The Bosnian border town of Gradiška: a hotspot of organized crime and a gateway to the Schengen zone.

The town of Gradiška,1 located close to the Croatian border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was scarred by war crimes and ethnic cleansing of the Bosniak and Croat population during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.2 While some of the perpetrators were convicted,3 other former combatants moved on to a life of crime.4 This has enabled Gradiška’s development, over the past 20 years, into a hotspot for trafficking in drugs, weapons and – most recently – migrants. Smugglers are taking advantage of Gradiška’s strategic location, situated directly on the Sava River and along the main highway north from Banja Luka, making the town a gateway to the Schengen zone.

Situated near the Croatian border, the town of Gradiška has become a gateway for smugglers seeking to access markets in the EU.

Situated near the Croatian border, the town of Gradiška has become a gateway for smugglers seeking to access markets in the EU.

Photo: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past 10 years, Gradiška’s criminal groups have become more organized and transnational, linking up with networks operating in neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, as well as Montenegro and other European countries. In 2016, for example, an international police operation, codenamed ‘Crown’, revealed that criminals – including members of a group led by one of Europe’s biggest drug lords, Darko Šarić – were able to move easily across regional borders and evade police detection. They did so with passports and identity cards made using data stolen from Bosnian citizens. The data allegedly cost €3 000, and the documents were issued by public offices in Gradiška and the nearby town of Srbac.5

In February 2019, as part of operation ‘Vitorog’, officers of the Directorate for Organized and Serious Crime in the Republic of Srpska’s Interior Ministry arrested five people from Gradiška and one person from Trebinje in the far south for the unauthorized production and trafficking of cannabis and synthetic drugs.6 During the searches, police seized skunk, heroin and firearms.7 Similarly, in December 2020, Republic of Srpska police seized around 460 kilograms of skunk in Gradiška,8 arresting a Bosnian and a Hungarian citizen in connection.9

However, the true scope of Gradiška’s role in smuggling and the strength of its transnational connections were revealed through operation ‘Storage 2’, led by the State Investigation and Protection Agency and the Republic of Srpska’s Interior Ministry in 2021.10 In December 2021, police arrested 19 people – 14 of whom were from Gradiška – for their involvement in international drug and weapons smuggling as part of an organized criminal group since 2019. They were arrested thanks, in large part, to information gained by police through decryption of Sky and Anom messaging apps.11 Among those captured were the fugitives Predrag Petkovic, Milivoj Lovrenović and Dusan Lovrenović (Milivoj’s son), who were all wanted for drug smuggling.

The group had reportedly procured large quantities of cannabis from Albania and Montenegro, which they brought to Bosnia and Herzegovina and stored near Gradiška. Some of the drugs were resold in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but most were allegedly repackaged and smuggled on to Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Germany. Drugs and weapons were transported across the border, usually in vehicles with specially constructed compartments for concealment. The drugs were taken across by people known to the group in Zagreb and Split, and then transported on to Budapest, Stuttgart and Berlin. Guns – mostly gas pistols from Slovakia – were modified and sold to customers in Germany, the Netherlands and Serbia. According to the investigation documents, the group apparently earned a significant amount of money, which was used to purchase real estate and luxury cars.12 Police discovered a laboratory for cannabis cultivation, about €50 000 in cash, weapons and 11 expensive cars, all of which were confiscated.13

A separate operation, codenamed ‘Fugitiv’, was carried out in the Gradiška area in December 2022.14 As a result, six people were arrested, including an employee of the Intelligence and Security Agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the unauthorized production and trafficking of drugs between 2020 and 2022.15

Fight or flight in Gradiška’s criminal underworld

For decades, Gradiška has been used in the smuggling of migrants, firearms, drugs and cigarettes. Yet the history of organized crime in the town also includes mafia-style assassinations, starting with the murder in 2003 of local thug Goran Kotur. According to data from the Republic of Srpska’s Interior Ministry, there have been 10 professional mafia-style assassinations in the Republic of Srpska over the past decade – all of which remain unsolved. Two of these murders, carried out in 2015 and 2018 and targeting actors from the region’s underworld, took place in Gradiška. Security experts say that most of these killings follow the same pattern: the victim is tracked to identify vulnerabilities, and the only items left behind after the murder are a burning vehicle and a destroyed weapon. The assassins usually use automatic rifles or snipers and, in most cases, probably come from a neighbouring country.16

On 10 October 2015, a well-known criminal, Milan Vujičić, was shot dead in front of the Kasper café in Gradiška in a mafia-style assassination.17 The assassin fired four bullets, and Vujičić was hit in the chest. Vujičić had previously been arrested and accused of extortion around Banja Luka, Prijedor and Gradiška. Then, in July 2018, Gradiška witnessed the assassination of Senad Kobilić, a controversial businessman from Sarajevo. He was killed by a bullet from a sniper rifle while he was sitting with his friends in front of the Dom café in the nearby village of Liskovac.18 Kobilić had a criminal record and had previously been arrested for kidnapping, racketeering, extortion, and possession and trafficking of firearms and explosives, and sentenced to prison for illegal possession of weapons. He was linked with high-ranked mafia actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who had been convicted of organized criminal activity.19

