‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
The Balkan mafias were the first major crime syndicates to come to Slovakia, following people from the region who had been invited to work and study there during the communist era.
As their businesses spread across their new homeland, so did their influence, which they used to dominate the only organized criminal industries possible under the communist regime: prostitution, gambling, and illegal currency exchanges.
When Slovakia gained its independence in 1993, the organized crime syndicates remained and flourished. Soon enough, the Italian mafia joined the former Yugoslavs and the Albanians.
Today — though known for its relatively painless transition from communism and its picturesque landscapes — Slovakia is teeming with organized criminal groups from across the continent.
It’s not just that the country’s law enforcement bodies and judicial system are ill-prepared to deal with the influx. In many cases, the criminal operators are deeply entrenched with powerful politicians, including a former prime minister and a Supreme Court judge. The resulting nexus of crime and political corruption is notoriously difficult to disrupt.
It is also deadly. Several years ago, Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak began investigating organized crime in his country and collaborating with international reporters from OCCRP. He focused on the operations of the Italian ‘Ndrangheta, one of the world’s most feared and notorious criminal groups.
As the reporters inched closer to publishing their findings, Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová — both 27 years old — were shot to death on Feb. 21, 2018 in their new home outside Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
In the following weeks, thousands flooded the streets of Bratislava to demand justice. Prime Minister Robert Fico and three of his ministers were among those who resigned amid public accusations that the state was either negligent or complicit in the deaths.
OCCRP reported at the time that Mária Trošková, Fico’s assistant, was the business associate of a man who had been investigated for ‘Ndrangheta connections.
The public relations office of Fico’s Smer party did not respond to emailed requests seeking comment.
Four people have been charged in connection with the killings, but the masterminds have not been found.
Key questions remain: How did the mafia become so powerful in Slovakia? How deeply do its tentacles reach into the country’s politics, its economy, and its future? And most importantly, will there be justice for Ján and Martina?
After the fall of communism and Slovakia’s simultaneous split from the Czech Republic in 1993, the country was unprepared to police organized crime.
Most of its law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges had no experience investigating, trying, or sentencing such criminals. Many officials lacked even basic knowledge of the leading criminal operators in their communities — or were too corrupt to care.
An Italian police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity told OCCRP that the Slovak police didn’t have a good reputation back then. Italian authorities didn’t trust them and didn’t share sensitive data for fear that the Slovaks would leak it, he said.
More than two decades later, the problems had not been solved.
In 2015, the U.S. State Department identified Slovakia as a “jurisdiction of primary concern” in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The country was described as having “a high level of domestic and foreign organized crime, mainly originating from eastern and southeastern Europe.”
“Slovakia is a transit and destination country for counterfeit and smuggled goods, auto theft, value-added tax fraud, and trafficking in persons, weapons, and illegal drugs,” the report read. “Many of the same organized crime groups are involved in laundering funds raised from these criminal activities.”
Know Your Country, a web portal focused on global illicit financial flows, has labeled Slovakia a medium risk country, a designation that means there are concerns about its ability to independently investigate financial crimes and to assist other countries in freezing the assets of potential criminals.
A new wave of organized criminals, many from Albania, came to Slovakia after the fall of communism. While isolated under their paranoid communist leader, Enver Hoxha, Albanians had been forced to rely on family ties and subterfuge in life and business.
Then, in its chaotic transition to capitalism, the country’s economy collapsed under the weight of massive pyramid schemes. By 1997, the government had been overthrown, and more than 2,000 were killed in an uprising that escalated into civil war. After losing everything, many Albanians looked abroad for a fresh start. Some formed mafias that spread across the globe. And some of these found a safe haven in Slovakia.
It was so safe, in fact, that the ethnically Albanian boss of a heroin trafficking ring had a friendly relationship with Slovak Supreme Court Judge Stefan Harabin, who later became minister of justice and eventually head of the Supreme Court. He is now running for the presidency.
In 1994, a friendly telephone call between Harabin and the heroin trafficker, Baki Sadiki, was recorded via wiretap. When a transcript of the conversation leaked into the press in 2008, the revelation that the two had met in person and were on good terms caused a scandal.
Despite the recording, Harabin claimed that he didn’t know Sadiki and that their only connection was through Sadiki’s wife, whom Harabin had known before they married.
Sadiki was arrested in his native Kosovo and in 2012 extradited to Slovakia, where he is now serving a 22-year prison term for drug charges that include smuggling heroin from Turkey to Slovakia.
After his confirmation to the presidency of the Supreme Court, Harabin sued the General Prosecutor’s Office for publicly confirming the veracity of the private phone call, claiming prosecutors had damaged his reputation. Harabin won the lawsuit, and the court awarded him 150,000 euros in damages for what it ruled was an improper official proceeding. The case is still on appeal. Harabin also threatened to sue media outlets who reported on the case.
Moreover, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Harabin was behind an effort to close a special court created to try corruption and organized crime cases. The cable further notes that he “proposed revisions to the criminal code that would reduce prosecutorial tools and lessen sentences for repeat criminals.”
Harabin lost his position as Supreme Court president in a 2015 election and is now running to lead the country. The first round of the election is on March 16.
Harabin did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.
A Slovak passport, which allows easy access to the entire European Union, is a valuable thing for any aspiring international drug runner.
Although obtaining one should only be possible for those with a clean record, reporters found that at least two major Serbian criminals managed the feat.
