Montenegro Pledges to Stamp Out a Deadly Trade: Cigarette Smuggling

Montenegro Pledges to Stamp Out a Deadly Trade: Cigarette Smuggling

BAR, Montenegro — Smoking kills, however the hundreds of thousands of cigarettes that slipped by way of the concrete warehouses of Montenegro’s principal port on the Adriatic Sea have been notably deadly.

A protracted checklist of journalists and investigators misplaced their lives, as did criminals concerned in a bootleg cigarette commerce that, with the covert blessing of the United States, had been a significant trade for Montenegro because the Balkan wars of the Nineteen Nineties.

Now Montenegro says it’s decided to extinguish the smuggling commerce.

“Everybody knew what was going on, but nobody wanted to touch it,” stated Dritan Abazovic, a deputy prime minister liable for safety who’s main the drive by Montenegro’s new authorities to halt what has been a profitable enterprise.

European nations misplaced billions of {dollars} in tax income as cigarettes — each actual and counterfeit — saved within the Adriatic port of Bar have been transported from Montenegro westward utilizing false paperwork.

In an interview in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, Mr. Abazovic stated he had obtained demise threats due to his anti-smuggling efforts. “This is a very dangerous job,” he stated.

The authorities introduced in July that it was banning the storage of cigarettes within the Bar “free zone,” an space exempt from customs duties and inspections. While it’s too early to inform if the anti-smuggling drive shall be profitable, Britain final month applauded the trouble, saying that “tackling cigarette smuggling will save taxpayers’ money in both the U.K. and Montenegro.”

Bar’s free zone, like comparable areas in Dubai and different ports, was initially meant to assist it develop into a transshipment heart by avoiding prolonged customs procedures for items destined for transport onward. Instead, it grew to become a smugglers’ haven.

Last week, within the northern city of Mojkovac, cops raided a tobacco manufacturing facility lengthy suspected of ties to smugglers and arrested its director. In a message on Twitter, Mr. Abazovic stated, “We entered a facility that had been inaccessible to state authorities for years.”

One cause cigarette smuggling survived untouched for thus lengthy was that it was protected and even managed by the nation’s longtime chief Milo Djukanovic, who first grew to become prime minister in 1991 as Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was half, unraveled into struggle.

Mr. Djukanovic, who acknowledges the federal government’s previous position in smuggling however says there was a “lot of exaggeration,” led Montenegro till final yr, when his social gathering misplaced parliamentary elections. He now holds the largely ceremonial put up of president.

Initially an ally of Serbia’s nationalist chief Slobodan Milosevic — who was later charged with genocide and died in a cell in The Hague in 2006 — Mr. Djukanovic turned in opposition to Mr. Milosevic within the early Nineteen Nineties, changing into a favourite of the West. He was notably near the United States, which tolerated smuggling actions as a result of they earned cash that helped fortify the Montenegrin chief’s place in opposition to Serbia.

“We turned our heads and decided not to see the smuggling,” William D. Montgomery, the previous American ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, when the nations have been nonetheless united, stated in a latest interview with Vecernji List, a Croatian newspaper. “Everyone knew what was happening, but we allowed it because it brought the money that Djukanovic needed against Milosevic.”

The United States was additionally extra centered on drug trafficking, one other large downside in Montenegro, than cigarette smuggling. And the misplaced tax income hit Europe, not the United States.

“The Americans care only about drugs. They don’t care about cigarettes,” stated Vanja Calovic, the manager director of MANS, a Montenegrin anticorruption group. Mr. Djukanovic, who took Montenegro into NATO in 2017, “bought support from the West for a very long time with his foreign policy,” she stated. “Everybody always turns a blind eye in the Balkans. It is always stability over democracy and the rule of law.”

Mr. Montgomery declined an interview request from The New York Times, and lots of, together with members of the brand new authorities, query whether or not smuggling actually helped Montenegro break away from Serbia.

“They convinced people that this was a state business. They pushed this story that the money from smuggling was for pensions and things,” Mr. Abazovic stated. “This is not true. They were stealing this money from the country.”

