The Montenegro Connection

Love, Tobacco, and the Mafia

“My little cat … I’m going crazy without you … You have repeatedly betrayed me, I think … Little cat, when are you coming? … I love you, little cat.” On Jan. 4, 2001, Dušanka Jeknić, representative of the Montenegrin trade mission in Milan, Italy, was speaking on the phone at her home in the southwest of the city. Milo Đukanović, at that time president of Montenegro, was calling from the capital Podgorica.

Billions of people around the world had just hailed the New Millennium. Dušanka, nicknamed “Duška,” the beautiful 41-year-old widow of the late foreign minister of Montenegro, was alone, far from her country. And she spoke out freely about everything: love, tobacco, and crime.

Eight years after Jeknić’s loving conversation with her president, transcripts of her phone calls, wiretapped by the Italian police for 20 months, are attached to hundreds of thousands of court records filed by the prosecutor’s office in Bari, in southern Italy. Here, in the Apulia region’s capital, facing Montenegro across the Adriatic Sea, prosecutors Giuseppe Scelsi and Eugenia Pontassuglia have at last wrapped up their long-running investigation of Đukanović, Jeknić, and six other Montenegrins and Serbs, as well as seven Italians allegedly tied to organized crime. Their indictment charged the group with, among other offenses, mafia association aimed at illicit trafficking of tobacco, a serious crime in Italy. The indictment and an accompanying 409-page report by Italy’s anti-mafia unit, the DIA, which have not before been made public, provide an extraordinary look inside what may be one of Europe’s biggest smuggling operations in recent years — a tale of corruption, murdered witnesses, and a billion dollars in money laundered through Swiss banks.

Tortuga of the Adriatic

At the center of this case is a hidden bit of history, say prosecutors, of how tobacco smuggling became a state enterprise in Montenegro, a Balkan republic in southeastern Europe bordering Serbia and the Adriatic Sea. Home to just 600,000 people, the country is smaller than Israel and is known for its scenic coastline. But it is also known for its smuggling routes through the heart of the Balkans, which, during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, allowed organized crime to thrive. Italian authorities noted as much in the DIA report. “Montenegro, for a decade, was the real Tortuga of the Adriatic sea,” they wrote, comparing the Balkan state to a Caribbean island notorious for its pirates. “A heaven for illicit trafficking; impunity granted to mobsters… a place where authorities guaranteed the passage of illicitly traded goods.” And investigators left no doubt who they thought was behind the billion-dollar racket: “Milo Đukanović ruled this Tortuga.”

Đukanović is now prime minister of that “Tortuga.” Re-elected in March, he leads a country where for nearly 17 of the past 18 years he has served as either prime minister or president. And he is pushing hard for Montenegro to join the European Union, which is now considering the country’s membership. To that end Đukanović counts on his main supporter, Italy’s premier Silvio Berlusconi, who in March lauded him during a state-visit in Podgorica.

Affiliated with Serbia until 2006, Montenegro is now fully independent, but some EU nations, notably Belgium and Germany, remain skeptical that the country is ready to join the West. Đukanović has said that the smuggling is a thing of the past, done, to earn cash during a time of international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia, and that he did not personally profit from the trade. Law enforcement officials broadly agree that Montenegro’s era of state-sponsored smuggling is over. But the prime minister’s controversial history has dogged him for 15 years, and whether he can convince the EU that he — and his government — have cleaned up Montenegro may depend on what happens in Italian and Swiss courts this summer.

According to the Italian indictment, from 1994 to 2002, during Đukanović’s long tenure, Montenegro was a haven for cigarette smuggling by two of Italy’s mafia syndicates: the Neapolitan mafia, known as the Camorra; and the crime family of the Apulia region, in Italy’s boot heel — the Sacra Corona Unita. Both syndicates set up shop in Montenegro. Almost every night dozens of pilots steered a fleet of large speedboats crammed with cigarettes across the Adriatic from the Montenegrin port of Bar to the Italian city of Bari and nearby. According to court records, during those eight years an extraordinary one billion cigarettes per month — 100,000 cases — were smuggled out of Montenegro, most of them Marlboro and Marlboro Light. Once in Italy, the untaxed cigarettes were sold by the mafia on the black market.

