The French minister stressed the “need to fight against networks that do not care about borders, or barriers between communities.” The cooperation should be achieved through common police units, coordinated raids against arms producers and smugglers, and the creation of a database of these persons, she added.

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