Kotor, Montenegro – There seems little to link the bleak Spuz prison outside Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, with the medieval jewel of Kotor on its spectacular Adriatic coast.
But a sniper’s bullet connected them last month, when it struck Kotor native Dalibor Djuric as he crossed the prison yard from his cell to the gym.
Djuric, who was serving a two-year term for extortion, quickly bled to death from the gaping wound to his chest. Police closed the roads around Spuz, but found only the burning wreckage of a stolen getaway car with the murder weapon on the back seat, and a tripod hidden in the bushes from where the sniper found his target.
Djuric was at least the sixth victim of a gang war that has rocked Kotor with gun and bomb attacks, and exposed a mafia underworld that thrives among the soaring mountains, luxury hotels and sun-soaked beaches beloved of visitors to Montenegro.
Many Montenegrins hoped this month’s parliamentary and local elections would change the country’s course, but the vote itself was marred by claims of dirty tricks and a mysterious alleged plot to seize state buildings and attack top officials.
The subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is not expected to bring dramatic change – during a quarter of a century in power he has twice before left public office, while remaining the dominant figure in the country.
Crime and punishment
Barely a fortnight before Djuric was murdered in jail, a remote-controlled bomb killed Goran Biskupovic and Milos Bosnjak outside the former’s home in Kotor. Local media said the sound of the blast rippled across the yacht-filled bay to a medieval old town where the cafes are full of tourists from around the world.
Djuric and Biskupovic were suspected members of the Skaljari crime clan, which for almost two years has been locked in a bloody battle with the Kavaci gang.
Police think the deadly feud between the groups – which take their names from districts of Kotor – began over a shipment of at least 200kg of South American cocaine that disappeared in the Spanish city of Valencia in late 2014.
Montenegro has long been a major smuggling route into Europe, because of lax controls over its Adriatic ports and politicians and security services that are accused of collaborating with criminals who flourished amid the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, which flooded the region with weapons in the 1990s.
In what was hailed as a rare success against the Balkan mafia, alleged narcotics kingpin Darko Saric surrendered to Serbian police in 2014 after a major operation involving the CIA tracked him to South America.
Last year, a Belgrade court convicted Montenegrin-born Saric of trafficking some 5.7 tonnes of cocaine to Europe and laundering more than $20m in profits, and shorter terms were given to several of his associates.
The 20-year term handed to Saric was quashed in May due to procedural errors, however. A retrial is taking place, but the ruling undermined many people’s hopes that Balkan states were serious about crushing organised crime.
Saric, who denies the charges against him, is believed to have invested heavily in Kotor through his business partners. The arrangement has not ended well for all of them.
In May 2010, as another tourist season moved into full swing, Dragan “Fritz” Dudic was shot dead on a sunny café terrace in the main square of Kotor’s old town; he was the owner of the city’s Maximus nightclub, and a close associate of Saric.
Until now, however, mafia conflicts have only occasionally shattered the surface calm of Kotor, whose 13,000 residents rely for income on the thousands of visitors who flock to this UNESCO World Heritage Site each year.
But after another man with criminal links was shot dead in April and gunfights erupted several times, anti-terrorist police were deployed to Kotor in June. “Kotor is now on lockdown,” Interior Minister Goran Danilovic said during a visit to the city with a team of prosecutors. “Kotor must cease to be the centre of clashes between rival criminal gangs.”
The violence has continued, however, giving residents the impression that officials are unwilling or unable fight the mafia – and stoking anger towards the city and national authorities ahead of the October 16 elections.
“The situation’s as bad as it can be. We have a war here between crime groups,” Vladimir Jokic, a Kotor-born candidate for the opposition Democrats, told Al Jazeera. “For 20 years the government has done nothing to put a stop to this kind of thing, and now it is escalating in front of our eyes. This is a small town and a small country, so the security services must know who is involved,” Jokic said.
“Ultimately, this comes down to one man. Without the approval of his circle you can’t do anything big here in business or politics – he is Milo Djukanovic.”
