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

In the late 1990s and in the early 21st century, there was considerable attention focused on small arms and light weapons in the Western Balkans due to the legacy of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and unrest in Albania. While the international community’s attention has since been drawn away by new conflicts erupting elsewhere, the region remains awash with weapons, feeding into violence both at home and abroad.

Several atrocities within the last year have provoked outrage in the region. In August 2023, a man live-streamed himself on Instagram murdering his ex-wife and two other people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.1 Three months earlier, Serbia was rocked by two shootings within 48 hours that left 18 dead. The first, on 3 May, involved a seventh-grader who killed eight students and a security guard at a Belgrade school; a critically wounded girl died days later. On 4 May, eight more people were killed in attacks in villages south of Belgrade, carried out by a 21-year-old man with an arsenal of illegal firearms.2

The 2023 Global Organized Crime Index shows that arms trafficking involving the six Western Balkan countries remains higher than in Europe as a whole; the region scores 5.42 compared to a European average of 4.60 out of 10, with 10 being the highest level of criminality.3 While legacy weapons from the conflicts of the 1990s remain a threat, and people in the region tend to keep them as a hedge against future instability, new trends are emerging, ranging from highly organized criminal groups seeking high-powered weapons to the conversion of gas pistols into lethal weapons.

Arms trafficking scores, according to the Global Organized Crime Index, 2021 and 2023.

Figure 1 Arms trafficking scores, according to the Global Organized Crime Index, 2021 and 2023.

Note: Scores are out of 10, with a higher score representing a higher prevalence of arms trafficking.

Criminals and civilians alike continue to have access to small arms and light weapons, as well as assault rifles and grenades. This increases the risk of accidents and homicides.4

According to analysis by the Armed Violence Monitoring Platform of the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), the number of armed incidents related to organized crime nearly tripled in this region from 49 to 134 between 2019 and 2022.5 The SecuriMeter 2022 Public Opinion Survey on Security highlighted the increasing number of shooting incidents and seizures of firearms across the region, while also pointing to the threat posed by poly-criminality, namely how illegal firearms fuel violence and are linked to other criminal markets such as human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants, drugs and tobacco.6

The availability of illegal firearms in the Balkans has security implications far beyond the region. Weapons used in terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Vienna in November 2020 were traced back to the Balkans,7 while weapons and grenades from the region are fuelling gang violence in Sweden.8 Explosives, anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-personnel mines from the Western Balkans are available on the black market and turn up in conflict zones around the world.9

Kosovo police officers display weapons and military equipment seized in the village of Banjska, in Mitrovica in September 2023.

Kosovo police officers display weapons and military equipment seized in the village of Banjska, in Mitrovica in September 2023.

Photo: Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images

A second trend is the desire of criminals from the Balkans to acquire more powerful weapons, particularly from the West. This includes the latest brands of pistols, such as Heckler & Koch, Beretta, Glock, Sig Sauer, Walther and Colt,10 but also high-powered assault rifles. These weapons are usually obtained in small quantities and act more as status symbols or even collectors’ items than as part of an arsenal. Nevertheless, they can also fuel an arms race between feuding groups, as witnessed in the ongoing conflict between the Kavač and Škaljari, two Montenegrin clans. Although Western pistols are desirable, supply dictates that the highest demand is for locally made pistols such as the Serbian-manufactured Zastava CZ and Zastava M57 Tetejac, as well as the automatic pistol Zastava M84 Scorpion, which are used in most organized crime-related homicides in Montenegro.11 However, an indictment by the Special State Prosecutor’s Office of Montenegro against members of the Kavač clan listed a range of other weapons seized from the group, including Beretta and Česká Zbrojovka pistols, Smith and Wesson revolvers, and a Heckler & Koch rifle.12

