A crackdown on organized crime in the Western Balkans?

In a series of arrests in January and February 2021, police in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina took down criminals that the media allege have links to the notorious Kavač and Škaljari criminal clans from Montenegro. Police in North Macedonia arrested six people in Prilep, the country’s fourth-largest city, on drug-related charges.1 Are we witnessing a crackdown on organized crime in the Western Balkans?

On the morning of 4 February, Serbia’s anti-organized crime prosecutor Mladen Nenadić announced that police had arrested 16 people suspected of serious crimes.2 The news spread like wildfire. Some sections of the media speculated that this was the beginning of President Aleksandar Vučić’s long-promised crackdown on organized crime,3 while others stressed the necessity of investigating links between criminal groups and officials in politics and the security services.4

One of the most important figures arrested was Veljko Belivuk. In the early 2000s, Belivuk was a member of United Force, an ultras group formed by Belgrade skinheads to support Serbian football club FK Rad. He also worked as a security guard at a Belgrade night club, where he beat and wounded two people in 2007. The court finally found him guilty eight years later.5 Belivuk came to public attention in April 2016 when, along with Aleksandar Stanković – leader of the football club FK Partizan fan group Janjičari –, he was caught on surveillance camera brutally beating the security guards of FK Partizan’s general manager.6

Veljko Belivuk, leader of a Serbian hooligan group with ties to the criminal underworld, is arrested in Belgrade in February 2021.

Veljko Belivuk, leader of a Serbian hooligan group with ties to the criminal underworld, is arrested in Belgrade in February 2021.

Photo: Stefan Tomasevic&ATAImages

After Stanković was killed in a mafia-style shooting in October 2016,7 Belivuk succeeded Stanković as the new leader of the Janjičari.8 The day after the assassination, then minister of interior Nebojša Stefanović declared a war against the mafia and corrupt police.9 However, in the following years, Serbian streets became a battleground, with more than 60 murders allegedly connected to organized crime.10

Belivuk’s troubles with the law continued in 2017 when he was charged as an associate in organizing a murder. However, the court acquitted him of the charges.11 Meanwhile, investigative journalists discovered photos of Janjičari members with a senior policeman,12 as well as possible links between Belivuk and senior officials in the interior ministry.13 Furthermore, Janjičari members acted as security guards at the inauguration of President Vučić.14 It has also been reported that the Janjičari have ties to the Kavač clan.15

In Serbia, it is an open secret that hooligan groups are involved in illicit activities related to drugs, private security, gambling and construction.16 However, Vučić has promised to fight against the mafia, ‘regardless of personal, political and any other consequences’.17

In February 2021, Serbian police arrested Belivuk upon his return from Montenegro, where he allegedly met Radoje Zvicer, one of the leaders of the Kavač clan.18 Belivuk’s group was accused of murder, extortion, kidnapping and drug dealing,19 as well as a possible plan to assassinate a top state official.20 Other suspects were charged with association to commit criminal offences; unauthorized production and distribution of narcotics; and illicit production, possession, carrying and trafficking of weapons and explosives, in addition to three cases of aggravated murder.21

Separately, in the city of Tivat, Montenegro, in January police took into custody suspected members of a criminal organization. It was believed that the suspects ‘intended to liquidate members of the Kavač group’.22 One of the intended targets was thought to be Belivuk.

In February, police in Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested three Montenegrins close to the Jahorina ski resort for illegal production and trafficking of drugs and weapons.23 Media reported that they were from the Škaljari clan and planned to kill the leader of the rival Kavač clan, Radoje Zvicer, and his wife during their stay at the resort.24

Back in Serbia, Vučić vowed to show pictures of the cruelty of the Janjičari group.25 At a press conference in March, Vučić showed a photo of a headless victim to a primetime television audience.26 After, a journalist from the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) asked the president why some of the government’s representatives were not being questioned by police. Vučić did not respond.27 Several days later, pro-government tabloids accused KRIK and some police officers of being part of the Janjičari group.28 Media associations and international organizations,29 including the GI-TOC, reacted to the smear campaign,30 as did Vučić, who stated that KRIK should be left alone to do its work since that is democracy.31

While there is no end in sight to the clash between the Škaljari and Kavač clans from Montenegro that started in 2014 and has involved figures from Serbian criminal and hooligan groups,32 efforts of the state to crack down on it seem to have intensified.

