When four Serbian criminals with South African links were murdered in interlinked shootings, media speculated it was revenge for the killing of wartime paramilitary boss Arkan, but the murders actually showed how violence follows Serbian gangsters wherever they go.
By Aleksandar Djuricic
Dobrosav Gavric is spending his days behind bars in South Africa, a long way from his homeland, awaiting a final decision on whether he will be sent back to Serbia to serve a prison sentence for killing the most notorious paramilitary leader of the 1990s wars – Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan.
Gavric was convicted of murdering warlord Arkan in 2000 in Belgrade, but fled to South Africa to avoid serving his sentence. He is now facing extradition after South Africa’s Constitutional Court decided in late September that he could be sent back to Serbia, where he had argued that his life would be in danger.
He was caught after being wounded in a drive-by shooting in 2011, but despite his predicament, Gavric might consider himself lucky – several other Serbs who were convicted of involvement in the killing of Arkan or had relocated to South Africa to pursue their criminal activities have been murdered this year. Three were shot in South Africa, and another in Belgrade.
Some of the victims had fled Serbia to avoid going to prison, but the country in which they hoped to enjoy refuge from the law became the place where they met their violent deaths. Only Gavric survived, but now a Serbian jail seemingly awaits him – showing how Serbian gangsters’ dreams of operating freely abroad can deliver the same fate that they sought to escape at home.
Criminal fugitive finds African haven
On October 9, 2006, a court in the Serbian capital sentenced Gavric to 35 years in prison for shooting Arkan in the lobby of Belgrade’s Intercontinental Hotel. Two accomplices were given 30 years each.
Arkan had been the leader of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, also known as the Tigers, one of the most feared Serb paramilitary units of the Balkan wars, and had been indicted the previous year by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, which accused him of committing war crimes in north-west Bosnia in 1995.
During the trial, it was not established who ordered and organised his murder. Some believe that Arkan was shot as a result of a conflict over money with a gangster called Zoran Uskokovic ‘Skole’. Others believe that he was killed because he had begun to collaborate with the UN prosecutors in The Hague.
Court proceedings were restarted several times, but all the while Gavric regularly attended the proceedings – until the day of sentencing came, when he didn’t show up.
Gavric had fled Serbia, and was not heard of again until almost five years later, when it was discovered that he was living in South Africa. By that time, he working as a driver and bodyguard for a Cape Town underworld boss, Cyril Beeka, it eventually emerged when the South African gangster was shot dead in March 2011.
Mandy Wiener, a South African investigative journalist, told BIRN that after the murder of Beeka, local media reported that he had been accompanied at the time of his death by a bodyguard called Sase Kovacevic, a Serbian who had been in South Africa for a few years and was fairly well-known in Johannesburg poker circles.
Kovacevic co-owned a few businesses in the city, according to Wiener, and had also got to know a crime boss of Czech origin, Radovan Krejcir, and his circle of Eastern European associates.
“The incredible truth about Kovacevic’s real identity only emerged after the shooting [of Beeka], although South African police had been aware of it for around six months,” Wiener recalled in her book ‘Ministry of Crime’.
“Kovacevic was, in fact, Dobrosav Gavric, a Serbian fugitive.”
After Beeka’s killing, Gavric was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of 9.524 grammes of cocaine and with having false documents – a driver’s licence, a passport and a firearms permit under the name of Sasa Kovacevic.
It turned out that Gavric had obtained a passport from Bosnia and Herzegovina under the name of Sasa Kovacevic and fled Serbia via Croatia, Italy and Cuba to Ecuador. In 2007, he travelled to South Africa, where he kept using the alias of Kovacevic.
He came on a three-month visitor’s visa, then brought in his wife and two children, and bought a luxurious apartment overlooking the Cape Town waterfront.
He obtained a business visa under his wife’s name, which enabled him to open a restaurant in Johannesburg. He was also able to set up an import-export business and began to establish relationships with local crime boss Beeka and his network.
“So it was that for over three years, a highly sought-after international fugitive was living under an alias in South Africa with no one any the wiser. He was even able to secure business, driving and gun licences by using his fake passport. But towards the end of 2010, his identity did become known to intelligence agents and some suggest he might even have been working with the state to provide information,” Wiener wrote in her book.
