The Role of Heroin in Serbian History

March 28, 2014

Whether it was transporting silk, spices, tobacco, or opium, for centuries, the Silk Road from the Far East towards European countries passed through Serbia. Read how heroin permeated the country and made the region a transport hub for illicit substances.

How it used to be

During the 1970s, injecting drug users in Belgrade and Serbia used opium originating in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. Macedonia and Serbia were at the time part of the same country, Yugoslavia, so opium was transported without much trouble, satisfying 90 percent of the opiate drug market. The remaining 10 percent consisted of heroin reaching Belgrade in small quantities. Belgrade's heroin market grew slowly, since at that time there was no organised supply. Dealers were themselves users, and in many cases they were buying heroin in the Middle East and Asian countries. A smaller part of the market was covered by heroin coming from Kosovo. Albanians from Kosovo, with family connections in the Middle and Far East, were trying to organise their (at that time, rather poorly-developed) network of heroin distribution towards Western Europe. Heroin was transported to Yugoslavia from the Middle and Far East via Turkey and Bulgaria. It was then repackaged in Kosovo, to continue its journey towards Western Europe.

At that time, according to drug users, it was harder to arrange contacts with suppliers in Kosovo, due to ethnic and religious distrust, than with suppliers in the Middle East. Students from countries in the Middle East brought heroin to Belgrade for the first time. The street price at that time was 65 – 80 euro per gram.

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In the 1980s, heroin mostly took over from opium. At the beginning of the decade, the  first laboratories for synthesising heroin were established in the smaller villages of Kosovo. Due to a lack of secure contacts with the West, Albanians liaised with organised crime groups in Belgrade, who had, by then, formed links with organisations in Europe. Heroin from Kosovo started to become available in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. There were rumours about alliances between smugglers and certain policemen, explaining the easy transit of drugs. The Serbian market was primarily supplied by heroin from Kosovo, and to a much lesser extent, from Asia. The price remained at around 50 – 70 euro per gram, depending on quality. The quality of heroin from Kosovo was generally lower and it was much more expensive than the supply from the East; but lower transportation risks allowed it to flood the Serbian market. At that time, heroin was a new drug, seen in the “high society” circles of musicians, artists and children of influential parents.

The effects of the war on the Balkans

At the beginning of the 1990s, Serbia faced war in the region. Although no direct clashes took place on its territory, the consequences were seen everywhere. From 1992 onwards, FR Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was subject to UN sanctions. Serbia was disconnected from all international organisations and institutions, such as the UN and Interpol. Economic sanctions had a severe impact on the middle and lower classes in Serbia. Inflation reached record highs, factories were closing down, cultural activity was dying... Life became a question of simple survival, with smuggling an everyday reality. Everything was bought on the black market - cigarettes, household goods, petrol, cars, and weapons - but also, drugs. The illegal trade became so much a part of everyday life, that it was even supported by politicians in power, as the money it involved maintained social stability within the economically ravaged country. In these circumstances, it was no surprise that the drug trade was well organised too. By this time, the Serbian sector of the heroin distribution network was fully developed. The most profitable markets were Germany, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries. Via these channels, heroin was even transported to the West Coast of the United States of America.

The link became even stronger, due to the fact that during the war, the authorities unofficially supported a number of paramilitary organisations. These generally developed out of organised crime groups – dealers, whose basic source of financing was drug smuggling. Up until 1994, heroin sold for 50 – 60 euros per gram.  From 1994, thanks  to links with Bulgarian petrol smugglers, a new-old heroin route into Serbia quickly developed. Heroin from Bulgaria, in ever-larger quantities, was reaching Belgrade and Niš and then being distributed to other parts of the country. The law of supply and demand led to a reduction in heroin prices, down to 30–40 euros per gram.

