Skin them

The enormous reach of the Montenegrin cartels - infiltrating multinational shipping companies and banking systems, coordinating the transfer of drug shipments worth more than a billion dollars at a time, bypassing or bribing customs officials in Rotterdam and Barcelona, ​​laundering proceeds by buying real estate everywhere from Slovakia to Dubai - stands in stark contrast. with the reality of Montenegro as a country

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Serbia has always considered us as a boring stone in the shoe: Đukanović, Photo: Boris Pejović
Serbia has always considered us as a boring stone in the shoe: Đukanović, Photo: Boris Pejović
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

In August 2011, a Montenegrin sailor Goran Radoman he fled the scene of a late-night car accident in Havana. Three months later, he was arrested at Jose Marti International Airport and sentenced to seven years in prison for manslaughter.

According to the Serbian TV channel Insider, the highest levels of the Serbian state lobbied the Cuban government to extradite Radomani - Montenegro does not have an embassy in Havana - and in late December 2013 he was on a plane to Belgrade, even though he still had five years left in his prison sentence.

Radoman, who may have become an informant for the Serbian intelligence service, or may have been one all along, soon flew to Valencia, where he had an apartment. When he got there, he found more than 200 kg of cocaine, which had been hidden by criminals from two neighboring Montenegrin towns, Kavača and Škaljar. Radoman sold the drugs and kept the profits. Fourteen months later, he was in an underground garage in Belgrade when an assassin armed with a Kalashnikov shot him 25 times. The killer was never found.

The murder of Radomani started the conflict between Kavač and Škaljar, which since 2015 has claimed more than sixty lives in eleven countries.

Goran Radoman
Goran Radomanphoto: Screenshot (YouTube)

The killings took place in restaurants, cafes, bars, parking lots, abandoned military camps, beach villas and on the training ground of a maximum security prison. Weapons used include machine guns, pistols, car bombs, sniper rifles, knives and industrial meat grinders. Among those who died in the crossfire are an elderly doctor, a former Montenegrin MP and the owner of a pizzeria in Amsterdam.

Radoman was not only a sailor. In the 2000s, he became involved in a trade that moves billions of dollars worth of cocaine from South America to Europe every year. During the last two decades, this business has been increasingly controlled by criminal groups from the Balkans, and now it is dominated by Montenegrins. Their networks stretch from the Aegean Sea to the Amazon, where they have expanded their business to include door-to-door extortion and illegal timber exports.

They have bribed officers and engineers on cargo ships in their pockets; as of 2022, sailors from Montenegro working for the Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, one of the largest shipping firms in the world, have been banned by the company from passing through the Panama Canal on its ships.

Since at least 2015, the Kavači - the more powerful of the two clans - have had access to police databases designed to track them, using intelligence files to evade detection and track their enemies from one end of Europe to the other. And in an inversion of the historical relationship between Belgrade and Podgorica, the mobsters along the Danube are now subordinate to those from the Adriatic.

The leader of the Kavac clan, Radoje Zvicer
The leader of the Kavac clan, Radoje Zvicerphoto: Screenshot/Youtube

The enormous reach of the Montenegrin cartels - infiltrating multinational shipping companies and banking systems, coordinating the transfer of drug shipments worth more than a billion dollars at a time, bypassing or bribing customs officials in Rotterdam and Barcelona, ​​laundering proceeds by buying real estate everywhere from Slovakia to Dubai - stands in stark contrast. with the reality of Montenegro as a country. With a population of just 600.000, the second youngest country in Europe uses the currency of a political bloc it does not belong to and aspires to become little more than a hotel economy.

Its richest citizen, at least on paper, is the former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. However, this is misleading. More than anywhere else in Europe, and in ways that can only be compared to Central America, the cartels in Montenegro today are inseparable from the state itself.

No one has done more to shape modern Montenegro than Milo Đukanović. In 1986, when he was 26 years old, he helped carry out a coup in the Montenegrin branch of the Yugoslav Communist Party - its leadership was planning a break with Belgrade - as Slobodan Milošević's man on the ground.

Former president of the state, government and DPS, Milo Đukanović
Former president of the state, government and DPS, Milo Đukanovićphoto: Boris Pejović

The coup had the fingerprints of Serbian secret services; students and employees of metal industry factories were brought to Podgorica by bus from as far away as Kosovo in order to create an impression of support on the streets. In December 1990, the reformed Communist Party won the first multi-party elections in the history of Montenegro. Two months later, Đukanović was appointed prime minister by President Momir Bulatović, a fellow coup plotter, and became the youngest prime minister on the continent.

As secessionist movements grew throughout Yugoslavia, Đukanović pushed Montenegro in the opposite direction. When armed rebellions broke out against Belgrade, Đukanović offered his help to Milošević. In October 1991, Montenegrin troops began shelling the Croatian port of Dubrovnik, destroying eight hundred buildings and killing more than eighty civilians over the next seven months, while looting and burning the Dalmatian countryside. Montenegro's military involvement in Bosnia was limited, but Đukanović provided support in other ways.

In May 1992, Montenegrin police arrested groups of Bosnian refugees who had fled south and handed them over to Bosnian Serb forces, while a Bosnian Serb officer testified in 2012 that, without the fuel provided by Montenegro, the attack on Srebrenica would never have been possible. happen. Đukanović later boasted that "my government secretly helped the Serbs in Herzegovina and Republika Srpska for years." In the decades following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Đukanović claimed that Montenegro was the only one of the six republics to have avoided bloodshed, but that was to ignore its role in the carnage beyond its borders.

