Serbian Officials Capture Balkans' Largest Drug Trafficking Group

Published: 12 May 2023

Belgrade Operatin DruglordsMillion of euros in cash seized in the operation against the Balkans' largest drug trafficking cartel. (Photo: Europol, License)

By Zdravko Ljubas

Serbian officials announced Thursday that they apprehended the largest criminal group involved in drug trafficking in the Balkans.

The group was believed to be coordinating the shipment of multi-tonne cocaine from Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador to Europe, either directly or through logistical channels in West Africa.

In a joint operation with law enforcement agencies from the Netherlands and Belgium, Europol led an international effort targeting the leadership and distribution network of the cartel. The operation took place in Serbia and the Netherlands.

According to Europol, a total of 23 individuals have been arrested, including 13 in Serbia.

Among the arrested individuals are three leaders of the criminal organization, one of whom is allegedly a former leader of the infamous Pink Panther criminal group—a notorious international gang known for their bold heists across Europe.

"An additional seven members of this criminal organization were apprehended in Belgium in 2021, while two individuals were previously arrested in Serbia and Peru for unrelated offenses. Another suspect was recently taken into custody in the Netherlands on May 8, 2023," stated Europol.

Although the specific name of the criminal gang was not disclosed, Europol emphasized its well-known reputation in the criminal underworld for its extreme violence and involvement in high-profile thefts.

Local Serbian media outlets speculate that Mladen Lazarević, also known as "Mladunče," a Serbian member of the "Pink Panther" group, and Miroslav Starčević, known as "Deda" or "Đeneral" (Grandpa or General), were among the three major kingpins arrested.

Kurir, a news outlet, claimed that Starčević had close ties to the leader of Montenegro's infamous criminal organization, the Kavač clan – Radoje Zvicer – as well as the leader of the clan’s Serbian branch, Veljko Belivuk.

The criminal organization and its activities were exposed during an investigation into their communications through Sky, an encrypted software widely utilized by criminal networks. Sky was dismantled in March 2021.

According to Europol and the Serbian Interior Ministry, the analysis of Sky ECC data led to the discovery of approximately seven tonnes of cocaine seized in European ports in 2020. Among the confiscations were 700 kilos of cocaine in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 1.2 tonnes in Hasselt, Belgium, and 5 tonnes in Aruba, the Dutch Antilles.

The information obtained from Sky ECC was instrumental in identifying the major criminal figures apprehended in Belgrade as part of this operation.

During Thursday's operation, the police conducted searches at more than 35 residences and confiscated nearly three million euros (US$3.266 million) in cash.

They also seized high-end vehicles, luxury jewelry, and watches estimated to be worth around two million euros ($2.177 million), along with weapons and explosives. The seized items included two sniper rifles, three automatic rifles, handguns, silencers, 24 detonator capsules, five remote initiation devices, 13 packages of plastic explosives, and several hundred rounds of ammunition.