Serbian national Goran Popovic, a former military ‘Red Beret’ with an international arrest warrant out against him for drug trafficking, was sitting in a small internet café in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra when a hitman approached from behind and shot him in the head three times. Investigations into the murder would reveal that members of Grupo América – an organized crime group with roots in the Western Balkans that has been trafficking drugs from South America to Europe since 2008 – had been established in Bolivia for several years.

Popovic’s murder in 2014 is just one in a series of hits on criminal figures that point to the Balkan mafia’s increased presence in Latin America and hint at the extent of the transnational criminal links between the two regions. Over the past three decades, criminal groups from the Western Balkans have been growing their footprint in the region, leaving behind a trail of blood in the Americas while shipping large consignments of cocaine to Europe and beyond.

The presence of these groups in Latin America has been recorded since the late 1990s, coinciding with increased cocaine production in the region and demand for the substance, particularly in Europe. Over the last 20 years, however, they have significantly increased their involvement and influence in the international cocaine trafficking market. For years, Balkan nationals have facilitated cocaine shipments from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru to Europe and the US. Many have been killed or arrested in South America, particularly in Ecuador, where there is a large presence of these groups given the country’s strategic location and port infrastructure.

This rise of Western Balkan groups – particularly from Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina – in the international cocaine trade can be attributed to several factors, some of which are related to the vulnerabilities of many Latin American countries. These criminal organizations have taken advantage of widespread corruption, prison crises, porous borders and lack of security in critical infrastructure such as ports, which these groups exploit to bring drugs to the European continent using various routes and methods to transport cocaine from Latin America to major ports in Europe.

Direct contact with Latin America eliminates the need for middlemen, and the profit on cocaine is 10 times greater. According to GI-TOC interviews with investigative journalists in South America and the Western Balkans, Balkan criminal groups can purchase a kilogram of cocaine in the region for between US$1500 and US$4 000, which is then sold in Western Europe for between US$30 000 and US$60 000 per kilogram.Even before setting foot in Latin America, groups from the Balkans had a long history of criminal activity, fuelled by corruption in their own countries. Wars and unrest in the region throughout the 1990s further strengthened and contributed to their criminal experience. On the other hand, their presence in key Western European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, has not only extended their reach but also provided them with valuable opportunities to enhance their skills, capabilities and expertise in navigating the international criminal scene. These elements have contributed significantly to their success and growth in the cocaine market, placing them among the most prolific international criminal organizations in operation.

To identify these transnational links extending from the Balkans to Latin America, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) have jointly developed a new investigative journalism network.

This initiative has been set up to identify, map and report on the links between criminal groups in Latin America and the Western Balkans. Investigative journalists from countries in both regions – namely, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil – have been trained with tools and methods to report on organized crime and the dynamics that have strengthened the involvement of these Western Balkan groups in the cocaine trade in particular. Their research looked at trends in drug prices, cases of money laundering, as well as data on cocaine seizures in the Balkans and homicides linked to drug trafficking.

As part of the project, the GI-TOC and the IPYS published a series of investigative stories in the news media in Latin America and Europe. The stories focus on individuals and criminal groups from the Balkans who are integrated into international cocaine supply chains. They employ sophisticated and effective smuggling and distribution methods that allow them to circumvent the legal system, and in some countries, they have even been able to co-opt corrupt state officials in key institutions. The collaboration has led to a deeper understanding of the relationships between these groups.

The stories shed new light on these criminal networks and open the door to future joint investigative reporting on a larger scale, highlighting the key role of civil society in adopting transnational approaches to countering organized crime.

Click here to read the stories.