Vranje, an emerging criminal hotspot.

Since 2019, one place keeps popping up in media and police reports about trafficking drugs and smuggling migrants: Vranje, which has all the characteristics of an organized- crime hotspot. This city, with a population of around 80 000 people according to official data,1 is located in southern Serbia close to Kosovo and Bulgaria along the E75 highway, which is a well-known trafficking route from North Macedonia to central Europe through Serbia and Romania.

The city is also economically vulnerable: the average salary is about €390,2 much lower than the Serbian average of €513.3 Vranje’s at-risk-of-poverty rate of 31% is well above the national rate of 24% in 2018.4 There are also elements of weak governance: Vranje has been slow to implement an anti-corruption plan5 and sessions of the town council are closed to the media. 6

Vranje is only 20 kilometres from the village of Veliki Trnovac, which until recently was such a notorious place for drug trafficking that it was even difficult for police to enter.7 However, most criminal activity seems to have shifted from Veliki Trnovac to Vranje. The latter is said to be a hub for cannabis and cocaine smuggling along well-established routes from neighbouring North Macedonia and Kosovo. In addition, at least one group from Vranje may have links to the Montenegrin Škaljari clan, a major player in the cocaine trade. Ties also seem to extend to Romania and possibly as far away as Latin America.

Indeed, a high-profile case from 2019 put Vranje on the map. In March 2019, Romanian police discovered a package with 1 kilogram of cocaine that had allegedly fallen out of a van. Following up on this lead, they seized around 1.8 tonnes of cocaine with a purity level of 90%. It was wrapped in balloons in a capsized boat on the Black Sea coast around the Danube Delta.8 The estimated value of the seized cocaine was €600 million,9 but it could have had a street value of two to three times that after being cut and mixed with other substances. To put that in perspective, the entire annual budget of the city of Belgrade in 2019 was just over €1 billion.

Romanian police arrested two people, both truck drivers from Vranje. The investigation showed that the cocaine originated in Brazil, entered Romania by sea via Turkey and was supposed to reach Serbia by road,10 where it would then be distributed to markets in Western Europe, primarily Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.11

In July 2020, Romanian prosecutors brought charges against 14 people, including Romanians, Spaniards and Ukrainians, as well as a notorious Lebanese drug lord operating out of Brazil. Some of those arrested were divers with expertise in recovering drugs thrown overboard from ships.12 The intended buyers were allegedly a ‘Balkan cartel’ from Serbia.13

Tellingly, only the two truck drivers from Vranje and none of their Serbian bosses were indicted. Serbian media reported that the two drivers were hired by someone with links to Davor Trajković. Trajković, who is said to be from Vranje but apparently lives in Moscow,14 has been linked to drug trafficking in the past.15 There are rumours that he was involved in the theft of a major shipment of cocaine in 2014 in Valencia, Spain, that triggered the split of an organized crime group in Kotor;16 the resulting bloody feud between the Škaljari and Kavač clans has killed almost 50 people since 2015.17 Media reported that Trajković had shared the cost of the 2019 shipment with Igor Dedović, a leading figure in the Škaljari clan.18 Dedović was killed by gunmen in January 2020 at a restaurant in Athens.

Since 2018, police in Vranje have been implicated at least twice in criminal activity. In 2018, a second criminal from Vranje (not linked to the Škaljari clan) was arrested with 47 kilograms of cannabis. The group he belonged to, which included police officers,19 was active in trafficking cannabis from Kosovo to Subotica in northern Serbia, from where the drugs were smuggled across the border into Hungary.

In July 2019, a police inspector from Vranje was arrested.20 Police found 21 kilograms of cannabis in his house. The police inspector allegedly tried to arrange for one of the truck drivers involved in the botched cocaine delivery mentioned above to be moved from Romania to Serbia.21 Prosecutors from Vranje filed an indictment against the police inspector in October 2019.22 The high court in Vranje extended his detention six times; nevertheless, the appeals court in Niš released him from custody in December 2019.23

It is suspected that drug profits are being laundered in Vranje to finance hotels, casinos, companies, restaurants and cafes and to buy the luxury cars that are visible on the city’s streets.

In addition to drug trafficking, Vranje has become a hub for migrant smuggling from North Macedonia towards Belgrade and on to Croatia or Hungary. Smuggling of migrants through Vranje appears to be less organized than drug trafficking; much of it is facilitated by either helpful or opportunistic local people transporting migrants from one point to another within Serbia.

The migrants, mostly young men from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, usually seek ‘connections for departure’ outside Vranje city centre to avoid detection. Transportation is arranged either through in-person meetings or via mobile phones and social networks. Migrants tend to stay in the city (sometimes for as long as a month) until there is a critical mass and then move as a group. This suggests that their movement is organized by smugglers.

Indeed, the most common criminal offence in and around Vranje relates to the transportation of migrants by passenger vehicles. Most cases deal with migrants who have been picked up near the town of Presevo and are heading north. It is said that smugglers are charging around €500–€600 per person to go from North Macedonia to Serbia.24 The drivers of the vehicles that are caught (usually young Serbian men of Serbian or Albanian ethnicity) often use licence plates from a different car.

The significant increase in migrant smuggling and drug trafficking, as well as the apparent involvement of some law enforcement officials in organized criminal activities, are indications that Vranje is emerging as a hotspot of organized crime.


  1. Republicki zavod za statistiku, Profil Vranja, November 2020, http://devinfo.stat.gov.rs/SerbiaProfileLauncher/files/profiles/sr/1/DI_Profil_Grad%20Vranje_EURSRB002002008001.pdf

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Average salaries and wages per employee, October 2020, Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, https://publikacije.stat.gov.rs/G2020/HtmlE/G20201353.html

  4. Republički zavod za statistiku, Profil Vranja, November 2020, http://devinfo.stat.gov.rs/SerbiaProfileLauncher/files/profiles/sr/1/DI_Profil_Vranje_EURSRB002002008002.pdf; Eurostat income poverty statistics, 4 December 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Income_poverty_statistics&oldid=440992

  5. Beta, Vranje: Druga šansa za borbu protiv korupcije, 30 April 2019, https://beta.rs/posmatraci/posmatraci-vesti/110324-vranje-druga-sansa-za-borbu-protiv-korupcije

  6. United Nations Office for Project Services, Good governance at local level: experiences from Serbia, 2017, https://swisspro.org.rs/uploads/files/71-874-good_governance_at_local_level_experiences_from_serbia.pdf

  7. Interview with a journalist from Vranje, November 2020. 

  8. Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism, Press release, 26 March 2020, https://www.diicot.ro/mass-media/2304-comunicat-de-presa-26-03-2019

  9. Filip Rudic, Romania arrests two serbians in major cocaine bust, Balkan Insight, 27 March 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/03/27/romania-arrests-two-serbians-in-major-cocaine-bust/

  10. Ibid. 

  11. RISE Romania, Romania charges 16 over washed-up drugs, OCCPR, 15 July 2020, https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/12746-romania-charges-16-over-washed-up-drugs

  12. Dosarul ‘Cocaina de la Marea Neagră’ a fost finalizat. DIICOT, DEA și Interpol au ajuns pe urmele drogurilor până în Brazilia, Digi24, 15 July 2020, https://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/justitie/dosarul-cocaina-de-la-marea-neagra-a-fost-finalizat-diicot-dea-si-interpol-au-ajuns-pe-urmele-drogurilor-pana-in-brazilia-1338209

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Interview with a journalist from Vranje, November 2020. 

  15. ’Balkanski kartel’ švercovao 1,8 tona kokaina iz Južne Amerike, Blic, 13 August 2020, https://www.blic.rs/vesti/hronika/balkanski-kartel-svercovao-18-tona-kokaina-iz-juzne-amerike-saradnici-skaljarskog/0hskmrt

  16. Tamara Marković Subota, Akcija ’Braća Grim’, Ekspress, 25 July 2020, https://www.ekspres.net/brejking/hronika/akcija-braca-grim

  17. Walter Kemp, Making a killing: What assassinations reveal about the Montenegrin drug war, GI-TOC, July 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/montenegro-assassinations-drug-war/

  18. Miroslava Derikonjić, Škaljarci švercovali kokain preko Rumunije, Politika, 29 March 2019, http://www.politika.rs/sr/clanak/426133/Skaljarci-svercovali-kokain-preko-Rumunije

  19. I M, Kod policajaca iz Vranja zaplenjeno 47 kilograma marihuane, Južne vesti, 26 December 2018, https://www.juznevesti.com/Hronika/Kod-policajaca-iz-Vranja-zaplenjeno-47-kilograma-marihuane.sr.html

  20. J A and A Ž A, Droga i veze sa klanovima policajac iz Vranja kod kog je pronađeno više od 20 kilograma marihuane povezan sa poznatim imenima srpskog podzemlja, Blic, 11 July 2019, https://www.blic.rs/vesti/hronika/droga-i-veze-sa-klanovima-policajac-iz-vranja-kod-kog-je-pronadeno-vise-od-20/y0ntfs1

  21. Ana Ž Adžić, Policajac ima veze sa ’kokainom iz Dunava’, Blic, 16 July 2019, https://www.blic.rs/vesti/hronika/policajac-ima-veze-sa-kokainom-iz-dunava-pokusao-da-izvuce-jednog-kamiondziju-iz/f12hlv9

  22. S Kostić, Optužnica protiv inspektora zbog 21 kilogram droge, Vranjske, 22 October 2019, https://www.infovranjske.rs/info/optu%C5%BEnica-protiv-inspektora-zbog-21-kilogram-droge

  23. S S B, Saša inspektor pušten iz pritvora, Vranjske, 24 December 2019, https://www.infovranjske.rs/info/sa%C5%A1a-inspektor-pu%C5%A1ten-iz-pritvora

  24. Interview with expert on migration, Belgrade, December 2020.