Burning rubber: Trebinje as a hotspot for organized crime.

The town of Trebinje (with a population of approximately 40 000), at the southernmost tip of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has all the attributes of a hotspot of organized crime: it is located about 20 kilometres from the borders of both Montenegro and Croatia; the region suffers from underdevelopment as a result of corrupt privatization processes in the 1990s; there is a legacy of smuggling from the Yugoslav wars; and the criminal justice system is weak, allegedly even compromised. As a result, the municipality has become a crossroads for the smuggling of drugs, cars and migrants. A series of targeted arson attacks moreover points to a criminal culture of threats that has received insufficient attention from the authorities.

A view of the town of Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a crossroads of crime.

A view of the town of Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a crossroads of crime.

Photo: Enrico Bottino/REDA&Co/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From war profiteers to car mafia

In the 1990s, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Trebinje was a key hub for the smuggling of a wide range of goods, including weapons, oil and cigarettes. A major kingpin from the area was even arrested in Zagreb in July 2006 on suspicion of smuggling 1.9 million fake euro banknotes.1

After the wars and efforts by the authorities to crack down on weapons trafficking, criminals in the region switched their attention to smuggling stolen cars, mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Montenegro, taking advantage of the opening of new borders, markets and opportunities. While groups in the Jahorina area (Pale, Sokolac and East Sarajevo) were the main players responsible for stealing cars in Sarajevo, the car mafia in Trebinje was in charge of bribing the police and customs officers in order to deliver the stolen cars to criminals in Montenegro, particularly in Niksic, Budva and Kotor.

According to a former car thief, around one-third of these cars were destined for the local market in Montenegro, while the other two-thirds were shipped abroad, sometimes even to Africa.2 According to this source, part of the money earned from car theft was invested in tourism in Montenegro and Trebinje, and part was invested in land and real estate. The power of the car mafia was so strong that in 2008, after Bishop Grigorije of Zahumlje-Herzegovina condemned it at a public session of the Assembly of Trebinje and called on the police ‘to start doing their job and finally arrest the car thieves, whose names are well known to all citizens of Trebinje’, he received a threatening letter and left the country.3

Hub for drug trafficking

Because of its location, Trebinje is a hub for drug trafficking. Whereas criminals from Trebinje used to act simply as intermediaries, over time they grew stronger and organized themselves into distinct groups. They developed connections with the police and border guards and linked up with other criminal groups in Montenegro and Croatia. As a result, drugs that go through Trebinje must now go through the town’s criminal groups.

Trebinje is a crossroads for cannabis coming from Albania via Montenegro, cocaine coming through Adriatic ports and heroin moving from south to north. Dubrovnik, approximately 40 kilometres away, is a major market supplied by Trebinje’s criminals, especially during the summer months when consumption rises alongside the tourist population.

The police have made significant arrests in the past,4 including of a former member of their own police force for domestic5 and international drug trafficking.6 In December 2018, police arrested 11 people as part of operation ‘Kanader’, which aimed to break up an organized criminal group engaged in the illicit production and trafficking of narcotics. They seized 19.8 kilograms of cannabis, as well as a small amount of cocaine and speed.7

But there are allegations that police and border guards are offered bribes to enable drug shipments to pass without interdiction. According to one former customs official, more than half of the police officers that he worked with accepted bribes, and the practice was well known within the service. One reason that is sometimes given is that salaries are relatively low; the average salary for a police officer in the Republic of Srpska in 2019 was around €450 per month.8 Furthermore, this former official noted that high-ranking police officers have little to worry about because of their political connections and the fact that there are few high-level prosecutions. Only petty dealers and criminals are arrested, to show the public that the police are doing something, while big criminals become respectable citizens.

Smuggling of migrants

As featured in a recent report by the GI-TOC, since 2015 Trebinje has become a hub for smuggling migrants.9 The region is sparsely populated and the terrain is difficult to control. Official crossings are easy to bypass through green borders. The same mountain trails used in the past to smuggle drugs and other contraband are now being used by migrants. With the help of guides, the migrants come across the mountains from Montenegro and head for Trebinje, and from there to Sarajevo. It is worth noting that there are few arrests for migrant smuggling in the region.10

Bombs and burning cars

Trebinje’s reputation as a hotspot for organized crime has been compounded by a series of fiery attacks on cars. Since 2005, there have been a number of incidents where criminals have planted explosive devices under cars, thrown bombs in front of victims’ houses or set cars on fire using flammable liquids. Victims have included police and border officials, lawyers, local politicians and businessmen, as well as people from the criminal milieu.

Since 2020, eight cars have been set on fire in Trebinje – most recently in May 202111 – despite the fact that the city has extensive video surveillance.12 While there is concern about the security situation among the local population, the police chief claims that the situation is under control and the police are taking measures to find the perpetrators.13

Accusations of corruption

Some people are not satisfied with the official response and are taking matters into their own hands. For example, a member of the Assembly of the Republic of Srpska, Nebojša Vukanović, has accused judges of the Court in Trebinje of being corrupt, involved in criminal acts and not doing their jobs professionally. Penalties for drug trafficking are minimal and there are few convictions. According to Vukanović, ‘the corrupt judiciary persecutes journalists, activists and opposition politicians who write about crime, but provides protection to those who are corrupt, rob and destroy the state and society’.14

According to police data, from 2014 to 2019, the Trebinje Police department recorded 44 criminal acts related to corruption, primarily the production and trafficking of narcotics, illicit trade, receiving and making bribes and abuse of official position or authority.15

Tourism to strengthen resilience?

