Montenegro Pledges to Stamp Out a Deadly Trade: Cigarette Smuggling

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

A protracted listing 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 main trade for Montenegro for the reason that Balkan wars of the 1990s.

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 international locations misplaced billions of 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 dying threats due to his anti-smuggling efforts. “This is a very dangerous job,” he stated.

“Everybody knew what was going on, but nobody wanted to touch it,” stated Dritan Abazovic, a deputy prime minister who’s main the smuggling crackdown.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

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 might be profitable, Britain final month applauded the hassle, saying that “tackling cigarette smuggling will save taxpayers’ money in both the U.K. and Montenegro.”

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

Last week, within the northern city of Mojkovac, law enforcement officials 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 purpose cigarette smuggling survived untouched for therefore lengthy was that it was protected and even managed by the nation’s longtime chief Milo Djukanovic, who first turned prime minister in 1991 as Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was half, unraveled into struggle.

Mr. Djukanovic, who acknowledges the federal government’s previous function in smuggling however says there was a “lot of exaggeration,” led Montenegro till final 12 months, when his occasion misplaced parliamentary elections. He now holds the largely ceremonial submit 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 towards Mr. Milosevic within the early 1990s, turning into a favourite of the West. He was notably shut to the United States, which tolerated smuggling actions as a result of they earned cash that helped fortify the Montenegrin chief’s place towards Serbia.

Workers on the port in Bar. Its “free zone” was initially meant to assist it change into a transshipment heart.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

“We turned our heads and decided not to see the smuggling,” William D. Montgomery, the previous American ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, when the international locations have been nonetheless united, stated in a current 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 targeted 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 chief 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.”

A big warehouse containing cigarettes on the port in Bar. Security on the port is so lax that thieves entered a locked warehouse this summer season and stole cigarettes valued at practically $600,000.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Mr. Djukanovic, in an interview in Podgorica, disputed this, insisting that earnings 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 1990s. “It was absolutely legitimate to try and ensure that the country and people survived,” he stated.

All Montenegro did, he added, was permit 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 and marketing director have been each later killed by a bomb planted close to the editor’s automotive in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Milo Djukanovic, who led Montenegro till final 12 months, at his workplace in Podgorica. He acknowledges the federal government’s previous function in smuggling however says there was a “lot of exaggeration.” Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

In his current 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 related 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 determine 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 occasion in elections final 12 months, Mr. Abazovic stated, had opened a actual probability to finish the tradition of impunity that has lengthy gripped Montenegro.

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

The seashore close to the port in Bar.Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

The cigarette smuggling was initially targeted 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 in recent times to different locations throughout Europe and in addition the Middle East.

A 2019 investigation by Balkan Insight detailed how Montenegro had once more change 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 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 12 months, however that this was “insufficient” and urged extra strong motion “to remedy the systemic deficiencies of the free zone of Bar.”

A current 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 may not enter it as a result of the keys have been held by a non-public firm over which they’d no management. A Times photographer was threatened by a man loading pallets outdoors the warehouse and was instructed her digital camera could be smashed if she took pictures.

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

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

Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.

A warehouse containing cigarettes on the Bar port. The free zone is barely monitored, with no cameras and solely a rusty fence. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times