It seemed unlikely that Montenegro would emerge intact from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The pillars of its economy - mining, shipping, tourism - were particularly vulnerable to the UN sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia in 1992. However, Montenegro had one advantage: two hundred miles of coastline facing the mafia-run ports of southern Italy.

Illustrationphoto: Shutterstock

Vlada Đukanović was not a pioneer in cigarette smuggling across the Adriatic – in the 1980s Croatian sailors exported tobacco from the Balkans and brought jeans in – but under her watch the black market replaced what was left of the formal economy.

Cigarette manufacturers RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris started sending cargo planes from Switzerland, Cyprus, Ukraine and Russia to Podgorica in 1992. Packets of cigarettes were transported to a warehouse in the port of Bar, put on speedboats that reached Italy in less than two hours, and then driven north, unstamped and without paying taxes. (In 2020, the EU filed a civil suit in the US against the two companies, alleging that they "facilitated the illegal smuggling of cigarettes" into the EU. Philip Morris agreed to pay $1,25 billion in an out-of-court settlement in 2004, but pleaded not guilty; RJ Reynolds claimed the allegations were baseless.)

In the period between 1994 and 2000, a billion cigarettes left Montenegro every month, bringing Italian mafia organizations hundreds of millions of undeclared cash that, according to a report compiled by prosecutors in Rome in 2008, disappeared in Swiss banks. Two Montenegrin companies made a "transit margin" of 20 euros per package, or about 2 million euros per week; the Montenegrin security services pocketed an additional "tax" in the amount of three German marks per package. This arrangement helped pay salaries and pensions in the public sector; Đukanović later defended the "transit" of cigarettes during that period as "in accordance with the Yugoslav and Montenegrin laws of the time". In 2008, Italian investigators produced transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations between a Montenegrin trade representative in Milan and crime bosses in Brindisi in which they discussed cash transfers and falsification of import permits by Italians. The Italian prosecutor accused Đukanović of "promoting, managing, founding and participating in a mafia organization" and indicted him. He has always denied ties to organized crime. An Italian investigating judge eventually dismissed the charges against him, citing his diplomatic immunity.

By 2008, it was no longer in the West's interest to drag Đukanović through the courts. He was an ally. The upheaval of Montenegro began in 1997, when Đukanović clashed with Milošević. Đukanović believed that the future of Montenegro was in the West, while Milosevic saw the future in Yugoslavia. (There were also financial reasons: a year earlier, Milosevic's son, Marko, had asked for - and been refused - a share of the tobacco revenue.) Đukanović, then in close contact with American officials, criticized Milosevic for his "outdated political ideas" and his second coup of the decade, ousting Bulatović, his former mentor, from the post of president of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) and getting rid of pro-Serbian elements in the party. (In the presidential election later that year, Đukanović defeated Bulatović by only 5000 votes; Bulatović and his supporters claimed there had been electoral fraud, although the OSCE said the election was generally "well conducted.") After visiting Washington in March In 1997, Đukanović presented himself as a knight ready to defend human rights against "ancient hatreds". Over the following years, he promoted a version of Montenegrin identity based on civic rather than ethnic grounds. He introduced the German mark as a parallel means of payment. And, with his willingness to enter what he called "European and transatlantic structures" and create a "new market system" where "capital will be safe," he offered the West an opportunity: to isolate Belgrade and transfer full responsibility for the Yugoslav collapse to Milosevic, whose days in power were numbered.

When I met with Đukanović in Podgorica in January, he said he had no choice but to turn against the man who brought him to power: "Milosevic considered us something that rightfully belonged to him." Đukanović now works from the building of the former Institute. for urban planning and design of Yugoslavia, built in 1969 in what was then Titograd. In 2007, his brother Aco bought the institute for 2,7 million euros through his company – together with the state planning authority that was located in it.

The Đukanović brothers: Aco and Milo
The Đukanović brothers: Aco and Milophoto: Luka Zeković

During my visit, Đukanović was working from an office on the second floor. Red leather armchairs faced the table; a wooden model of a galleon stood on the table. On the wall were framed photos of his meetings with foreign dignitaries: John McCain, Vladimir Putin, Jens Stoltenberg.

Đukanović watched me intensely during our conversation; as he spoke the expensive watch on his left wrist moved up and down.

"Serbia has always seen us as an annoying pebble in the shoe," he said, explaining that it took years for Montenegro to see what Slovenia and Croatia immediately realized: that Milosevic, far from trying to preserve Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, intended is to replace it with an ethnic state dominated by Serbs. I asked him if this is a Western interpretation of the conflict, one that ignores the IMF's role in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and West Germany's premature decision to recognize Croatia's independence in 1991.

No, he said. Montenegro's mistake was that it did not separate from Yugoslavia earlier, but instead got involved in the conflict at the "crossroads of civilizations". The country's problems – low average wages, poor infrastructure – stem from what is essentially an identity crisis. Montenegro oriented itself towards the Balkans when its future was in Europe. Accession to NATO - "the most advanced alliance in the history of mankind" - in 2017 pulled Montenegro out of the Balkan mire and integrated it into the community to which it should always have belonged. "Our democracy is criticized by autocrats, our market is criticized by the economies of oligarchs, our rule of law is criticized by those who do not care about human rights," said Đukanović. "I think all of us who are comfortable with our value system need to challenge that."

The war record, the smuggling of cigarettes, the accusations of electoral fraud - all that was forgotten. UN sanctions have been lifted. Capital began to flow. By 1998, the United States was paying Montenegro's electricity bills and funneling $55 million a year in aid to the Djukanovic regime, turning the country—"the only bright spot in the former Republic of Yugoslavia," as the State Department put it—into the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid. aid per capita in the world in 2001.