Access to heroin became steadily easier in the years leading up to 1998. Most marijuana dealers started to sell heroin. The street price of heroin continued to decrease, until it reached 10 euros per gram, and it was even sold as single doses, at 1.5 Euro for 100mg. Quality, of course, was lower than at the beginning of the 1990s, but huge accessibility kept it at a reasonable level. The domestic market was directly supplied from Bulgaria (around 45%), and from Kosovo (another 45%), with 10% coming from Montenegro and Novi Pazar (a city on the border of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo).

Heroin and politics

Heroin-dealing became a popular occupation among young people in Serbia, because of the opportunity for easy earnings, since police protection was easy to buy. The constant flow of heroin, police raids announced in advance, and - in the event of arrest - release arranged by corrupt judges, made the job secure and tempting. In such a climate, the trade network became highly developed all over Serbia.

Heroin could be found almost everywhere, while marijuana was becoming more difficult to get. Young people who had their first contact with drugs were offered heroin without any reluctance. At the same time,  there was almost no information available about the risks of drug use. A crisis of moral values led to despair among the young, who had more and more free time, due to the breakdown of the school system. The media, under the control of the authorities, promoted a superficial and problematic lifestyle. The problem of increased drug addiction didn't get any publicity and drug users started to face more stigma and isolation.

After the collapse of the Milosevic regime in 2000, 670 kg of clean heroin were found in a safe at the national bank, recorded as police property. It is assumed that these drugs were seized during police actions in Kosovo in the period 1996-1999. Details were not officially announced. Another scandal revealed a network of judges, across several larger towns in Serbia, who were cooperating with drug smugglers and were very often responsible for the release of criminals because of “a lack of evidence”.Since 2000, new groups have replaced the old ones. In 2004, the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was murdered - the killing organised by a criminal group funded by heroin distribution both within Serbia and on the European market. The connections between this group, and Serbian political structures, have still not been clearly revealed. In 2009, a group organised from inside Serbia was arrested in Uruguay, in possession of 2,170 kg of cocaine. The head of that group, Darko Saric was arrested on the 24th of March 2014 after spending almost five years on the run. Saric, one of the most wanted figures in the crime-riddled Balkan region, faces 13 indictments, including the trafficking of 5.7 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America and the laundering of 22 million euros in Serbia.

Belgrade media have speculated that Saric might reveal during his trial the names of Serbian politicians believed to have helped him with money laundering operations. And while he denies the cocaine trafficking charges, his case may reveal how deeply rooted in the Serbian politics drug-related crime is.

How does the scene look today?

All of this has led to a situation where heroin has become a widely-available, widely-used drug in Serbia. Official data on the number of addicts are not reliable, but official estimates suggest there are around 25,000–30,000 injecting drug users in Serbia, though the trend of heroin injection has been declining in recent years. The price of heroin today is 20 euro per gram, and the Serbian heroin market has become completely independent from drug routes from the Middle East to European countries.

Since heroin first appeared, the market has changed enormously. Today, its use is common and it is available in almost every village of Serbia. Heroin use particularly effects Roma communities.

Due to the country's economic situation, for many people - especially young people - a 1,000 euro “salary” earned by dealing with the drug seems like a dream. For them, the drug business appears a respectable and prosperous market. The 'controversial businessmen with an extravagant life style' image of drug dealers is further strengthened by the local media. Moreover, a recent trend is for the use of adolescents as heroin dealers, since they are below the age of criminal accountability.

NGO services tailored to the needs of injecting drug users are accessible only in four cities, and their sustainability is uncertain due to the Global Fund departure in coming months. The links between crime groups and political structures in Serbia have been evident since the beginning of the 90s, and those links seem to have been growing stronger all the time.

Since the Serbian Strategy to Combat Drugs is based on an expected decline in drug supply, it seems impossible to truly implement the part of the strategy which relates to heroin. It seems that, under the current legal framework, the police can only focus on small scale dealers and users, but that won’t make any significant change to the drug scene or the market, nor make drug users lives easier or safer.

Dragan Stamenović, Re Generation

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