Police Say No Proof Saric is in South Africa
By Valerie Hopkins
Reports that Serbian narco boss Darko Saric may be in South Africa have resulted in a flurry of conflicting and confusing accounts among media, bloggers and even the top police officers charged with hunting down Serbia's most wanted fugitive.
Now authorities in both countries say they have no evidence he is or ever was in the African country.
“He may be [in South Africa], but we have no evidence or anything factual at all that would indicate he is here,” Lt. Colonel Mike Barkhuizen of the South African Police told OCCRP.
“The only photo we have of him is one that came from Serbia via Interpol, and that is an official document. A passport I believe.”
The story started when the South African Independent Online published a story in mid-January citing unnamed “underworld sources” who claimed that Saric is living in northeastern South Africa under the protection of local crime bosses. The story was followed by a story from Montenegro’s Dan newspaper which Barkhuizen said misquoted police spokesman McIntosh Polela.
“One of the newspapers misquoted our spokesman as saying he is in South Africa, and everything went from there. I know Interpol is interested and the U.S. DEA, but there is nothing at all that would support him being here,” he said.
He refutes suggestions that police were trying to shield information they have about Saric from the public, saying it would be impossible for the police to conceal a major event such as Saric’s arrest.
“But why let facts get in the way of a good story?” he said.
“We are still trying to confirm the reports that [Saric] is here,” McIntosh Polela, a spokesperson for the elite Hawks police unit in charge of the investigation, told OCCRP. He said news articles published in Montenegro confirming that police had identified Saric are “totally nonsense.”
Polela said his unit is corresponding with Serbian authorities.
But director of the Serbian police Milorad Veljovic told OCCRP that Serbian police have not heard from South African authorities. Veljovic said his agency received information that Saric was arrested in South Africa from the media.
“We read the reports in the media and then tried to get confirmation from Interpol and the headquarters in Lyon,” said Veljovic.
He said no official response from South Africa has arrived.
“'And two or three times we had urged, and we still have not received any response from them," as to whether [Saric] has been located or not,” says Veljovic.
Interest in Serbian criminals in South Africa first attracted media attention when police announced in mid-December that they had arrested Dobrosav Gavric in Capetown. A Serbian court sentenced Gavric in absentia to 35 years in prison for of the murder of Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, a notorious paramilitary leader who was assassinated in 2000, and two other men.
Polela said the police became interested in investigating Gavric after local newspapers connected him to the slaying of local South African crime boss Cyril Beeka in March 2011. Beeka was reportedly connected to businessman Radovan Krejcir, a Czech fugitive.
A raid on Krejcir’s home last year following Beeka’s murder was said to be part of a larger investigation into his connections with Eastern European Crime groups.
Krejcir was arrested Sunday for armed robbery along with Serbian national Veselin Laganin and a former bouncer, Jason Dominguez.
Krejcir denies ties to Saric.
Polela said the police began investigating Saric after media reports that he was hiding in the northeastern province of Gauteng.
Saric is suspected of running an organized crime network that shipped narcotics from South America to the Balkans for dissemination in Europe, with estimated profits of over € 1 billion annually.
Stevan Dojcinovic, Dragana Peco and John Holland contributed reporting from Belgrade, Serbia.