October 24, 1994 Vreme News Digest Agency No 161
Drugs and War
The Grass Is Stronger On The Other Side
by Dejan Anastasijevic and a team of VREME associates
Cocaine has become a status symbol in Belgrade. In besieged Sarajevo, heroin is probably the only commodity that there was never a shortage of-and whose price actually fell
Travelling along the corridor in late summer and early autumn, a careful observer will notice cannabis growing by the side of the road. That plant is used to produce soft drugs-marijuana and hashish. It's illegal to grow it and the law proscribes a sentence of up to 10 years in all of the former Yugoslav states. In Bosnia, no one pays any heed to the law. Cannabis doesn't need much care and is well suited to the region and it's not cheap. ``Half of Bosnia is covered in marijuana,'' a surprised foreign reporter said recently. Cannabis grows especially well in Herzegovina, both in the east and the west. VREME's reporter in Mostar said last year that the besieged Muslims were firing shells filled with marijuana over to the Croat side in exchange for shells filled with tobacco. A young man from Bosnia bragged that he had bought a flat in central Belgrade after just three months spent selling Herzegovinian marijuana in the Serbian capital.
Soft drug deals are just a small and relatively unimportant part of the story about the effect of war on the drug market in former Yugoslavia. While the Belgrade-Zagreb highway was open, Yugoslavia was geographically important as a transit zone for heroin and raw opium all the way from the golden triangle (Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) and the golden crescent (Pakistan to Turkey). The drugs came into Yugoslavia at Dimitrovgrad (town on the Serbia-Bulgaria border) and left through border crossings leading to western Europe. Very little stayed in the country; there were almost no hard drugs on the streets and the police did what they could. Dimitrovgrad held the European record for years in the amount of drugs seized by customs. Things changed after Tito died (1980) and the changes sped up as the crisis got worse. In the early 1980s heroin appeared in the cities in large quantities and at affordable prices. Legend has it that Arab students brought it in but were quickly ousted by local entrepreneurs who were linked to the police and authorities.
Since then, Belgrade's underworld is awash with stories about the police running the hard drugs trade. Some people swear that the police seized their drugs and later sold them back to dealers. One of the first things the Croatian police (formed after the Croatian Democratic Union won the first multi-party elections) did was to seize narcotics in Croatia, especially in ports. Instead of destroying them, they allegedly brought them to a central warehouse in Zagreb. The order to seize and store the drugs caused rumors, never confirmed or denied, that the drugs were resold and the profits used to buy weapons.
The outbreak of war and breakup of Yugoslavia drastically disrupted the market and forced international dealers to find alternate routes to get their heroin from east to west. The Kosovo Albanians seem to have done the best job in adapting to the new situation. They got into the lucrative business and today, according to the London Times, they control 70% of the drugs that come into Switzerland and a considerable amount of the drugs in Germany. This is logical: thanks to their specific socio-economic structure, the large Albanian families have links to both the east and the west. What's more natural than taking a package from one relative (in Istambul, for example) to another (in Zurich). Add to that the patriarchal, closed structure of the family, the ease in which the Albanian and Macedonian borders are crossed even with heavy loads and the leniency the western European states had towards Albanians from Kosovo, and it's clear that the International Drug Enforcement Agency in Paris had reason to become alarmed. That organization's most recent report said that one of the largest raw opium labs is located near Kumanovo in Macedonia. Heroin is taken from there to Italy via Montenegro and Albania in boats. The report said the operation is coordinated by the Italian mafia.
The other route the narco-mafia used to get into former Yugoslavia was through Belgrade and is used mainly to launder money. The sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro forced the local state and economic structures to turn to ``unofficial'' ways of transferring large funds abroad through offshore banks and companies in Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands. Logically, the greatest experts in the field were members of the narco-mafia. So there was an exchange of services. No one wants to talk about specific details-that's too dangerous. Still, a lot can be discovered. Sources in one of the famous failed private banks said there had been a lot of visits by mysterious business partners from Italy and South America before the bank finally closed down. Radojica Nikcevic, the late owner of the Sumadija housing company, a partner of American businessman Giovanni di Stefano, was murdered shortly after a business trip to Columbia. Di Stefano is currently under investigation for foreign currency dealings and is in Italy. His name is linked to the failed Credit Lyonnaise bank which French investigators say was involved in money laundering. Well informed underworld sources said the October 18 killing of Dejan Marjanovic Saban involved a shipment of cocaine that never reached its intended destination.
Another area where the interests of the local masters of war mingle with the interests of the narco-mafia is the arms trade. Usually those two go hand in hand. A former official of the Serbian drug enforcement agency told VREME that cocaine was not readily available just two or three years ago. It came into former Yugoslavia along with a contingent of arms from South America. Today cocaine is 20% cheaper in Belgrade than in Germany or the Netherlands, but it's still too expensive for local junkies. It is a drug of prestige: ``If you have money, you do coke; that's a sign that you're well off,'' one source said and added that a number of nouveau riches pop-folk music stars are addicted as well as some ambitious young politicians.
Indicatively, the amount of drugs seized by the police and customs over the past few years has dropped gradually. Police officials say that's because Yugoslavia is no longer interesting as a transit zone and it's population has less money. None of that is correct. The transit has increased if anything and statistics show that the population's purchasing power and drug consumption are inversely proportional. Many here advocate the theory that drugs are entertainment for the young and rich. That might be true of cocaine and ecstasy and other designer drugs, but the greatest heroin consumers are members of the poorest classes. There's another indication that drug consumption rises in hard times: in Sarajevo, heroin is probably the only commodity that was never in short supply; it's price actually dropped. Some of the western press named the Ukrainian blue berets as the greatest drug dealers. Last year the UN launched an investigation into those claims. Some of the Ukrainians were sent home, but the report of the investigation was never made public.
The local criminal code is also favorable to serious drug dealers. Former Yugoslavia's drug laws were inherited by all of the former Yugoslav republics. Those law do not distinguish between dealers and user nor between soft and hard drugs. An unlucky kid caught in a disco with a couple of grams of grass in his pocket gets the same sentence as a courier carrying a kilo of heroin. In both cases that means between three and five years in jail. The difference being that the kid will probably serve out his sentence while the courier can bribe his way out, especially if he's a foreigner.
Despite occasional, showy anti-drug campaigns in the public, the fact is that no one here has even tried to gain a deeper insight into the problem. To do that you need to deal with corruption, especially among the police. In most countries that have taken the drug problem seriously, police drug squad officers are rotated every few years. That's done so that they wouldn't be tempted into joining the dealers. There is no mention of anything similar here. There are no reports that any police officer has been punished for involvement with drugs, but there are rumors that some police officials are extremely rich.
Meanwhile, officials are minimizing the problem (``There's no organized crime,'' ``drug trafficking is decreasing'') and the police occasionally brag about finding marijuana plants (similar reports have been coming out of the Bosnian Serb Republic and Republic of Serb Krajina). An example from Split (one of the centers of heroin trafficking in Europe) in Croatia shows that things are no better there. ``Slobodna Dalmacija'' daily said recently that the police were doing their job conscientiously when they arrested 23 year old C.A. with a plastic bag in his pocket that a lab test showed had once contained heroin.
Prices For Drugs in Former Yugoslavia
Drug Belgrade Split Sarajevo per gram Marijuana 3-5 3 3 Hashish 15-20 10-15 - Cocaine 120-150 100-120 - per pill Ecstasy 50 30-50 -