Gang Leader’s Rise, Fall Paints Damning Picture Of Serbia – Analysis
Veljko Belivuk stands accused of running a brutal crime clan from the stands of a Belgrade football club. But he had friends in high places to help.
By Ivana Jeremic
To look at their faces, one could imagine the photographer saying “Smile for the camera!”
But the grins hardly fit the scene: two men crouching over the body of a third, a life just snuffed out.
The image was one of dozens uncovered by investigators building a case against one of the alleged executioners – the leader of a football fan group called Veljko Belivuk, or ‘Velja Nevolja’ [Velja Trouble].
Arrested in February, Belivuk stands accused of running a crime gang linked to drug trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering and a string of brutal killings.
Long notorious for his violent behaviour, Belivuk nevertheless spent relatively little time behind bars, a fact some have ascribed to the documented connections between his crime gang and state officials of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS.
At the beginning of this year, Belivuk appears to have fallen out of favour.
The revelations that have since emerged paint a damning picture of the power and brutality of organised crime in Serbia, power laid bare on October 15 by the arrest of a former senior interior ministry official suspected of tampering with evidence in a murder for which Belivuk was charged and acquitted.
An indictment filed at the end of July makes for gruesome reading, but is quiet on the political links and protection Belivuk and his associates appear to have enjoyed for years.
Muscle for political parties
Aged 36, Belivuk grew up in the Belgrade of the 1990s, when socialist Yugoslavia was unravelling in war and Serbia was in the grip of nationalism. In Belgrade, gun-toting crime figures were tabloid heroes.
In the early 2000s, as reformers struggled to get to grips with the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic’s disastrous rule, Belivuk entered the flourishing world of private security, joining a firm owned by the Serbian ‘ultimate fighter’ Dusan Panajotovic.
His first known brush with the law came in 2007, when, as head of security at BlayWatch, a well-known river nightclub in Belgrade, Belivuk was involved in a violent incident with two minors.
In 2008, prosecutors accused him of aggravated attempted murder and illegal possession of a weapon, but, after the witnesses changed their statements, the indictment was watered down in 2015 from attempted murder to grievous bodily harm. The weapons charge had already been dropped and in March 2016 – eight years after the offence – Belivuk was sentenced to five and a half months in prison, effectively setting him free given the time he had already spent in custody.
By then, Belivuk was a major player, having taken over the stands at Belgrade’s Partizan football club in 2013 alongside Aleksandar Stankovic, known as Sale the Mute, who would be killed in October 2016. In December 2013, Belivuk and a number of others demolished a Belgrade café owned by Aleksandar Vavic, leader of the Partizan fan group, Alcatraz.
Originally a Red Star fan, Belivuk had become a leader of the Partizan ‘Janjicari’ [Janissaries], formed in 2013 ostensibly as one of a number of hardcore football fan groups around the Belgrade clubs but some of which in fact operate as crime gangs involved in private security, drug dealing and – on occasion – muscle for political parties.
By 2015, the Janjicari had been hired by the management of Partizan to protect the VIP lounge at the club’s Belgrade stadium.
But a more important perk of controlling the stands was preferential status in providing security for Serbian nightclubs. Watching the door meant controlling the lucrative flow of drugs.
In 2016, however, Belivuk looked to have overstepped the mark when a video of him brutally attacking a man outside the Partizan stadium went viral and his name was plastered all over the newspapers.
Pleading guilty, Belivuk was sentenced to one year house arrest, without any electronic surveillance.
But before his sentence could begin, Belivuk was arrested in connection with the killing of Vlastimir Milosevic in January 2017. He spent 14 months in detention and in May 2018 he was acquitted of the murder. The judge, Slavica Nikolic, said that the evidence presented only gave grounds for “reasonable suspicion” that he may have been involved, “but that is not enough for a verdict.”
Belivuk’s legal troubles, however, did not stop his associates from being hired to help with security during the inauguration of SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic as president of Serbia in April 2017.
Around late 2019, early 2020, the Janjicari were rebranded the ‘Principi’; name change regardless, they retained their well-placed connections, including a senior police adviser and the secretary-general of the Serbian government.
But Belivuk’s activities were increasingly in the public domain.
In early 2020, a video surfaced on social media showing Belivuk harassing a visibly distressed Rade Petrovic, leader of a powerful rival Partizan fan group. Petrovic is heard to say that his own group had “betrayed Partizan” and describing himself as a “p*ssy”.
However sinister, the video was nothing compared to what else was going on.
Thanks to a breakthrough by law enforcement agencies in Europe, police in Serbia got access to the Sky EEC secure communication devices Belivuk and his associates used to communicate, to organise their activities and brag about the results.
In one of the messages, Belivuk – or ‘Soprano’ as he was known in the Sky communication – sent a photo of the decapitated body of Partizan fan Goran Velickovic.
“Look babe, Mexico in the middle of Belgrade hahaha,” he wrote, in reference to the drumbeat of death that has blighted much of Mexico since authorities declared war on the drug cartels 15 years ago.
On Velickovic’s body was scrawled a derogatory reference to a person by the name of Korac. Filip Korac is a leader of the Montenegrin drug-trafficking crime gang Skaljari, which has been locked in a vicious turf war with the rival Montenegrin Kavac gang. Reports say Belivuk was a member of the Kavac.
