Serb Mercenaries See Prospects in Latin America

For most Serbs, Latin America is a distant continent held in regard by some in the older generation as a part of the non-aligned movement.

But when three Serb bodyguards of alleged narcotics boss William Rosales Suarez were killed in Bolivia, near the eastern town of Santa Cruz earlier this month, it put Latin America into the spotlight.

Sasa Turcinovic, 40, Predrag Cankovic, 38, and Bojan Bakula, 29, arrived in Bolivia on May 13 only to be killed the next day along with three locals deployed to protect Suarez's convoy of vehicles. Suarez was kidnapped and is still missing.

For days Serbian media was teeming with items on the three. It turned out that Bakula and Turcinovic were the owners of a security agency called Combat Team Security Solution, based in Ruma, 50 km west of Belgrade.

Turcinovic was once a member of the Red Berets, the notorious special Serbian police unit in the 90s which carried out atrocities during the wars with neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia.

It was disbanded after its members, also deeply involved in illegal drug trade within the group known as the "Zemun Klan", carried out the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

"As the wars ended, many veterans were left jobless with the only skills they had related to combat," security analyst Zoran Dragisic told IPS.

"Besides, there are many young people who seek adventure and believe the security line of work is challenging enough,'' Dragisic said. ''There are also those on the borderline between legal and illegal activities that are daring enough and ready to cross the line and work for whoever offers more."

Cankovic was in the Bosnian Serb army taking part in operations in eastern Bosnia, while Bakula was a professional soldier in Serbian army who left two-and-a-half years ago to establish the security agency in his native town of Ruma.

The unusual fatal incident in a distant country drew the attention of the broader public to murky "protection and safety agencies", established mostly by veterans of the wars of the 1990s.

Most of their members sell their skills as bodyguards or provide armed protection both at home and abroad, with activities often bordering or even linked to organised crime as the two were intermingled in the 1990s, particularly in Serbia.

Engagements abroad, said to bring in thousands of dollars in monthly wages, may range from protection of oil fields in Iraq to those involved in the drug business in Latin America.

It was discovered only recently that Latin America is a haven for many Serbian criminals who are engaged in the illegal drugs trade or who are

fugitives from the law.

Last October, 2.7 tonnes of cocaine were seized on a ship whose destination was Europe, chartered by Serbian criminals in Montevideo, Uruguay. Apart from seven men arrested at the time, some 500 were detained later on in Serbia, in an operation dubbed 'Balkan Warrior'.

It is widely believed that several members of the Zemun Klan, accused of participating in Djindjic's killing, have found safe haven in a Latin American nation.

Serbia remains the only country in the region that has no regulation on protection and security agencies, and the recent event in Bolivia prompted interior minister Dacic to act swiftly.

"The ministry of interior will insist on being included in the process of creating the law on agencies, on licensing and training of interested individuals," Dacic told reporters.

According to official statistics of the Serbian Business Registers Agency, there are almost 600 small and medium protection, security and detective agencies in the country. It is estimated that they employ some 40,000 people, meaning they are under arms. Serbia now has only a small professional army of 36,000, where not everyone is allowed to carry arms and 47,000 strong police that do carry arms.

"It is extremely important who you give the arms to; it is possible that a large private army can be created otherwise, and if it involves people with criminal backgrounds, this can represent a danger for the state," Interior Minister Ivica Dacic explained.

Dacic refused to either confirm or deny that he is to officially visit several Latin American countries in June.

"What is bad for us [Serbia] is the fact that we have no cooperation agreements or memoranda on police cooperation with those nations; it goes very slowly and along the side routes," Dacic said.

"There are many members of Serbian organised crime groups who reside in Latin America, mostly for the illegal trade in cocaine. We know where our criminals mostly smuggle from - Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay," Dacic added.

But for those with better knowledge of organised crime in Serbia, the events in Bolivia and in Uruguay came as no surprise.

A police source, insisting on anonymity, told IPS that "the first connections between Colombian narco-cartels and Serbian organised crime date back to early 1990s. That is when the links between Pablo Escobar and Radojica Nikcevic were made, and their heirs had only to continue; their inside showdowns, in both groups, are going on until today."

Colombian drug lord Escobar was killed by police in 1993, while Nikcevic was gunned down by unknown assailants in Belgrade in the same year.

[Source: By Vesna Peric Zimonjic, IPS, Belgrade, 26May10]

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