BIRN pieces together a Serbian man’s final hours in the home of an alleged drug trafficker in Colombia, offering a rare glimpse into the deepening ties between Balkan drug gangs and the South American country.
By Charles Parkinson
Seventy-one days after Dejan Stanimirovic was found at a roadside in Colombia, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his face, the remains of the 45-year-old Serb were interred in Villavicencio’s crumbling Central Cemetery, where headstones sink into the ground and colonial-style architecture decays at the hands of the city’s tropical climate.
Stanimirovic did not die in a game of Russian roulette, as media reports first claimed.
In fact, it appears a drunken argument set in chain a confusing series of events in Colombia’s Meta department southeast of the capital Bogota on the night of March 31 this year, in which two police officers and an alleged drug trafficker also died.
Investigators say a number of key questions remain unanswered, but details pieced together by BIRN offer a rare glimpse into Balkan organised crime activity in the South American nation, a growing trend that the authorities are struggling to understand.
“I don’t think, given where it happened and the manner of his death, that he was a tourist,” said a high-ranking member of the Colombian National Police who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He wasn’t here doing ecotourism.”
The quiet ‘Marcos’
Stanimirovic, who grew up in Belgrade and ran a karate club in Spain, entered Colombia from Ecuador across the Rumichaca Bridge, sometime in the middle of March. This time, he was alone.
Investigators who spoke to BIRN said the Serbian citizen had visited the country before, possibly in January. He was known locally as ‘Marcos’.
According to Colonel Gustavo Berdugo Garavito, commander of the Colombian National Police in Meta, Stanimirovic travelled 1,000 kilometres to the Meta town of Guamal and the home of Jose Vicente Rivera Mendoza, known as ‘Soldado’, or Soldier.
Rivera was an alleged drug trafficker in Meta, where the Andes meet the westernmost section of a vast belt of tropical savanna known as Los Llanos, The Plains.
Situated between zones of coca production in the mountains and jungles of Colombia’s south and east and export points via Venezuela, Los Llanos are an expansive thoroughfare for narcotics and other contraband and long an area of activity for illegal armed groups.
Some of these groups trace their roots to landowner-backed paramilitary organisations established in the 1980s to fight leftist guerrillas who had grown in power by trading in narcotics. These paramilitaries subsequently became major drug traffickers and organised criminals themselves, and many of the key players in the armed groups active today were previously paramilitaries.
As a former senior member of the paramilitary Centaurs Bloc that operated in Meta and neighbouring departments, Stanimirovic’s host Rivera had refused to take part in a paramilitary demobilisation process in Colombia between 2003 to 2006.
Around the time of Stanimirovic’s arrival, Colombia closed its borders to restrict the spread of COVID-19 and he was unable to leave. He rarely left Rivera’s home and barely spoke to anyone.
According to the investigators, Stanimirovic would sleep during the day and be awake at night, often spending hours in his room watching television.
“He only spoke with Soldado,” said one of the investigators, using Rivera’s nom de guerre.
Other people in the home told police Stanimirovic spoke so little Spanish that their limited communication was often in broken English.
“Everyone said he was a quiet and respectful guy up until that day,” March 31, said another of the investigators, all three of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
Deadly drunken dispute
Rivera and Stanimirovic spent their last afternoon together at Rivera’s home with his family, eating lunch before the pair left to visit a farm.
Those who stayed behind reportedly began drinking aguardiente, literally ‘firewater’, an anise-flavoured Colombian liquor usually downed in shots. When Rivera and Stanimirovic returned at around 8 p.m., they joined in the drinking.
According to the investigators, Stanimirovic told the group that he did not usually drink alcohol because he was on prescription drugs for a mental health condition. His life threatened by rival traffickers, Rivera was generally teetotal.
“Soldado was very aware of his security, he didn’t leave that house very much, he was very careful,” said one of the investigators.
That evening, however, the pair apparently threw caution to the wind, joining in the shots to celebrate the birthday of Rivera’s son.
The group reportedly played a game of ‘spin-the-bottle’ in which each player would spin a bottle to determine who drank next.
This may have been the basis for inaccurate early reports that Stanimirovic died during a game of ‘Russian roulette,’ in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle to their head and pulls the trigger, hoping that the cylinder hasn’t settled on the loaded chamber.
Mobile phone video taken at the scene show a number of apparently drunk participants poking fun at Stanimirovic, calling him ‘Ruso’, or Russian.
At some point later that evening, after much alcohol had been consumed, an argument broke out between Rivera and Stanimirovic.
According to investigators, Rivera’s son, Anderson Rivera Beltran, gave a statement to police saying he had left the room to go to the toilet and when he came back the pair was struggling over a phone.
It is unclear what triggered the altercation, though some believe it may have been something as trivial as an argument over the choice of music.
The son tried to pull them apart, investigators say, but Stanimirovic drew a pistol and led both Rivera and his son to a bedroom at the front of the property, opening fire three times as they arrived in the room and killing Rivera.