Prosecutors say Velickovic was one of a number of victims taken to a house in a Belgrade suburb, tortured, killed and dismembered, their remains fed into a meat grinder and tossed into the river. Police found around 100 firearms at the premises, including a machine gun, as well as several bombs, explosives and grenades.
The gang also had use of a secret ‘bunker’ at the Partizan stadium to hide drugs and weapons. It remains unclear what the club management knew about it.
Friends in high places
The indictment against Belivuk and his associates makes for gruesome reading. But it says almost nothing about the political protection the group appeared to enjoy.
Investigative journalists have presented compelling evidence of the links between Belivuk’s gang and those in charge of running the country.
In July, the Belgrade-based Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK, published parts of what Belivuk told prosecutors under questioning and where he claims to have collaborated with the state.
Belivuk said that Vucic had asked him to bring under control the chanting against the president from the Partizan stands during football games, to intimidate anti-government protesters and to make sure a Pride march in Belgrade passed off peacefully.
Belivuk said he had personally met Vucic on several occasions, a claim the president denied.
“It’s logical, when you see an indictment coming, when criminals see it coming, and not just criminals but the worst murderers and butchers, that they then react in such a way that they try to get themselves out of everything politically in order to get political support from certain media that are owned by individual politicians and their associates,” Vucic said.
Belivuk’s right-hand man, Marko Miljkovic, claimed to have met Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, as well as Vucic, Newsmax Adria reported. Vulin also denied this.
According to the indictment, Bojan Hrvatin, a Belivuk associate who has turned witness for the prosecution, mentioned to prosecutors Vulin’s predecessor as interior minister and current defence minister Nebojsa Stefanovic as a person he said Belivuk had described as important for the group’s future.
Hrvatin also spoke of a figure in the police with the surname Papic and the nickname on Sky of ‘Sheriff’. It may have been a reference to Goran Papic, the former deputy head of the police organised crime department, SBPOK.
Papic was arrested on March 9 on suspicion of trading in influence. He was released in April, with reports saying he had intervened in police questioning of Miljkovic, under the orders of Stefanovic, once a close ally of Vucic until the ruling party turned on him earlier this year in an apparent settling of scores within the SNS. Prosecutors indicted Papic on October 19.
BIRN has reported previously on the group’s connections to a number of government officials and the Gendarmerie unit of the police. Even Vucic’s 23-year-old son, Danilo, has been photographed several times with various members of the Janjicari. Responding to press reports about his son’s friends, Vucic said that they were just football fans, not criminals.
One of those pictured with Danilo at a 2018 World Cup match in Russia, Boris Karapandzic, now faces charges as one of Belivuk’s associates, having already been convicted of drug trafficking, illicit possession of weapons and involvement in the demolition of Vavic’s Belgrade café.
In 2017, a military trade union filed a criminal complaint against the army top brass, accusing them of allowing suspect individuals from outside the army, Belivuk among them, to use the army’s shooting range, weapons and ammunition over a period of several months in 2016.
According to KRIK, the shooters also included Nenad Vuckovic, a special adviser to the head of the Gendarmerie and Novak Nedic, the general-secretary of the government who was a member of the Partizan board of directors between 2013 and 2014. The union’s criminal complaint was rejected in 2018.
Vuckovic’s name appears in the investigation into the attack by Belivuk on the café of Alcatraz leader Vavic, but he was never formally investigated, the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, CINS, reported in late 2017. Vuckovic has also been photographed hugging Belivuk on the Partizan stands.
In June this year, Vladimir Vuletic, a former vice-president of Partizan, published papers showing that the ‘bunker’ used by Belivuk and others at the club’s stadium had been leased since 2017 by a company called Mitona d.o.o., registered in the Business Registers Agency to Milorad Pushica, a board member of Vucic’s SNS party.
Then on October 15, after months of headlines tying her to Belivuk’s gang, Dijana Hrkalovic, an SNS member and former state secretary in the interior ministry who left her post in May 2019, was arrested on suspicion of trading influence. Vucic said the charges concerned the 2017 murder of Milosevic, of which Belivuk was acquitted.
Reports say Hrkalovic used her position to share confidential information and tamper with evidence. Her lawyer described her as a “scapegoat” and said the alleged tampering amounted to little more than administrative errors.
Luck runs out
Belivuk and Miljkovic were banned from entering neighbouring Montenegro on security grounds. But at the beginning of this year, Belivuk went anyway, his path apparently cleared by several police officers arrested in October on suspicion of lifting the ban outside of official channels.
Media reports say he met in Montenegro with a man called Radoje Zvicer, a high-ranking member of the Kavac clan. KRIK has reported that Belivuk was a member of the clan.
On his return from Montenegro in January, Belivuk was detained for a couple of hours, while a number of people were arrested in Montenegro on suspicion of trying to kill him.
Days later, early in the morning of February 4, Belivuk was arrested, allegedly en route to destroy evidence. By that point, he had been under surveillance for months.
On July 30, Belivuk and 29 associates were indicted.
Belivuk personally stands accused of five counts of aggravated murder, the illicit production, possession, carrying and trafficking of weapons and explosives, kidnapping and the unauthorised production and distribution of narcotics. Organised crime prosecutors announced on October 19 that they were also investigating the group over a sixth murder.
Belivuk remains in custody.