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Croatia:Corruption, Organized Crime and the Balkan Route



By Katelyn Foster, Research Associate, Adriatic Institute for Public Policy

January 25, 2012

The Balkan Route has long been infamous as a passage along which illegal goods and immigrants are smuggled into Western Europe. It has been known mainly for the drug trafficking that occurs along this passage, most notably the smuggling of heroin from the largest producer – Afghanistan – to the greatest market for it, or Western Europe. This has been and is still a conduit for trafficking in arms and smuggling of goods and illegal immigrants. More recently there has been another kind of trafficking taking place here; the trafficking in humans.

Though human trafficking has been taking place for many years now, it is only recently that the issue has come into the spotlight as one of the greatest crimes against humanity that we face today. We are only just beginning to understand the sheer magnitude of this crime in the number of lives that it affects and the multi-layered criminal hierarchy involved that makes human trafficking possible. This can be seen especially along the Balkan route as much of the corruption among all levels of society that have long allowed the passage of illegal goods and the smuggling of immigrants also enables traffickers to bring their victims into Western Europe. This also makes those countries along the route vulnerable to becoming source countries; being a main area targeted by traffickers as a source of victims to be forced into this form of slavery. The war against human trafficking has sparked many initiatives to treat the victims and prevent this crime, but the only way these initiatives can ever be effective in a specific region is if they are implemented properly by those in power and throughout the levels of society untouched by the rampant corruption that has long allowed this and other crimes to prosper along the Balkan Route. 

Balkan Route  – Drugs, Weapons and Licit Goods

The original Route passes from Afghanistan through Pakistan/Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and into Italy and Western Europe.  This has long been known as a transit zone for the transport of many illegal products, the most recognizable of which being the transport of drugs, but also including trafficking in weapons and the smuggling of licit goods such as cigarettes and oil products in order to avoid taxation, and the transport of humans in the form of smuggling illegal immigrants and the transport of victims of human trafficking.

Drug trafficking has been the greatest problem and source of income for organized crime along the Balkan Route for years. The United Nations Office on Drug on Crime reported that the transit of Heroin alone through this region is estimated to bring a profit of 25-30 billion U.S. dollars. This is largely due to the fact that this long established crime route connects Afghanistan, producer of 90% of the world’s heroin, and its most lucrative market in Western Europe. The 2010 “World Drug Report” released by UNODC states that 87% of all heroin entering Europe does so along the Balkan Route. There has been some indication that the demand for heroin is Europe is in a current decline, but the market for cocaine seems to be increasing, and it has been long worried that the Balkan Route would become a main transit area for this drug, a concern that seems to be becoming a reality, as the seizure of large quantities of cocaine has become more frequent in recent years. According to the report titled “Crime and its Impact on the Balkans” released by UNODC in 2008, 337 Kg of cocaine was seized on a boat in Croatia in September 2003 – the fact that this seizure comprised 88% of the cocaine seizures for the region that year indicates that Croatia is being used primarily as transit route for the drug headed to the rest of Europe.

This also suggests that the movement of cocaine is mainly controlled by large organized crime groups proficient in the trafficking of large quantities of drugs through the Balkans to the more lucrative markets in the west. The Serbian government cited Croatian ports as a main conduit for the entrance of cocaine into the region. In its “European Union Cocaine Situation Report” 2007, Europol indicates that the Balkan Route is being increasingly used both ways, as cocaine is trafficked form Western European countries such as Spain into Central and Southern Europe. Additionally, cannabis and synthetic drugs are produced in the region and trafficked along the Balkan Route to Western Europe, though there is also a local market for these substances. There can also be seen the movement of synthetic drugs and precursors through this area, a movement that also appears to be two-way, suggested by seizures within the Balkans of synthetic drugs originating from sources as remote as Mexico and South East Asia, according to the report “Crime and its Impact on the Balkans”, by UNODC. In Croatia, 1,660kg of PMK were intercepted from China destined for the Netherlands and the production of ecstasy.   

