Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo May 3, 2023

The President, the Soccer Hooligans and an Underworld ‘House of Horrors’



In February 2021, Serbian police arrested Veljko Belivuk, the notorious ringleader of a group of...


A grisly trial in Serbia has raised questions about connections between the country’s top leadership and its violent drug gangs.

On a Saturday night in early March 2021, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, appeared on live television, seated at a long wooden table and flanked by the country’s prime minister and interior minister. Vucic said he had an important announcement to make about the arrest of an underworld gang responsible for multiple murders. The interior minister warned viewers to move their children away from the TV. A series of images flashed on the screen behind him: a severed head, a headless body, a torso. Vucic spoke slowly, often pausing and staring ponderously at the table in front of him, his 6-foot-6-inch frame hunched slightly. He praised the police and intelligence agents who investigated the gang; they had narrowly escaped being killed themselves, he said.

It was a shocking presentation, even in a country like Serbia, where many adults have painful memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and their atrocities. But the news conference was only the beginning of a campaign of gruesome revelations. In the weeks after the arrest in February, new details began leaking into the press. The gang was said to have lured its victims to a “house of horrors” in a Belgrade suburb, where they were tortured, dismembered, fed through an industrial meat grinder and sometimes dumped in the Danube.

The story captivated Serbs, and not just because of the gory images. The leader of the gang was a burly soccer hooligan and cocaine trafficker named Veljko Belivuk, nicknamed the Trouble, already a well-known figure in Belgrade. He had been accused previously of murder and a string of other serious crimes, but never did much time in jail. He was rumored to have cozy relations with the Serbian police and intelligence services. He and his men had been photographed in the company of powerful people, including the president’s son, Danilo Vucic.

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

After the news conference, Belivuk offered his side of the story at a closed-door court hearing. He said his gang had been organized “for the needs and by the order of Aleksandar Vucic,” according to court transcripts. He described some of the backdoor jobs the gang claimed to have done for the government, like intimidating political rivals and stopping fans from chanting against Vucic at soccer games — a valuable service in a country where the stadium can make or break a president. Belivuk warned that if Vucic “continues his proceedings against me,” he would have much more to say.

Vucic angrily disputed any connection to the killers. But he seemed to take the Belivuk case personally, sometimes suggesting that it was a conspiracy against him. In one bizarre television interview a few months after the arrests, he claimed that Belivuk’s men had made their victims into “human kebabs” and sent them to Belivuk’s boss, Radoje Zvicer. Looking into the camera and addressing Zvicer, who is still at large, Vucic laid down a challenge. “I invite him to kill me,” he said. “I have no problem with that, because it is better to be turned into mincemeat than to let these bastards rule Serbia.”

A soccer match at Partizan Stadium. The influence of hooligans extends beyond Serbia’s arenas and into criminal gangs and even politics. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

As the trial approached, facts began leaking out about the longstanding ties between the gang and various members of Vucic’s administration, who appear to have monitored, assisted and protected it. Belivuk came to seem, at times, like the president’s dark twin, a man who embodies the criminal underside of a state that has grown steadily more autocratic over the past decade. Vucic, who has been president since 2017 and has a lock on the country’s ruling party, has long said that he wants to lead his country — still among the poorest in Europe — toward greater prosperity and membership in the European Union. At the same time, he has hollowed out many of Serbia’s democratic institutions, and Mafia-style gangs often appear to operate with impunity.

The Belivuk affair, in other words, is not just a noirish tale about beheadings and cocaine. The gangsterism that has thrived under Vucic, alongside Serbia’s periodic threats to “protect” ethnic Serbs elsewhere in the region, could eventually unravel the settlement that restored peace to the Balkans in 1995. The Europeans are keenly aware of this, as is Vladimir Putin, who has fresh reasons to divide and distract them. The Kremlin has a long history of supporting Serbian nationalists as beleaguered fellow Slavs and more motive than ever — thanks to the Ukraine war — to stir up trouble in the Balkans.

But the risks for Europe run deeper than that: Vucic’s brand of ethnic chauvinism and demagogy echoes that of his ally Putin, and the spread of illiberal democracy — already gathering strength in parts of the continent — poses an equal, perhaps more ominous threat. The Belivuk case has opened a window into a grim possible future, one in which Vucic undermines the European project from within, building a state where democracy is a façade and criminal gangs are used to spread fear. That would be unsettling enough on its own. It also happens to be the same tactic used by the men who tipped the Balkans into a catastrophic war three decades ago.

By the time Belivuk made his first public courtroom appearance last October, he had already gained a macabre kind of celebrity, his rise and fall chronicled in an endless series of tabloid scoops. He was led into the room in handcuffs, wearing a white polo shirt and jeans. His face was soft and rounded, almost cherubic, with big blank eyes. Despite his size — he is a big man with a massive upper torso — he looked oddly like an oversize baby, as if a lifetime of violence had made no impression on him. He and about 30 other defendants, mostly beefy men with tattoos and shaved heads, looked strangely relaxed, grinning and chatting and tossing a few casual insults at one another. Perhaps they expected this trial to end the way most of their previous ones had, with procedural errors, faulty evidence and early release.

After a few formalities, a prosecutor took the stand to read the indictment. When he described how Belivuk and his lieutenant hit a victim “in the neck with an ax and cut off his head,” the man in question yawned and looked at the ceiling. Some of his fellow defendants dozed off.

When Belivuk took the stand, he clutched the lectern with both hands and got straight to the point. His gang, he said, was a state project from the start. He recited some of the services it had provided and even described a meeting he claimed to have had with Vucic at a private house in Belgrade, giving the street address and apartment number and the name of the owner. They only met there once, he added, “because, as the boss put it, if someone saw us or filmed us, it wouldn’t be good for him.”