Mr. Djukanovic, in an interview in Podgorica, disputed this, insisting that income from smuggling went solely to assist construct Montenegro because it struggled below sanctions imposed on it and Serbia by the United Nations within the early Nineteen Nineties. “It was absolutely legitimate to try and ensure that the country and people survived,” he stated.


All Montenegro did, he added, was enable corporations to retailer their cigarettes in Bar.

“The whole business,” he stated, “was in line with laws that were in force at the time,” and all of the proceeds it generated “went into the budget of Montenegro,” and to the Bar port.

He famous that Italian prosecutors who had investigated him and others in Montenegro for involvement in smuggling had dropped the case. The Naples prosecutor dealing with the case stated in 2008 that the Montenegrin chief had been indicted however wouldn’t be placed on trial as a result of he had diplomatic immunity.

An investigative weekly in neighboring Croatia, Nacional, reported in 2001 that Mr. Djukanovic had amassed $65 million from cigarette smuggling and ordered contract killings of associates. The weekly’s editor, Ivo Pukanic, and its advertising director have been each later killed by a bomb planted close to the editor’s automotive in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

In his latest newspaper interview, Mr. Montgomery, the previous ambassador, stated he “firmly” believed that the murders, which have been by no means credibly solved, have been the work of “the tobacco mafia.”

Dusko Jovanovic, the editor of Dan, a Montenegrin newspaper that printed comparable experiences to the Croatian weekly, was additionally assassinated.

Two Italian law-enforcement officers investigating contraband cigarettes for Guardia di Finanza have been killed in 2000 by smugglers close to the Adriatic port of Brindisi. A number of suspected gangsters, each Italian and Montenegrin, have additionally died over time in vicious turf wars over smuggling routes throughout the Adriatic.

Mr. Abazovic stated the brand new authorities would attempt to establish these liable for unsolved previous crimes however added, “People connected with smuggling are extremely strong.” He now has seven bodyguards working in shifts.

The defeat of Mr. Djukanovic’s social gathering in elections final yr, Mr. Abazovic stated, had opened an actual likelihood to finish the tradition of impunity that has lengthy gripped Montenegro.

The illicit site visitors, he stated, “has created an incredibly bad image for the country” and should cease if Montenegro desires to be admitted to the European Union, one thing it has been making an attempt to attain since 2008 with little progress.

The cigarette smuggling was initially centered on Italy, with gangsters there becoming a member of forces with Montenegrin smugglers to sneak cigarettes throughout the Adriatic in speedboats. But, after an Italian crackdown, it has shifted lately to different locations throughout Europe and in addition the Middle East.

A 2019 investigation by Balkan Insight detailed how Montenegro had once more develop into a world smuggling hub, funneling hundreds of thousands of counterfeit cigarettes into the European Union.

The block has repeatedly complained concerning the quantity of cigarettes coming into Europe illegally by way of Montenegro. The European Union’s 2020 Montenegro progress report famous that 1.7 million cigarettes had been seized by the federal government within the earlier yr, however that this was “insufficient” and urged extra strong motion “to remedy the systemic deficiencies of the free zone of Bar.”

A latest go to to Bar discovered the free zone barely monitored, with no cameras and solely a rusty fence. A handful of guards checked the motion of products out and in. An enormous warehouse containing cigarettes was locked with heavy padlocks, and port officers stated they might not enter it as a result of the keys have been held by a personal firm over which that they had no management. A Times photographer was threatened by a person loading pallets outdoors the warehouse and was informed her digicam could be smashed if she took images.

Mr. Abazovic stated 40 corporations, a few of them professional however others tainted by crime, rented warehouse area within the port to retailer cigarettes. None of the contracts, he stated, shall be renewed.

“Everybody talked about smuggling, but nobody did anything, including the international community,” Mr. Abazovic stated, complaining concerning the United States’ help for Mr. Djukanovic. “When you don’t want to do something, you always say there is no alternative.”

Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.

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