The conflict in the Balkans created a large market for the traffic in weapons, though this market had dwindled in more recent years. During the cold war, Bulgaria was a main source for firearms and was used extensively to traffic arms during this period, as were many of the other countries in the Balkan region. In the years following, several countries of the region were involved in supplying firearms for surrounding conflict - Croatia is considered to have been the main source of weapons for the IRA – and even today some of this activity continues. According to the UNODC report on crime in the Balkans, during an investigation into arms traffickers in 2006, a factory in Croatia was discovered to have disproportionately large stocks of weapons. The SALW Survey of Croatia issued by the SEESAC in 2006 asserts that “Croatia remains a transit state for firearms trafficked from east to west and into the EU”, though it appears that the overall demand for weapons within Croatia is minimal, and the amount of weapons now being trafficked through the region can be classified as ‘ant’[low volume] traffic . This reflects the trend found throughout the Balkans – trafficking in fire arms has continued to diminish in recent years, though still maintains a presence among organized crime in the region.

Various other goods are trafficked frequently through the Balkans in the interest of avoiding taxation and customs. The trade in cigarettes is another black market that flourished during the time of conflict – being a common method of funding war efforts in Croatia and several other Balkan countries – and continues to maintain a large presence in the region. This form of smuggling is often done through crime groups or with the consent of a legal manufacturer, as seen in the plan undertaken by the Rovinj tobacco industry in which they attempted the ‘recycle’ cigarettes by legally exporting them to Bosnia and Herzegovina and bringing them back to Croatia for resale as thought they originated from Bosnia and Herzegovinian. This was facilitated by the sale of Rovinji’s Slovenian subsidiaries to companies owned by Serbian, Montenegrin , or Croatian politicians. Illegal imports of other forms are also to be found within this region; according to the last mentioned UNODC report, 

“Croatia is believed to be the source of more than US$ 700 million in illegal exports annually...  Croatian, Albanian and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia exports as well imports from Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have discrepancy figures double the world average. The main products illegally imported or exported are: textiles and footwear, petrol, cars and trucks, ships, sugar, medicine and electronics”.

Human Trafficking 

Human trafficking has existed in some form for many years now, but it is only recently that the true extent of human trafficking and the wide reaching impact it has on society and the multi-layered hierarchy of corruption needed to facilitate this crime has come to light. Because human trafficking is a highly organized crime, the majority of cases are committed by organizations already involved in illegal activities such as drug and weapon trafficking and illegal smuggling which make use of the same specified routes and methods needed for the trafficking in humans. This is why a great deal of human trafficking occurs along the Balkan Route, a path infamous for the smuggling of all variety of illegal products, and now humans as well.

The International Labour Organization estimated in the report “Forced Labour and Human Trafficking:  Estimating the Profits” that 2.5 million people are trafficked worldwide each year, the profits from which being estimated at 31.6 billion U.S. dollars a year.

The term ‘human trafficking’ may apply to any man, woman, or child who is coerced, forced, or sold into bondage and forced to labour in any form while controlled by another human being. It is slavery. The United Nations Global Initiative to Combat Human Trafficking has come to call this the ‘crime that shames us all’; an apt description of the industry that enslaves human beings and reduces them to nothing more than another commodity to be bought, sold and used in the eyes of the traffickers and those who would take advantage of their forced labour.  While the term trafficking in general includes trafficking for forced manual labour, organ harvesting, and begging, the most common form of trafficking in humans is for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

In the ILO report, it is estimated that out of the 2.5 million trafficking victims, 1.4 million are trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation, the profits from which are estimated at 27.8 billion US dollars. 

This trend is very evident within the Balkans, as the majority of humans trafficked through the region are done so for the purpose of sexual exploitation. 74% of victims of human trafficking  assisted by IOM in 2004 within South East Europe were identified as being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation in. 2001 the IOM estimated that 120,000 women and children are trafficked through the Balkans each year: though they do not necessarily endorse this number today, it can be used to give a rough idea of the numbers involved in the movement of trafficked humans through the Balkans, as the nature of this crime makes it difficult to gather concrete evidence  since the methods of terror and secrecy used by traffickers makes it difficult to distinguish between those who would be working in the sex industry by choice and those who are forced into it and held there against their will. 