"The real and material support for Montenegro, exempting it from sanctions and promoting its participation in the global economy," explained Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State of the Clinton administration, "we show the welcome that awaits the rest of Yugoslavia when democracy takes hold in Serbia, as I believe that That year, as Albanians in Kosovo demanded independence, Đukanović advised Montenegrin men to defy Belgrade's orders to report for military service, while assuring the Serbian tabloid Blic that he was "opposed to any kind of secessionist movement."

Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albrightphoto: Shutterstock

A former US ambassador to the Balkans told me that NATO consulted Djukanovic about potential targets for airstrikes, which began in March 1999. A month later, a CIA evacuation team and speedboat were stationed in the Croatian port of Cavtat, in case Milosevic tried to overthrow his former ally.

Milošević fell from power in October 2000. Đukanović told me that it didn't change anything. "The West told us: 'Okay, Milošević is gone, the source of misunderstanding is no longer there.' But even without Milosevic, we felt it would be too difficult to function.

That's why we started negotiating with the European Union.” The US and the EU were against Montenegrin independence, fearing it could trigger a wave of referendums in Serb-majority enclaves elsewhere in the Balkans.

However, when Brussels oversaw the signing of the Belgrade Agreement in 2002, which joined Montenegro and Serbia in a new federation, Djukanovic managed to include a provision giving Montenegro the right to call a referendum on independence, based on the "right to self-determination" that was embedded in the constitution of Yugoslavia from 1990, which was never ratified. The EU only managed to demand that Đukanović postpone the vote for three years – he will wait four years – and raise the threshold to 55 percent of the vote.

In the end, independence was secured with the help of Russian capital. It has been accumulating on the Adriatic coast since at least 2003, when Đukanović appointed his then right-hand man, Milan Rocen, as ambassador to Moscow. But the key sale was in 2005, when Đukanović, fulfilling his promise to Washington to privatize a significant part of Montenegrin state property, agreed to sell the Aluminum Plant near Podgorica to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, for 48,5 million euros. That factory had a share of 15 percent in the Montenegrin economic product.

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro, former ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Russia and advisor to Milo Đukanović
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro, former ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Russia and advisor to Milo Đukanovićphoto: Boris Pejović

"The Europeans will not leave us alone," explains Roćen in a telephone conversation with Deripaska in 2005, which was recorded by Serbian secret services. "They want to disrupt the referendum." Rocen explains that the solution is "the Americans", and asks Deripaska if he could find someone in Washington who would "explain our position". Less than a year later, the Đukanović regime brought American consultants to Podgorica to coordinate his campaign for independence.

One of them, Paul Manafort, later stated that he was not paid by Đukanović but by Deripaska with 10 million dollars to run a campaign that was supposed to make Montenegro look polished and oriented towards the West. When the referendum was held in May 2006, independence was won by a margin of less than 2000 votes. Near midnight, before the last ballots were counted, Đukanović - already the longest-serving leader in the Balkans - ordered his supporters to take to the streets to celebrate the birth of their country.

Smuggling networks created in the 2000s have never been dismantled. However, by the early XNUMXs, the situation had changed. The return of Croats to the cigarette trade they once controlled, along with increased journalistic scrutiny, meant that Montenegrins had to devise a new business model. It is not clear how the connection with cocaine suppliers in South America came about.

A lawyer from Podgorica told me that an important step was shoplifting in northern Italy: wearing Swiss watches and Armani suits during their earlier trips to Colombia, the Montenegrins looked "like people you could do business with."

One person proved particularly important in establishing connections with South American suppliers. Darko Šarić worked briefly as a technician on a merchant ship in the 1990s, between prison terms for offenses ranging from burglary to possession of illegal weapons.

He moved to South America around 2001, and according to one story, bought a string of cafes and restaurants on the outskirts of Sao Paulo to launder his proceeds. He took Serbian citizenship in 2005; until the late 2000s, Serbian courts speculated that Šarić was earning about one billion euros a year from the cocaine trade. "We can talk about our doubts as much as we want, but we must not deprive people of their basic rights," Đukanović told Serbian TV channel B92 in 2010 when asked about Sarić.

"We're not awarding him the Nobel Prize." Until that moment, Saric's criminal connections were beyond doubt: a few months earlier, an American-led operation on a yacht near Uruguay had seized more than two tons of cocaine belonging to his organization.

After almost five years of hiding in the Dominican Republic, Šarić surrendered to the Serbian authorities in 2014. That was considered the end of the story, until messages surfaced in the text in 2021 showing that Šarić from cell 117 of the Special Court building in Belgrade, in coordination with the Montenegrin police, used several mobile phones to organize criminal activities across Europe.

The drug seizures tell only a partial story of how the Balkan cartels began to transport cocaine. We got a more accurate picture from fruit imports. Cocaine often crosses the Atlantic in banana shipments; as a perishable commodity, bananas arrive at ports daily and quickly pass through customs.

Between 2017 and 2021, the total volume of shipping containers entering the ports of Croatia, Montenegro and Albania remained the same, but according to data from the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, annual banana imports from Colombia and Ecuador increased by almost 25.000 tons in the same period - an increase of almost 60 percent.

"On my first day on duty, the police chief took me to a soundproof room and told me: 'Cigarettes are state business. Don't touch it,'' Zdravko Krivokapić, prime minister from 2020 to 2022, told me during Đukanović's second term as president.

