Bloody clashes among Montenegrin clans have not undermined their role in the international cocaine trade.

Montenegro’s Kavač and Škaljari clans used to be part of a larger criminal organization, the Kotor clan, formed in 2010. The Kotor clan was allegedly linked to the drug trafficking operations of notorious drug kingpin Darko Šarić. In 2009, after Šarić fled the country in response to a police operation, the Kotor clan continued his work. However, quarrels soon arose between members because there was no longer a clear hierarchy.1

The first struggle within the Kotor clan occurred in 2012,2 but the final break happened in 2014 in Valencia, Spain, over a cocaine deal. At that time, the alleged leader of the Kotor clan, Jovan Vukotić, believed that another member, Goran Radoman, tried to sell 200 kilograms of cocaine without his knowledge. In February 2015, Radoman was assassinated in Belgrade, Serbia, becoming the first victim of a bloody clash that split the Kotor clan into the Škaljari and Kavač factions.3

Vukotić held a key position in the Škaljari clan until September 2022, when he was killed in Istanbul. Turkish police suspect that members of the Kavač clan were behind his murder. Six proceedings were conducted against Vukotić for crimes including criminal association, attempted murder, incitement to murder and tax evasion.4

Radoje Zvicer is considered the leader of the Kavač clan. He has been repeatedly targeted by the Škaljari, as well as by the judicial authorities of Serbia and Montenegro, which issued international warrants for him. There are at least four criminal proceedings against him.5 The Montenegrin prosecution accused him of forming the Kavač clan as a group involved in murders, drug trafficking, embezzlement and extortion.6

With the death, flight or imprisonment of key clan members, what will the future look like for these clans?

Strong odds that the clans maintain their cocaine business

Montenegrin clans run like businesses, where some members or associates act as investors, providing funds to buy cocaine in South America. Others are contractors and subcontractors responsible for packaging, transporting and selling cocaine in Europe. Their advantage is a proven international logistic network for purchase and distribution.23 Although the conflict among clans has weakened the groups overall, some key members are still at large and have shown resilience, thanks to their financial resources and ability to ensure political protection.

The cocaine business is a golden ticket that the Škaljari and Kavač clans will not give up. The supply and demand for cocaine are growing.24 Because it is profitable, the clans will continue the trade, blocking the appearance of other players. Lost resources will be replenished through new partnerships with other criminal groups or from their ranks, which are not negligible – it is estimated that the Škaljari and Kavač clans have 105 and 140 members, respectively.25 They will continue to closely watch political events and elect politicians willing to use their money for personal or political interests. Recent violence in Ecuador may even be helping the clans consolidate their position in the drug trade.26

The bloody rivalry will continue

Reconciliation after seven years of clashes is unlikely, especially when some of the assassinations were committed in front of family members. Moreover, no one is powerful enough to pacify or dismantle the clans. The conflict will remain, but killings will not increase due to their sheer cost – targeted hits on rivals are reported to cost over €1 million.27 In addition, some of the main targets have already been killed. Those still at large or on the run will be more careful about their movements and communications and invest more in protection. There is also the risk that hired assassins will be killed to prevent their potential testimony in courts. A member of the Kavač clan and alleged assassin, Igor Mančić, was killed in January 2023 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.28

It is likely that members will hide outside the Balkans, especially Serbia and Montenegro, where they are known to law enforcement. When choosing a location to hide or run a business, criminals gather information about the political climate and ensure sufficient protection by bribing security sector officials. They tend to choose countries where corruption is relatively high, such as Greece,29 there are fewer people from the Balkans and international police cooperation is undeveloped.30

Some members have chosen to hide in Ukraine. Assassination attempts have occurred there, possibly involving high-ranking police officials.31 So far, there are no indicators that Montenegrin criminals have worked in either Ukraine or Russia, but if they are in hiding there it could present new business opportunities.32

Montenegrin police investigate a crime scene after a shooting in the capital, Podgorica.

Montenegrin police investigate a crime scene after a shooting in the capital, Podgorica.

Savo Prelevic/AFP via Getty Images

Changing fortunes

Until 2020, the Kavač clan seemed to be winning the war, and was better positioned in the cocaine business. High-ranking members of the Škaljari clan had been killed, while the alleged leader of the Kavač clan survived an assassination attempt in Ukraine. There are doubts that the detained members could work unhindered behind bars in Montenegro, as shown by the confiscation of mobile phones hidden in their cells in June 2021 and November 2022.33

Although the leader of the Škaljari clan was killed in 2022, power has shifted in their favour with a series of arrests of Kavač members in 2021 and 2022 and the issuance of an international warrant against their suspected leader. The trials of Kavač members in Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia have weakened their position in law enforcement and customs. Meanwhile, some believed to be close associates of the Škaljari clan, such as Filip Korać and Luka Bojović, are no longer detained. The brother of the murdered leader of the Škaljari clan, Igor Vukotić, continues to evade justice despite an outstanding warrant against him since 2018.34

The current situation appears to favour the Škaljari clan, despite the fact that they suffered more significant casualties during the conflict and were burdened with international warrants – a disparity exacerbated by their smaller membership. The future balance of power depends in part on the level of agreement between the Montenegrin and Serbian members of the Škaljari group, but mostly on who is better at managing the cocaine trade and ensuring personal security and political protection as the conflict continues. It also depends on Darko Šarić’s future influence in the cocaine business.35

A successful response depends on criminal justice institutions

The poor performance of the criminal justice system in Montenegro and Serbia makes countering the activities of clans even harder. Court proceedings take a long time. The accused are on the run, and there are few cooperating witnesses, meaning it is tough to prove indictments in court. Lower-ranking members, who mainly act as couriers, take responsibility for monetary compensation and legal protection. This is the opposite of what happens, for example, in the US and Romania, where clan members are more effectively prosecuted.36

Four factors will shape the institutional response to the clans. First, the results of Serbian and Montenegrin cooperation with foreign criminal justice institutions.37 Second, whether Sky ECC communications are deemed admissible as evidence in court.38 Third, whether high-ranking members have information that can be used to suppress terrorism, in exchange for leniency for their own crimes. Finally, members’ use of information about the possible involvement of political actors could enable them to get out of custody earlier or to slow down court processes.

If communications from the Sky ECC app are excluded from court cases, it is probable that most of the charges against suspected clan members will be dropped. This will only strengthen the clans. In future investigations, law enforcement should rely on more than just Sky ECC and work to secure new evidence and witnesses. Judges are likely to insist on more proof than communications, as shown in the case against a police inspector in Serbia who allegedly provide confidential police data to third parties in exchange for money.39

In that context, law enforcement in Serbia and Montenegro should continue participating in international investigations. They should use more joint investigation teams, mirror investigations and controlled deliveries. Judicial cooperation through mutual legal assistance is crucial since it is the only way to provide full evidentiary strength at the court. Additional undercover investigators – preferably foreign citizens – and domestic training could help deliver results.

Past discussions about a Balkan arrest warrant – a simplified cross-border judicial surrender procedure – for prosecution or execution of a custodial sentence or detention order should be renewed.40 There is also a need to improve integrity, not only in the police but also in the courts, prosecution and security intelligence agencies. Supporting the Bulgarian initiative of a network for enhanced regional cooperation of internal security units could be beneficial.41


  1. Interview with an active senior police official from Montenegro, Podgorica, December 2021. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Zoran Glavonjić, Bukti rat za prevlast u srpsko-crnogorskom podzemlju, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 24 February 2015,

  4. Ko je ko u ratovu klanova: Jovan Vukotić, Kriminal, 2022,

  5. Ko je ko u ratu klanova: Radoje Zvicer, Kriminal, 2022,

  6. Ko je ko u ratu klanova: Slobodan Kašćelan, Kriminal, 2022,

  7. Bojana Jovanović, U Atini ubijen jedan od šefova škaljarskog klana, Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, 20 January 2020,

  8. Bojana Jovanović, Policija objavila snimak pokušaja ubistva Zvicera i hapšenja osumnjičenih, KRIK, 27 May 2020,

  9. Stevan Dojčinović, Skaj poruke: ubistvo na Krfu, KRIK, 7 February 2023,

  10. Jelena Jovanović, Jovan Vukotić izašao iz pritvora, Vijesti, 28 July 2020,

  11. Maja Živanović, Veljko Belivuk od navijača do ‘osnivača novog Zemunskog klana’, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 4 February 2021,

  12. Potvrđena odluka o pritvoru za Kašćelana i ostale, RTCG, 6 May 2021,

  13. Jelena Jovanović, Igor i Vladimir Božović uhapšeni u Portugalu, Vijesti, 13 April 2021,

  14. Raspisana međunarodna poternica za vođom kavačkog klana Radojem Zvicerom, Blic, 25 May 2021,

  15. Darku Šariću određen kućni pritvor, Glas Amerike, 24 December 2021,

  16. Darko Šarić ponovo uhapšen kao šef nove kriminalne grupe, Insajder, 14 April 2022,

  17. Milica Vojinović, Filip Korać osuđen u Hrvatskoj na uslovnu kaznu, KRIK, 7 June 2022,

  18. M Kosanović, Škaljarac blizak braći Roganović, učestvovao u ubistvu vođe ’Delija’ ko je Goran Vlaović, Crnogorac koji je likvidiran na Pagu pred srpskom misicom, Blic, 25 August 2022,

  19. Aleksandar Bojović, Jovan Vukotić ubijen u Turskoj, Politika, 8 September 2022,

  20. Hapšenje ’Vračaraca’: Uhapšeno 17 pripadnika kriminalne grupe povezane sa kavčanima, Vreme, 11 November 2022,

  21. Hrvatska podigla optužnicu protiv Igora Vukotića, RTCG, 17 December 2022,

  22. Jelena Zorić, Povratak otpisanog, Vreme, 1 December 2022,

  23. Walter Kemp, Kristina Amerhauser and Ruggero Scaturro, Spot Prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans, GI-TOC, May 2021,; European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), Drug-related health and security threats in the Western Balkans, November 2022,

  24. Jeremy McDermott, James Bargent, Douwe den Held and Maria Fernanda Ramírez, The cocaine pipeline to Europe, GI-TOC and InSight Crime, February 2021,

  25. Vukotić ima 105 “Vojnika”, a Zvicer čak 140: Rat kavačkog i škaljarskog klana u najvećem zatišju do sad, a od rečenice koju je Kašćelan izgovorio još svi drhte, Blic, 30 November 2021,

  26. GI-TOC, Western Balkans criminal groups are contributing to drug-related violence in Ecuador, Risk Bulletin 14, February 2023,

  27. Stevan Dojčinović, Skaj poruke: ubistvo na Krfu, KRIK, 7 February 2023,

  28. Tamara Krivec, Streljanje v Ljubljani: Slišali strele, videli nič. Kdo je domnevna žrtev, Večer, 20 January 2023,

  29. Stevan Dojčinović, How a Montenegrin Gang Used Open-Source Intelligence to Kill, OCCRP, 9 March 2023,

  30. Interview with a retired high-ranking Serbian police officer, Belgrade, February 2023. 

  31. Dmytro Replianchuk, Yevheniia Motorevska, Stevan Dojčinović and Bojana Jovanović, Ukraine Cops Implicated in Attempted Murder of Montenegrin Gangster, OCCRP, 27 July 2021,

  32. Interview with a retired high-ranking Serbian police officer, Belgrade, February 2023. 

  33. Jelena Jovanović, “Voli vas brat”: Mobilni telefoni pronađeni u specijalnom dnu šerpe koju je posjetilac krenuo da unese u zatvor, Vijesti, 20 November 2022,

  34. Crvene potjernice za Vukotićem i Brajovićem, CDM, 22 August 2018,

  35. Darko Šarić was arrested in April 2022 due to his possible involvement in the assassination of two members of the Škaljari clan in July 2020 although he was in custody at the time. The prosecution believe that he ordered the hit through the Sky app from his cell in Belgrade. 

  36. Two MSC Gayane Crew Members Sentenced for Conspiracy to Smuggle $1 Billion Worth of Cocaine into the United States, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 2 August 2021,; Osuđeni Vranjanci u Rumuniji zbog krijumčarenja tone kokaina, Vranje News, 20 December 2020,

  37. Interview with a retired high-ranking Serbian police officer, Belgrade, February 2023. 

  38. GI-TOC, Decryption of messaging app provides valuable insight into criminal activities in the Western Balkans and beyond, Risk Bulletin 13, September-October 2022,

  39. Filip Marillović, Enkripcija u službi kriminala, Vreme, 8 December 2022,

  40. Balkan arrest warrant against crime in the region, B92, 28 November 2011,

  41. Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, Announcement, 20 October 2017,