Dragoslav Kosmajac, the alleged founder of a major Balkan drug route, received Slovak citizenship in the country’s capital, Bratislava, in 2004.
His status didn’t come to the public’s attention until 2014, when then Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić complained that Kosmajac — whom he described as the most important narco-trafficker in the Balkans — had fled justice in Serbia. It was reported that he had escaped the country with a Slovak passport. He later returned to his homeland but never faced any drug charges. His lawyer, Djordje Simic, emphasized that every case against his client has been dismissed.
Slovakia had started tightening its immigration laws in 2005. But just a year later, Darko Šarić, a leading Serbian drug trafficker, gained Slovak citizenship too.
Eight years later, he would be arrested in Latin America on charges of cocaine smuggling and money laundering and handed over to Serbia. After a lengthy trial, Šarič was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (This sentence was overturned by an appellate court; Šarič later received a 15-year sentence in a re-trial.) Šarič’s lawyer did not respond to a text message or telephone call seeking comment.
“Someone must have earned a lot of money from selling Slovak citizenship to a Serbian drug lord,” said Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák in 2014 after discussing the issue with the president.
It wasn’t just ex-Yugoslav criminals who moved into Eastern Europe.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s meant the opening of the Eastern European border,” said Czech criminologist Petr Kupka. “This meant new opportunities for the organized crime groups.”
Among these were the Italians.
The very day the Berlin Wall fell, a German wiretap showed that the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta was ready to move east. A member of the group was heard giving an order to an associate in Germany: “Kaufen! Kaufen! Kaufen!” (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”)
The ‘Ndrangheta was looking to invest the large sums of money it made kidnapping and ransoming entrepreneurs from Italy’s wealthier northern regions. East Berlin’s dilapidated buildings were a good start.
That was only the beginning: The gate to Eastern Europe, including Slovakia, was about to open.
The ‘Ndrangheta is the only Italian criminal organization based on a strict family structure. And though the group’s nerve center is in Calabria, members are often sent abroad to expand the network’s operations. In such cases, the work is still led, though sometimes sporadically, from southern Italy.
“The mind of the ‘Ndrangheta sits in Calabria, where it comes up with a strategy for conquering the world,” explained Giuseppe Lombardo, Reggio Calabria’s top anti-mafia prosecutor.
“It has many cells, stretching internationally, and each of these cells has a task: infiltrating, investing, growing in power … The idea is for them to be efficient even without continued checks from the ‘Ndrangheta’s directorate,” Lombardo said.
“The ‘Ndrangheta cells abroad will behave like capital ventures, look like entrepreneurs, and invest in different areas of business: from agriculture to restaurants, from green energy to finance, from education to consulting.”
Sometimes the families also have more banal reasons for leaving Italy.
At the end of the 1980s, members of one ‘Ndrangheta family, the Gallicianòs, moved to the vicinity of Visp, a city in southern Switzerland. Another family historically tied to them, the Rodàs, followed.
Their goal was to escape the bloody feuds being waged at home and to build new opportunities in lands richer than rural Calabria, which in any case was already dominated by wealthier families.
One member of the Rodà family, an experienced cattle breeder named Diego, moved on from Switzerland to Slovakia in the 1990s. He bought property and continued raising cattle, eventually establishing a successful breeding enterprise that made him rich. (Diego Rodà has never been convicted of any charges related to organized crime.)
The Rodà family is now well established in Slovakia, and controls large parts of the agricultural business in the east of the country.
An investigator from the Rodà family’s village in Calabria, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue, told OCCRP that the family is locally known to have grown rich and powerful in Slovakia, but that it was difficult to prove any connection to organized crime.
“While the Rodàs in Calabria were investigated by us in two different operations, their relatives in Slovakia were out of our range,” said Antonio De Bernardo, a leading anti-mafia prosecutor in Calabria.
“Once Italians move out of Italy — and it’s even truer for the mafiosi — it’s hard for us to investigate them and follow all their steps and activities,” De Bernardo said. “By now, the ‘Ndrangheta has built international holdings of crime across the whole world, and we have difficulties moving across borders because foreign countries fail to recognize the crime of ‘mafia-type association.’” This charge, frequently used in Italy to prosecute mafia members, exists in only a few countries.
As Diego Rodà continued building his empire in Slovakia, he was eventually able to draw on the resources and talents of another Calabrian family, the Vadalàs. Antonino Vadalà, a Calabrian cattleman, married Rodà’s daughter Elisabetta, and the couple also settled in Slovakia.
Vadalà would become a central player in the story of Jan Kuciak. The slain Slovak journalist was investigating the Calabrian and his connections to then-Prime Minister Fico when he was killed.
Shortly after the killings, Vadalà was charged by Italian prosecutors with trafficking drugs for the ‘Ndrangheta.
He and Rodà were both detained in Slovakia after the murders, but were released without charges.
Reached by reporters, Rodà’s lawyer Antonino Curatola stressed that he was “not involved in any of the facts with which at the time he was suspected of” and that “the allegations of an involvement of him or his family members in the murder of the poor journalist have been totally groundless.”
“Even more groundless were the accusations of an alleged link of Mr. Rodà to the Calabrian organized crime,” Curatola said.
Vadalà’s attorney did not respond to emails seeking comment.
(For more on Antonino Vadalà, his connections to high-level Slovak officials, and his alleged criminal activity in Slovakia, see OCCRP’s earlier story: “The Model, the Mafia, and the Murderers.”)
With additional reporting by Giulio Rubino and Lorenzo Bagnoli (IRPI).