While Trebinje can’t change its location, it can reduce its vulnerability by strengthening the criminal justice system, for example by cracking down on corruption, prosecuting rather than protecting the perpetrators and confiscating the proceeds of crime. Greater cooperation is also needed between law enforcement agencies within the country (i.e., between the Republic of Srpska, where Trebinje is located, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), and between Bosnian police and border officials and those in neighbouring Croatia and Montenegro.

Trebinje has huge potential as a tourist destination – with a Mediterranean climate, clean rivers and proximity to the sea and mountains, as well as a rich historical heritage. Better marketing and development of the infrastructure necessary to welcome visitors (including accommodation, restaurants and transportation) could strengthen the resilience of the region. Some international donors, such as the EU and USAID, are providing support for sustainable tourism development.16

With good governance and steps to crack down on crime and corruption, Trebinje could be a destination for tourists rather than traffickers.


  1. Ko su kriminalci koji vladaju Trebinjem/Kako je ukradeno auto Vladike Grigorija, 2 February 2008, Kliker, https://kliker.info/ko-su-kriminalci-koji-vladaju-trebinjemkako-je-ukradeno-auto-vladike-grigorija/

  2. Interview with a former criminal in Trebinje, 17 June 2021. 

  3. Trebinje: Auto-mafija prijeti episkopu Grigoriju smrću, Kliker, 29 March 2008, https://kliker.info/trebinje-auto-mafija-prijeti-episkopu-grigoriju-smru/

  4. Republic of Srpska Ministry of Interior, Evidentirana dva krivična djela ‘Neovlaštena proizvodnja i promet opojnih droga’, 22 April 2021, https://mup.vladars.net/lat/index.php?vijest=26066&vrsta=novosti

  5. Uhapšen bivši policajac iz Trebinja zbog dilanja droge, Nezavisne, 9 October 2015, https://www.nezavisne.com/novosti/hronika/Uhapsen-bivsi-policajac-iz-Trebinja-zbog-dilanja-droge/329906

  6. Nakon pokušaja ubistva u Trebinju: Još se ne zna ko je pucao na dilera, Faktor, 12 June 2017, https://faktor.ba/vijest/nakon-pokusaja-ubistva-u-trebinju-jos-se-ne-zna-ko-je-pucao-na-dilera-252450

  7. NARKO MAFIJA: DONOSIMO imena 11 uhapšenih u Trebinju i otkrivamo za kim policija traga, Top Portal, 11 December 2018, https://topportal.info/narko-mafija-donosimo-imena-11-uhapsenih-u-trebinju-i-otkrivamo-ko-ce-jos-biti-uhapsen/

  8. Primanja policajaca u RS-u trebala bi biti povećana za 110 KM, Vijesti, 27 February 2019, https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/primanja-policajaca-u-rs-u-trebala-bi-biti-povecana-za-110-km/190227084

  9. Walter Kemp, Kristina Amerhauser and Ruggero Scaturro, Spot Prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Spot-Prices-Analyzing-flows-of-people-drugs-and-money-in-the-Western-Balkans.pdf

  10. Na području koje pokriva PU Trebinje nije bilo trgovine ljudima, Hercegovina Promo.com, 19 October 2020, https://www.hercegovinapromo.com/na-podrucju-koje-pokriva-pu-trebinje-nije-bilo-trgovine-ljudima/

  11. Ćurić nakon paljevine auta u Trebinju: Da počinalac bude pronađen što prije, BL Portal, 10 May 2021, https://www.bl-portal.com/hronika/curic-nakon-paljevine-auta-u-trebinju-da-pocinalac-bude-pronadjen-sto-prije/

  12. Da li paljevine automobila u Trebinju imaju političku konotaciju?, Hercegovina Promo.com, 15 January 2021, https://www.hercegovinapromo.com/da-li-paljevine-automobila-u-trebinju-imaju-politicku-konotaciju/

  13. PU Trebinje: Vozila posipana zapaljivom tečnosću, počinioci još nisu otkriveni, Direkt, 13 January 2021, https://www.direkt-portal.com/pu-trebinje-vozila-posipana-zapaljivom-tecnoscu-pocinioci-jos-nisu-otkriveni/

  14. Interview in Banja Luka, 9 July 2021. 

  15. M I, Obilježen Međunarodni dan protiv korupcije, Radio Trebinje, 9 December 2019, https://radiotrebinje.com/vijest/obiljezen-medjunarodni-dan-protiv-korupcije?lang=lat

  16. USAID ulaže u bh. turizam 20 miliona dolara, BHRT, 25 January 2021, https://bhrt.ba/usaid-pokrece-projekt-razvoja-odrzivog-turizma-u-bih-vrijedan-20-miliona-dolara/