The judicial papers originally named 15 people. Among them: Đukanović himself; Dušanka Jeknic; a former Montenegrin finance minister; managers of the Montenegrin company MTT, allegedly set up to control the smuggling; reputed Balkan and Italian mobsters; and a Serbian businessman. In March, noting that Đukanović is protected by diplomatic immunity, prosecutors dropped him from the indictment.

Starting June 3, Bari Judge Rosa Calia Di Pinto will hold a preliminary hearing to decide whether or not the evidence gathered by prosecutors is enough to put the indicted on trial. The judge will hear a story of a “mafia war” stretching into 10 countries: not only Italy and Montenegro, but also Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Aruba, and the United States. So far, two key witnesses and five others mentioned in the case have been murdered.

Operation Montecristo

In Switzerland, meanwhile, a second trial has been underway since early April, also bearing on the Montenegro connection. Codenamed “Montecristo,” after the classic book The Count of Montecristo, the case stems from the Swiss leg of an investigation started as an offshoot of the Bari prosecution. In what is reportedly the largest organized crime case ever in Swiss courts, authorities maintain that over a decade — from the early 1990s until 2001 — more than US$1 billion from the tobacco smuggling were laundered by Italian organized crime. The mafia allegedly washed its dirty cash from Montenegro through brokers and money changers based in Lugano, Switzerland, and deposited it in Swiss banks. The trial of nine people, including Swiss, Italians, a Frenchman, and a Spaniard, is expected to end in June, with a possible ruling June 19 in Bellinzona, just across the border from Italy.

Both sets of hearings are sure to interest Brussels officials in charge of EU enlargement, who are reviewing Montenegro’s bid for membership. Đukanović’s diplomatic immunity cannot stop the proceedings from shedding light on a country that for years, critics say, has been governed outside the rule of law. Today, law enforcement officials believe Montenegro’s tobacco smuggling has largely been replaced with new routes from Russia, China, Poland, and Ukraine. But the years of black market activity, allegedly presided over by Đukanović himself, raise uncomfortable questions about crime and corruption in Montenegro.

Ratko Knežević, a long-time Montenegro government insider who once lobbied Washington on behalf of Đukanović, described the extent of the old smuggling in his 2006 thesis for the London Business School. Knežević reported estimates “that by the end of [the] 1990s, the Montenegrin government was earning as much as $700 million annually from the clandestine cigarette trade.”

Knezevic was a teenage friend of Đukanović, who served as a witness at Knezevic’s wedding. But Knezevic now lives in London and has had a falling out with the prime minister. He relates that Đukanović once told him that while Montenegro faced international economic sanctions in the 1990s, the country reaped $300 million annually from the illicit trade in cigarettes and oil. Whatever the black market amount, law enforcement officials are convinced the contraband trade was a prime earner of hard currency for Đukanović’s government, which slapped a so-called “transit tax” on shipments by the smugglers. Knežević described it as a stream of contraband cash “flowing into a parallel government budget, which was then used to support the official budget.”

This much is clear: Milo Đukanović is a seasoned and savvy politician. The son of a well-connected judge, he enrolled in the Yugoslav Communist League while still in high school. He later became secretary of the League of Communists of Montenegro and allied himself with Yugoslavia strongman Slobodan Milosevic. Đukanović’s own bid for power succeeded in February 1991, when he was elected prime minister of Montenegro. He was only 29, and at that time few people in the world had even heard of Montenegro. That changed quickly with Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse in 1991 and ’92, as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia all seceded. Montenegro remained in a federated state with Serbia, and in 2006, it became independent through a referendum. Through all this, Đukanović dominated the political life of Montenegro, serving six terms as prime minister (1991-1998, 2003-2006, 2008-present) and one term as president (1998-2002).

The Bari Investigation

In 2001, a special commission set up by the Italian Parliament released a 130-page report focused on Montenegro and the mafia. For years, the mafia had moved mountains of contraband cigarettes through the ports and warehouses of Montenegro’s southern neighbor Albania, but these had become unreliable due to the Balkan war. By the mid-1990s, Montenegro had taken over the illicit trade, and was pouring billions of untaxed smokes into Italy.