"Later I realized something else. I was told that the average Montenegrin eats three times more bananas than the average citizen of the European Union."

The cocaine entering the continent via the Adriatic is only a fraction of the approximately 200 tonnes believed to enter Western Europe each year. Above all, it is the age-old maritime tradition of Montenegro that explains the rise of its gangs in the last two decades. Montenegrins made up a significant part of the Yugoslav merchant navy under state administration.

The naval academies in Bar and Kotor trained tens of thousands of sailors who manned more than 350 state ships that carried everything from materials to weapons for African anti-colonial movements. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, some of these sailors retired; some engaged in smuggling; others joined private shipping firms. During the 2000s, Montenegrin officers and engineers provided an opportunity for Adriatic cartels looking for a way to get into the cocaine business.

Today, seven thousand Montenegrins work on cargo ships. Almost a third of them are employed by the Mediterranean Shipping Company (known in certain circles as the Montenegrin Maritime Company). In 2019, more than a hundred FBI agents raided the MSC ship, Gayane, in the port of Philadelphia and discovered eighteen tons of cocaine—a booty worth a billion dollars—sealed in shipping containers filled with nuts and wine.

It was the largest maritime drug seizure in US history. An FBI investigation revealed that the cocaine was shipped in fourteen speedboats sent over four days off the coast of Peru and then lifted to the Guyana overnight while at sea. A third of its staff, including four Montenegrins, were involved in the broadcasts. Two years later, in August 2021, Spanish police raided the Canary Islands.

They seized 400 kg of cocaine from the villa, along with twelve encrypted phones, banknote counting machines and a yacht, and arrested four suspected members of the Skaljar clan. It was the third strike in the Canaries in two years, backed by a Spanish court document which concluded that "a huge number of seafarers chartered from MSC ships" had become cocaine couriers for Balkan cartels.

A third engineer on a cargo ship operated by the German company Hapag-Lloyd told me he once saw a shipment of cocaine placed in a waterproof bag off the coast of Gibraltar, then attached to the ship's hull with magnets. Divers waiting in a port “somewhere in the western Mediterranean” – the engineer declined to say where – later retrieved the cocaine while the ship's legal cargo was being unloaded.

Montenegrin seafarers who agree to help the cartels can expect life-changing earnings – up to 100.000 euros, often delivered to their apartments in bags full of cash, according to Montenegrin journalists. "You know the guys who get off the boat and buy a new car a few months later. Will the Jeep Wrangler? They will get a Jeep Wrangler," said the engineer, pointing around to the medieval port of Kotor. “But once you're in that circle, you can't get out. The clans keep you on a leash," he said, pointing towards the mountains.

Half an hour north of Budva, Kotor is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs. Dilapidated relics of Yugoslavia - among them the graffiti-splattered building of Jugooceanija, the state-owned shipping company - are scattered around the fjord-like bay (there are three secret submarine tunnels dug on Tito's orders). On the late January morning when I arrived in Kotor, the feast of Saint Sava was being celebrated in front of the largest Orthodox church.

Hundreds of people gathered for the occasion. Around noon, a military band played marching songs while a yellow-robed priest held a silver censer. From the Church of St. Sava, the procession moved through the cobbled streets of Kotor towards the Catholic Cathedral of St. Tripun, the patron saint of generations of sailors and smugglers. In his late medieval history of the Adriatic "Agents of Empire", Noel Malcolm argues that seafarers from places like Kotor – which straddled the border between the Venetian and Ottoman empires – held a key position in 16th-century Europe. The clans in and around Kotor functioned like "linguistic and cultural amphibians", serving as missionaries, spies, traders and pirates.

The Adriatic clans were often used by the empires that extended into their mountains and occupied their ports—conscripted into naval crews or forced to convert—but they benefited in many ways from their frontier identification.

They turned the great powers against each other, using strategic information to influence courts, infiltrated the imperial ranks and established valuable trade links.

Škaljari and Kavač are located on opposite slopes of Mount Orjen, which rises above Kotor. They look like thousands of other places in the Balkans. Škaljari is not a completely separate place, but an extension of Kotor. Filthy apartment buildings are crammed along the road, which has two cemeteries, several casinos, shops and a few shipping agencies. From the main street, a narrow road leads up the mountain to a stone house with a basketball hoop in the yard.

It is the birthplace of Jovan Vukotić, the head of the Skaljar clan until September 2022, when he was shot in Istanbul by Turkish criminals on the orders of members of the Kavački clan. Kavac is smaller. To get there, you need to use the serpentine road that goes over the Orjen mountain. After the Roma waste, a cement wall with barbed wire, satellite dishes and security cameras is located in front of the house belonging to Slobodan Kašćelan, the deputy leader of the Kavački clan.

The murdered leader of the Skaljar clan, Jovan Vukotić
The murdered leader of the Skaljar clan, Jovan Vukotićphoto: Private archive

He was arrested in April 2021 on charges of forming a criminal organization and is currently in Spuž prison, six miles north of Podgorica. The leader of the Kavački clan, Radoje Zvicer, is still on the run. His house is on the same street.

The Skaljarski and Kavački clans were once part of an organization that corresponded to Šarić. His arrest in March 2014 is believed to have soured relations between the two, which irretrievably broke down nine months later after disagreements over whether Radoman should be executed for stealing cocaine he found in his apartment.

It is believed that the Skaljars wanted him alive in order to use his contacts to find additional suppliers in South America; The blacksmiths were determined to kill him. By 2015, murders were occurring regularly. Radomana's business partner was shot in Budva that October; there were other murders in Kotor and Podgorica.

