Brcko: A market for organized crime.

In recent years, the Brcko District in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the scene of a number of incidents concerning smuggling of migrants, weapons and drugs. This is due in part to Brcko’s location along trafficking routes as well as weak governance and corruption.

Before the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina broke out in 1992, Brcko was a multi-ethnic city and a well-known regional transport hub where the main rail, road and river routes connecting Yugoslavia intersected. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Brcko is now situated in a triangle where the borders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina meet. The port of Brcko used to be one of the most important river ports in the former Yugoslavia. This strategic position was the reason why Brcko suffered enormous destruction during the war. As a result of heavy fighting, the city was destroyed and the Croat and Bosniak populations were expelled. Brcko’s status was so contested that it was decided during the Dayton peace talks that the city would not only be part of both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it would also be granted the status of a separate mixed entity formally recognized as a district.

During the war, Brcko was the hub of black-market activity. After the war, peacekeepers cleared an area and soon traders began to set up makeshift buildings to sell their wares. The so-called Arizona market became a notorious tax-free marketplace where it was possible to buy almost anything. As a result, it was a magnet for smuggling and other types of crime, including prostitution.1 It is estimated that in 1996 the black market accounted for 98 per cent of the district’s economy.

In order to bring trade under control, the local government and its international partners built a new market, which has become a place where people from all over the region buy and sell goods. Today, the market hosts more than 2 000 business units, and it is estimated that between 5 000 and 6 000 people visit it every day.2 Around €10 million in taxes flow annually into the state budget from the revenues of the Arizona market, which has become the largest market in the former Yugoslavia.3 Nevertheless, Brcko remains one of the poorest regions in the country; in December 2021, the average monthly salary was €502, the lowest in Bosnia and Herzegovina.4

But transforming a black market for licit goods into a legal market did not eliminate illegal activity in the district. Criminals sought other opportunities, primarily trafficking in drugs and human beings, and smuggling of firearms and high-tariff goods.

Cooperation among criminals, corruption within the police

Brcko’s geography makes it a key node for smuggling between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. Its location just across the Sava river from the EU makes it an attractive place for smuggling outside the region, including of migrants. Criminal groups in Brcko engage in transnational criminal activities with their counterparts in the two neighbouring countries. Over the past two years, several police operations have disrupted the smuggling of drugs, firearms and migrants involving multinational criminal groups.5 Criminals from Croatia and Serbia have been known to sometimes cross the border to lie low in Brcko.6 That is not say that Brcko is always peaceful. Because of the criminal milieu, there have been a number of violent incidents, both in terms of criminals settling scores as well as armed robberies and attacks.7

Although criminals move through the region relatively easily, Bosnia’s complex system of government – which is also reflected in the police and judicial system – sometimes hampers cooperation among law enforcement officials. Poor collaboration between cantonal and federal, as well as with state agencies in joint actions on countering crime, not to mention a lack of data sharing, gives space for criminals to operate.

Corruption also hampers the fight against organized crime. Criminal groups have managed to recruit police officers from Brcko to personally participate in drug trafficking and smuggling, as well as to protect and mediate drug handovers. In 2018, the assistant chief of the Brcko District criminal police was arrested with 1.1 kilograms of pure cocaine, worth €130 000, in his car.8 As irregularities continued, in April 2019 the chief of police temporarily suspended seven police officers on suspicion that they had committed serious breaches of official duty.9 Shortly thereafter, police officers were arrested again in the Brcko District area, as were border police officers, on criminal offences of bribery and smuggling of migrants and drugs. It is striking that there are so many cases of corruption in such a small area, despite the fact that police are paid better than in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have good equipment, receive training and support from the international community and work in a new building that cost more than €5 million.10

Despite the problems of organized crime in the region and corruption within the police service, Brcko police have carried out several successful operations against the smuggling of migrants, weapons and drugs, particularly when cooperating with counterparts in Croatia, Germany and Austria.

In a police operation codenamed Cer in 2019, 17 people were arrested, including two former and one current police officer. A large quantity of narcotics, intended for street sale, was found, and about three kilograms of drugs were seized. These include marijuana, speed and Ecstasy worth about €20 000, as well as packing accessories, weapons and mobile phones. Over €8 000 in local currency was confiscated.11

During a police action codenamed Bjegunac, carried out in November 2021, two members of Brcko’s police were part of the organized criminal group that was buying and selling drugs in the Brcko District as well as in the area of Bijeljina, Pelagićevo and Orašje. During the operation, about a kilogram of marijuana was found, along with a little more than a hundred grams of cocaine.12

Brcko has many of the characteristics evident in other hotspots of organized crime in the Western Balkans: a location attractive for trafficking, weak governance (in this case exacerbated by corruption) and economic vulnerability. It suffers the additional handicap of misusing funds that are desperately needed to strengthen resilience among civil society. In such a small place, everybody knows each other. This makes change hard. On the other hand, the committed approach of honest officials, strengthened by the support of the international community, can make a big difference very quickly. More efforts are needed to bolster civil society and to build bridges between civil society and government institutions with integrity to reduce the space for criminal groups to exploit.

According to a senior police officer: ‘We are aware that we have issues. But we are also devoted to fighting crime. For a long time, corruption here in the police was a standard, but now the tides are changing.’13


  1. Balkanski shopping u Arizoni, Nacional, 30 August 2019, 

  2. The market even has its own website:

  3. M Nikolić, Arizona dream: Od šverca do proizvodnje, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2 March 2016,

  4. BILTEN Statistički podaci Brčko distrikta BiH, Agencija za statistiku BiH, 14 March 2022,

  5. Odličan učinak policijske akcije „KALIBAR“, Radio Brčko, 30 November 2016,; D B, Velika policijska akcija u Njemačkoj: Trojka iz BiH upletena u krađu vozila vrijednih 1,5 milion eura, Klix, 23 February 2022,; A K and A B, Ko je bio meta akcije „Wolf“ u kojoj je učestvovalo 250 policajaca, Avaz, 16 December 2020,; Hapšenja u BiH i Austriji: Pali dileri droge i oružja, ATV BL, 29 May 2016,; Velika akcija razbijanja lanca krijumčara droge i ljudi u Republici Srpskoj, dio robe redovno je završavao i u Hrvatskoj, Slobodna Dalmacija, 8 December 2021,

  6. Interview with a senior police officer in Brcko District, 14 January 2022. 

  7. N N, Brčak optužen za 20 teških pljački i ranjavanje nožem, Nezavisne novine, 23 October 2017,

  8. S Bandić, Uhićeni muškarac pomoćnik šefa Krim-policije Brčko distrikta Zlatko Androšević, Zadarski list, 27 October 2018,

  9. E Redžić, Sedmorica policajaca suspendirana zbog napada na imovinu uglednog privrednika, Avaz, 18 April 2019,

  10. Svečano otvorena nova zgrada Policije Brčko distrikta BiH, Vlada Brčko distrikta BiH, 17 February 2016,

  11. M N, Akcija Cer u Brčkom: Od 17 uhapšenih u pritvoru ostao samo jedan osumnjičeni, Klix, 24 October 2019,

  12. M M, “Bjegunac“: Akcijom SIPA-e obuhvaćeno 15 osoba, među njima i policajci, Faktor, 22 November 2021,

  13. Interview with a senior inspector in Brcko District, 8 January 2022.