Vucic promptly denied the accusations and even offered to discuss them with investigators and submit to a lie-detector test. Legally, he is not likely to suffer from the trial. No senior officials have been indicted, and very few have even been questioned. The importance of the Belivuk case lies elsewhere. It has forced all of Serbia to face the abundant circumstantial evidence that Vucic has allowed gangsters to become a virtual arm of the state. The support Belivuk and his cronies received from the police and interior ministry over the past decade has been amply documented in court testimony, phone intercepts and photographs. The suggestion that all this might have happened without Vucic’s knowledge elicits laughter in Belgrade. Before Vucic was president, he was prime minister, and a decade ago he reorganized Serbia’s security services. He now exercises near-total control over almost every aspect of public life. From Parliament to the courts to the police to business, Vucic is treated with fawning deference; Serbs cross him at their peril. In fact, the arrest of Belivuk and his gang may be one of the few key decisions of recent years that Vucic did not control.

The bulk of the evidence in the case comes from a team of European police officials who stumbled onto it by accident. They spent two years trying to decrypt a phone messaging app called Sky-ECC, which was a favored tool of cocaine traffickers in the container ports of Northern Europe. When they finally cracked the code, they discovered much more than a local cocaine ring. With at least 70,000 users, Sky turned out to be a virtual Rosetta Stone to the globalized world of organized crime, with graphic messages and photographs flickering across the ether in a dizzying array of languages and dialects. “It’s as if you were standing outside a house in the dark, and now you’ve gone inside and turned the lights on,” one official from Europol, the law-enforcement arm of the European Union, told me.

Sky was not the first app to be accused by law enforcement of catering to drug lords. But it was the most popular and the most brazen. The company, founded by a Vancouver tech entrepreneur in 2010, boasted that its four-layered encryption was unbreakable; it ultimately made hundreds of millions of dollars before its executives were indicted in 2021.

Much of the Sky evidence turned out to be from the Balkans, and especially Serbia. Passing that data on was “very sensitive,” I was told by a French interior-ministry official, because of concerns that it might be leaked. Although the Serbian police did ultimately arrest Belivuk and his gang, they appear to have done so reluctantly. Days before his arrest, he and his top lieutenant were allowed to leave the country for neighboring Montenegro, another hub for drug trafficking. Montenegrin authorities said they foiled an attempt to murder them; a Montenegrin prosecutor told local media that “certain security structures” in Serbia were behind the plot, which may have been conceived to avoid the messiness of a trial.

Gang killings are rife in Serbia. Mara Halabrin Melikova lost her son, whose portrait hangs in her Belgrade apartment, in a killing that remains unsolved. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

During Vucic’s nine years in power, Serbian soccer hooligans — and the criminal gangs that overlap with them — have been enmeshed in the region’s volatile ethnic politics and helped spur Serbian uprisings in other Balkan countries. Some of them profess loyalty to Russia. Some Serbs have joined the paramilitary Wagner group, which has its own history of hiring criminals and has posted Serbian-language recruitment videos for the war in Ukraine. Though Vucic rebuked the group, Serbia remains a kind of fault line between Russia and the West. All this puts Vucic in a position of remarkable power. In a crisis, he could decide whether the Balkan region will settle toward peace or relapse into violence.

The most visible risks today are centered on Kosovo, the country to Serbia’s south that is ethnically Albanian but contains pockets that are majority Serb, especially in the north. Serbia’s leaders remain deeply unhappy about Kosovo’s breakaway from Serbia following the 1990s Yugoslav wars and refuse to recognize its independence, which was established internationally in 2008. The scenario that keeps Western European leaders up at night goes something like this: Vucic, citing a threat to the Serbian minority, sends troops over the border and annexes northern Kosovo. Serbs elsewhere in the region then flee their homes or demand more border changes. This could spell the end of the Dayton Accords, the pact brokered by the U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, which ended the worst of the fighting in 1995 and redrew the map of the former Yugoslavia. It might trigger another war. Even without violence, the collapse of the Dayton order would bolster the politics of ethnic solidarity and autocracy throughout the Balkans.

Another scenario involves Vucic’s concealing his irredentist intentions until after Serbia has been admitted to the E.U. This Trojan horse script has gained credence partly because of Hungary’s illiberal prime minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of Vucic’s who has lobbied zealously for Serbia’s admission. He appears to be hoping that Vucic could help Hungary, a member since 2004, steer the European club in a more populist and less democratic direction.

For all these reasons, the Belivuk case has been a sensitive one for reporters. I was told before I came to Serbia that my calls would be monitored, that I would be followed, possibly even stopped and interrogated. The Serbian journalists who gave me these warnings have themselves been routinely harassed and threatened by both criminals and the B.I.A., the Serbian domestic intelligence agency.

The gray zone between the state and the mafias in Serbia is real. It is also surrounded by outer walls of rumor and paranoia that make a reporter’s job more difficult. I must have spoken to a dozen Serbs whose sons or husbands or children were killed under murky circumstances. Most of them had no idea who the killers were, but they had elaborate stories to tell about corrupt officials, drug barons, arms deals and incriminating photographs. Some had hired private detectives. All of them seemed convinced that the truth was being deliberately kept from them. Yet some of the people I spoke to were clearly hiding things from me. I spent an hour talking to one widow whose husband was among the butchered bodies in the photographs that accompanied the Belivuk gang indictment. She was tall and severe-looking, with long black hair. Her story was poignant, but when I started asking about her husband’s criminal background — he had done prison time for his role in a notorious gang of Balkan jewel thieves — her answers turned cold and monosyllabic. I had the feeling that she could have told me a much more interesting story if she hadn’t been worried about the consequences of her husband’s complicity and perhaps of her own.

Vucic is not responsible for this morass of fear and endemic criminality. It is almost part of the scenery in the Balkans, so much so that the region’s very name has been used for centuries by outsiders as a kind of shorthand for ethnic hatred and violence — “a stage set for exotic thrillers of corruption, quick killing and easy crime,” as the historian Mark Mazower has written. But Vucic has the demagogue’s gift for breathing new life into demeaning stereotypes. He has made brilliant use of Serbia’s mafia problem, creating an environment in which the blurred line between organized crime and the state plays to his advantage.