One of the investigators summoned by the Rome Parliament to testify on Montenegro’s new role was the Bari prosecutor, Giuseppe Scelsi. He and other colleagues testified that Montenegro was the main operational base for smuggling in the Mediterranean, a place where a great number of fugitive criminals set up shop to trade cigarettes as well as drugs and arms. In the north, they noted, the port of Zelenica was controlled by members of the Bari and Naples mafia, while in the south the port of Bar was run by the mob from Bari and Brindisi, another Apulia town. The gangs in effect operated their own navy — about 70 speedboats — able to cross the Adriatic in a mere two hours.

The lucrative trade was also a bloody one. Wars between rival mafia factions left more than a few mobsters dead in both Italy and Montenegro, along with several agents of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian tax and customs police. In Rome, the Parliament reacted quickly: just 13 days after releasing its report on the mafia, it approved a tough new law making tobacco smuggling a crime tied to mafia association with prison terms of up to 15 years. Two years later — in 2003 — the prosecutor’s office in Naples aimed their sights at the very top, seeking to arrest Đukanović himself on “association of mafia-type” charges. The warrant, however, was initially rejected by a judge, on the grounds that Đukanović was shielded by diplomatic immunity. The judge did grant a warrant for the arrest of Duska Jeknić, but by then Đukanović’s lover had already fled Italy.

Prosecutors in Bari were also investigating the same case. With authorites in both cities conducting investigations on Montenegro, often involving the same people, in summer 2003 the Bari prosecutor’s office was chosen as the sole investigative magistrate and the cases were merged. From that point on, Scelsi worked alone with the Bari unit of the DIA, the anti-mafia agency. He spent years collecting testimony and documents, which he requested from several countries, mainly tax havens, like Cyprus and Switzerland, as well as the Netherlands, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the United States.

The court records have been sealed until now. The report produced by the DIA, in particular, includes a fascinating set of statements made by mobsters from the Apulia “cartel”; smugglers turned informants; the reputed “kingpin of Swiss contraband”; Croatian journalist Ivo Pukanić, editor of the Zagreb-based weekly Nacional, murdered in October 2008; and two Montenegrin officials.

Following the Money

Italian investigators set out to follow the money behind the “Montenegro Connection” — where it went, who touched it, who laundered it, and who owns it today. There was money for everybody, they found, in a multi-billion-dollar business. Money for smugglers. Money for organized crime. And, according to court records, money for Montenegrins in high places. “Đukanović, together with his inner circle,” noted the DIA report, “had huge amounts of money illicitly earned and lodged in Swiss, Montecarlo and Cyprus banks.”

Scelsi, the prosecutor, zeroed in on the man who allegedly masterminded the smuggling scheme with Montenegro authorities. He was Franco Della Torre, a Swiss citizen well known to Italian and U.S. officials. Della Torre was implicated in laundering mafia money in the notorious “Pizza Connection” case of the 1980s. The Pizza Connection had reunited the Sicilian mob with its American cousins, pouring a flood of heroin into America’s East Coast through pizzerias. It looked to Scelsi as if Della Torre was up to his old tricks, but this time using not drugs but tobacco. Swiss prosecutors agree and have indicted della Torre as part of the Montecristo case.

Authorities allege that della Torre built a complex operation that involves a 1996 deal he negotiated using a Panamanian company, Santa Monica, with an exclusive license to transfer 100,000 cases per month of Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, and R.J. Reynolds cigarettes. Della Torre, Scelsi says, then subcontracted with four distributors: Italian, French, and Spanish smugglers.

Della Torre’s de facto partner in Montenegro was allegedly MTT (Montenegro Tabak Transit), a state company set up to control smuggling operations and run by two of Đukanović’s friends, according to court records. MTT in turn was said to manage another Montenegrin company, Zeta Trans, which operated a warehouse based in the Montenegrin port of Bar, where smugglers stored the tobacco before moving it each night into the hands of Italian organized crime.

Scelsi charges that Della Torre, on behalf of MTT, was entitled to import and store cigarettes, as well as to collect duties (the so-called “transit tax”) from his four distributors. Della Torre then made payments to MTT from Santa Monica, working through three Irish companies owned by MTT and an account with the Intercambi company, owned by a Swiss money changer. Under instructions from Montenegro, Della Torre allegedly made payments to Zeta Trans and others, including “Yugoslav politicians.” How much money went to Zeta Trans? According to testimony summarized in the DIA report, the Italians paid US$63 a case; $30 ended up on Zeta Trans accounts and the rest in private accounts. Elsewhere, the report cites testimony that “part of the transit tax, at first three Deutsche marks per case … went onto the books of the National Security Service, without any authorization, in violation of Montenegro laws and regulations.”

