Montenegro pledges to end deadly trade: cigarette smuggling

BAR, Montenegro – Smoking kills, but the millions of cigarettes that have slipped into concrete warehouses at Montenegro’s main port on ...

BAR, Montenegro – Smoking kills, but the millions of cigarettes that have slipped into concrete warehouses at Montenegro’s main port on the Adriatic Sea have been particularly deadly.

A long list of journalists and investigators have lost their lives, as have criminals involved in an illicit cigarette trade which, with the secret blessing of the United States, has been a major industry for Montenegro since the Balkan wars for years. 1990.

Now Montenegro says it is determined to put an end to the contraband trade.

“Everyone knew what was going on, but nobody wanted to touch it,” said Dritan Abazovic, deputy prime minister responsible for security who is leading Montenegro’s new government to put an end to what was a lucrative business.

European countries lost billions of dollars in tax revenue as cigarettes – real and counterfeit – stored in the Adriatic port of Bar were transported from Montenegro to the west using false documents.

In an interview in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, Mr Abazovic said he had received death threats due to his efforts to fight smuggling. “It is a very dangerous job,” he said.

The government announced in July that it was banning the storage of cigarettes in the “free zone” of Bar, an area exempt from customs duties and inspections. Although it is too early to say whether the fight against smuggling will be successful, Britain applauded the effort last month, saying “the fight against cigarette smuggling will save money of taxpayers in the United Kingdom and Montenegro “.

The Bar Free Zone, like similar areas in Dubai and other ports, was originally intended to help it become a transshipment center by avoiding lengthy customs procedures for goods destined for onward transport. Instead, it became a haven for smugglers.

Last week, in the northern town of Mojkovac, police raided a tobacco factory long suspected of having links to smugglers and arrested its manager. In a message on twitterMr. Abazovic said: “We entered a facility that had been inaccessible to state authorities for years. “

One of the reasons cigarette smuggling has survived for so long is that it has been protected and even controlled by the country’s longtime leader Milo Djukanovic, who became prime minister in 1991 while Yugoslavia, whose Montenegro was part of, collapsed in the war.

Djukanovic, who acknowledges the government’s past role in smuggling but says there has been “a lot of hype”, ruled Montenegro until last year, when his party lost parliamentary elections. He now occupies the largely ceremonial post of president.

Initially an ally of Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic – who was later charged with genocide and died in a cell in The Hague in 2006 – Mr. Djukanovic turned against Mr. Milosevic in the early 1990s, becoming a favorite of the West. He was particularly close to the United States, which tolerated smuggling activity as it earned money that helped strengthen the Montenegrin leader’s position against Serbia.

“We turned our heads and decided not to see the contraband,” said William D. Montgomery, the former US ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, as the countries were still united. a recent interview with Vecernji List, a Croatian newspaper. “Everyone knew what was going on, but we allowed it because it brought in the money Djukanovic needed against Milosevic. “

The United States was also more focused on drug trafficking, another big problem in Montenegro, than on cigarette smuggling. And the lost tax revenue has hit Europe, not the United States.

“Americans only care about drugs. They don’t care about cigarettes, ”said Vanja Calovic, executive director of MANS, a Montenegrin anti-corruption group. Mr. Djukanovic, who brought Montenegro into NATO in 2017, “bought the support of the West for a very long time with his foreign policy,” she said. “Everyone always turns a blind eye in the Balkans. It is always stability rather than democracy and the rule of law. “

Mr Montgomery turned down a New York Times interview request, and many, including members of the new government, question whether the smuggling really helped Montenegro liberate itself from Serbia.

“They convinced people that it was a matter of state. They pushed this story that the smuggled money was for pensions and the like, ”Abazovic said. “This is not true. They were stealing this money from the country.

Mr Djukanovic, in an interview with Podgorica, disputed this, insisting that the profits from smuggling were only used to help build Montenegro as he struggled under the sanctions imposed on him and her. Serbia by the United Nations in the early 1990s. “It was absolutely legitimate to try to ensure that the country and the people survive,” he said.

All Montenegro did, he added, was allow businesses to store their cigarettes in Bar.

“The whole activity,” he said, “was in accordance with the laws in force at the time”, and all the profits it generated “went to the budget of Montenegro” and to the port of Bar.

He noted that Italian prosecutors who had investigated him and others in Montenegro for involvement in smuggling had closed the case. The Naples prosecutor in charge of the case declared in 2008 that the Montenegrin leader had been indicted but would not be tried because of his diplomatic immunity.

An investigative weekly in neighboring Croatia, Nacional, reported in 2001 that Mr. Djukanovic had amassed $ 65 million by smuggling cigarettes and ordering contract murders of associates. The weekly’s editor-in-chief, Ivo Pukanic, and its marketing director were both subsequently killed by a bomb planted near the editor’s car in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

In his recent newspaper interview, Mr. Montgomery, the former ambassador, said he believed “strongly” that the murders, which were never credibly solved, were the work of “the Mafia of tobacco”.

Dusko Jovanovic, the editor-in-chief of Dan, a Montenegrin newspaper which published similar reports to the Croatian weekly, was also murdered.

Two Italian law enforcement officers investigating contraband cigarettes for Guardia di Finanza were killed in 2000 by smugglers near the Adriatic port of Brindisi. Scores of suspected gangsters, Italians and Montenegrins, have also died over the years in vicious turf wars on the smuggling routes across the Adriatic.

Mr Abazovic said the new government would try to identify those responsible for past unsolved crimes, but added: “Those linked to smuggling are extremely strong.” He now has seven bodyguards who work in shifts.

The defeat of Mr. Djukanovic’s party in last year’s elections, Mr. Abazovic said, has opened a real chance to end the culture of impunity that has long plagued Montenegro.

Illicit trafficking, he said, “has created an incredibly bad image for the country” and must stop if Montenegro is to be admitted to the European Union, which he has been trying to achieve since 2008 with little progress. .

Cigarette smuggling was initially focused on Italy, with gangsters joining forces there with Montenegrin smugglers to sneak cigarettes across the Adriatic in speedboats. But, after an Italian crackdown, it has moved in recent years to other destinations in Europe and also in the Middle East.

A 2019 survey by Balkan Insight explained how Montenegro had once again become a global smuggling hub, delivering millions of counterfeit cigarettes to the European Union.

The bloc has repeatedly complained about the volume of cigarettes entering Europe illegally via Montenegro. The European Union Progress report 2020 on Montenegro noted that 1.7 million cigarettes had been seized by the government in the previous year, but that this was “insufficient” and called for more vigorous measures “to address the systemic deficiencies of the Bar Free Zone “.

A recent visit to Bar revealed that the free area was barely guarded, with no cameras and only a rusty fence. A handful of guards controlled the entry and exit of goods. A large warehouse containing cigarettes was locked with heavy padlocks, and port officials said they could not enter because the keys were held by a private company over which they had no control. A Times photographer was threatened by a man loading pallets outside the warehouse and told her camera would be broken if she took pictures.

Mr Abazovic said 40 companies, some legitimate but others tainted with crime, have rented warehouses in the port to store cigarettes. None of the contracts, he said, will be renewed.

“Everyone has talked about smuggling, but no one has done anything, including the international community,” Abazovic said, complaining about US support for Djukanovic. “When you don’t want to do something, you always say there is no alternative. “

Alisa Doggramadzieva contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Montenegro pledges to end deadly trade: cigarette smuggling
Montenegro pledges to end deadly trade: cigarette smuggling
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