Debunking the myth of the existence of a Balkan cartel.

A criminal cartel is a sophisticated alliance of multiple criminal organizations and cells cooperating for a long time under the leadership of several bosses and the kingpin, and having extensive connections with other organized criminals at the national, regional and international levels. The media and law enforcement agencies, including Europol, sometimes refer to the existence of a ‘Balkan cartel’. Is that a myth, or is there such a criminal association? And why does it matter?1

Cartels’ primary source of income is drug trafficking.2 They produce, transport and distribute illicit drugs with the assistance of criminal organizations that are either members of or closely cooperate with the cartel. They also launder money from drug trafficking.

Historic examples include the Medellín cartel under Pablo Escobar or the break-away Cali cartel, both in Colombia. Contemporary examples include the Sinaloa cartel, the Gulf cartel or the Juárez cartel in Mexico that maintain drug distribution through cells in cities across the United States that either report directly to leaders in Mexico or indirectly through intermediaries. They are composed of various compartmentalized cells assigned to specific functions and therefore provide a complete chain of drug businesses – production, transportation, distribution and money laundering.3

The Balkan cartel would then be an alliance of criminal organizations from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia (or at least some of these countries) with a solid hierarchical structure and a prominent criminal enterprise leader, able to produce, transport and distribute drugs as well as launder money. Indications are that such a united cartel does not exist. If it did, it would be a powerful force in the criminal world.

Available evidence gives a more nuanced picture. On the one hand, criminals from the former Yugoslavia still act in a kind of ‘Yugosphere’ of criminality. They usually display the attributes of criminal networks involved in illicit trafficking of commodities, but do not have territorial control or any of the other defining features of mafia-style groups. These networks are usually transnational and cooperate across borders and ethnic divides. Indeed, criminals in the Balkans often seem to cooperate more effectively across borders than law enforcement agencies.

There are also mafia-style organizations in the Balkans. There are four defining, although not exclusive, features of a mafia-style group: a known name, a defined (usually hierarchical) leadership, territorial control and identifiable membership. Such groups (often based around a clan) can be found in parts of Albania or local hotspots of organized crime in parts of the region. They are usually concentrated in a particular city or region and, although they may have accomplices abroad, they lack the transnational reach of criminal networks or cartels.

On the other hand, while one could argue that a few criminal networks from the region have some characteristics of cartels, there is no homogeneous, unified Balkan cartel under one centralized command and control structure. Indeed, there are violent rivalries between some groups and organizations, even from the same country, like the Kavač and Škaljari clans from Montenegro or rival clans in Albania. Criminals from the Balkans are also effective at working with counterparts from outside the region, for example linking up with cocaine suppliers in Latin America or distributors in western Europe. In short, most organized criminal groups in or from the Balkans operate more like criminal networks or, in localized situations, like mafia-style groups, rather than cartels.

Besides assessing the veracity of the myth, why is it important to determine the existence of a Balkan cartel? Based on the experience of Latin America and Mexico, the existence of such a cartel could pose a serious security risk to countries of the region, including threatening state sovereignty and a monopoly on the use of force, causing high rates of lethal violence and subverting or even replacing certain state functions, such as providing security, creating a stable economy and controlling some key border crossing points.4 It could also have a serious impact on security within the countries where the cartel operates, for example in Latin America and western Europe, as well as the balance of power (or market rivalries) within illicit economies.

Origins of the myth

If there is no Balkan cartel per se, where does the myth come from and why does it persist? In the 1980s, young men from what was then Yugoslavia were active in the underworld of some western European countries. Some worked in red light districts as bouncers or human traffickers, while others made their money from protection rackets, extortion and drug dealing or as hitmen.5 They were known, for example, in the Netherlands as Yugomafia or in Sweden as Juggemaffian.

Criminal groups from the Balkans became more organized and more violent during and after the wars in Yugoslavia, not least because of their experience in combat and access to weapons. Others enjoyed a degree of protection from the criminal economies developed to evade sanctions. Although they were developing a fear factor, they were still relatively small-time operators in the European crime scene, active mostly in trafficking heroin, weapons and people.