In addition to mafia style assassinations, several murders with direct links to organized crime have taken place in Gradiška. In September 2009, for example, Gradiška police arrested Stevo Švraka, who is suspected of killing Ilija Vujičić and seriously wounding his son with a rifle on the Sava River near the town. Švraka and Vujičić had been smuggling goods across the river, at the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, when the conflict occurred.20

The criminals strike back

The disruption of illicit economies in Gradiška has led to acts of retribution being carried out against law enforcement officials. According to information from the Bosnian police, in May 2022, criminals set fire to two houses, one of which was owned by the chief of police in Gradiška and the other by a retired police officer.21 The Republic of Srpska police believe that the attacks were retaliations against justice system officials for trying to take down criminal groups.22 Owing to the large amount of drugs, money, vehicles and firearms seized, as well as the number of people arrested as a result of these attacks, it is believed that the organized criminal group responsible, whose members are mostly from Gradiška, is one of the largest in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The group appears to have a well-established network of contacts in the region and elsewhere in Europe, including within police and judicial structures.23

Although Gradiška is in a vulnerable geographical position near the Croatian border, and has a recent history of violent criminal activity, the level of cross-border police cooperation seems to be less than that among criminals. Greater cooperation – including intelligence sharing and joint operations – is crucial. The recent international conference co-organized by the International Police Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime underscored the importance of networking and cooperation between members of the police and security structures.24 The challenge is to now convert this into joint action against criminal activity, particularly in border towns such as Gradiška, which act as gateways to the EU.


  1. Until 2004, the town was known as Bosanka Gradiška,

  2. Mural dedicated to war criminal Ratko Mladic in Bosanska Gradiska, Sarajevo Times, 20 June 2020,

  3. Izet Perviz, Grad kojem je nakon etničkog čišćenja ukradeno ime, STAV, 6 September 2022,

  4. See, for example, the case of Saša Lipovac, who was convicted of human trafficking: Europski sud za ljudska prava: Radnici iz BiH bili su robovi u Azerbejdžanu, Radio Sarajevo, 7 October 2021,

  5. Nebojša Tomašević, Šarićevi kriminalci dobijali dokumenta u Gradišci i Srpcu, Glas Srpske, 22 June 2016,

  6. Uhapšeno šest osoba iz Gradiške i Trebinja, zaplijenjene veće količine droge i oružje, Klix, 19 February 2019,

  7. ‘Vitorog’: Deset i po godina za šverc 54 kg droge, Mondo, 24 October 2019,

  8. Zaplijenjena droga u Gradišci vrijedna 2,5 milijuna eura, bila namijenjena za europsko tržište, Jabuka TV, 27 December 2020,

  9. Šta je prethodilo akciji “Storidž 2”: Najveća zapljena skanka u BiH i dešifrovanje komunikacije putem ‘Sky-a’, Faktor, 8 December 2021,

  10. Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe, Decryption of messaging app provides valuable insight into criminal activities in the Western Balkans and beyond, Risk Bulletin – Issue 13, GI-TOC, September–October 2022,

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ognjen Matavulj, UNA saznaje: Predao se jedan od organizatora u predmetu ‘Storidž’, UNA, 3 October 2022,

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Akcija ‘Fugitive’: Pretresi na 11 lokacija, uhapšeno više osoba, N1, 20 December 2022,

  15. Otkrivamo imena uhapšenih u akciji ‘Fugitive’, Nezavisne, 20 December 2022,

  16. Interview with a retired police inspector from the Interior Ministry of the Republic of Srpska, Banja Luka, 3 February 2023; Dragan Pavlović, Likvidacije s potpisom mafije, Oslobođenje, 2 May 2022,

  17. Sačekuša: U Gradišci ubijen poznati kriminalac,, 10 October 2015,

  18. Senad Kobilić iz Sarajeva ubijen u restoranu kod Bosanske Gradiške, Klix, 24 July 2018,

  19. Ko je bio ubijeni Senad Kobilić, Buka, 24 July 2018,

  20. N Morača, Ubijen Ilija Vujičić, njegov sin ranjen, Nezavisne, 3 September 2009,

  21. Dragan Sladojević, MUP RS: Iza paljevina u Gradišci stoje kriminalne grupe, Nezavisne, 24 May 2022, 5

  22. Načelniku policije kriminalci u BiH zapalili kuću,, 24 May 2022,

  23. Kriminalci uzvraćaju udarac MUP-u RS-a / Zapaljena vikendica načelnika PU i poslovni prostor penzionisanog policajca?, Oslobođenje, 24 May 2022,

  24. Anesa Agovic, Supporting law enforcement coordination to counter migrant smuggling and human trafficking in the Western Balkans, GI-TOC, 6 December 2022,