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Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe


Summary highlights

  1. Western Balkan criminal groups are important players in the Netherlands.

    Organized criminal groups from the Western Balkans have become major players in cocaine trafficking through Dutch ports. In the Netherlands, Balkan groups are also involved in the import of heroin and weapons, human trafficking, indoor cannabis cultivation and the export of synthetic drugs. The law enforcement response is constrained by limited resources and a lack of expertise in identifying Balkan criminal networks. Addressing the challenge of Western Balkan criminality in the Netherlands will require enhanced international cooperation, improved detection technologies, increased funding for law enforcement and stricter measures against money laundering activities.

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  2. Balkan criminal groups are taking advantage of instability in Ecuador.

    Over the past few months, violence perpetrated by armed gangs has brought Ecuador to a level of instability that resembles a civil war. Some of this violence can be attributed to gangs with links to foreign criminal actors, including from the Western Balkans. At the same time, the increased instability and the attention focused on organized crime could increase risks to some of these actors who thus far have been able to operate with relative impunity.

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  3. Montenegrin criminal groups expand their reach into Africa.

    Criminal groups from the Western Balkans are known to be active in Latin America, smuggling cocaine into Western Europe. But there is growing evidence that regional groups, notably from Montenegro, have also made inroads into western and northern Africa, smuggling cocaine, hashish and fuel. We look into evidence of this trend and the challenges of responding to it.

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  4. The Western Balkans is still the criminals’ choice for weapons.

    Despite the war in Ukraine and the large amount of weapons flowing into the country, the Western Balkans still appear to be the criminals’ choice for weapons in Europe — for the time being. This article examines the latest trends in arms trafficking in the Western Balkans and discusses the possible impact of the war in Ukraine on the criminal market.

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  5. Serbian police crackdown disrupts smuggling of migrants, but for how long?

    Between mid-2022 and late 2023, there were violent clashes involving migrant smugglers near the border between Serbia and Hungary. In late 2023, Serbian security forces launched a major crackdown on smugglers in the border region. Rather than stopping the flow of migrants, this has instead displaced them, pushing many towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. This points to the need for greater regional cooperation, as a crackdown in one country simply pushes the market to another. The situation calls for closer coordination between the Western Balkan countries and their EU neighbours, while ensuring the safety of migrants and respecting their human rights.

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About this issue

Since the publication of the report ‘Transnational tentacles: Global hotspots of Balkan organized crime’ in July 2020, we have been tracking the activities of criminal groups from the Western Balkans abroad. In this issue, we focus on three cases where criminal groups from the region have been active in recent years: the Netherlands, Ecuador and parts of Africa. These examples illustrate the growing involvement of Balkan criminal groups in some of the world’s hotspots for illicit activity. Research for these articles is facilitated by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)’s network of contacts with local investigative journalists, as well as close cooperation between regional observatories of illicit economies, namely South Eastern Europe, West Africa and Latin America.

While much attention has been paid to drug and migrant smuggling in the Western Balkans or to groups from the region, less attention has been paid to arms smuggling. As part of the GI-TOC’s analysis of the risks of firearms trafficking from Ukraine, in this issue we show that the Western Balkans remain the main source of illegal weapons in Europe. At present, weapons are still cheap and plentiful in the region, and stockpiles have been augmented by inflows from Turkey via Bulgaria, particularly of gas and alarm guns. More on this topic can be found in a forthcoming GI-TOC report on trends in arms trafficking from the Ukraine conflict.

For several years, the Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe has been monitoring and reporting on the modalities, routes and markets of migrant smuggling in the Western Balkans. In this issue, we report on a major crackdown by Serbian authorities in late 2023 on increasingly violent smugglers operating along the border between Serbia and Hungary, and examine how this has displaced migration flows towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

We welcome your feedback and suggestions for new stories. If you would like to get in touch or if you have an idea for a story, please contact Vanja.Petrovic@globalinitiative.net.