According to investigators, there was a struggle between Stanimirovic and Rivera’s son, but there has been no official explanation of how Stanimirovic ended up with a bullet in his face.
“The Serbian took a towel and ran to the street,” said the investigator. “By the time the police had arrived, he had lost a lot of blood and could not speak.”
According to a police incident report written up in the early hours of April 1, Stanimirovic was found, still alive, beside the road a few minutes after midnight by two officers responding to reports of gunshots in the area. They found him lying on his left side, wearing dark shorts, a red sweatshirt and “croc-type” sandals, with a blue towel “placed on his neck” to stem the blood from a wound to his upper jaw.
“He was found conscious but he could not pronounce a single word,” said the report.
The police followed the trail of blood to Rivera’s house, where two officers were shot dead.
A few hours later, in Villavicencio Hospital, Stanimirovic was pronounced dead.
Stanimirovic was widely reported to be a high-ranking member of the Balkan ‘Keka’ group, wanted on cocaine charges, the reports said, in Spain, Germany and Portugal. Spanish authorities, however, told BIRN they had no record of him. German and Portuguese authorities did not respond to BIRN questions.
In Colombia, he was unknown to authorities, his previous entry into the country triggering no alarm bells at the border.
The police, however, say the circumstances of his death point strongly to criminality and likely involvement in drug trafficking.
According to the Meta police commander, Colonel Berdugo, the investigation uncovered a link between Rivera and the Gulf Clan, arguably one of the most powerful Colombian criminal groups active today. That link has never previously been acknowledged by authorities.
Rivera’s own association with Stanimirovic, therefore, could corroborate what has long been suspected – that ties have been established between Balkan cartels and the Gulf Clan, reflecting the growing presence and power of Balkan drug groups in Colombia.
“Certain groups from the Western Balkans have moved up the value chain in the past 20 years, from small-time crooks and couriers to becoming major distributors of drugs in networks that stretch from Latin America to Western Europe and South Africa,” the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, GI–TOC, wrote in a report in July.
Balkan criminal groups visiting Colombia tread carefully, GI-TOC wrote, travelling without contraband or suspicious quantities of cash, keeping a low profile and rarely staying no longer than a month. They often travel in multinational groups to avoid suspicion, and where necessary use high-quality false identity documents.
According to Felipe Tascon, an expert on Colombia’s cocaine economy who has worked with the Colombian state and the European Union on the issue, the lack of concrete evidence of Balkan criminal activity in the country likely only reflects how effective and disciplined Balkan criminals have been at keeping a low profile, as well as the relatively low numbers of Balkan visitors compared to other foreign criminal operatives.
“We hear a great deal about an ‘invasion’ of Mexican traffickers that are active here in Colombia, apparently a far greater number than any European group, and yet during my fieldwork in the likes of Tumaco, I have never met a Mexican or even heard a Mexican speaking,” Tascon said.
“So it is not unreasonable to believe that other nationalities could be here in much smaller numbers without being detected.”
Colombian cocaine seizures in the Balkans
Prior to the death of Stanimirovic, one of the individuals with Balkan roots previously reported to be involved in high-level drug trafficking in Colombia appears to have been Miro Niemeier Rizvanovic, alias ‘El Ruso.’
A German citizen born in Bosnia, Rizvanovic was arrested on drug trafficking charges in 2016 but, reports say, arranged with officials for them to release him into house arrest.
The move allegedly allowed him to continue his trafficking operations, including travelling abroad under false Ecuadorian documents and nurturing trafficking contacts in Spain and Italy.
Though reportedly still under house arrest, Rizvanovic was arrested in Italy in 2017 and sent back to Colombia.
A year later, Rizvanovic was shot dead in his car after leaving a party in Colombia’s central coffee growing region. No explanation was offered as to how he managed to evade his house arrest. Local media reports have speculated he was killed because he offered information on the Gulf Clan to Italian authorities.
Several arrests and drug busts over the past few years suggest much is going on between Colombia and the Balkans.
In 2014, Montenegro arrested three international arms traffickers suspected of conspiring to sell large weaponry to FARC rebels in Colombia, designated previously by the US and European Union as ‘terrorists’.
In 2018, Albanian police announced the record seizure of 613 kg of pure Colombian cocaine in a banana container that came from Latin America.
The same year, five people were arrested – one in Colombia and four in Spain – following the discovery of over a ton of cocaine in a private jet flown between the two countries.
Among those arrested in Spain were two Albanian passengers, including the ringleader of the operation, Julián Deblini, and an Albanian associate Dritan Gradica. Meanwhile, Lelio Nevardo Ávila Santana was arrested in Colombia for his connections to the group, with local media reporting he worked as part of Deblini’s group, not for a Colombian criminal organisation.
Then in February this year, as part of an international police operation, police in North Macedonia seized a kilo of Colombian cocaine in a village near the capital, describing it as “only part” of a shipment that entered from neighbouring Albania.
Additional reporting done by Javier Ruiz Afanador from Bogota and Ivana Nikolic from Belgrade.