A third trend is the conversion of gas and alarm guns (non-lethal weapons designed for self-protection, sporting or other purposes) into weapons that can fire real bullets. The conversion of relatively cheap weapons, often originating in Turkey, enables dealers to sell the doctored firearms for as much as 10 times the original price.13 Such weapons are particularly popular among juvenile offenders since they are cheap but convey an image of toughness. They are sold on the black market and are of growing concern to police.14 Several illegal factories for modifying weapons have been found in the region, including in a village close to Tirana, Albania, in June 2022, and in the municipality of Stolac in Bosnia and Herzegovina in January 2021.15

There is also significant smuggling of weapons within the region. Previously, illicit firearms were mainly smuggled from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Montenegro and Croatia, but now smuggling is carried out in both directions, partly because of growing instability in Bosnia.16 On 6 January 2024, officials from the Serbian Customs Administration at the Merdare border crossing seized 45 firearms with silencers and ammunition from a passenger vehicle coming from Pristina.17

It is worth noting that despite the massive inflow of weapons into Ukraine and the potential diversion of some legal stocks to the illicit market, the Western Balkans remains the main source of illegal weapons in Europe. At present, weapons in the Western Balkans are still cheap and plentiful, and regional stockpiles have been augmented by inward flows from Turkey via Bulgaria, especially of gas or alarm guns. There has been little change in prices for weapons on the black market in the Balkans since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.18

This raises the question of what will happen after the war in Ukraine – a theme that the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) explores in a forthcoming report on trends in arms trafficking from the Ukraine conflict. Will Ukraine replace the Western Balkans as a principal source of illegal weapons or will the trafficking infrastructure that has been created by Balkan players over the past three decades potentially be used to smuggle weapons from Ukraine to Western Europe and Scandinavia? Another potential route for large volumes of weapons could be the maritime route from Odesa, which was a hub for arms trafficking before the Russian invasion. In this postwar scenario, larger batches of weapons would be sent along the newly restored shipping route along the western edge of the Black Sea, before entering the EU via Bulgaria, or even via Romania into the Danube.


  1. Meliha Kesmer and Una Cilic, Instagram live streamed a brutal murder-suicide in Bosnia. A war weary nation wonders how that could happen, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 16 August 2023. 

  2. Cora Engelbrecht and Joe Orovic, Serbia offers amnesty for illegal firearms, and thousands are collected, The New York Times, 12 May 2023. 

  3. GI-TOC, Global Organized Crime Index 2023

  4. Europol, Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, 14 December 2021. 

  5. Armed Violence Monitoring Platform, SEESAC

  6. Regional Cooperation Council, SecuriMeter 2022: Balkan Barometer public opinion survey, June 2022. 

  7. Aleksander Vasovic, Some guns used in Paris attacks produced in ex-Yugoslavia’s arsenal, Reuters, 28 November 2015; Vienna shooting: What we know about ‘Islamist terror’ attack, BBC, 4 November 2020. 

  8. Observatory of Illicit Economies in South Eastern Europe, Illicit weapons in the Western Balkans: a threat to Europe, Risk Bulletin, Issue 2, GI-TOC, October­/November 2020. 

  9. Interview with a security intelligence officer, Skopje, December 2023. 

  10. Interview with member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s State Investigation and Protection Agency, Mostar, 1 January 2024. 

  11. Interview with a security intelligence officer, Podgorica, December 2023. 

  12. Indictment by the Special State Prosecutor’s Office, Kt-S # 93/23, Podgorica, 15 September 2023. 

  13. Interview with a police officer working on organized crime, Skopje, December 2023. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Ora News, Tiranë/Arsenal armësh në një magazinë në Kodër-Mëzez, arrestohet 62-vjeçari, në kërkim djali, YouTube, 18 August 2022; Akcija u Stocu: Policija pronašla stroj za preradu oružja, Bljesakinfo, 12 January 2021. 

  16. Interview with a former member of an organized criminal group, Trebinje, 3 January 2024. 

  17. An arsenal of weapons is discovered in a car in Merdare, Vox News Albania, 7 January 2024. 

  18. Guillermo Vázquez del Mercado, Arms trafficking and organized crime: Global trade, local impacts, GI-TOC, August 2022.