By 2016, the death toll had reached double digits, with the Kavachi taking over. That September, a Skaljar criminal was practicing in the courtyard of the Spož prison when he was killed by a rogue assassin, who fired from a mountain on the other side of the Zeta River, a quarter of a mile away. "It was easy. Like shooting a cat in the street," Mirko Popović, an electrician from a cargo ship from Kotor who was in Spuž at the time on charges of assault, told me.

A police search later found a sniper's tripod near the charred remains of the Skoda, but a helicopter search failed to find the culprit either.

For every member of the Kavački clan killed, at least two Skaljars were killed. Mobsters wanted by Interpol for years have been located with apparent ease, ambushed in their cars or liquidated in restaurants. Most of the people of Skaljara fled the country, but the people of Kavac pursued them.

There were assassinations in Vienna, Berlin and on the Croatian island of Pag. The clans, each with about a hundred men, recruited allies: smugglers from the entire Adriatic coast, Serbian hooligans, Albanians, Kurdish criminals.

In January 2018, a Serbian police officer was caught on surveillance video getting rid of a gun belonging to a member of the Skaljar clan moments after the latter shot a Kavačka mobster in a parking lot in Belgrade; two years later, Kavači paid Serbian executioners to torture two members of the Skaljar clan in a village east of Belgrade, then break their bones in a meat grinder and throw them into the Danube.

"These boys went to school together. They were best men at each other's weddings. They are best men to each other's children," Vladimir Jokic, the mayor of Kotor, told me in his office. "Now the obituaries are coming in from all different countries and they're all saying, 'Oh, we know him!'"

President of Kotor Municipality Vladimir Jokić
President of Kotor Municipality Vladimir Jokićphoto: Government of Montenegro

On a Sunday afternoon in January 2020, four members of the Kavački clan dressed in black overalls fired more than twenty bullets at two leaders of the Skaljars who were having lunch in a tavern by the sea outside Athens. Five months later, a member of the Skaljar clan was on vacation in Corfu when two Kavčans headed south using false passports, paid a smuggler 1500 euros to take them across the Greek border on a motorcycle, hired a boat and crossed to Corfu where they monitored their target for three days before he and his partner were shot on their way back from the beach.

They then fled the scene on quad bikes. In 2022, a Turkish hit man was paid 1,5 million euros to kill Vukotić, the new leader of the Skaljaracs, while he was driving his wife and daughter to a shopping center in Istanbul. The news of the latest murder was published just before I arrived in Montenegro: a man from Skaljarac was shot three times in the back while cycling with his wife and son in the suburbs of Sao Paulo.

During the last nine years, it became clear that the people of Kavčani have two advantages compared to the people of Škaljar. The first is the willingness to renounce the Balkan code of honor. Kavčani sometimes take photos of their executions.

They have torture chambers. According to testimony from the 2016 trial, the killers - known as "engineers" - were ordered to shoot members of the Skaljarac no less than five times, in order to "send a message to everyone in Montenegro who deals in drug sales". Another advantage is that Kavčani were not only protected by the government. They worked for her.

Đukanović has been prime minister or president for eleven of the eighteen years since independence. He was prime minister six times, after parliamentary elections in which DPS won the majority or came out as the largest party; he served twice as president, a more ceremonial position for which separate elections were held.

As he maneuvered between these positions, Đukanović blurred the distinctions between them; Montenegro looked pretty much the same, regardless of what title he had.

The accolades he received in the 2000s and 2010s were plentiful, even by the standards of Western autocratic clients. For Berlin, Đukanović was a 'model for others'. For Brussels, he was a 'champion of regional cooperation'.

"There is a strong feeling in the United States," said Robert Gelbard, Clinton's envoy to the Balkans, who first proposed bombing Yugoslavia, "that Milo Djukanovic did an outstanding job, was a real hero, in terms of his role in building Montenegro as an independent a democratic state, a country that is based on strong democratic and free market principles and that has a clear vision of the future."

That he owed his sovereignty to a large extent to Putin loyalists was the irony of the Western embrace of Đukanović. The second was the way he ran the country.

The closest counterpart to the political trajectory of post-communist Montenegro is Azerbaijan, a mountainous republic where a staunch clan elite also survived the collapse of communism and developed extensive networks of surveillance and control for another generation. Once independence was secured, Đukanović continued to turn Montenegro into something resembling a family business. His sister, Ana Kolarević, is a lawyer. In 2005, Crnogorski Telekom was bought by the Hungarian company Mađar Telekom.

A 2011 report by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleged that Magjar Telekom paid 7,35 million euros to "third-party consultants for four fraudulent contracts", with the understanding that "all or part of the payments" would then be passed on Montenegrin government officials who helped the sale on terms that were favorable for Magyar Telekom. (The company agreed to a settlement with the SEC, without admitting or denying the allegations.)

The SEC alleged that payments made to at least two government officials and "a senior Montenegrin official's sister," who "was a lawyer in Montenegro," were disguised as payments to her law firm; Kolarević denied participation.

Đukanović's brother Aco oversaw the privatization of Nikšićka banka in 2007 and bought a stake that made him its largest shareholder. It was renamed Prva banka and became the central bank of Montenegro in all but name, a financial clearing house through which state companies, ministries and foundations transferred and held capital.

Given that mining was largely in Deripaska's hands - falling commodity prices meant that by 2008 the arrangement was costing Montenegrin taxpayers two percent of GDP a year in subsidies - and a state-owned shipping industry that never recovered from after the breakup of Yugoslavia, what remained was tourism.

Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska
Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaskaphoto: Shutterstock

In 2008, Parliament adopted a law declaring the construction of five-star hotels to be of "national interest", as part of efforts to triple tourism's contribution to GDP to 60 percent by 2017 (currently around 25 percent).

There is no better place to observe the deformation of Montenegro in the last two decades than the Bay of Budva. Above the rows of low gray apartment blocks from the Yugoslavian era, high solitaires choke the coast. There is the Hotel Splendid, which was built in 2006 by Viktor Ivanenko, the former head of the KGB. There is also the island of Sveti Stefan, where Tito's government built a luxury hotel, which in 2009 was leased to Piraeus shipping tycoon Viktor Restis under a thirty-year contract.

Hotel Splendid
Hotel Splendidphoto: Vuk Lajović

There's also the Maestral Resort, built in 2017 by Malaysian gambling tycoon Paul Phua, whose company soon began bringing high-risk players to six-figure poker tournaments. For anyone looking to turn dirty money into euro assets, this was a no-questions-asked country.

Montenegrin passports could also be bought and sold in a scheme that, until 2015, allowed everyone from former Fatah leader Mohamed Dahlan to Taksin Shinawatra to obtain citizenship in exchange for deposits at First Bank or promises of future investments along the Adriatic.

Periodic but cosmetic anti-corruption crackdowns have bought goodwill from Brussels, which began EU accession talks in 2012. Washington's favorite strategy has been to ignore crime while funding those who expose it. The corruption of the Đukanović regime was exposed by the State Department-funded Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which named him the 2015 Organized Crime Person of the Year.

"No one but Putin," it said, "has led a country that relies so heavily on corruption, organized crime and dirty politics. It is truly and utterly rotten to the core."

His most ambitious project so far cost almost one billion euros. Feasibility studies financed by the European Investment Bank in 2008 and 2012 revealed that the only affordable way to modernize the dilapidated road network in Montenegro is to spend 500 million euros on its renewal and expansion.

Đukanović refused and in 2014 agreed to a new highway proposed by Beijing, which borrowed 944 million dollars for the project. The point seems to have been the price: the Chinese brought most of their workforce, but the contract stipulated that 30 percent of the budget would go to local construction companies.

Highwayphoto: Boris Pejović

More than half of these contracts were provided by Bemaks, whose owner - according to the recordings of decrypted SMS messages sent by Petar Lazović, a policeman whose father was the head of the Montenegrin anti-mafia unit, and published in the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti - 'spends a couple of million' on Đukanović's DPS 'for elections'. Lazović, whom Europol accuses of being a member of Kavača, had the keys to two safes in a building owned by Bemax in Podgorica, in which police officers found two guns.

The highway was supposed to be 445 kilometers long, connecting Bar with Belgrade. The project has now been going on for more than nine years, delayed due to the pandemic, as well as financial difficulties and political turmoil. So far, only the 41-kilometer long section has been built, which stretches east from Podgorica to the village of Mateševo.

In February I drove along it to one of the labor camps hastily assembled to house hundreds of Chinese workers. When they left Montenegro in 2021, they did not bother to dismantle them. Behind the chain-link fence, hundreds of dormitories have been taken over by local shepherds.

Cattle were dozing in the dormitories; the floors were strewn with rotting suitcases. At the entrances, there were still posters with the names of the former tenants.

Until 2016, Đukanović was the longest-serving head of state in Europe. In October of that year, just before the DPS won its sixth consecutive parliamentary victory, it found itself at the center of another geopolitical incident.

On election day, reports of a coup d'état circulated on the streets of Podgorica. Putschists dressed as police officers were allegedly preparing to seize the parliament building and assassinate him. Twenty citizens of Montenegro and Serbia were arrested, and within a few days, Montenegro blamed Moscow, accusing "organs of the Russian state" of trying to prevent its accession to NATO.

Western capitals repeated these claims. However, over the following months, this narrative began to unravel. A retired Serbian general accused of helping to plan the coup claimed that Montenegrin police planted evidence in his car, including keys to a warehouse allegedly full of weapons.

One witness claimed that the attackers left automatic rifles in Lake Gazivode in Kosovo, but there were no attempts to find them. For Đukanović, reporting on the coup attempt was more important than clarifying what actually happened.

"If Russia wanted to stage a coup in Montenegro, it would have succeeded," Milan Knežević, president of the pro-Moscow Democratic People's Party, who is fighting a five-year prison sentence for helping to organize the coup, told me.

DNP President Milan Knežević
DNP President Milan Kneževićphoto: Boris Pejović

Research conducted during the next six months showed that only 40 percent of Montenegrins were in favor of membership in NATO. But they did not have the right to vote. The accession vote held in April 2017 was limited to the Montenegrin parliament, where Đukanović had a majority.

"It would be very risky if we called a public referendum on this issue," Igor Lukšić, Đukanović's minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2016, told me. "I don't want to say we would have lost, but it would have been a repeat of the independence campaign, and we wanted to avoid that. I think it was the wisest decision. I don't see how society would benefit from a referendum."

Just months after Montenegro joined NATO, Europol officials were trying to access text messages sent through an encrypted app known as Sky ECC, long suspected of being the favorite messaging app of international cocaine-smuggling cartels.

By early 2021, they had succeeded, accessing millions of messages exchanged over the previous thirteen years. The correspondence, which a Belgian prosecutor estimated would take a team of forty policemen 685 years to read in its entirety, provided unprecedented insight into the inner workings of organized crime.

Europol compiled a report with detailed findings and sent it in 2021 to all countries where Sky messages were exchanged.

