YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Midnight sun has a dark side

Mafia thugs have come from the Balkans, jolting Scandinavia with their viciousness.

December 10, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MALMO, SWEDEN — He ended up in a tipped-over chair, his tennis shoes pointing to the sky, blood running.

It happened fast. The girls were out in backless dresses and the boys were ordering ice creams. Petar Grujic finished his cappuccino, clinked a few coins in the saucer for a tip. Pistol shots snapped the seaside air outside Cafe Nesta, and Grujic, a poker player and mafia confidant, tumbled backward.

The masked shooter vanished down sunlit cobblestones. A blanket was thrown over the deceased, covering all but the sneakers, white ones with blue stripes. Evidence bags rustled like whispers. Ambulance doors closed and another guy with a Balkan last name and a cellphone full of intriguing numbers rolled toward the morgue.

This city smells of creosote, perfume and the occasional wisp of gunpowder. Cruise ships billow in like white clouds upon the sea. The government website says 270,000 people live here, speaking 100 languages and representing 164 nationalities. Until that July afternoon in 2005, Grujic was one of them. The Serb was stitched in to a Balkan organized crime network that spread across Scandinavia in the late 1980s, bringing antitank missiles and hit men to the land of social harmony and polished Volvos.

Serbian and ethnic Albanian clans today control heroin flowing north out of Afghanistan, weapons smuggled through the Balkans, prostitutes trafficked from Africa to the alleys of Copenhagen; they mastermind the brazen armed robberies of security trucks ferrying cash, and have connections to a Norwegian criminal organization behind the daylight museum heist of "The Scream."

Theirs is a dark story of immigration in which economic desperation and then war sent migrants and refugees streaming through the continent. Some of today's most wanted Balkan criminals arrived in Sweden, Norway and Denmark as teenagers in the 1970s and '80s when their families answered calls for construction and factory workers. Others trickled in with refugees fleeing the 1990s Bosnian and Kosovo wars, trailing connections to mafia clans that thrived on the reputedly criminal state run by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

'Extremely violent'

"The ethnic Albanian mafia is very powerful and extremely violent," said Kim Kliver, chief investigator for organized crime with the Danish National Police. "If you compare them to the Italian Mafia, the Albanians are stronger and not afraid of killing."

Such viciousness has jolted Scandinavia, where until recently bank deposit trucks in many cities traveled with unarmed guards. These days Heckler machine guns, Molotov cocktails and Kalashnikovs are the new accouterments to crime scenes and police evidence rooms. Shootouts and assassination attempts echo through Stockholm, Copenhagen and other cities. Even in relatively small Malmo, six Balkan mafia figures have been slain since 2002, according to police.

"They brought this gangster mentality that wasn't anything like the normal Swedish criminal," said one Swedish police investigator, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "Sweden is a good country for the Balkan guys. It's good money, it's easy to hide, and compared to their countries the prisons are like heaven."

With the loosening of Europe's borders in recent years, it's easy for a drug trafficker to load a Mercedes with heroin in Bulgaria and drive across the continent and over the sea to Scandinavia. If he's arrested, he'll encounter lenient judicial systems. If he's jailed, he'll find escape an option, like the ethnic Albanian drug smuggler from Kosovo who paid off a guard and slipped out of a Norwegian prison in a truck, or the Serb in a Stockholm prison who was given a weekend pass to visit his wife and sneaked off to Greece.

"We need tougher laws, but that directly contradicts our open society," said Bo Lundqvist, a Malmo-based detective superintendent investigating the Grujic slaying. "We don't have the equivalent of a racketeering act. We can't bug offices or cars. There's no plea-bargaining for criminals willing to testify against organized crime. And we're looking at individual crimes and not the larger picture. We get the small courier but not the big guy in Europe."

The ranks of couriers are endless and globalized, relying on doctored passports, cellphones and scattered diasporas. Law enforcement authorities estimate that even a small Albanian gang may smuggle as much as 440 pounds of heroin a year into Scandinavia.

Two of the most renowned Balkan figures, police say, work on opposite sides of Sweden. Naser Dzeljilji is an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia who lives in Goteborg, on the west coast. Milan Sevo is a Serb nicknamed the godfather of Stockholm. Dzeljilji is slight and quiet. A muscular man with a goatee, Sevo is gregarious; his wedding, police say, was an underworld social event of cigars and champagne.

Los Angeles Times Articles