Who was behind the smuggling scheme? Court records allege that Đukanović himself was deeply implicated. Scelsi accused the Montenegrin leader of “having promoted, run, set up, and participated in a mafia-type association.” His investigators wrote: “Milo Đukanović was absolutely aware of what was going on in Montenegro, as well as of the repercussions on the Italian State and the other EU members. He was aware since he was involved in it and had a direct interest in it. He himself was conscious of the huge amount of money, in hard currency, drawn from illicit tobacco trafficking handled by Italian organized crime. His greed for riches made him so unprincipled that he fit in with the association. He went so far as to assure protection to fugitives wanted in Italy, disregarding the most basic legal norms. He did that through the state security apparatus.”

The racket was, in effect, a giant ATM machine, producing as much as $2 million each week. Court records from the Italian and Switzerland investigations suggest that the mafia’s profits from the trade were cleaned up by Swiss money launderers. According to an indictment by Switzerland’s attorney general:

Criminal funds of the Camorra and Sacra Corona Unita were infiltrated into the Swiss banking system through Ticino-based money changers. The money runners crossed the border into Switzerland carrying huge amounts of cash. In Lugano, mafia funds were deposited in bank accounts of individuals and brokerage companies …. Thanks to exclusive licenses and the collection of transit taxes on contraband cigarettes, Montenegro rulers were presented with another income stream and the possibility of obtaining profits from illicit trafficking in cigarettes …. Starting in the early 1990s until the beginning of 2001, almost the whole flow of funds stemming from Montenegro’s cigarette smuggling trade, managed by the Camorra and Sacra Corona Unita, went through the Swiss financial market. During this time, more than one billion dollars were laundered.”

Italian investigators have reconstructed what they say is the “money trail” behind the Montenegro Connection. From 1997 to 2000 the smugglers flew planeloads, literally, of banknotes in foreign currencies: more than one billion German Deutsche marks, 726,000 U.S. dollars, 136,000 Swiss Francs, and some 65,000 Austrian Shillings. The man who allegedly engineered all this was Stanko “Cane” Subotić , a Serbian businessman close to Đukanović. “Through his company, Dulwich,” alleged Italian prosecutors, Subotić “laundered the proceeds of the criminal association. He assured the availability of aircraft to transfer money from Montenegro, where the money arrived from Switzerland, to Cyprus.” He used three airplanes, “one of them bought with profits from Montenegro’s tobacco transit tax and with Subotić’s own money,” and 15 couriers who flew 178 times from Montenegro to Cyprus, according to investigators. Once deposited in the Bank of Cyprus, some of the funds were used to pay tobacco makers (for example R.J.Reynolds, Austria Tabak Scandinavia, which later became Gallaher Sweden, and Seita, the French maker of Gauloises). But the bulk of it allegedly disappeared in at least two obscure companies with accounts in Liechtenstein banks.

“I’m Home, Little Cat”

At 10:13 pm on Feb. 24, 2001, Milo Đukanović made a phone call to his lover Duska Jeknic, the Montenegrin business attaché in Milan, who had just turned 42. “Where are you, little cat?” Jeknić: “I’m home, little cat.” She was accompanied by Paolo Savino, an Italian living in Switzerland, who had become the group’s new cigarette broker, according to the investigative report. Savino’s predecessor, Della Torre, was being investigated in Bari and in Switzerland.

Duska didn’t know that she was being tailed and wiretapped by Italian agents. Two days later, news broke that Della Torre had been arrested. On the phone, according to the investigative report, Duska and Savino worried that Đukanović’s role in issuing Della Torre’s cigarette license could tie him to the smuggling network, according to court records. Both allegedly feared Della Torre could show that he was acting as a representative of the Montenegro government. Worse news came the same evening, that a reputed boss of the Sacra Corona Unita, known as the king of contraband in Montenegro, had been extradited to Italy after his arrest in Greece. He, too, could open his mouth.

More bad news followed. In May that year, the Croatian magazine Nacional published an interview with Sretko Kestner, a local tobacco trader. Kestner was a former partner of Subotić, the man behind the airlifted cash from Montenegro to Cyprus, and he knew plenty. Đukanović, he told the world, was behind the Montenegro cigarette trafficking through MTT’s directors.