The south stand at Partizan Stadium in Belgrade is almost exclusively populated by football hooligans and is notorious for the violence that often breaks out. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

It is no accident that both Vucic and Belivuk got their start in soccer fan groups. Perhaps more than anywhere else, soccer stadiums in Serbia are venues for power in its rawest form, a recruiting pool for militias and criminals alike. Stadiums were the crucible of the ethnic nationalism that destroyed Yugoslavia, and those violent emotions shaped Vucic and his contemporaries. Even today, approaching an arena on a game night can feel like walking into a lightning storm. Police officers line the boulevards, and as you get closer, there are teams of militarized police with body armor and shields. Fans sometimes chant slurs that recall those used during the ethnic-cleansing campaigns of the 1990s. Team loyalties take on an almost religious intensity. The chief executive of Red Star Belgrade, the most popular team in Serbia, famously said that Red Star is “not just a football team, it is an ideology, a philosophy and a national symbol. The Red Star is the guardian of Serbian identity and the Orthodox faith.”

Dead football fans gaze out from painted murals all over Belgrade, alongside plaques, statues and other memorials that bear witness to their status as a kind of vox populi. Hooligans were among the first to go off to war in the early 1990s, and it was hooligans who provided the muscle in the movement to bring down the nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic a decade later. Ever since, Serbian politicians have feared the stadium and have tried to keep the hooligans on their side.

Talking to Serbian hooligans is not easy. Some are dangerous. Most of the ones I met were taciturn and wary, no doubt in part because of the Belivuk case. After two weeks of searching, a Serbian colleague helped me find what I was looking for: a man who had grown up alongside Vucic in the stadium, and who was willing and able to talk about their common origins. He was a 46-year-old who still refers to himself as a hooligan, though he has a wife and children and rarely gets into brawls anymore. We met in a bar far from his neighborhood, so he wouldn’t be recognized. He spoke on condition that I not identify him, so I will refer to him as B., his first initial. He has a compact body and a shaved head, and as he walked across the bar his gaze was so direct and fearless that I had a feeling he was charging me. We sat down and ordered beers. He talked fast in English, lapsing occasionally into Serbian when he couldn’t find the right word.

B. told me that the stadium was a rare zone of freedom and anonymity in Yugoslavia’s tightly controlled Communist state. It was also a place where, by the late 1980s, you could see the country disintegrating day by day. Young men began forming gangs and bringing baseball bats to games, aping street gang members in the 1979 American film “The Warriors.” The older hooligans told B. and his friends to find a similar group of young men supporting the other main Belgrade team, Partizan, and challenge them to fights “to see who is brave and who is not.” This pipeline is still in place, other Belgrade hooligans told me, and sometimes initiates must “bleed” another member to rise up the ranks before being given “missions.” These may include committing crimes or just beating up a particular rival.

B. is a Red Star supporter who has been deeply involved in the Belgrade football scene for decades. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

All the young hooligans on the north stand were budding nationalists, B. said, including Vucic. Among the chants was “Serbia, not Yugoslavia.” After a game in 1988, B. said, he and his group heard about a clash between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. They went “to hunt” for Albanians in Belgrade after a game, hoping to smash up some stores and teach the Albanians a lesson. They ended up in a street fight. “President Vucic was in that also,” B. said. “And I must tell you, I don’t like him now, but he was brave, brave in the fight.” (Vucic’s spokespeople did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Vucic has said he was in the stands during a legendary 1990 soccer brawl that has sometimes been described as the true beginning of the Balkan wars. It happened during a match between the Red Star and Dinamo Zagreb teams, and it quickly devolved into a melee that overran the entire stadium. Fans on both sides were clearly primed for a battle: Stones had been stockpiled in the stadium, ready to be thrown. Decades later, Serbian media published blurry photos of the match in which a lanky young man, identified as Vucic, is visible in the crowd.

By 1990, the violence was veering out of control. There were thousands of young vandals looking for trouble, and, B. said, somebody needed “to calm down that group, because Slobodan Milosevic was afraid of them.”

So Milosevic, who was Yugoslavia’s president at the time, selected a leader for the hooligans. This was the first time a political leader entered into such a relationship, and it set a precedent that Vucic would later follow. Milosevic’s man went by the name Arkan. He had a boyish face with a brittle smile that concealed a propensity for violent rages. Something about him commanded respect. Arkan was a storied figure of the Serbian underworld, who made his name with a series of daring bank robberies and prison escapes across Europe in the 1970s and ’80s. He would go on to become one of the most brutal war criminals of the following decade. Photographs of his paramilitary group, the Tigers, helped turn Western opinion decisively against Serbia. In one of them, a Serbian militiaman can be seen kicking the head of a dying Bosnian woman.

“So Arkan collects our leaders, he gave them good salary for everybody to be quiet,” B. said. “And he said: ‘Don’t fight with him. We must fight for Serbia now. It’s going to be war.’”

If the soccer stadium shaped Vucic’s character, the war was where he learned politics. Fresh out of law school in 1991, he apprenticed himself to a far-right Serbian politician named Vojislav Seselj. It was in that same year that Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, triggering the intermittent and brutal conflicts that would shatter Yugoslavia into statelets. Seselj, a proponent of ethnic cleansing, was a useful foil for Milosevic, who could point to him as proof that some Serbs were even more extreme than he was. Seselj’s Radical Party recruited a militia that became notorious for its rampages in Serbia, Bosnia and eastern Croatia, where they robbed, tortured, killed and expelled non-Serbian civilians. Seselj once said his men would use rusty spoons to scoop out the eyes of their enemies, though he later claimed this was black humor. He was ultimately indicted and convicted of crimes against humanity by the United Nation’s war-crimes court in The Hague.

Vucic was an enthusiastic backer of Seselj’s party, and he soon became the youngest member of Serbia’s Parliament. In 1995, days after the massacre of nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims around Srebrenica, Vucic gave a speech in which he declared, “If you bomb us, if you kill one Serb, we will kill a hundred Muslims.” In the decades since then, Vucic has never fully apologized for crimes carried out in Serbia’s name or for his rhetoric. He has treated some convicted war criminals like heroes on their release from prisons abroad.

In 1998, Vucic became information minister under Milosevic, his first position of real power. He presided over a landmark crackdown on the press, levying huge fines on organizations that criticized the government. It was the start of a preoccupation with the media that would help define Vucic’s political career.

But if Milosevic and his deputy succeeded in taming the press, they were losing their hold over the stadium. Many soccer hooligans had fought in the wars, and when they came home, “they felt they could be arbiters of national identity,” I was told by Ivan Dordevic, an anthropologist at the Institute of Ethnography in Belgrade who wrote his dissertation on soccer and nationalism in the Balkans. B., my hooligan contact, put it a little differently. At the stadium, “a new generation came, and they didn’t give a [expletive]” about Arkan’s riches or his glamorous pop-star wife, Ceca, he said. They decided they had also had enough of Milosevic, who had brought Serbia to economic ruin and pariah status in Europe. At stadiums, soccer fans chanted, “Kill yourself, Slobodan!” The hooligans linked up with the political opposition and began serving as informal security during protests.

The big moment came on Oct. 5, 2000, when a week of street protests culminated in the storming of the Serbian Parliament, with hooligans leading the way. Milosevic resigned the following night, and for a brief moment, Serbians were ecstatic. In recognition of the role they played in his overthrow, some hooligans had their criminal records cleared by the victorious Democratic Opposition coalition. “Nothing in police, nothing in courts,” B. said. “We’re free. We’re like angels. Clean slate.” The euphoria soon faded. Serbia’s economy was a wreck, and the European Union was not about to bail out a country widely seen as a den of unrepentant war criminals.

For Vucic, the fall of Milosevic meant a moment of profound uncertainty about his own political future. Years later, he gave a strange interview that hints at his feelings of anger and thwarted ambition. “I was sitting at home and seeing it as a tragedy for the Serbian people,” he said. “Then I went outside, some junkies attacked me, so I had to beat them.” He thrashed them both and knocked them out, he said. But somehow these mysterious assailants got up and came at him again, and he thrashed them a second time. “I went back home,” Vucic said, “and I knew, of course, that Serbia was in for years of collapse and destruction.”

For centuries, Serbia’s national identity has been shaped by feelings of loss and wounded pride. Serbia came under Ottoman rule not long after a legendary battle in 1389, a date you see spray-painted on walls all over the country. It did not fully regain its independence for almost 500 years. Those feelings were reawakened during the 1990s, when many Serbs believed they were unfairly portrayed as the villains of a complex civil war. They also deeply resented the American-led NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that forced the Serbian military out of Kosovo after it was accused of ethnic cleansing and murder. That expulsion allowed Kosovo, once considered a Serbian heartland, to become independent, another blow for the Serbs.

Vucic and his Radical Party became standard bearers for their country’s accumulated rancor. In 2007, Vucic led a group of protesters in support of Ratko Mladic, the military commander sometimes called the Butcher of the Balkans. A year later, when the Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was arrested, Vucic was back in the streets, getting roughed up by the police.

But the wind was shifting. In 2008, public-opinion research showed that most members of Vucic’s own party wanted Serbia to join the European Union. Vucic helped found a new bloc, the Serbian Progressive Party. Critics derided it as the same old party with a different look. Nonetheless, four years after its founding, Vucic’s coalition won a plurality of seats in Parliament. His party had deftly played to the middle of Serbian politics, promising prosperity, cleaner government and E.U. membership even as it catered to right-wing anger over Kosovo and other perceived wrongs. Vucic was too junior to become prime minister, but he gained control over the party. He was also given authority over all arms of the security services. He replaced the major department heads with loyalists.

Vucic soon began styling himself as a warrior against corruption. He ordered a series of splashy arrests, and the media took to calling him “Serbia’s Eliot Ness.” While some were legitimate targets, more than 100 of those arrested were officials of the Democratic Party that had just been ousted in the elections. Critics deplored the move as political score-settling. But the anti-corruption campaign was popular with the public and especially with the Progressive Party’s membership, which skewed to older and less educated Serbs. The party’s ratings shot up. People wanted something to blame, and Vucic had given it to them.

Among the criminals that Vucic proudly boasted of having put behind bars was Darko Saric, the Balkan region’s most powerful drug lord. Saric, the “King of Cocaine,” ran a global smuggling network and was indicted in absentia after a yearslong investigation that included the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Vucic, who had just won the 2014 parliamentary election and was set to become the country’s new prime minister, called the arrest a triumph for Serbian law enforcement. Saric, who had returned to Serbia voluntarily and surrendered to the police, had a different perspective. The chief judge in the case told me that he asked Saric in court why he chose to give himself up. Saric, the judge recalled, replied that he felt safer in Serbia under the new Vucic-led government.

Like Vucic, Belivuk was shaped by the war in Bosnia, though he was much too young to play any role in it. One morning in the late winter of 1995, when the war was at its height, an explosion tore through the Belivuk family home in Belgrade, killing three. The forensic inspector at the scene that day was a man named Caslav Ristic, already a veteran at his job. When I met him in Belgrade, he was a retiree of 63 with a ruddy face, thinning white hair and a gruff manner. He had brought yellowing newspaper clippings about the explosion, along with his own Polaroid photos from the crime scene.

Belivuk’s father, Ristic told me, was a veteran who brought weapons home from the war; he was keeping two grenades in a kitchen drawer. He had been depressed, and after arguing with his wife, he walked off and triggered both grenades, apparently intending only to kill himself. His wife and mother-in-law were collateral damage. Afterward, the 9-year-old Belivuk “had to go through the hallway, past the dead bodies, to the neighbor’s house,” Ristic said. (The only visible injuries he had were some cuts.) Ristic told me it was an unusual case, but only because the father had killed himself with two grenades. “Usually they just used one,” he said.

Belivuk grew up and became a bouncer in Belgrade nightclubs, acquiring a rap sheet full of petty crimes. In the early 2000s, Serbia was struggling with the toxic legacy of Milosevic, who had empowered a criminal class as a means of evading the wartime sanctions placed on Serbia’s economy. At the top end, mobsters colluded with the country’s intelligence chiefs to protect their cash flow. They were so powerful that in 2003 they killed the country’s reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, who had threatened a crackdown. At the bottom end were thugs like Belivuk, foot soldiers in the rising cocaine trade.