Since he first became prime minister of Montenegro in 1991, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has never lost power and he has ruled almost constantly as premier or president of Montenegro, which he led to independence from Serbia in a tight 2006 referendum. He has also steered the country towards NATO and EU membership, a strategy that opponents say has muted Western criticism of his rule.
Djukanovic is accused of using power to massively enrich his own clique, while most of Montenegro’s 620,000 people struggle on an average net monthly wage of just $550 and many emigrate to escape 20 percent unemployment.
The country’s politicians, businessmen and criminals are like “one big family whose members don’t have to be close, visit and love each other in order to work for joint benefit and protect each other when needed,” Olivera Lakic, a journalist with Montenegro’s Vijesti newspaper, told Al Jazeera.
“The worst ones in this ‘family’ are the politicians who, when it suits them politically, wash their hands of the others and act as if nothing had happened,” said Lakic, who has been threatened and beaten because of her investigative work.
“Criminals know every weakness of the police, prosecutors, courts and politicians,” she said. “That is why, unfortunately, Montenegro has become a paradise for all types of criminals – from those that deal in theft, extortion and usury, to those who deal drugs and murder people.”
Those charges were eventually dropped but, even before the recent elections, there were signs that Djukanovic’s circle might not be as untouchable as it once was.
Svetozar Marovic, a top DPS member who was president of the Serbia-Montenegro union before its 2006 divorce, was this year convicted of corruption relating to the theft of millions of euros from the budget of his hometown, Budva.
The election created a parliament that will be split almost equally between the DPS and its allies and an angry opposition.
The vote was bitterly divisive: opposition parties accuse Djukanovic of massive election fraud and refuse to accept the results, while he denounces them as paid puppets of Russia and Serbia, intent on knocking the country off its pro-Western course.
On election day, Montenegro’s security services said they had foiled a plot by Serb gunmen to attack state buildings and capture Djukanovic.
“Unprecedented terror, bloodshed, was planned,” said Montenegro’s special prosecutor for organised crime, Milivoje Katnic, while providing few details to support claims that the opposition dismiss as nonsense.
After initially casting doubt on the allegations, Serbia said this week that it had detained people in connection with a plan to stage attacks in Montenegro.
For Djukanovic and his allies, the capture of the alleged election-day plotters proves the competence of their security services, just as Montenegro’s progress on the path towards NATO and ultimately EU membership affirms the crime-fighting credentials of the nation’s leadership.
“Montenegro is a stable and safe country and so it will remain, with strong institutions which have successfully responded to this challenge,” DPS spokeswoman Danica Nikolic told Al Jazeera. All previous governments, she said, led by the party had successfully tackled graft and criminal structures.
“Montenegro will soon get an effective and dynamic government,” Nikolic insisted, “ready to respond to all challenges, even the fight against corruption and organised crime.”
The DPS announced this week that Djukanovic will not continue as premier, and a close ally has been nominated as successor – but it remains to be seen whether anyone can supplant him as the real ruler of Montenegro.
“I have deep doubts,” Bodo Weber, a Balkans expert at the Democratisation Policy Council in Berlin, told Al Jazeera.
“There was no sign or suggestion in recent weeks and months that he would pull out. And we have seen this two times before, which meant Djukanovic leading from behind and returning at some point.”
But, on the balmy Adriatic coast, where cruise ships continue to glide into port and restaurants and cafes are still bustling, the elections seem to have weakened Djukanovic’s decades-old grip on power.
The DPS lost control of the resort town of Budva, and in nearby Kotor opposition parties won enough seats to take the council if they can forge an alliance.
“We are in coalition talks and hope to reach agreement. We are optimistic,” Jokic, a 28-year-old who quit his job as a lawyer in Belgrade to try to clean up his hometown, told Al Jazeera.
“These local guys who are being killed with guns and bombs, or are in jail – they are my age. We went to the same school, and probably played football together as kids. It’s the fault of this system that they ended up like this,” he said.
“People don’t believe they can change anything, because they have only known one ruler for so long. But things can change in Montenegro – and we can make Kotor secure again.”