Scelsi’s DIA investigators searched Jeknic’s Milan apartment in July 2003. By then Jeknic had fled Italy, fearing the worst. But she left behind a goldmine: personal organizers, notes, and telephone books with the numbers of Milo Đukanović, his brother Azo, and a certain “Cane” — the nickname of suspected smuggling mastermind Stanko Subotić. Also among the notes: the codes of two airplanes used to channel black cash into Cyprus, with “Cane” written aside it with a Greek phone number and the name of a courier.

A Deadly Trail

The Montenegro Connection is surrounded by murder. Investigators have been struck by the large number of people linked to the “Montenegro Connection” who have met untimely deaths in recent years:

  • Goran Zugić, security advisor to then-President Đukanović, was shot and killed on May 31, 2000.
  • Vladimir Bokan. A Serbian businessman murdered in Athens on Oct. 7, 2000. During the 1980s, Bokan owned retail shops, including a Belgrade boutique where “Cane” Subotić was a tailor before becoming a contraband kingpin and working for Đukanović. According to the Italian investigators, Bokan had been tied to tobacco smuggling in Montenegro for some time.
  • Darko Raspopović. A senior member of the Montenegro police directorate, Raspopovic was shot dead on Jan. 8, 2001, in Podgorica. He had run investigations into white collar crime and in 2000 was nearly assassinated when a bomb blew up his car.
  • Baja Sekulić. A former bodyguard and aide to “Cane” Subotić, he was murdered on May 30, 2001, in Budva, Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast.
  • Orazio Porro, murdered on March 25, 2009. Porro, arrested in 1998 in Montenegro, where he was one of the bosses of the cigarette traffic, became an informant and for a time was in a witness protection program.
  • Zugić, Bokan, Raspopović, and Sekulić were mentioned in the Bari investigation but were never summoned by Scelsi’s team. The case is different for two other key murdered witnesses, both of them journalists:
  • Duško Jovanović. Editor of Dan, a pro-Milosević Montenegrin daily newspaper, he was gunned down on May 27, 2004, while getting in his Peugeot 406. His newspaper had reported stories first broken by the weekly Croatian magazine Nacional. Through his investigators, Scelsi approached Jovanovic and asked if would testify in the Italian investigation. Jovanović agreed but never made it to Bari.
  • Ivo Pukanić. Editor of Nacional, he was questioned by Scelsi on July 18, 2002. But “Puki,” his nickname, will never get to the witness stand. He was murdered on Oct. 23, 2008, killed by a car bomb in Zagreb, near Nacional’s offices. His deposition, however, can be used in court, and prosecutors found his statements an invaluable starting point in tracing the money out of Montenegro to Cyprus .

Another important witness questioned by Italian investigators is Vuksan Simonovic, a Socialist People’s Party representative in the Montenegrin Parliament. Simonovic chaired a Montenegro parliamentary committee set up in 2001 to investigate the tobacco smuggling allegations. According to Simonovic, the Bar port authority reaped $7 million in five years, from 1996 to 2001, from cigarette smuggling, just by loading and unloading tobacco from ships to warehouses. Simonovic also confirmed the roles of MTT and Zeta Trans, the Montenegrin companies allegedly tied to the smuggling. And the committee, he said, had questioned Đukanović about three Swiss bank accounts allegedly tied to him, with some $3.2 million, mentioned in an article published by Pukanic’s Nacional. Đukanović denied everything.

Đukanović has denied everything in Italy, as well, and he has declined to comment on this report. In March 2008, he agreed to submit to questioning by Scelsi and another magistrate in Bari. After more than six hours, Đukanović left the court. Outside, his Naples attorney told the press how as prime minister, Đukanović could have refused to answer the court’s questions, but that he had in fact asked to be questioned. “A year ago Prime Minister Đukanović had asked to be interrogated to clear up all the lies told by people who, obviously, love neither Italy nor Montenegro,” the attorney explained. “Now everything has been cleared up.”

Well, not quite. That will be up to judges in Italy and Switzerland this year, who will be looking at the law, a decade of smuggled cigarettes and laundered money, and the legacy of a certain prime minister.

Leo Sisti is is a reporter for the newsweekly L’Espresso in Milan, Italy.

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