Belivuk might have remained a small-time thug had his life not intersected with the rise of Aleksandar Vucic. Around 2012, as Vucic was gaining control over the country’s security agencies, a new group of hooligans appeared in Belgrade’s Partizan Stadium, and Belivuk was asked to join. Most soccer loyalties are lifelong in Serbia, but the leaders of the new group were mainly made up of people with no prior connection to Partizan. The group’s name, the Janissaries, was a sly acknowledgment of this fact: The Janissaries were an elite Ottoman military force made up mostly of boys taken from their Christian families and molded into ruthless killers for the Ottoman state. Where earlier hooligans had informal and haphazard support from the police, mostly for drug sales, this new group’s ties to the state were direct and political. Its first leader’s name would later appear in the handwritten notes of a law-enforcement official alongside the label “state project,” in evidence uncovered by Serbian investigative reporters.

Belivuk and his new boss — a fellow hooligan called Aleksandar Stankovic, known as the Mute — soon began working closely with their patrons in the interior ministry. The relationship was exposed in a series of photographs and text exchanges that surfaced in a lawsuit years later. In one of the exchanges, Belivuk stressed his fealty, and an interior ministry official texted him back: “She knows. The boss knows. The big boss knows.” The texts don’t detail who he was talking about, but the minister’s immediate superior was a woman. Vucic was then the prime minister and security chief.

Belivuk would later claim in court that the Janissaries helped pull off a brazen demolition in downtown Belgrade that made way for a waterfront project that one of Vucic’s allies brokered with the leader of the United Arab Emirates. That case, in which dozens of masked men used bulldozers to destroy a street full of buildings that were in the way of the project, remains unsolved.

Curiously, the Janissaries also appear to have helped ensure the safety of gay-pride parades for Vucic. It was a little out of character for the hooligans, a flamboyantly homophobic crowd who had turned the occasion into a bloody melee in years past. But Vucic apparently felt that the violence was becoming an obstacle for Serbia’s application to join the E.U. According to B., who was not himself present, Vucic organized a closed-door meeting with a group of hooligan leaders, holding up a thick packet of case files and promising them that any prior criminal charges against them would be suspended if they kept the peace during gay-pride events. The parades went smoothly after that.

I wasn’t able to confirm that Vucic ever held such a meeting. (Vucic rarely gives foreign-media interviews, and his spokespeople did not respond to my requests for one.) But Stankovic — Belivuk’s boss — does appear to have had his cases suspended. When he became leader of the gang, he had already been sentenced to five years in prison for drug trafficking and illegal weapons possession. In the following years, the sentence was deferred a dozen times on phony medical claims, using doctors’ forms that later turned out to be falsified, according to documents unearthed by Vreme, a Belgrade weekly.

Soon afterward, Vucic was asked during an interview if he planned to do something about the rise in hooligan violence. He replied that he lacked the power to do so, because there was no “general social consensus” on the issue. It was quintessential Vucic: part dog-whistle, part provocation and soon forgotten amid Serbia’s constant swirl of real and manufactured crises.

As he consolidated power, Vucic steadily reshaped Serbia into an autocracy. In 2019, the nonprofit Freedom House downgraded Serbia in its annual assessment of democracies from free to partly free, citing the politicization of the judiciary and other institutions and elections fraught with bullying and bribes. Yet Serbia’s application to join the E.U. has rolled blithely along, as if the bureaucrats in Brussels haven’t noticed that Vucic is moving in the wrong direction.

One important lever of power for Vucic is the media. He has used the state telecommunications company to buy up local TV stations, and his allies run a triad of media organizations that shamelessly follow the Progressive Party line and give plentiful airtime to Vucic himself. These include a TV network called Pink that specializes in glitzy talk shows and reality TV. But the most shameless is Informer, a scandal sheet that features hatchet jobs and images of buxom women.

In early 2017, Vucic announced that he would run for president. The campaign that followed was rife with accusations of voter intimidation, with some public employees saying they were pressured to support the ruling party, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Media coverage was dominated by the party’s organs, which smeared Vucic’s rivals. He received 120 times the coverage of the two leading opposition candidates combined, according to Birodi, an independent research group.

Vucic won the presidency by a sizable margin. With his party dominating Parliament, he now controlled every branch of government and was able to pick his successor as prime minister, a move that earned comparisons to Putin, who in 2008 placed Dmitri Medvedev in the president’s chair to provide a mirage of democratic order in Russia. During Vucic’s inauguration ceremony, hooligans, including a member of the Janissaries, helped to rough up and remove protesters. Vucic’s governing style was becoming more openly authoritarian, with sycophantic public displays of loyalty by his allies.

At the same time, Vucic grew more open in his courtship of the authoritarian leaders of Russia, Hungary and China. Despite all these signs of slippage, European leaders continued to greet him warmly, doling out investments and giving no indication that Serbia’s E.U. application was in any danger. (In 2020, the E.U. donated about 300 million euros to Serbia and accounted for 62 percent of Serbia’s trade.) The reason was no secret: Kosovo’s status is still unresolved. The Europeans were pinning their hopes on Vucic to oversee a settlement. “He is very powerful, someone who can deliver on things if he wants to,” one German diplomat told me. “He could be the one to deliver substantial progress on Kosovo.”

Vucic sent reassuring signals to the Europeans, but he had other messages for his conservative base and for the Serbian nationalists he supports in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro. (He shares this defiant language with Putin, who has repeatedly affirmed his opposition to Kosovo’s independence.) These messages are often delivered by Aleksandar Vulin, the interior minister, who regularly complains that ethnic Serbs in other Balkan countries are being mistreated. Vulin and other nationalists drop hints that their true goal is a Greater Serbia — the same dream that helped lead the Balkans into war in 1991.

The gangs have their role to play in these political charades. Northern Kosovo, with its mostly Serb population, is nominally under the control of the national government in Pristina. In reality, it is dominated by organized crime groups that are widely seen as allies of Vucic’s party and have been accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of conspiring with Serbian security officials in smuggling rackets. That gives Vucic an important lever to dial regional tensions up or down. But as tools of state, mobsters can be unreliable.

The first sign of real trouble in the Vucic administration’s relationship with the hooligans came on the night of Oct. 13, 2016. Belivuk had just left his Belgrade gym alongside his boss, Stankovic, when a team of assassins sped past in a black Audi and opened fire with Kalashnikovs. As Belivuk cowered behind a car, the gunmen sped away, leaving Stankovic dead. The crime scene was soon swarming with police, according to a meticulously documented story published last fall in Vreme. One of the officers, on the phone with his boss, shouted, “Who’s Belivuk?” When Belivuk responded, the officer said, apparently referring to his superior, “She told you to go back to the hide-out.” The gang had a new leader.

The site where Aleksandar Stanković was murdered in 2016. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

The murder may have been related to Stankovic’s role as a “state project.” According to the Vreme report, Stankovic, who had been driving around in an armored Audi outfitted with a police radio, was receiving cocaine shipments at lower prices than other gangsters, and they were angry. But the broader lesson of the Stankovic murder was that the Belivuk gang had become embroiled in an increasingly violent war among the region’s drug clans. The cocaine trade was more profitable than ever, with Latin American cartels turning their eyes to the growing European market. Although much of Europe’s cocaine arrives via container ports in Northern Europe, the Balkan route was becoming more important, and much of it was focused on Montenegro, Serbia’s southern neighbor. Montenegro is tiny — the population is just over 600,000 — but it has certain features that make it well suited to the trade, including a long Adriatic coastline. Like Sicily, it is poor and dominated by clans with a reputation for lawlessness. And it has a history of smuggling, a practice abetted by the government during the civil wars of the 1990s.

The gang war started after the fall of Darko Saric, the drug lord whose arrest Vucic announced with such ceremony in 2014. Saric had built a narcotics base in Kotor, a gorgeous medieval port town on the Montenegrin coast that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A group of Kotor traffickers inherited his mantle and then split into rival clans over a 200-kilogram shipment of cocaine. The war quickly turned deadly, with tit-for-tat assassinations taking place in Serbia and Montenegro. The warring clans, Kavac and Skaljar, had built ties to police and intelligence agencies across the Balkans, which were being drawn into the violence.

Stankovic’s murder was seen in Belgrade as a sign that the war of the clans was getting out of hand. On the morning after Stankovic’s death, the Serbian interior minister at the time, Nebojsa Stefanovic, held a news conference to announce that enough was enough: It was time to crack down on the mafia. As it happened, things were about to get much worse.

One of Belivuk’s first acts as boss was to change his gang’s name to the Principi. In an interview with a Belgrade weekly — the only one he is known to have given — he said it was because he acted “from principles.” He did not say what those principles were. The name carried another tacit association: Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb nationalist who set off the First World War by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and who is still widely considered a hero among Serbs for his brave stand against the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Belivuk made bigger headlines a few months later, when he and his top lieutenant, Marko Miljkovic, known as the Butcher, were accused of gunning down a man in central Belgrade. The victim was a martial-arts expert who worked security at a Belgrade nightclub on one of the riverfront rafts. On his favorite outlet, Pink TV, President Vucic explained that this man was targeted “because he prevented some of Belivuk’s and Miljkovic’s people from taking over the rafts. When you come to the bunker at the stadium, you get a gram of drugs for 50 euros, and then it spreads throughout Serbia, they sell it on the raft for 70. That price only goes up. And that’s why this man was killed.” Hearing that, Belivuk might easily have imagined that his state support had dried up. Instead, a familiar pattern reasserted itself. The DNA evidence implicating Belivuk mysteriously disappeared, and he and his deputy were both acquitted (though they did serve some jail time before the verdict).

Another sign of Belivuk’s untouchability was the appearance of a guest in the soccer stands: Danilo Vucic, the president’s oldest son. Photographs of Danilo with his arms around members of the Belivuk gang appeared in Belgrade’s independent media, prompting the president to lash out in fury and accuse reporters of unfairly targeting his family. Vucic has repeatedly said that his son, who works in a wine shop, is a private citizen with no official position. But Danilo appears to play an ambiguously political role. Two years ago, he publicly welcomed a Serbian war criminal after he had served his time in Croatia, and, according to Serbian media reports, handed him $30,000 in cash, along with the keys to a Belgrade apartment and a car. The origin of this largess has not been explained. (Vucic’s spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.) Danilo has also been photographed standing with the leader of the People’s Patrol, a far-right nationalist group that stages anti-immigration protests and recently threatened to cross the border in defense of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo.

In Serbia, the stadium can make or break a president. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

By 2019, Belivuk and his gang had established a bunker inside Partizan stadium where they tortured victims and stored drugs and weapons. They had bigger things on their minds than soccer: The war between the two Montenegrin cocaine factions was upending organized crime across the region. “Most significant organized criminal groups have decided to join one of these two rival criminal groups,” was the conclusion of a Serbian intelligence document, cited in an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international consortium, in May 2020.

It wasn’t just criminals driving the clan war. Some Serbian and Montenegrin police and intelligence agencies had sided with the Kavac clan, according to the information from the reporting project. (The police in both countries deny any connection with the gangs.) The assassinations started in the streets of Belgrade and Podgorica but soon spread to Spain, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Greece. Several Balkan reporters who have monitored the clan war told me that the current body count is more than 70.

The Belivuk gang was becoming more visible beyond Serbia’s borders. In 2019, the Spanish Coast Guard seized 800 kilograms of cocaine on a ship coming from South America. The drugs were worth 50 million euros. Although there is no evidence that the three Serbian sailors on the boat were directly linked to the Belivuk gang, many of the cocaine packages bore the image of Gavrilo Princip, the gang’s signature.

There is little doubt that Belivuk and his gang are in prison because Europol cracked the code on Sky-ECC, exposing the group’s incriminating texts and photographs. What remains unclear is what the Serbian authorities knew and what they intended to do about it. The Europol officials I met with in The Hague were cagey about how and when they communicated with Serbia regarding the Sky data. Officially, the intercepts were handed over after Belivuk’s arrest, and those intercepts formed the basis of the indictment. But Europol (or one of its partners) appears to have tipped off the Serbs several months earlier. Serbia’s former interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, said as much, asserting that the arrest was made possible by Sky intercepts. And in October 2020 Vucic, during a rambling statement about gang violence, said he had been hearing about gruesome crimes for weeks, then added cryptically, “And don’t let the whole town tell us about how someone cut someone’s head off via Skype.”

That comment got the attention of Stevan Dojcinovic, one of Serbia’s foremost investigative reporters. Dojcinovic is a founder of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network and has been writing about the Belivuk gang and its ties to the state since 2016. He has been the target of many threats and attacks in the Vucic-allied media, which have labeled him, among other things, a terrorist, a spy, a mobster, a drug addict, a traitor and a sadomasochist. Dojcinovic is a small man with a sensitive, foxlike face and a nose ring. He and his staff work out of a Belgrade office so tiny and full of documents that walking into it is like entering an overstuffed closet. Dojcinovic told me that he believes Vucic’s comment about beheadings (he apparently confused Sky with Skype) may have been a final warning to the gang. “The Belivuk gang had been useful to the state, but they were getting out of control, getting too violent,” Dojcinovic said. “Also they were being watched from outside, the Europeans had informed the Serbian police about the Sky intercepts.”

If Dojcinovic is right, the Serbian authorities had not decided what to do about Belivuk and his gang as late as October 2020. They were definitely concerned, because court documents show that the Serbian police started surveilling the gang in early August, six months before the arrests. But it seems they were not concerned enough to stop the gang from torturing and killing people.

Thanks to the Sky-ECC messages uncovered by Europol, we now have an appallingly precise record of what happened to some of the men who started disappearing in Belgrade in 2019. The Belivuk gang developed a murder routine and refined it, with dozens of henchmen playing different roles. Sometimes they tempted the victim with drug or gun deals; in one case they tricked a rival into believing an associate had captured Belivuk and he could now kill him. The Sky text messages often provide a minute-by-minute trail of the crimes.

One of the men they targeted was a 33-year-old rival hooligan leader named Goran Velickovic. He was a prominent, well-liked figure at Partizan Stadium. He was married to his childhood sweetheart and had two small children and a job with his cousin fixing windows. In photographs, he has ruddy cheeks, cheerful brown eyes and a massive chest, with a tattoo visible on his thickly muscled right forearm that says “The Young Boys,” the name of his fan group.

Velickovic knew all about the stadium and its rivalries. What troubled him, his widow, Jelena, told me, was the role the police played. “The thing that really worried us, there were police who were there to provide assistance to rival groups,” Jelena said. “If you’re part of such a group, it gives you unimaginable power. And if you’re against that group, you cannot protect yourself.”

In early August 2020, Goran went out to meet a friend and never came back. It would be months before Jelena knew for certain what happened. Only when she saw the Sky evidence from the indictment did she understand: Goran had been lured out of Belgrade by a man he trusted to a dirt road alongside a deserted wheat field. The Belivuk gang ambushed him, tied him up and drove him to their slaughterhouse, even as Jelena was feeding the babies and making dinner for her husband.

Jelena Velickovic’s husband, Goran, was one of the alleged murder victims of a gang currently on trial in Belgrade. Image by Jehad Nga/The New York Times. Serbia.

The gang had prepared a torture chamber in a hidden room accessed via the garage. There were handcuffs and straps, along with blades, hot irons and disposable work clothes. The meat grinder stood at one end. Before every murder, gang members laid out fresh plastic sheeting on the floor and walls.

According to the indictment, they brought Goran inside the room and interrogated him, forcing him to unlock his phone and go through his contacts. They pulled off his fingernails with pliers, beat him, and finished him off by beheading him with an ax. They carved an insult onto Goran’s back with a knife, took some photographs and sent them to contacts on his phone. One photo went with a text: “See honey? Mexico in the middle of Belgrade.”

The gang’s leaders, the Sky intercepts reveal, often reveled in torture. During another murder a few weeks later, Belivuk and his right-hand man called in on their Sky phones from Montenegro (where they were carrying out three other killings) to encourage their henchmen in Belgrade to give “102 percent of yourself” to the torture of the latest victim. The Sky transcripts show that they asked the phone to be put close to the victim so that they could curse him and tell him they were planning to kill his father and brother and “everything you’ve ever known and loved.” Later, Belivuk texted again, asking one of his subordinates to describe the torture at length and “don’t skip those juicy details for me.”

After each victim was dead, the men followed the same ritual. They used axes and knives to cut the body into small chunks, then fed them through the meat grinder, gathering the remains in bags which they upended into the Danube. They burned the bags, along with all the victim’s clothes and belongings. They also destroyed the bloodied plastic sheeting and cleaned the meat grinder with acid and bleach. But that was not the end of it. In almost every case, prosecutors say, they texted the victim’s family members, often pretending to be him, and found ways to extract money, drugs and cars.

Jelena Velickovic told me that until the day she found out what happened to her husband — by seeing photographs of his mangled body on a Serbian TV show — she found it hard to believe that Belivuk was responsible.

“He was almost a friend,” she said. “I met him lots of times at the stadium. My husband, too.” Years earlier, when she took her first child to the stadium for a game, it was Belivuk who congratulated her. And, in keeping with Serbian custom, he even gave her money for the baby, a gift of 50 euros. “He was nice at the time,” she said. “I could never imagine that a guy who gave us gifts for our child, that this guy could kill my husband.”

Jelena is a small woman with large, dark eyes, round features and a look of resigned melancholy. Tattoos cover her arms, including a recent one that says in Serbian, “The pain I feel today will be my power tomorrow.”

Jelena’s lawyer, sitting with us, told me she believed Belivuk and his men weren’t born monsters. It took the government to make that happen. “Belivuk was a victim of unrealistic expectations,” she said. “He had illusions of grandeur. He and his friends became victims themselves. Someone fed them delusions.”