A source close to Beeka told the Mail and Guardian newspaper: “Gavric came to South Africa’s underground and when he got here he was offered protection by Cyril Beeka in return for intelligence on Eastern Europe, gangs, drugs, etc. The deal was that he would get protection about his identity from ‘the [South African state] agencies’ and in return he promised them information on all the organisations from Eastern Europe and Serbia.”
On the day of the murder, Beeka was chatting to Gavric, reminiscing about his youth, when gunmen opened fire as they stopped at a traffic light.
“I was the driver and Cyril was seated in the front passenger seat. I saw something stop, but it was out of the corner of my eye,” Gavric said in a statement to police after the shooting.
“The next thing I recall was hearing two loud bangs going off. I was hit in my right arm as well as my left one and I noticed that Cyril had been hit in the chest. It sounded like a shotgun went off. There was smoke and glass and I was confused,” he added.
Gavric fought back, opening fire on the assailants, Wiener wrote in her book. He slammed the car into reverse, then pursued the motorbike, firing several shots at the hitmen, despite having taken a number of bullets to his own body.
“The next thing I recall was my motor vehicle lifting from the ground and I lost control,” he said in the police statement. Beeka died at the scene and Gavric was airlifted to hospital in a critical condition.
Gavric’s present whereabouts are unknown. Some sources told BIRN that he has been in custody at Goodwood Correctional Facility near Cape Town since December 2011, while others said that he is being kept hidden under a state protection programme.
Beeka’s murderer was never caught, but Wiener said she thought Gavric was probably not a target in South Africa: “I don’t know if anyone is after Gavric here. Maybe from Serbia but I don’t think from the South African side. Unless he saw who killed Cyril Beeka when he was driving the car and he could testify against them.”
Serbian gangsters ‘feared and respected’
The two men convicted in 2006 as accomplices to Arkan’s murder were Milan ‘Miki’ Djuricic and Dragan ‘Gagi’ Nikolic.
Djuricic also went on the run and there was no information about his whereabouts for many years after he fled Serbia – until April 25, 2018, when he was murdered in Johannesburg in South Africa.
He was driving a jeep when three men attacked and killed him. He had a fake Belgian passport at the time.
A BIRN source in South Africa said that Djuricic had been living in Johannesburg for the previous three years and had a small business involving hotels, but that he was mostly involved in human trafficking and the drug trade. The source said that he was a “small fish” compared to Gavric.
Mile Novakovic, the former chief of Serbia’s Criminal Police Administration, said that both Djuricic and Gavric did not have a major role in criminal circles in the Balkans. He believes that their lowly status was why they were chosen to assassinate Arkan. “No one from high criminal circles would dare to take part in the execution of the number one state criminal,” Novakovic said.
But foreign criminals like Gavric are regarded as useful resources by local gangs, said South African security expert Mark Bolhuis.
“If you are an established mafia guy, especially if you are a Serb, you are automatically feared and respected in the underworld. There is information that you can be very dangerous, or very useful, or you can be a hitman or be part of a mafia organisation,” Bolhuis told BIRN.
“Once a gangster from overseas comes over they are accepted amongst gangs with open arms. Local gangs believe they can learn a lot from them and get lots of money. And then they hire them for different jobs – especially murders,” he added.
Bolhuis said that Serbian gangsters made contacts with local crime chiefs like Gavric’s employer, Cyril Beeka, and Radovan Krejcic, the underworld boss who originally came from the Czech Republic.
Krejcic is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in South Africa after being found guilty of attempted murder, assault and kidnapping, amongst other things.
“In Africa, there was no bigger gangster than Krejcir,” Bolhuis said. “Many people got hurt by him and because of him. He did not work alone, of course, but he brought in people from abroad who were trained to kill. He had great ties to all the police chiefs, customs, municipality, government officials. But primarily with police chiefs.”
However Vojislav Tufegdzic, the author of ‘See You in the Obituaries’, a well-known book and documentary about the underworld in what was Yugoslavia during the 1990s, believes that media outlets in Serbia can be prone to exaggerating the importance of Serbian criminals abroad.
