Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

How a Cracked Phone App Upended a Crime-Ridden Balkan State

When police forces in Western Europe cracked ‌‌an encrypted phone app popular with narco-traffickers, the messages they deciphered from the Balkan nation of Montenegro provided shocking evidence of a state captured by crime.

A Montenegrin police officer discussed cocaine shipments with a notorious crime boss, and the son of the head of the country’s supreme court offered to skew verdicts and help with smuggling. Another police officer sent photographs to the leader of an organized crime group to show how his police unit had roughed up members of a rival crime gang. One victim had a pistol stuffed into his throat.

The messages, shared with prosecutors in Montenegro in 2021 but only acted on last year, helped to accelerate the fall of Milo Djukanovic, 61, Europe’s longest-serving elected leader until his defeat in a presidential election in April. Rumors had swirled for years of Mr. Djukanovic’s collusion with criminals, something he has always denied.

“It was evident that the institutions were captured by corruption and organized crime,” Mr. Djukanovic’s successor, Jakov Milatovic, 36, said in an interview last month on his first day at work as president in Podgorica, the capital‌.

‌The new leader, an Oxford-educated former economist with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said the time had come to stop shrugging shoulders in response to‌ “a widespread perception that the whole system is corrupted.”

“Everything started from the top ‌‌ — and that top has been politically defeated,” ‌President Milatovic‌h said, vowing to clean up the judiciary and police force, appoint a new central bank governor and end what he said had been a “state captured by criminals.”

How far he can go depends in a large part on whether parliamentary elections on June 11 confirm Mr. Djukanovic’s political eclipse. That process began three years ago when his previously invincible governing party lost control of Parliament — and the power to appoint ministers responsible for law enforcement.

In private, European diplomats have long complained about the rot in Montenegro but said there was ‌little they could do‌. That was partly because the United States was focused on getting the country to join NATO‌ against opposition from pro-Russian foes of Mr. Djukanovic, and had little interest in rocking the boat. Montenegro, with soaring mountains, beautiful beaches and just 625,000 people, sat on the last stretch of the Mediterranean coast not already in the alliance.

There was also scant solid evidence of collusion with criminals, at least until police infiltrated the messaging app Sky ECC, which shut down after its executives were indicted by the ‌United States in 2021 for racketeering‌.

The decrypted messages sent to prosecutors in Podgorica were only acted upon last year when they leaked in the local media and led to a wave of arrests of people who figured in the messages, all of them appointed during Mr. Djukanovic’s long rule.

These included the longtime head of the Supreme Court, Vesna Medenica; her son, Milos; a state prosecutor; and several police officers, including another frequent user of the Sky ECC app, Petar Lazovic, the son of a former head of the fight against organized crime.

“‌We finally have proof of what we all assumed was going on,” said Zeljko Ivanovic, the chief executive of the country’s leading independent media group, Vijesti. ‌ “We should build a monument to the Sky app.”

‌That Montenegrin criminals, some of them fabulously wealthy thanks to cocaine trafficking and the smuggling of cigarettes into Europe to skirt import duties, had suborned parts of the police force and judiciary has been an open secret for many years but “they were untouchable,” according to Montenegro’s acting prime minister, Dritan Abazovic.

“The narco cartels and smugglers of cigarettes made a network that financed political parties, political parties got power and the criminals felt comfortable,” he said. “But after recent changes everything is now crashing.”

Mr. Djukanovic has long denied having links to organized crime, dismissing such accusations as the work of his political enemies and disinformation generated by Serbia and Russia, both of which wanted him gone because of his support for NATO, which Montenegro joined in 2017. Mr. Milatovic, the new president, is also a strong supporter of NATO, though some of his supporters are not.

In addition to sanctioning arrests, the government led by Mr. Abazovic also targeted the businesses of Mr. Djukanovic’s associates, cutting off revenues from state companies.

What supporters of Montenegro’s break with Mr. Djukanovic see as a draining of the swamp, however, is viewed differently by the former president and his supporters. They instead see a victory for Serbia and Russia and‌ ‌a politically driven redivision of the spoils.

Zdravko Becovic, president of the Montenegro Bar Association and a defense attorney for the arrested former Supreme Court chief justice, Ms. Medenica,

said his client was being blamed for the sins of her son, who may have promised gangsters that he could tip the scales of justice in their favor through his mother. “But there is no evidence she ever spoke with these people or took their money,” Mr. Becovic said. The mother, unlike the son, a cocaine addict, he added, never used the Sky ECC app.

Mr. Milatovic, the new president, declined to say whether he would like to see his predecessor prosecuted, saying only that Mr. Djukanovic, as a former president, “can have an office, a car and a stipend but he does not have immunity.” Mr. Djukanovic has denied rumors he plans to move to Dubai, saying at a farewell news conference that he has done nothing wrong and will stay in Montenegro.

Italian prosecutors investigating the mafia accused Mr. Djukanovic of running a cigarette smuggling racket nearly 20 years ago but dropped plans to prosecute him after he steered Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006, a move that gave him immunity as it made him the leader of a sovereign state.

In ‌2016, Jelena Jovanovic, a reporter with the newspaper Vijesti, got a potentially explosive tip-off from the head of an organized crime group who, angry about an attempt by a rival criminal group to blow up his brother, gave her a list of police officers he said were on the payroll of his brother’s would-be assassins.

Ms. Jovanovic, who ‌is watched over by security guards whenever she goes outside‌ because of death threats, wrote about the list without giving any names. But she reported those to the state prosecutor, Milivoje Katnic, a longtime ally of Mr. Djukanovic, and the special prosecutor Stojanka Radovic, who led a subsequent investigation.

Prosecutors, she said, did nothing.

“They could have stopped all this years ago but they didn’t want to,” she said. “Protecting criminals was a state project.”

It was much the same story, according to Mr. Abazovic, the acting prime minister, when Europol in 2021 delivered a first installment of deciphered Sky ECC phone messages to Montenegro. The prosecutor’s office, still run by allies of Mr. Djukanovic, he said, buried the transcripts, insisting there was nothing to investigate. The prosecutor responsible for that decision was arrested in December.

Hiding the evidence became impossible after Libertas, a news portal financed by the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro, was leaked part of the Europol information and last year began publishing decrypted messages.

Mr. Lazovic, the son of the anti-organized crime chief, whose messages indicate he tipped off a notoriously brutal crime boss about police surveillance and ongoing investigations, was charged in April along with another police officer with creating a criminal organization, abuse of office, drug smuggling, drug trafficking and complicity in murder.

Mr. Lazovic’s lawyer, Nikola Martinovic, acknowledged that his client had communicated with criminals about drug shipments but said this was done only to win their trust as part an undercover mission to penetrate a particularly brutal narcotics gang.

“He is a victim, not a criminal,” the lawyer said.

Damir Lekic, a Podgorica lawyer who represents members of a rival gang arrested by Mr. Lazovic in the past, dismissed that as highly unlikely. He said his clients had told him in 2017 — long before the decrypted Sky messages surfaced — that the police officer was working for an organized crime group and torturing rival drug traffickers at its behest.

“I didn’t believe them but when I read the Sky transcripts I understood that what they said was 100 percent accurate,” Mr. Lakic said. “I can’t lie. My clients are criminals. But everything they told me turned out to be true.”

Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed reporting.

Andrew Higgins is the bureau chief for East and Central Europe based in Warsaw. Previously a correspondent and bureau chief in Moscow for The Times, he was on the team awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, and led a team that won the same prize in 1999 while he was Moscow bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. 

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