The correspondence arrived in Montenegro while the war between Kavčani and Škaljarac was entering its sixth year. Đukanović's grip on power began to loosen: in the parliamentary elections in August 2020, the DPS was dismissed, and a new coalition government came to power, with Zdravko Krivokapić as prime minister.

Finally, the opposition in Montenegro was in a position to oppose the levers of the state to its creator. And now that he had helped NATO get its newest member, Western embassies were ready to turn on Djukanovic. They helped organize the political opposition in late 2019 after he tried to pass a law that would have effectively revoked the Serbian Orthodox Church's ownership of property built before 1918, in an effort to strengthen the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

Some Montenegrins saw it as an attempt to close one of the last remaining valves of Serbian influence in Montenegro, whose recognition of Kosovo remains a major point of contention with Belgrade.

With one of the lithium
With one of the lithiumphoto: Luka Zeković

There was also the question of the church estates themselves, vast immovable properties located along the valuable coast. In any case, the move angered voters across the political spectrum, leading to as many as 70.000 people - more than a tenth of the country's population - taking to the streets of Podgorica.

By April 2020, Sunday's demonstrations had turned into broader expressions of anger against two decades of Đukanović's rule: "No more corruption!" "Milo thief!"

Nevertheless, Đukanović was still the president, and he remained close to the most powerful figures in the Montenegrin intelligence service, the police and the judiciary. Europol's report on Sky communications was delivered to them.

Among the accused based on the Sky correspondence are the assistant head of the police unit that Đukanović assigned to fight against organized crime; the former president of the Montenegrin Supreme Court, who appointed judges prosecuting organized crime for thirteen years; special prosecutor responsible for initiating cases against organized crime; Mayor of Budva; "two policemen who 'provided protection to members of the Kavački clan and informed them of sensitive operational data from the police', three who, according to the information of the Montenegrin government's 'international partners', had more than 50 million euros in their bank accounts"; more than ten other police officers; and their boss, the head of the Montenegrin police.

The defendants deny the charges, and claim that the messages cannot be used as evidence, because they were obtained illegally and by Europol, not the Montenegrin authorities.

Instead of provoking a confrontation with the cartel system, the Europol report instead provoked a proxy conflict within Montenegro, or between competing versions of that country.

On the one hand, there is the new Montenegro, which consists of a young generation of politicians with limited experience in governance, and which barely controls certain parts of the country they were elected to lead. "One evening in April 2021, we arrested eighteen members of the Kavački clan, most of them in Kotor," Dritan Abazović, who succeeded Krivokapić as prime minister, told me. "By noon the next day, the judges released them from prison. Famous murderers - and they released them all!"

Former Prime Minister Dritan Abazović
Former Prime Minister Dritan Abazovićphoto: Luka Zeković

This Montenegro is determined to put an end to Đukanović's system. But the strategies differ. Some, like Abazović, visited the Spuž prison in search of convicts with compromising information about Đukanović. Others prefer to coordinate with Western embassies that once cooperated with Đukanović.

Another important player in Montenegro's war against the mafia is the FBI, which sends Montenegrin prosecutors to the US for training and then directs them to investigate government corruption.

Against this new Montenegro is the old guard. She understands how the country works because she spent thirty years running it. He has deep ties to the intelligence services and even deeper ties to the judiciary. The Sky communications packets that are "leaked" to journalists about once a week by politicians or prosecutors who are determined to destroy Djukanović's system or obscure the evidence against him, provide insight into the way old Montenegro functions. Text messages are heavily censored.

Some show possible signs of editing. Extracted from millions of messages exchanged over at least seven years, full of code words and obscure slang, their context is not always clear. But some messages are easy to understand. There are messages in which the police discuss giving weapons to Kavčani and send photos of members of the Škaljar clan who were tortured in police stations or police vehicles.

"In one Kavački group company, which had 21 participants, twelve were found to be active policemen," Jelena Jovanović, a Vijesti journalist who was at the forefront of publishing the Sky correspondence, told me.

"Most of their contracts have never been terminated. They are still working on the streets." In the texts, the criminals consult with Šarić, who is in prison in Belgrade, on how to organize an attack on Corfu, which was almost called off when a member of the Kavački clan realized that he had crossed the Macedonian border using his real passport.

In text messages exchanged in July 2020, a policeman begs the people of Kavčani not to attack Škaljarci ahead of next month's elections.

"Don't do it unless you really have to," said the police officer, relaying the police chief's alleged orders. "When the election is over, then you can do it." These messages make you wonder if police factions have been orchestrating a mob war all along.

In fact, the more carefully you analyze the conflict between Kavčan and Skaljarac, the more strange the individual murders seem. For example, the murder of Vukotić in September 2022. He was charged with murder in Montenegro in February 2020 before being released in July of the same year. At some point after his release he was red-flagged in Interpol's tracking system. By the summer of 2022, Kavčani followed him to the Şişli district in Istanbul.

"I don't believe that the police shared the exact location of members of the Skaljarski clan with the Kavčani," Damir Lekić, a lawyer for the Skaljarski clan who has spent the last four years traveling around Europe to collect the bodies of murdered clients, told me.

Lawyer Damir Lekić
Lawyer Damir Lekićphoto: Savo Prelevic

"However, they would give the Kavians rough information about the area - a neighborhood in Athens - and say, 'You have ten days to do whatever is necessary.'"

I asked Lekić why the state decided to cooperate with Kavčani instead of Škaljarci. He believes that there are many reasons, but the most important was the willingness of the Kavčan leadership to allow the authorities to occasionally arrest their members in order to maintain appearances. The slaters would not agree to that.

