BELGRADE -- New Year's Day is traditionally a time for predictions, and Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic made a surprising one this year.
Suspected international drug smuggler Darko Saric "will face justice in 2013," Vucic said in an interview at the beginning of the year.
On January 7, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who is also the country's interior minister, told Montenegrin television he, too, believed the net is tightening around Saric.
Saric is believed to have been a major organized-crime figure in the Balkans for at least the last decade. He is the subject of a Serbian arrest warrant, but his whereabouts is unknown. He is also believed to have used his vast wealth to build a network of political patronage at the highest levels of Serbian politics and beyond.
Nenad Milic is a former assistant interior minister in the reformist government of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003. Currently a member of a parliamentary body that monitors the Serbian security agencies, Milic sees a murky political subtext behind the sudden interest in Saric's fate.
"Leading political parties raised this subject -- who is hiding Saric, where is he, and when will he be arrested?" he says. "What is really behind this -- whether it is a conflict within the ruling coalition or something else -- I do not know. But this certainly isn't a police way of thinking or working. Even if there is some specific information, it certainly isn't something a minister should announce."
Saric's name made international headlines in October 2009 when a joint operation by law enforcement agencies from the United States, Uruguay, and Serbia seized more than 2 tons of cocaine aboard a British-registered yacht named "Maui" near Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. Another half-ton of the drug was confiscated in Argentina as part of the same operation, dubbed "Balkan Warrior."
Several alleged members of Saric's gang were subsequently arrested, but Saric himself disappeared. He and 19 other suspected members of the gang were indicted in 2010, and an estimated 20 million euros ($27 million) of property tied to the network has been confiscated.
According to Slobodan Homen, a former state secretary at Serbia's Justice Ministry, Saric's criminal operation was raking in about 1 billion euros a year at its peak, around the time of the Uruguay busts. He said the confiscated property is a tiny fraction of what the gang controls.
Marko Nicovic, a board member of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association, told the Montenegrin newspaper "Vjesti" in November 2010 that Saric was able to operate in South America and Italy because of an agreement between South American, Italian, and Russian organized-crime groups. "That's the reason they let Saric do business on their territory," Nicovic was quoted as saying.
Saric, 41, was born in the Montenegrin town of Pljevlja. He was first convicted of a crime as a 16-year-old in 1988. Court records in Pljevlja show that he was subsequently sentenced there six times on various charges including embezzlement and the illegal possession of weapons and explosives.
He began larger-scale criminal activity during the period following the fall of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. His gang allegedly laundered its illegal drug profits by participating in the privatization of Serbian and Montenegrin assets, as well as by purchasing bars, apartments, villas, and land.
He was granted Serbian citizenship in 2005 and, according to Serbian law enforcement, moved his base of operations to Serbia around that time. Serbian Interior Ministry official Vladimir Bozovic said earlier this month that the decision to give Saric citizenship -- which was made when under the administration of former President Boris Tadic -- is currently under investigation. He added that any official found to be protecting "a narco-boss" would be arrested.
Rubbing Shoulders With The Elite
Belgrade's Center for Investigative Journalism (CIN) recently reported that Saric and his brother, Dusko, controlled a fashionable Belgrade nightclub at least from 2006 to 2007. The nightclub, called Vanilla, is located in the building that houses the headquarters of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Prime Minister Dacic's party.
According to CIN journalist Stevan Dojcinic, the Saric brothers hung out in the club with much of the Serbian elite. "Celebrities were always going there -- [Serbian businessman and politician Bogoljub] Karic's children, the family of [billionaire businessman Miroslav] Miskovic, politicians," he says. "It was a kind of mainstream, political, and jet-set establishment."
In October 2010, Darko Saric's brother, Dusko, was arrested in Montenegro. In May, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on money-laundering charges.
Over the last two years or so there have been media reports that Darko Saric has been living in South Africa, possibly under the name Bur Jan van Husel. In December 2012, information surfaced that he might have relocated to Switzerland.
The possibility that Saric might soon be arrested has sparked speculation in Serbia about whether any leading politicians have been protecting him. Prime Minister Dacic bristled when asked about the possibility that Saric had contact with anyone in his government.
"Either someone really spoke to Saric or no one did," he said. "Either you did or you didn't. There is no middle option here. If anyone did -- tell me who it is. Give me his name and surname and he will be arrested immediately -- today."
CIN investigative journalist Dojcinic recalls the investigation into the Djindjic assassination and is pessimistic that even Saric's arrest will bring clarity about his possible protectors in political circles.
"These are simply cases of limited investigation," he says. "Just like when we only managed to get the organizers of Djindjic's assassination, but to this day we still don't know exactly who gave it political support. In Saric's case we've done a good job of identifying the structure of the group and uncovering money-laundering mechanisms.
"But in Saric's case, too, we don't know what happened in the political background. It is basically impossible that such an organized criminal group functioned without any support from state institutions. This question remains unanswered, and if this case follows the example of previous cases I am afraid it will stay this way and we will never get deeply into the political sphere."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague