When police forces in Western Europe hacked into an encrypted phone app popular with drug traffickers, the messages they deciphered from the Balkan nation of Montenegro provided shocking evidence of a crime-captured state.
A Montenegrin police officer discussed cocaine shipments with a notorious crime boss, and the son of the country’s Supreme Court chief offered to tamper with verdicts and help with smuggling. Another officer sent photographs to the leader of an organized crime group to show how his police unit brutalized members of a rival criminal gang. One victim had a gun stuck in his throat.
The messages, shared with Montenegro prosecutors in 2021 but not acted on until last year, helped hasten the downfall of 61-year-old Milo Djukanovic, Europe’s longest-serving elected leader until his defeat in the presidential election in April. Rumors have been circulating for years about Mr. Djukanovic colluding with criminals, which he has always denied.
“It was obvious that the institutions were captured by corruption and organized crime,” Djukanovic’s successor, Jakov Milatovic, 36, said in an interview last month on his first day as president. in Podgorica, the capital.
The new leader, a former Oxford-trained economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said the time had come to stop shrugging in response to “a widely held perception that the whole system is corrupt.” .
“It all started with the summit – and that summit was politically defeated,” President Milatovich said, promising to clean up the judiciary and the police, appoint a new central bank governor and end what he called a “state captured by criminals”. .”
How far he can go will largely depend on whether the June 11 parliamentary elections confirm Mr Djukanovic’s political eclipse. This process began three years ago when his previously invincible ruling party lost control of parliament – and the power to appoint law enforcement ministers.
Privately, European diplomats have long complained about the rot in Montenegro, but said there was ‘not much they could do’. This was partly because the United States was focused on bringing the country into NATO against opposition from pro-Russian enemies of Mr. Djukanovic, and had little interest in rocking the boat. Montenegro, with high mountains, beautiful beaches and just 625,000 people, sat on the last stretch of Mediterranean coast not already part of the alliance.
There was also little solid evidence of collusion with criminals, at least until police infiltrated the Sky ECC messaging app, which shut down after its leaders were indicted by the US in 2021. for racketeering”.
The decrypted messages sent to prosecutors in Podgorica were only acted upon last year when they were leaked to local media and led to a wave of arrests of people who appeared in the messages, all named during Mr. Djukanovic’s long reign.
These included longtime Supreme Court President Vesna Medenica; his son, Milos; a public prosecutor; and several police officers, including another frequent Sky ECC app user, Petar Lazovic, the son of a former organized crime chief.
“We finally have proof of what we all thought was going on,” said Zeljko Ivanovic, 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 whom were fabulously wealthy from cocaine trafficking and cigarette smuggling into Europe to circumvent import duties, bribed elements of the police and judiciary has been an open secret for many years. many years, but “they were untouchable”, according to the interim Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazovic.
“Drug cartels and cigarette smugglers formed a network that funded political parties, political parties took power and criminals felt comfortable,” he said. “But after the recent changes, everything crashes now.”
Mr Djukanovic has long denied having links to organized crime, dismissing accusations including the work of his political enemies and the misinformation generated by Serbia and Russia, both of which wanted him out because of his support for the NATO, which Montenegro joined in 2017. Mr. Milatovic, the new president, is also a strong supporter of NATO, although some of his supporters are not.
In addition to sanctioning the arrests, the government led by Mr. Abazovic has also targeted the businesses of Mr. Djukanovic’s associates, cutting off revenue from state enterprises.
What supporters of Montenegro’s break with Mr Djukanovic see as a draining of the swamp is, however, seen differently by the former president and his supporters. Rather, they see a victory for Serbia and Russia and a politically motivated redistribution of spoils.
Zdravko Begovic, president of the Bar Association of Montenegro and defense attorney for arrested former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ms Medenica,
said his client was blamed for the sins of his son, who may have promised the mobsters that he could tip the scales of justice in their favor through his mother. “But there is no evidence that she ever spoke with these people or took their money,” Begovic said. The mother, unlike the son, a cocaine addict, he added, has 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, “may have an office, a car and an allowance but he doesn’t has no immunity.” .” Mr Djukanovic denied rumors that he was planning to move to Dubai, telling a farewell press conference that he had done nothing wrong and would stay in Montenegro.
Italian prosecutors investigating the mafia accused Mr Djukanovic of organizing a cigarette smuggling racket nearly 20 years ago, but dropped plans to prosecute him after he led Montenegro to independence from the Serbia in 2006, a decision that granted him immunity because it made him the head of a sovereign state.
In 2016, Jelena Jovanovic, a journalist with the Vijesti newspaper, received a potentially explosive denunciation from the leader of an organized crime group who, angry at an attempt by a rival crime group to blow up her brother, gave her a list of police officers, he said, were on the payroll of his brother’s would-be killers.
Ms Jovanovic, who “is being watched by security guards every time she goes out” due to death threats, wrote on the list without giving names. But she reported them to the state prosecutor, Milivoje Katnic, a longtime ally of Mr Djukanovic, and special prosecutor Stojanka Radovic, who conducted a subsequent investigation.
Prosecutors, she said, did nothing.
“They could have quit all those years ago, but they didn’t want to,” she said. “The protection of 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 decrypted 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 this decision was arrested in December.
Hiding the evidence became impossible after Libertas, a news portal funded by the US Embassy in Montenegro, leaked some Europol information and started posting decrypted messages last year.
Mr Lazovic, the son of the organized crime chief, whose posts say he tipped off a notoriously brutal crime boss about the police surveillance and ongoing investigations, was charged in April along with another officer for creating a criminal organization, abuse of power, drug smuggling, drug trafficking and complicity in murder.
Mr Lazovic’s lawyer, Nikola Martinovic, admitted that his client had communicated with criminals about drug shipments, but said it was done only to gain their trust as part of a mission to infiltration aimed at penetrating a particularly brutal narcotics gang.
“He’s a victim, not a criminal,” the lawyer said.
Damir Lekic, a Podgorica lawyer who represents rival gang members arrested by Mr Lazovic in the past, dismissed that as highly unlikely. He said his clients told him in 2017 – long before the decrypted Sky messages surfaced – that the policeman was working for an organized criminal group and torturing rival drug dealers at his behest.
“I didn’t believe them, but when I read Sky’s transcripts I understood what they were saying was 100 per cent accurate,” Mr Lakic said. ” I can not lie. My clients are criminals. But everything they told me turned out to be true.
Alisa Dogramadzieva contributed report.