In the two years since the Belivuk gang was arrested, Vucic has repeatedly said the case marked a decisive break with the past. “We will clean the state institutions of all their collaborators,” he declared at the first news conference after the arrests. He later told a group of journalists: “This is important for us, but also for ordinary citizens. Restaurant and bar owners will not have to worry about someone coming and wanting to racketeer them and then they are afraid to report it to the police because they don’t know if someone in the police is well connected to these killers.” It was a message calculated to appeal to Serbs who were troubled by what they heard about the Belivuk case. It may also have been aimed at the European Union, which will not admit Serbia to the club until it gets more serious about the rule of law.

There were a number of reasons to doubt the president’s promise. He has said similar things in the past, and Belivuk is widely viewed in Serbia as the latest in a long series of useful thugs, as replaceable as Aleksandar Stankovic before him. The bigger reason is that the Serbian authorities continue to be cozy with drug dealers and gangs. One of the more sensational recent examples was the discovery of a sprawling marijuana farm 30 miles outside Belgrade that, according to prosecutors, was being protected by police and military officers. The farm, designed to produce highly concentrated forms of cannabis, appears to have been Europe’s largest.

And Vucic’s relationship with outlaws goes beyond Serbia. In 2018, a Kosovo businessman who is accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of large-scale drug and weapons trafficking was charged in the murder of a politician there. Vucic defended him, calling him “a man who defends the Serbian people and the hearths of northern Kosovo.” Paradoxically, Vucic’s influence in northern Kosovo is part of the reason the European Union sees him as a valuable partner. He demonstrated that power late last year during a border crisis that briefly threatened to tip into open conflict.

The confrontation heated up, perhaps not coincidentally, during a European Union summit meeting in December at which Vucic reaffirmed his refusal to participate in the E.U.’s sanctions on Russia. Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo barricaded the roads, blocking the movements of the Kosovan authorities. Protesters gathered on the Serbian side of the border, including members of the People’s Patrol, the Serbian nationalist organization that has documented ties to Russia’s paramilitary Wagner group. Belgrade sent its own troops to the border, threatening to step in and defend the Serbs of Kosovo. Vucic then held a meeting with a group of Kosovan Serbs, and the crisis came to an end. Needless to say, the border fracas got the attention of the European Union. In mid-March, the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo tentatively agreed to an E.U.-sponsored plan to normalize relations, but Vucic has refused to commit to anything in writing.

Almost a decade ago, an American scholar and analyst named Daniel Serwer helped to arrange Vucic’s first public appearance in Washington, D.C. Serwer worked in the Balkans in the 1990s and he knew all about Vucic’s nationalist roots. But he was disappointed with the record of other Serbian political leaders. He told me Vucic made no promises about Kosovo, but said he would move closer to the European Union. Serwer found Vucic intelligent and serious. There was some hope, he told me, that Vucic could be a “Nixon in China” figure, capable of bringing his party’s conservative base to a fuller reconciliation with Serbia’s neighbors.

Serwer told me that his attitude toward Vucic has changed radically. “Vucic is now deadly serious about the ‘Serbian world,’” he said. Those words, invoked often by Serbian nationalists, convey the idea that Serbia is entitled to dominate the lands where ethnic Serbs live, including several neighboring countries. “He had the opportunity to move in a pro-E.U. direction, and he chose not to.” Serwer speculated that Vucic has concluded the reforms required to join the E.U. would weaken his hold on power or perhaps even land him in jail. That is what happened to the former prime minister of Croatia, Ivo Sanader, who presided over most of his country’s preparations for accession only to be arrested and imprisoned on corruption charges (he remains in prison today). Sanader’s fate has become a cautionary tale for Balkan would-be reformers.

The United States and the E.U. have continued to cater to Vucic, focusing their policies on economic growth and mostly ignoring his illiberalism. The Trump administration seemed especially favorable to Vucic, openly siding with him in a regional tariff dispute and forcing the collapse of a popular government in Kosovo. Trump sent an abrasive special envoy to the region, Richard Grenell, who seemed bent on brokering a Serbia-Kosovo “deal of the century” to enhance Trump’s prospects in the 2020 presidential election. (It did not happen.)

Serwer and a number of other Balkan experts say that the United States and the European Union are missing an opportunity to push Vucic in a more democratic direction. “We have more leverage in the western Balkans than anywhere on earth,” I was told by Kurt Bassuener, a scholar who has written extensively on the Balkans. “And yet we’re building our policy on Vucic and people like him.” If Vucic knew he risked losing much of his Western financial and diplomatic support, Bassuener said, his calculus might change about all kinds of things, including his habit of coddling criminals and hooligans. The notion that Serbia can “balance” the West against Russia is largely a mirage, Bassuener said. Russia may be Serbia’s traditional ally, but Putin, who is struggling to rebuild his own shattered army, has little of substance to offer ordinary Serbs.

One afternoon in Belgrade, I spent an hour talking to Boris Tadic, who served as Serbia’s president from 2004 until 2012, when he lost to Vucic’s party. He told me that organized crime has become so powerful in Serbia that it is difficult to know who is calling the shots. During his own time in office, he said, he was amazed to discover that the criminal gangs “had better equipment and technology than our police.” The cocaine cartels had become so lucrative that they could corrupt anyone. Tadic said he had fought the mafia with some success. Vucic, he said, had “helped put criminals in power” with the belief that he could control them. It was a dangerous gamble.

“What is the final outcome of your power if you’re going to destroy the foundations of society with hooligans and criminals?” he asked. Tadic glanced uneasily around us at the hotel courtyard. “Who is running this country?” he asked. “Maybe some companions of Belivuk are sitting next to us.”

A correction was made on May 8, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a gangster accused of killing a martial-arts expert in Belgrade. He is Marko Miljkovic, not Milikjovic.



war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict
Criminal Justice


Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice





teal halftone illustration of two hands shaking and a scale holding dollar bills


Transparency and Governance

Transparency and Governance

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues