A renaissance of crime in Novi Pazar?

In mid-December 2020, shots rang out in the streets of Novi Pazar. In the middle of the day, close to a police station, a nightclub owner with an extensive police rap sheet and his son shot at a man from their moving car, injuring a bystander.1 Two days later, in broad daylight, several bullets were fired at a man sitting in a café in the city centre who, not long before, was reportedly in the company of two police officers.2 In a high-profile response to the shootings, the Serbian interior minister sent in the gendarmerie to patrol the city and conduct raids.3 There is a palpable sense of fear in the city and people are carrying knives and other weapons to protect themselves. After years of relative stability, Novi Pazar is back in the news as a hotspot of organized crime.

Novi Pazar is located in south-western Serbia (in the Sandzak region) close to Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because of its location, the Bosniak-majority city of around 120 000 inhabitants has traditionally been a hub for trade and trafficking.4 Like other criminal hotspots in the Western Balkans identified by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), Novi Pazar is underdeveloped: the average monthly salary is €353 – €160 less than the national average – while 12% of the population is dependent on social assistance.5 Around one fifth (20 768) of the adult population is unemployed.6 Many inhabitants of the city allegedly gain some of their income from remittances or smuggling. ‘Everything is smuggled – wood, livestock, food, tools, machines, textiles,’ said a local civil society activist.7 Because of the economic hardships, many young people are leaving the area.8 Some of those that stay engage in criminal activities.

Novi Pazar used to be a notorious hub for criminal activity, much of which was centred around the Hajrović family. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Hikmet Hajrović was reputed to be one of Serbia’s biggest drug bosses, particularly for heroin smuggled from Turkey to Novi Pazar. Criminal groups smuggled consignments of drugs in specially-modified compartments in trucks, buses or vans. The heroin that Hajrović smuggled was said to be of exceptional purity – among the best quality in Europe – and some of the shipments weighed hundreds of kilograms. In 2008, the US State Department nicknamed the Sandzak region as Europe’s ‘heroin stash’.9 From Novi Pazar, criminals smuggled drugs to other cities in Serbia, mainly Belgrade, and on to Western Europe, as far away as London. Hajrović was finally arrested in 2011 and sentenced in 2013 to 15 years in prison, based on a plea bargain.10

Street prices for drugs in Novi Pazar.

Figure 2 Street prices for drugs in Novi Pazar.

Until the recent shootings, Novi Pazar’s criminal heyday seemed to have passed. Criminals from the 1990s and early 2000s had allegedly invested their assets in legal businesses and abandoned crime. Heroin trafficking was taken over by bigger and more powerful groups involved in cocaine trafficking from outside Sandzak. While heroin and cannabis are still trafficked through Novi Pazar (particularly via Rozaje in Montenegro),11 the volume is said to be lower than in the past.

There is also some evidence of synthetic drugs in Novi Pazar, primarily ecstasy produced in Western Europe and brands known as Super Mario and Ladybug.12 According to police data, the street price of marijuana is around 1 000 Serbian dinars (RSD) or €8.5 per gram; heroin, amphetamine and ecstasy are each RSD1 500 per gram (€7), while a gram of cocaine costs RSD8 000 (€68).13 However, those familiar with the local drug market say that the real prices are lower.14

While Novi Pazar’s role as a drug-trafficking hub is less significant than in the past, the problem has not disappeared. Since 2015, 114 people have been prosecuted for illicit production, possession or sale of narcotics in Novi Pazar. The court sentenced them to a total of 281 years in prison. Most of the sentences have been minor. A rare exception was a dealer sentenced to seven years in prison for possessing 21 kilograms of marijuana intended for sale.15 Police have arrested criminals from Novi Pazar in other countries, such as Hungary and Turkey, in possession of tens of kilograms of cannabis. And local groups, although smaller and less powerful than in the past, are reported to be cooperating with criminal groups from Kosovo, Belgrade, Cacak and Novi Sad.16

The business model of some groups from Novi Pazar seems to be stealing drugs from other criminals.17 In 2019, a group from Novi Pazar allegedly stole 6 kilograms of cocaine in Slovenia from the Montenegrin Kavač clan. A few months later, in December 2019, a member of the same Novi Pazar group18 was shot in Belgrade during a drug handover.19 Drugs and around €300 000 in cash that he had with him disappeared.20

Time will tell if these recent incidents in Novi Pazar are only a temporary flare-up or if they presage a return to the city’s notorious past.


  1. Dvoje povređeno u pucnjavi, ranjena slučajna prolaznica, Radio Sto Plus, 15 December 2020, www.radiostoplus.com/item/30555

  2. Beta, Pucnjava u Novom Pazaru, ranjen muškarac, N1, 17 December 2020, rs.n1info.com/vesti/a684701-pucnjava-u-novom-pazaru-ranjen-muskarac

  3. Vulin: Država neće dozvoliti obračune kriminalnih bandi u Novom Pazaru, RTS, 17 December 2020, www.rts.rs/page/stories/ci/story/124/drustvo/4189973/vulin-obracun-bande-novi-pazar.html

  4. The official population figure is 107 071, but the unofficial estimate is 120 000. Serbian statistical office, Novi Pazar profile, November 2020, devinfo.stat.gov.rs/SerbiaProfileLauncher/files/profiles/sr/1/DI_Profil_Novi%20Pazar_EURSRB002001007003.pdf

  5. Ibid. 

  6. National employment service, monthly statistical bulletin no. 219, November 2020, www.nsz.gov.rs/live/digitalAssets/15/15623_bilten_nsz_novembar_2020.pdf

  7. Interview with a representative of a civil society organization, Novi Pazar, October 2020. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, United States Department of State, March 2008, p. 492, 2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/102583.pdf

  10. Repeat trafficker caught in large heroin bust, OCCPR, 18 October 2011, www.occrp.org/en/daily/1174-repeat-trafficker-caught-in-large-heroin-bust

  11. Interview with a police inspector, Novi Pazar, November 2020. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Official response of the Ministry of Interior, Police Department Novi Pazar, 9 November 2020. 

  14. Interview with a drug user, Novi Pazar, November 2020. 

  15. Interview with the public prosecutor, Novi Pazar, November 2020. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Interview with a journalist, Novi Pazar, January 2021. 

  19. K S and J P, Pucnjava na Vračaru: Narko-diler (40) ranjen u Kursulinoj ulici, prevezen na reanimaciju, Blic, 29 December 2019, www.blic.rs/vesti/beograd/pucnjava-na-vracaru-narko-diler-40-ranjen-u-kursulinoj-ulici-prevezen-na-reanimaciju/843vkr4

  20. Interview with a journalist, Novi Pazar, January 2021.