It used to be that human trafficking was similar to drug trafficking in the Balkans in the sense that they separated the main source countries – CIS countries – and the intended markets of Western Europe, in this case the red-light districts. However, during the Yugoslav wars, the presence of peacekeepers brought a source of demand for the market within the Balkans, while increasing the vulnerability of local women.

Today this vulnerability continues, and the Balkans are now not only major transit countries used to bring victims into the rest of Europe, but are now source countries themselves, as traffickers frequently target woman along the Balkan Route. Breaking Chains Network –  a non-profit NGO dedicated to the assistance of victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation operating in the red-light districts of Antwerp and Brussels, Belgium – sees evidence of this first hand, as the majority of the women they come in contact with are from Eastern/South-Eastern European countries, followed by a large group of Nigerian women who were brought into Central or Eastern Europe through the Balkans. UNODC reports similar figures, listing Romanian and Bulgarian as two of the main ethnicities found among human trafficking victims in Western Europe. In addition, many victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation being brought through the Balkans experience exploitation first in these countries before being moved into the rest of Europe. 

Croatia: Human Trafficking

In their 2005 “Second Annual Report on Victims of Human Trafficking in South-East Europe”, IOM identified Croatia primarily as a transit and destination country, though it has recently begun to emerge as a source country as well. Croatia is labelled a popular transit zone for victims en route to the European Union, but is also a destination country, as foreigners, the IOM says mostly Bosnians, are trafficked into the country for sexual exploitation in tourist areas. The report speculates that as tourism continues to grow, so too will the number of victims trafficked into and within Croatia. 73% of the assisted trafficking cases between 2002 and 2004 were foreign victims being trafficked through or into Croatia for the purpose of sexual exploitation. They also cite Croatian nationals, mostly women and young girls, as comprising a significant number of victims assisted, being trafficked both internally and abroad. Their studies show a marked increase in the number of victims trafficked to and originating from Croatia between 2000 and 2004. This report also observes a noticeable increase in illegal border crossings in recent years in terms of women, stating that “The number of women apprehended in 2003 is three times higher than the previous year”, and that 42.5 percent of illegal crossings were women from the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe.

This is demonstrative of the increasing number of women being trafficked through Croatia, as they are often misidentified as illegal immigrants if intercepted at the boarders. Perhaps more disturbing is the increased report of unaccompanied minors in Croatia that the IOM deemed often un-identified victims of human trafficking. There were 180 unaccompanied minors in 2000, but 93 were detected just in the first five months of 2001. By 2003 the number had grown to 224.

Though 2002 saw a majority of victims having entered Croatia through illegal border crossings, by 2004 50% of victims trafficked across Croatia’s boarders did so legally. This number reflects the growing trend among traffickers within the Balkans; where once human trafficking could almost be characterized by the illegal smuggling of victims across borders – indeed, many victims came to be trafficked through hiring someone to smuggle them across borders, only to find themselves trapped in human slavery – it is now becoming increasingly more common for traffickers to bring their victims across borders using illegally acquired legal documents, or even using legal documents already in the possession of the victim.

This is because one favoured method of traffickers is to promise legal work in another country, most often in the EU, offering to bring their victims to the job and help them get established. Instead, they often confiscate whatever legal documents they have and force the victims into various forms of slavery, the most common being sexual slavery.

Organized Crime  

The factor that enables the Balkan Route to exist as a centre for trafficking of all types for so many years is its maintenance by highly organized criminal organizations. Organized crime has had a presence in the Balkans for as long as the Balkan Route has been active, the two symbiotically tied. There are many reasons why the Balkans are susceptible to such a large influence of organized crime, reasons which include its geographical location between East and West and the political and social upheaval during the Balkan conflict that facilitated the growth of criminal groups and the establishment of ties between organized crime and all levels of society, including political ties that still plague the region today.  

