How criminals rule Bosnia


There is no end to the alarming news coming from Bosnia. This is beginning to alarm me too.

On 20 November The Times reports on Bosnia under the title “Outnumbered and in the dark: on patrol in badlands of the Balkans.” The article describes a remote border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and presents it as “the first line of defence against contraband and criminals reaching Western Europe.” The author continues: “drugs are smuggled from Afghanistan through Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and then into Italy, Germany and on to France and England.” Women from Eastern Europe are “trafficked through Bosnia, many ending up working as prostitutes in English cities.”

This seems strange. Why would anybody in the EU even think that the border between two small countries, one of which has only been independent for a bit over a year, in a thinly populated area in the middle of the Balkan mountains, would be the best place to intercept drugs from Afghanistan travelling to consumers in London or Paris?

Upon reflection, a layman like myself might have even more questions. Why would an East European woman (a Moldavian or Ukrainian, for instance) consider getting into the EU by coming to Bosnia first? Is it not much more convenient to go to or via Romania? Why would a prostitute from East Europe go to Bosnia if her real destination was the UK?

Reading articles like this – and there is no shortage of them – I always wonder about sources. I know some this author did not use: Croatian authorities, for example, who share the longest border with Bosnia, confirm that the number of people caught by them crossing illegally from Bosnia has actually fallen substantially in recent years. The 2006 US State Department’s (annual) report on human trafficking also ranked Bosnia in the same category as Greece, Japan and Slovenia. In the section on “International Best Practices” it even commends the efficiency of Bosnia’s Anti-Trafficking Police Force.

Does the Times know something that neither the Croat nor the US authorities (nor the Bosnian authorities, who publish an annual organised crime report) know about?

I expand my search: perhaps there is something about the nefarious influence of the Bosnian underworld and its tentacles in the UK in the 2004 book Gangs – a journey into the heart of the British underworld by the Observer’s crime correspondent Tony Thompson? Thompson looks at 13 types of crime, from cocaine smuggling to kidnapping and gun running. The list of gangs operating in the UK that he describes reads like a small United Nations: Spanish, Colombians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Irish, Danes, South Africans, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Russians, Chinese …

I check the index: there are references to Albanians (in the chapter on people smuggling); there is one reference to Croatia (as a country through which drugs travel). But between the entry for “Booze fighters” and that for “Bourne, Christopher Tuffy” (an English robber) I do not find any reference to Bosnia. Perhaps the Observer has missed something too?

In fact, I quite like Thompson’s book. Ever since I first read it I remember a passage where he quotes a cocaine smuggler, Rick, who explains to him that “a lot of the stuff I deal with comes in via Ireland. There’s a lot of going on over there because the Irish navy consists of something like two rubber dinghies and one of those inflatable bananas. There’s so much coastline, they just can’t patrol it all. It’s absolutely wide open.” It changed my image of the Irish coast (where I have never been): I had thought of it as merely wild and interesting, but now I see it as a very dangerous and wide open gap in the defence of the things that are dear to me. I wonder how it compares with the border between Bosnia and Montenegro. And when the Times last wrote about the Irish borderlands.

But there is one obvious difference between Ireland and Bosnia today. In Ireland there is no European Union Police Mission (EUPM). This makes it easier to write an article about organised crime in Bosnia: one does not even need to talk to any Bosnian institutions who have fighting it as part of their job description: institutions like the state-level State Border Service (now State Border Police), the State Information and Protection Agency (SIPA), the Interpol office, the state-level Ministry for Security or the integrated intelligence and security agency (obavjestajno-sigurnosna agencija). In Bosnia one is conveniently provided with all information on especially organised tours for journalists, and it is done by English speaking “Europeans”. One EU police office offers precise data: “Figures show that 50 tonnes of heroin were smuggled from Afghanistan to the West through Sarajevo in 2006, but officials seized only 72 grams”. This, we learn, is “shameful.” Another EUPM official explains that Sarajevo is “controlled by organised crime bosses.”

The author of the Times article apparently did not see much value in quoting any Bosnians: after all, as European police officers (who are quoted extensively) explain to him, Bosnian crime bosses in any case control corrupt police officers, prosecutors and judges. The population treats criminals as heroes. And police chiefs, prosecutors and judges in the cantons “have all grown up with the criminals they are meant to prosecute.” There is, one European police officer notes, “corruption from the bottom of the judicial tree to the top.” Somebody even says that “only a third of judges were beyond being corrupt.” Two thirds of Bosnian judges corrupt: that is shocking indeed. It also sounds familiar. Was this not the number quoted, wait, it was 7 years ago, just before a huge international judicial reform mission was deployed in Bosnia, which then proceeded to fire every judge and prosecutor in the country only to have them reappointed later by an internationally-led commission?

In fact, with so much bad news there is only one good thing to report from Bosnia: the fact that there is – and has been since 2002 – a European police mission. As we learn, “officers from around the world have been brought in to try to help local people get on top of things, but their mandate runs out in two years time and they face an uphill struggle.”

It is probably an interesting coincidence that the Times article (and other similar articles in other European papers) appeared on the very day that an EU press release could announce the good news: the EU had decided on the 19th of November “to extend the mandate of the EU Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina until 31 December 2009 … the Council also recognised that the police mission’s aim to establish a sustainable, professional and multi-ethnic police force …. has not yet been achieved.”

And it is to be hoped that this mandate never runs out. Perhaps one could also send an EUPM to the Irish Atlantic coast?

Or would that be too expensive? After all, the cost of EUPM in Bosnia (with 200 internationals at the moment) is not negligeable: 12 million Euro plus the 200 salaries of the foreigners. But given the apparent success of this mission, whose job it is to advise and help Bosnian law enforcers, this may well be worth it.

PS: One more note about drug smuggling and Bosnia. You might hear a figure quoted in international speeches (recently even by a leader of the opposition in a big EU country) . This figure was often used in the past by international organisations, including the OHR, in briefings about Bosnia: “According to Interpol assessments, 80 percent of the Western European heroin market is supplied via the Balkan route which goes through BiH.”

This sounds alarming, until one reads the original Interpol quote:

“Two primary routes are used to smuggle heroin: the Balkan Route, which runs through southeastern Europe, and the Silk Route, which runs through Central Asia. The anchor point for the Balkan Route is Turkey, which remains a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets. The Balkan Route is divided into three sub-routes: the southern route runs through Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy; the central route runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and into either Italy or Austria; and the northern route runs from Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland or Germany.”

In fact, according to Interpol there is no country in the region, including Austria and EU members Bulgaria and Romania, which is not along a primary drug smuggling route. Perhaps an EUPM should be sent to every country along this route?

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