A controversial Kosovo-born Bosnian businessman who has long been suspected, but never convicted, of involvement in organized crime in the Balkans has been thrust into the international spotlight by a White House designation of him as a narcotics "kingpin."
The criminal status, which was personally ordered by President Barack Obama on June 1, empowers the U.S. government to deny 55-year-old Naser Kelmendi and members of his network access to the U.S. financial system.
A 2008 report on Kelmendi by Bosnia's State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) described him at the time as the head of one of the Balkans' leading organized criminal enterprises. Kelmendi's network -- which authorities then believed numbered up to 8,000 operatives across former Yugoslavia and possibly parts of the Middle East -- was suspected of involvement in drug and cigarette smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, and loansharking.
A “kingpin” designation requires no less than agreement by the U.S. Treasury Department, attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and Central Intelligence Agency that the person in question is a significant figure in a criminal narcotics underworld. Kelmendi now shares that status with only 96 others named since the Kingpin Act became law in 1999.
U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Patrick Moon told Bosnian television that the U.S. move was a reflection of the level of its concern “about the state of the organized crime in the region and the [lack of] response from the judiciary.”
Kelmendi has long been a person of interest to law-enforcement agencies across the Balkans. He is currently under investigation in Sarajevo on more than a dozen charges, including murder and attempted murder. But despite the damning 2008 report on his alleged criminal activities, he has never set foot in a Bosnian courtroom.
The reason for that appears to lie in the intricate web of unofficial official protection that Kelmendi enjoyed for years as he oversaw his extensive criminal enterprise.
“Kelmendi was institutionally protected in the police, security, and judicial structures,” outgoing Bosnian Security Minister Sadik Ahmetovic told RFE/RL.
That protection stemmed from Klejmendi’s “good connections” with politicians, prosecutors, judges, and policemen who turned a blind eye to his wrongdoing, he said.
A case in point is a 2012 verdict against Kelmendi in Montenegro, where he was fined a paltry 10,000 euros for building his Casa Grande hotel with a permit obtained through bribes in the Adriatic tourist resort of Ulcinj.
Evidence suggested that Kelmendi paid substantial sums of money to the municipality of Ulcinj, both in cash and through the Djukanovic family-owned Prva banka (First Bank) to obtain the permit.
“He had one of his bases here and I think that’s what primarily interests U.S. officials, his connections with political structures. Of course, there is no way that local politicians were the ones who allowed this. We are...talking about state-level politicians,” Mustafa Canka, a Montenegrin journalist who has written extensively about Kelmendi, said.
In 2011, Montenegro’s supreme prosecutor was given the go-ahead to investigate Kelmendi’s businesses and properties -- a process that might accelerate as a result of the U.S. action.
In Bosnia, rumors have swirled for years that Kelmendi is one of the largest drug dealers in the Balkans. In a rare interview, he dismissed those accusations, saying, “I've never dealt with drugs in my life, and they never interested me.”
SIPA'S 2008 report said that Kelmendi's inner circle included Naser Oric, a wartime commander of the Bosnian army in Srebrenica, and Fahrudin Radoncic, owner of the top-selling Bosnian daily, “Dnevni Avaz.” Radoncic entered politics in 2010 with his new Party for Better Future.
Coincidentally, the same day that Kelmendi was named a U.S. kingpin, Radoncic struck a deal with Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party, to enter the ruling coalition and replace Sadik Ahmetovic as minister of security.
Ahmetovic, who says organized crime cannot function without the help from the state, devoted part of his tenure as security minister to forging a partnership with Serbia to investigate activities of criminal organizations. He suggests that made him a target of Radoncic’s newspaper.
“We are now in the last phase when the Mafia takes over control over the state. That is what is happening in Bosnia now,” he said. “All stronger criminal groups have branches in the countries in the region. That's why regional cooperation was imperative for the Ministry of Security. I was criticized because of cooperation with Serbia. That cooperation opened many files about criminal groups in the region. If you analyze those who criticize me, it all becomes clear.”
Looking For Paper Trails
When the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN) in Sarajevo looked into links between Radoncic and Kelmendi, it turned up only one seemingly routine business transaction, CIN editor Azhar Kalamujic told RFE/RL. But he said more revelations might be coming.
“During our investigation, we found quite reliable information about the links between some members of the Sarajevo police and the Kelmendi family, but we haven't told that story yet. We are still trying to find relevant evidence but we have evidence that at least two policemen have often been in Kelmendi's company,” Kalamujic said.
The office of the Sarajevo Canton Prosecutor asked CIN to turn over some of the documents they had gathered as part of its investigation of an import shipment by Kelmendi's associates of three off-road vehicles, two of which were listed as armored.
The prosecutor's office declined to comment on the investigation, which began at the end of 2011.
Kelmendi’s purported close ties to some Bosnian officials might be behind calls for the resignation of Police Director Dragan Lukac, who has spoken publicly about the ongoing investigation.
“Some activities relating to my dismissal can be linked to the work of that organized crime group and [to] some other people who have relations to that group,” Lukac, who has not been dismissed, said.
The dismissal of former Chief State Prosecutor Milorad Barasin was also sought after he tried to focus on Kelmendi as part of an investigation into a criminal group run by Zijad Turkovic.
Kelmendi skated through unscathed despite being strongly suspected of ordering the 2007 killing of Sarajevo warlord and senior crime figure Ramiz Delalic “Celo.”
His friend and fellow crime boss Muhamed Ali Gasi, however, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with the killing. Some believe the investigation into Kelmendi’s alleged role was stopped by the cantonal prosecutor's office.
Lukac said Bosnian investigators are looking into ties between the Gasi and Kelmendi families, with an eye toward gathering information on links “between these people and certain prosecutors, judges and policemen.”
As the various investigations inch ahead, the move by the United States has spurred feelings among some that Kelmendi’s long reign of immunity in the region is about to end.
“A small war is about to start because [the criminal network] would not give up easily,” Montenegro-based journalist Canka says. “Because of their links with regional leaders, tectonic shifts can be expected on the political scene, especially in Montenegro. Kelmendi has never been named here as a controversial businessman. I think this summer is going to be very interesting.”
With contributions from from Marija Arnautovic in Sarajevo, Predrag Tomovic in Podgorica, and Amra Zejneli in Pristina