The myth of the Balkan cartel grew with the notoriety of the criminal group led by Darko Šarić, a Serbian citizen of Montenegrin origin known as ‘the cocaine king’.6 Šarić first attracted the interest of authorities in 2000 when the Serbian police received information from colleagues abroad about suspicion of money laundering.7 In 2007, Italian police began investigating Šarić and other Serbian and Montenegrin criminal clans that were taking over the cocaine market from the Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangheta.8 In October 2009, more than two tonnes of cocaine were seized on a luxury yacht near Montevideo, Uruguay, in operation Balkan Warrior. Two people were arrested, a Uruguayan and a Croat.9 Balkan Warrior was described as an operation that prevented the creation of a Balkan cartel.10

To some extent, the use of the expression ‘Balkan cartel’ is sensationalist reporting, based on limited knowledge of both organized crime and the region. The term ‘cartel’ is used as shorthand for criminal groups, while ‘the Balkans’ is portrayed as a monolith of criminal actors from eastern Europe. Put together, the expression implies a highly organized pan-regional criminal group. While such a cartel does not seem to exist, there are enough actors around who either seek to perpetuate the myth or whose operations indicate a degree of transnational cooperation.

For example, in 2015, US authorities classified Naser Kelmendi as a major drug lord and a leader of a criminal family in the Balkans, with a network of associates across the region (especially in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) and western Europe. Kelmendi’s criminal organization was accused of drug trafficking and money laundering, and was even sanctioned by the White House under the US Kingpin Act in 2012.11 In 2018, he was found guilty of running a narcotics operation, but was later released while he awaits retrial.12

On the other side of the world, in 2015, Balkan criminals were marked as the biggest threat to security in Australia. The leading players were known as the King Cross gangsters and they controlled drug trafficking to Australian ports.13 The media dubbed the alleged leader, Vaso Ulić,14 as the new Pablo Escobar. Ulić admitted in 2019 in Montenegro that he organized a clan for international drug trafficking.15

Ulić was not the only one given that title. The exploits of Klement Balili from Albania have also been portrayed as a Balkan cartel, and – adding to the myth – Balili has also been referred to as the ‘Balkans’ Escobar’.16 In May 2016, Greek police arrested 15 members of a criminal network that smuggled cannabis from Albania to Greece and Europe, financed and run by Balili, who was then director of transport in Saranda, Albania. He was eventually fired and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was on the run until January 2019, when he surrendered to the police,17 just like Šarić.18

Another example of a Balkan kingpin is Edin Gačanin, leader of the Tito and Dino cartel. His group is known to be a big player in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to the Netherlands.19 Serbian security services believe that the Tito and Dino cartel took over the cocaine business from Group America in 2016 after the arrest of one of their high-ranking members, Zoran Jakšić.20

The fact that there are several big players in or from the region indicates that there are a number of groups, but not a unified cartel. In Spain alone, there are estimated to be 100 organized criminal groups from the Balkans.21

And yet, even Europol uses the expression ‘Balkan cartel’, which it describes as a network of organized crime. Several operations have been carried out as part of a broader European strategy against the so-called Balkan cartel.22 Cocaine trafficking from Colombia, Ecuador and Panama to Europe and Asia is the leading business for Balkan criminals, but they are also involved in arms trafficking. Members of the Balkan cartel, according to these operations, are mainly criminals from Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The myth is strengthened every time a multinational criminal group is taken down. For example, 48 people recently arrested in Slovenia were allegedly part of a cell of a Montenegrin criminal group. According to the criminal charges filed by the police, 20 of them were citizens of Slovenia, 11 from Serbia, nine from Bosnia and Herzegovina, five from Croatia, two from Montenegro and one from North Macedonia. Such examples demonstrate that there are multi-ethnic networks or syndicates from the Balkans or cells associated with a violent clan, but are not proof of a Balkan cartel.

Tentacles without a head

Undoubtedly, criminal organizations from the Western Balkans cooperate. Some smuggle large quantities of cocaine from South America to Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. Another group is the Pink Panthers’ network of jewel thieves. The composition of some of these groups is multi-ethnic, consisting of people from the former Yugoslavia. Cooperation is facilitated by understanding of each other’s languages as well as cultural similarities. The same logic applies to cooperation among Albanian-speaking groups. Some groups from the Western Balkans also cooperate with criminal organizations from the rest of south-eastern Europe like Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Slovenia.

References to the ‘Balkan cartel’ in media articles and law enforcement statements.

References to the ‘Balkan cartel’ in media articles and law enforcement statements.

That said, these Balkan groups also cooperate with groups from outside the region, for example in western Europe and Latin America. Indeed, some Balkan criminals seem to be key members of groups that resemble cartels, like the multinational Kompanio Bello network that was busted in September 2020.23 This largely Albanian-speaking group had been organizing major shipments of cocaine from Latin America to western Europe.24 In October 2021, when the head of the powerful Colombian Clan del Golfo cartel was arrested, it was reported that his group had links with a number of other criminal networks, including from the Balkans.25 Therefore, similar ethnicity or language does not seem to be a prerequisite for cooperation but it is not a guarantor of cooperation either; as noted, there is sometimes violent competition between groups from the region and even the same country.