“Gavric was wounded in South Africa once again as a driver or bodyguard to a South African major criminal, certainly not as a person who had any bigger role on his own than in this country,” Tufegdzic said.
Death of an ‘information whore’
The third Serbian with South African connections who was killed this year was George Darmanovic, a South African state security agent and mafia mediator.
He was shot outside a court in the New Belgrade district of the Serbian capital by two men on a motorcycle in May, less than two weeks after Djuricic was killed.
Darmanovic was well-connected all the way to the top in South Africa, and played a crucial role that crossed over between official intelligence structures and people in the criminal underworld, said Wiener.
“He obviously had his own motives and his own political agendas but he was very successful at working both sides and passing intelligence from organised crime to the state and back again,” she claimed.
Bolhuis said this could have been the reason for his demise: “Darmanovic had a target pinned to his back for the last three years because he was a man with a very bad reputation,” the security expert explained.
“We use the term ‘information whore’ for such people. He sold information to anyone he could – whether the authorities, the police, one gang, the other gang, within the gang,” he added.
Bolhuis explained that Darmanovic worked by collecting information for whoever hired him, but at the same time he delivered information to the other side as well, and then also sold that information to the police.
Wiener said that Darmanovic always seemed to have the inside scoop on anything that happened in South Africa and lots of people spoke to him, from Crime Intelligence officers to private investigators. He was a nodal figure who peddled information, although it wasn’t always accurate, sources in South Africa said.
Darmanovic had been living in Serbia for the last four years before his death but he always had his finger on the pulse in South Africa, according to Wiener. “He was often the first one to let me know about a local development. Recently I had been receiving a flurry of messages for him in response to info that had come out in the Ministry of Crime. He knew everything about everything but often I struggled to make sense of all he had to say and there wasn’t always clarity.”
She said that she did not expect that Darmanovic to be killed, however.
“I wasn’t aware of any kind of hit that had been ordered on him here and I think a lot of people were very surprised,” she said.
“There is a lot of talk here in South Africa about who could be responsible and could it be linked to turf wars in the security industry in Cape Town. But to be honest I think it must have something to do with his business in Serbia. I don’t believe someone in South Africa would have been able to carry out the hit in Serbia,” she added.
The elusive Arkan connection
On July 17 this year came a third killing of a Serbian expatriate criminal in South Africa, Darko Kulic, who died in a drive-by shooting in Johannesburg. South African media have reported that it appears that the three victims were acquainted.
A source from the South African police told BIRN that they are “investigating whether the murders of Miki Djuricic, Gorgi George Darmanovic and Darko Kulic are connected to each other”.
Then on September 24, a fourth man was killed. Djordje ‘George’ Mihaljevic, a well-known businessman of Serbian/Montenegrin origin with ties to the Serbian underworld in South Africa, was shot dead in Johannesburg by two men on motorbikes. Mihaljevic was apparently best friends with the murdered Kulic, and also knew Darmanovic.
Serbian media have suggested the spate of murders was belated revenge for the killing of warlord Arkan in 2000, but South African experts believe that the criminals who fled Serbia died because they came into conflict with local gangsters after setting themselves up in business in their adopted country.
Mile Novakovic, former chief of Serbia’s Criminal Police Administration, said he thinks that the murders of Djuricic and Kulic in Johannesburg and Darmanovic in Belgrade had nothing to do with Arkan’s death.
“It’s been 18 years since Arkan’s murder and there is no one who would now care to avenge the ‘Commander’, as they called him. The murder of Djuricic in Johannesburg was a local showdown,” Novakovic insisted.
Tufegdzic also said he was sure that the murders were not revenge for Arkan’s death. “These fairy-tale theories are without merit,” he declared.
Bolhuis said that the Serbian gangsters came to South Africa because it is a “lucrative country for crime”, with “corrupt police and other officials” – but sometimes find that their safe haven from the judiciary at home can be more dangerous than a Serbian prison sentence.
“I expect more people will get hurt. There is no fairness or honour among criminals. At one point they will go for one another,” the South African security expert said. “If anyone touches their money, their families or disrespects them, they will make sure that these persons are punished, usually with a murder, in order to intimidate people who are cooperating.”
“Among criminals, there is no honour,” he added. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”