UNODC lists the transition from communism to democracy as one of the main ways in which ties were created between the criminal underworld and the social elite. During times of uncertainty during policy changes and the shift in power, those associated with the old regime took the opportunity to convert political power to economic power. During the reign of communism, black market smuggling was an essential and encouraged, as many communist countries relied on this market to supply consumer demands not met by the traditional economy. Accordingly, corrupt border officials were also important to the unhindered operation of the black market, and an armed security force was a key presence through communist countries. In countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania, it was often the case that not just the smuggling routes and black markets operations were encouraged by the ruling government, but it also organized the criminal organizations that controlled it, often bringing in criminals from prison to work for the government in any area where plausible deniability was required. As a result, with the fall of communism and the emergence of privatization, many former policemen with criminal ties were in a prime position to create a local monopoly off the black market, while still maintaining their political associations.        

The independence wars of the 1990s in the Balkan region provided the opportunity for organized crime to flourish; as already mentioned, it was a common practise for countries in the region to rely on trafficking of firearms and the smuggling of goods such as cigarettes as way to fund war efforts, or as an opportunity to profit from the new demand created for weapons and the conflict that enabled organized criminals to operate smuggling and trafficking rings with little hindrance. As also mentioned, the involvement of peacekeeping forces also increased the demand for human trafficking within the region. Heroin and drug trafficking was also used as a main source of funding, especially during the conflict in Kosovo, when heroin trafficking and other forms of organized crime served as a large source of the funds that fuelled the uprising. 

Today, the vast network of organized crime remains in place, operating throughout the Balkans, with the assistance of corruption on all levels of society. According to UNODC, corruption is considered the second greatest social problem in Croatia, and is counted in the top social issues throughout the region. In their Report on Crime and its Impact in the Balkans, public opinion polls in Croatia showed that 66% of the population does not believe corruption will improve in the near future, while 72% believe that corruption has increased since the fall of communism. Only 11.1% of convictions on corruption cases led to imprisonment between 1996 and 2000 in Croatia. Another public opinion poll in the same report states that Croatia is among the highest countries within the Balkans in terms of the corruptibility of its politicians. Historically, Croatia was listed as having a high rate of ‘state-capture’ – manipulating and shaping the rules and regulations involved in business through illicit payments to public officials.   

In the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s 2005 transitional report, figures show that corruption in Croatia had continued to increase and was higher in 2005 than in 2002.                   


Organized crime has long plagued the Balkan region, having gained a foothold during communism and conflict, it remains today the greatest source of deprivation in the region. Facilitated by corruption, the Balkan route has turned the region into not only a transit zone for trafficking of drugs, arms, and smuggling, but it has paved the way for fellow humans to be forced into modern day slavery, and has made the citizens of these countries, especially the young women, more vulnerable to being forced into bondage and sexual slavery. Many important endeavours have been undertaken to help victims of human trafficking that involve the re-orientation of victims back into society and the provision of physical and mental health care. Providing them with alternate job skills and follow up services once they are re-established in society are critical services that need to continue for the victims. But this crime needs to be stopped before there are victims, this is why coordinated efforts to educate at risk demographics to the threat of human trafficking is important, as it will decrease their potential to be tricked into this slavery.

Accordingly, policies which address the current trends in trafficking need to be implemented to prevent victims from passing through this region. The example of legitimate documents be used more frequently by traffickers shows how police forces need to be trained to look for more nuanced signs of control between a trafficker and the victim, and these officers need to be informed to the nature of trafficking so they are better able to recognize it. But overall, as with other forms of illegal traffic along the Balkan Route, the problem of corruption on all levels needs to be addressed. Any laws or legislation passed to confront these issues will only be as effective as those who are responsible for implementing them. This applies to all levels of society, from high-ranking politicians and policy makers to border guards; what was once the norm needs to be recognized as unacceptable. Especially in the government, corruption not only paves the way for organized crime, but it also serves to protect and disguise it from those who would remove this black parasite from the Balkans, or at least detach it from its source of political power and leave it to wither as it may. 


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