There is no evidence that Đukanović used the Sky app. However, he is a frequent topic of conversation. Policemen and members of the Kavački clan call him "Chief". "Everyone will vote as I tell them," writes Radoje Zvicer, the leader of the Kavački clan, to the police ahead of the 2020 elections.

In October 2020, Petar Lazović informs the Kavaka criminals that "The boss has a grandson" and sends them a photo of Đukanović celebrating at dinner. The mobsters ask him to convey their congratulations. "The boss is talking about you," Lazović tells Zvicer. In a correspondence dated two months earlier, Lazović discusses delivering money to the Boss. "Don't mention that we've been working for thirty years and give money to Milo personally," he advises the associate.

"Don't say we bring money to Milo; 300.000 [euros] to Milo Đukanović personally every month." (Djukanovic denies that ever happened.) The claim is so shocking — the son of a man who heads a special anti-mafia unit openly discusses a monthly six-figure bribe for the president — that many Montenegrin journalists I spoke to were torn between two theories about to what it means.

One of the arrests of Petar Lazović, accused of working for the mafia instead of against it
One of the arrests of Petar Lazović, accused of working for the mafia instead of against it photo: Luka Zeković

Perhaps Lazović was aware that his messages were being deciphered by Europol and deliberately wrote something so unusual that it would cast doubt on the credibility of all exchanges via the Sky application. That - or corruption during the time of Đukanović was so common that no one hesitated to write such things.

Skaj's messages confirm that Montenegro is not an example of the state being captured by organized crime. Instead, cartels are an extension of the state. They are in contact with the state, it protects them, and enriches the people who run it.

Dejan Milovac, a researcher at MANS, a non-governmental organization that uncovers corruption in Montenegro, told me that it will be more difficult to overcome the problem of organized crime there than anywhere else in the region.

"The first line of defense against organized crime - police officers, security officers, customs officers - all turned out to be working for him." Or as former Prime Minister Abazović told me: "Kavači are a state project. And while you can try to reduce their power - and I tried to do that - here is the biggest problem: they have much more money than Montenegro."

MANS researcher Dejan Milovac
MANS researcher Dejan Milovacphoto: Boris Pejović

Đukanović's 32-year reign ended last April, when 36-year-old economist Jakov Milatović defeated him with almost 70.000 votes in the second round of presidential elections.

"Other countries in Eastern Europe could have started their democratic development decades earlier," Milatović told me in his cabinet. "We are just now beginning that process. This is our 1989." I asked him what Montenegro might look like in five years. "Slovenia," he answered.

President of Montenegro Jakov Milatović
President of Montenegro Jakov Milatovićphoto: Office for Public Relations of the President of Montenegro

Đukanović's successors, at first glance, have little in common. Milatović graduated from Oxford and worked at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Krivokapić is a former professor of computer science and a devoted follower of the Serbian Orthodox Church who speaks little English. Abazović is an ethnic Albanian who taught history at a high school in Ulcinj. His successor, current Prime Minister Milojko Spajić, worked for Goldman Sachs in Singapore.

All three prime ministers belong to different parties; Milatović, who was elected as a candidate of the Europe now movement, is now an independent. However, they seem to have few ideological differences. None criticizes the West's involvement in Montenegro so far. Their political slogans - "trust in institutions", "systems based on values", "European future" - are reminiscent of the Euro-Atlantic jargon that Đukanović perfected in the 1990s.

Indeed, the country envisioned by the post-Đukanović generation - one where EU accession is fast-tracked, the Kavački clan is crippled by a US-led anti-corruption crackdown, and a booming tech sector helps to obscure the fact that a land of miners and sailors has been turned into a land of hoteliers - it is known enough. When they announce a "new Montenegro", they mostly mean Đukanović's state without corruption.

The mood in Podgorica is gloomy today. Exhilaration over last summer's election has turned to frustration that NATO membership has arrived, but EU accession - supported by a majority - still seems hopelessly far away. Montenegro's only advantage, its balancing act between Washington and Moscow, has disappeared.

Prime Minister Milojko Spajić
Prime Minister Milojko Spajićphoto: Boris Pejović

The Europol report may have resulted in the dismissal of a small number of police officers and prosecutors, but others are still working from house arrest or from prison: the mayor of Budva, arrested last year and charged with drug trafficking and creating a criminal organization, continued to sign invoices from his prison cell Sponge, where he denies the charges pending trial, until March when he was suspended on half pay.

The big unanswered question is whether there is any likelihood that Djukanovic will be prosecuted. It is easiest to imagine a future in which Montenegro achieves an amnesty with cartel capital instead of one in which it tries to confiscate it.

However, there are more pressing concerns. British intelligence agents began monitoring the port of Bar for tobacco smuggling. In 2021, the US Embassy funded the installation of telephone jammers in the prison in Spož to prevent inmates from ordering murders from their cells.

Port of Bar
Port of Barphoto: Shutterstock

South of Kotor, Bemaks has started construction of a new section of the highway, although Brussels is rejecting Podgorica's requests for help in repaying Beijing, which holds a quarter of Montenegrin debt. Russian and Ukrainian emigrants, concentrated in Adriatic cities like Herceg Novi, now make up a tenth of Montenegro's population, and set prices that drive citizens away from the coast already affected by criminal investments. Yet for one group, it's business as usual.

Every evening, you can find coffee-goers at the Podgorica Hotel, huddled in a dark corner of the lobby, pistols bulging from under their black purses.

(London Review of Books)

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