As InSight Crime has observed, ‘in today’s ever more fluid underworld, none of these groups have the capacity to run cocaine routes from production to retail single-handedly. Instead, they constantly form and dissolve networks and alliances with different actors from all across the globe.’26 In short, while there is clearly inter-ethnic cooperation among criminal groups from the Balkans, and the tentacles of these groups extend around the world, the arms are neither connected to a common body nor are they coordinated by a mastermind.


  1. This article is based on Saša Đorđević, Balkanski kartel – razbijanje mita: Braća po narkoticima, Vreme, 14 October 2021,

  2. Carlo DeVito, The Encyclopedia of International Organized Crime. Facts On File Crime Library, Checkmark Books, 2005. 

  3. Drug Enforcement Agency, National Drug Threat Assessment 2020, US Department of Justice, March 2021,

  4. Robert J Bunker and John P Sullivan, Cartel evolution: Potentials and consequences, Transnational Organized Crime, 1998, 4, 2, 55-74. 

  5. GI-TOC, Guns for gangs in Sweden: the Balkan connection, Risk Bulletin 4, January-February 2021,

  6. Bojana Jovanović and Stevan Dojčinović, Saric case: from international investigation to second judgement, KRIK, 5 December 2018,

  7. Utisak nedelje, B92, 14 February 2010,

  8. Enco Manjini, Italijanska veza Darka Šarića, Vreme, 25 November 2010,

  9. Bojana Jovanović and Stevan Dojčinović, Saric Case: from International Investigation to Second Judgement, KRIK, 5 December 2018,

  10. Djordje Odavic and Ratko Femic, Serbian Bureau victorious over ‘Balkan cartel’, Novi Magazin, 17 February 2012,

  11. Treasury Sanctions Network of Naser Kelmendi, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 24 March 2015,

  12. Labinot Leposhtica and Die Morina, Kosovo Court Jails Kelmendi For Drugs Running, BalkanInsight, 1 February 2018,; Naser Kelmendi released from prison, Radio Televizija Crne Gore, 3 August 2018,

  13. Charles Miranda, Aussies running drug cartel, Townsville Bulletin, 1 June 2015; Charles Miranda, Balkan link in drug web, Gold Coast Bulletin, 1 June 2015. 

  14. Dimitrije Jovićević, Vaso Ulić, ‘crnogorski Escobar’?, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 30 August 2017,

  15. Milica Vojinović, Vasu Uliću dve godine zatvora za organizovanje međunarodnog šverca droge, KRIK, 1 October 2019,

  16. «Πολιτικοί προστατεύουν» το βαρόνο του καρτέλ των Βαλκανίων, CNN Greece, 11 March 2016.

  17. Accused Albanian drug lord surrenders to police, Reuters, 15 January 2019,

  18. Marija Ristic, Dusica Tomovic and Bojana Barlovac, alleged Balkan drugs lord Darko Saric surrenders, BalkanInsight, 18 March 2014,

  19. Avdo Avdić, Povezani sa italijanskom i južnoameričkom mafijom: Bosanski kartel Tito i Dino kontrolira narko tržište u Evropi, Žurnal, 1 August 2019,

  20. Tamra Marković Subota, Ko je kralj kokaina? Čovek koji je video Tita, Ekspres, 1 January 2020,

  21. Patricia Ortega Dolz, The Balkan mafias wielding their power in Spain, El Pais, 3 September 2020,

  22. Europol, 100 kg of cocaine and 150kg of marijuana seized in major international operation dismantling Balkan cartel, 8 March 2018,; Europol, Coordinated hit against two big gun running operations in Europe, 19 June 2018,; Europol, Balkan cartel trafficking cocaine around the globe in private planes busted, 23 July 2019,; Europol, Balkan cocaine cartel taken down in Montenegro, 11 March 2020,; Europol, Over 60 charged in crackdown on Balkan cartel behind cocaine pipeline to Europe, 27 September 2021,

  23. Xhorxhina Bami, Interpol operation busts top ethnic Albanian drug smuggling ring, BalkanInsight, 17 September 2020,

  24. Eurojust, Joint investigation team leads to dismantling of one of Europe’s most active Albanian-speaking networks trafficking cocaine into Europe, 17 September 2020,

  25. Hervé Bar, Narcotrafic: le Clan del Golfo, meilleur ami des mafias, TV5 monde, 3 November 2021,

  26. Maria Fernanda Ramírez, Cocaine – The criminal steroid, InSight Crime, 9 February 2021,