The case of a shady Balkan crime network sheds light on the ways that the South American drug trade has spread to far-flung corners of the globe.
While the lion’s share of cocaine trafficked from the Andes is reserved for the US market, European customers are also an important source of revenue for transnational drug trafficking networks. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2010 World Drug Report, Europe is home to between 4 and 5 million cocaine users. What’s more, experts believe demand for the drug is on the rise there. While cocaine use appears to be declining in North America, UN data shows that the number of cocaine consumers in Europe doubled from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2008.
It is in this emerging market that Darko Saric (pictured), a Serbian kingpin with extensive criminal ties, made much of his wealth. According to an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Saric heads a drug trafficking network that has brought several tons of cocaine into Europe.
His name was relatively unknown until 2009, when Uruguayan police, acting on intelligence provided by US and Serbian anti-drug officials, seized a yacht carrying more than 2 tons of cocaine on the La Plata River separating Uruguay and Argentina. Saric was identified by Serbian authorities as the head of the group behind the shipment. This has been confirmed in statements made by two captured members of the organization, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in March of this year.
According to the OCCRP’s investigation, Saric’s trafficking route ran from Colombia to Argentina and then on to Uruguay, where it was shipped to the Balkans. From Eastern Europe the drug was sent to Slovenia and Italy, and sold for consumption in Western Europe, home to the vast majority of cocaine users in the region. Other jailed members of Saric’s network claim that they bought cocaine in bulk quantities in Brazil, and shipped it on to Europe from there.
Both of these routes are notable for differing from the main trans-Atlantic drug bridge: Venezuela. As UNODC investigators reported in April 2011, Venezuela is the “most prominent country of origin for direct cocaine shipments to Europe,” with most of it coming from Colombia. Indeed, from 2006 to 2008, more than half of all Europe-bound drug shipments intercepted in the Atlantic left from Venezuela. Saric’s reliance on ports in other countries is also an indication that Venezuela is not the only country serving as an important gateway to the European market, despite allegations of high-level collusion with drug traffickers.
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Regardless of the routes used by Saric, it is clear that his drug running has met with success. Serbian officials say Saric’s organization made up to 1 billion euros (about $1.24 billion) annually, most of which the Serbian kingpin — who was born in what has since become Montenegro and maintains citizenship in both countries — used to set up a number of front companies with business associate Rodoljub Radulovic. These companies supplied Saric with a veneer of legitimacy, which he used to court lucrative business deals with Balkan businessmen.
Saric’s economic success provided him with partners in larger criminal groups as well. Some analysts suggest that one of the reasons why he was able to use Italy as a staging point was because of his connections to the Russian and Italian mafias. Saric’s connections to other transnational criminal groups may have been a factor in his bold response to pressure from law enforcement; in 2010, after several blows to his organization, the crime boss reportedly threatened to assassinate the Serbian president. And while Serbian law enforcement officials claim Saric himself owned coca plantations, he doubtlessly had at least working ties to Colombian drug trafficking organizations like the Rastrojos, who are known for their dealings with European distributors.
The story of Darko Saric, and the extent of his operations in South America, come as a stark reminder of the highly globalized nature of the cocaine trade. While much of the discussion of transnational criminal groups in the region focuses on the waning influence of Colombian cartels and the rise of their Mexican counterparts, other criminal networks are very much a factor in the game.