Serbia has come down hard on organized crime in the past, for example during Operation Sabre in 2008, which dismantled major groups like the Zemun clan after the assassination of Prime Minister Đinđić. It will be interesting to see if President Vučić can live up to his promise.


  1. H M, Приведени дилери на дрога во Прилеп, вмешани и полициски службеници, Нова Македонија, 6 February 2020, https://www.novamakedonija.com.mk/makedonija/hronika/приведени-дилери-на-дрога-во-прилеп-вм

  2. Uhapšeno 16 osoba osumnjičenih za udruživanje radi otmica i ubistva, RTS, 4 February 2021, https://youtu.be/sZNINtATgHk

  3. Hapšenje Velje Nevolje je samo POČETAK BORBE protiv organizovanog kriminala, Pink, 6 Februrary 2021, https://pink.rs/hronika/273656/hapsenje-velje-nevolje-je-samo-pocetak-borbe-protiv-organizovanog-kriminala-jedan-detalj-je-kljucan-u-ovom-procesu

  4. V. Jeremić, Veze Veljka Belivuka sa državom godinama ignorisane, Danas, 9 February 2021, https://www.danas.rs/drustvo/veze-veljka-belivuka-sa-drzavom-godinama-ignorisane/

  5. Interview with journalist from Belgrade, February 2021. 

  6. Nenad Nešić, Niko uhapšen nakon napada na Vazuru, B92, 29 April 2016, https://youtu.be/WSDgjXarrdI

  7. Devin Windelspecht, Serbia’s Deadly Mix: Football, Politics and Crime, OCCPR, 27 January 2017, https://www.occrp.org/en/blog/6016-serbia-s-deadly-mix-football-politics-and-crime

  8. Belivuk changed the group’s name to Principi, but it is still popularly known as Janjičari. 

  9. Veljko Medić, Stefanović: Objavljujemo rat mafiji, RTS, 14 October 2016, https://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/2488734/stefanovic-objavljujemo-rat-mafiji.html

  10. Crna knjiga, KRIK and Radio Slobodna Evropa, 15 February 2021, https://www.crnaknjiga.rs/index.php

  11. Bojana Pavlović, Tužilaštvo traži ukidanje presude Belivuku, KRIK, 20 February 2019, https://www.krik.rs/tuzilastvo-trazi-ukidanje-presude-belivuku/

  12. Ministar policije: Vučković jeste pripadnik Žandarmerije i navijač Partizana, ali to nije krivično delo, Insajder, 31 October 2016, https://insajder.net/sr/sajt/tema/1928/

  13. Jelena Radivojević and Bojana Pavlović, Uhapšen Belivuk i članovi njegove kriminalne grupe, KRIK, 4 February 2021, https://www.krik.rs/uhapsen-belivuk-i-clanovi-njegove-kriminalne-grupe/. See also: Ivana Jeremić, Foul Play: Serbia’s Football Hooligans Get Down to Business, Balkan Insight, 22 July 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/07/22/foul-play-serbias-football-hooligans-get-down-to-business/

  14. Jelena Diković, Od čuvanja Vučića na inauguraciji do hapšenja za ubistva, Danas, 6 February 2021, https://www.danas.rs/drustvo/od-cuvanja-vucica-na-inauguraciji-do-hapsenja-za-ubistva/

  15. Bojana Jovanović, Vučić tvrdi da Vidojević nije član klana iako ga je policija označila kao kavčanina, KRIK, 13 June 2020, https://www.krik.rs/vucic-tvrdi-da-vidojevic-nije-clan-klana-iako-ga-je-policija-oznacila-kao-kavcanina/

  16. Firme navijača – podizvođači u poslovima za državu, Insajder, 7 December 2019, https://youtu.be/2RzitOXDO3M

  17. Aleksandar Vučić, Pobedićemo mafiju. Garantujem!, Budućnost Srbije, 19 October 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CGhmIEGpM6h/

  18. Veljko Belivuk uhapšen na beogradskom aerodromu, Vijesti, 29 January 2021, https://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/crna-hronika/507599/veljko-belivuk-priveden-na-beogradskom-aerodromu

  19. Izjava Ministar Vulin: uhapšeno 17 osoba, nećemo dozvoliti stvaranje novog Zemunskog klana, MUP Republike Srbije, 4 February 2021, https://youtu.be/g9PN0R_bbIE

  20. Vulin: Našli smo najmanje dva mesta na kojima su “upucavane” snajperske puške, RTS, 7 February 2021, https://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/4249862/vulin-veljko-belivuk-kriminalna-grupa-hapsenja-snajper-upucavali-puske.html

  21. Određen pritvor osumnjičenima V. Belivuk i drugi, Viši sud u Beogradu, 6 February 2021, https://www.bg.vi.sud.rs/vest/2991/odredjen-pritvor-osumnjicenima-v-belivuk-i-drugi.php

  22. Bojana Nikolić, Iz Spuža na pretres doveli osumnjičene za pokušaj likvidacije Belivuka i Miljkovića, Vijesti, 2 February 2021, https://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/crna-hronika/508927/iz-spuza-na-pretres-doveli-osumnjicene-za-pokusaj-likvidacije-belivuka-i-miljkovica

  23. Lišena slobode tri državljanina Republike Crne Gore, Ministarstvo unutrašnjih poslova Republike Srpske, 11 February 2021, https://mup.vladars.net/lat/index.php?vijest=25477&vrsta=novosti

  24. Uhapšeni škaljarci čekali su Radoja Zvicera da se pridruži supruzi Tamari na Jahorini da bi ih ubili, Dnevni avaz, 11 February 2021, https://avaz.ba/vijesti/crna-hronika/630250/uhapseni-skaljarci-cekali-su-radoja-zvicera-da-se-pridruzi-supruzi-tamari-na-jahorini-da-bi-ih-ubili

  25. Vučić: Građani Srbije, Evropa i svet biće šokirani detaljima istrage protiv organizovanog kriminala, RTS, 27 February, https://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/4274742/vucic-kriminal-istraga-.html

  26. Zorka Đukanović, Medijska i politička pozadina obračuna sa organizovanim kriminalom u Srbiji, WDR, 8 March 2021, https://www1.wdr.de/radio/cosmo/programm/sendungen/radio-forum/region/krimial-srbija-100.html

  27. Bojana Jovanoić, Vučić izbegao da odgovori na pitanje o vezi Nedića i Belivukove grupe, KRIK, 7 March 2021, https://www.krik.rs/vucic-izbegao-da-odgovori-na-pitanje-o-vezi-nedica-i-belivukove-grupe/

  28. Pro-government media is running a campaign accusing KRIK of being aligned with criminals, KRIK, 10 March 2021, https://www.krik.rs/en/pro-government-media-is-running-a-campaign-accusing-krik-of-being-aligned-with-criminals/

  29. Andy Heil, Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Nevena Bogdanovic, Drug Wars, Wiretaps, And Hooligans: Serbia’s Gangland Roundup Tests the System, Radio Free Europe, 13 March 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/drug-wars-wiretaps-hooligans-serbian-gangland-partizan/31148874.html

  30. Statement in support of Crime and Corruption Reporting Network KRIK, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, 10 March 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/statement-support-krik-serbia/

  31. Vučić: Pustite Krik da radi posao, to je demokratija, Cenzolovka, 11 March 2021, https://www.cenzolovka.rs/pritisci-i-napadi/vucic-pustite-krik-da-radi-posao-to-je-demokratija/

  32. Walter Kemp, Making a killing: What assassinations reveal about the Montenegrin drug war, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, July 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Making-a-killing-What-assassinations-reveal-about-the-Montenegrin-drug-war.pdf