Crime Ties Exposed In North Macedonia Medicinal Cannabis Boom – Analysis


North Macedonia has actively promoted the development of a medicinal cannabis industry, but a BIRN investigation reveals the criminal ties behind at least some of those granted much-coveted licences.

By Vlado Apostolov, Jelena Veljkovic and Besar Likmeta

In the summer of 2022, in the space of 48 hours, police in North Macedonia raided two cannabis plantations in the southwest of the country, near Lake Ohrid.

The plantations had licences to grow cannabis for medical use, a sector that the state has vigorously promoted over the past five or six years.

The violations of regulations that the police uncovered during the two raids, however, suggested much of the product was making its way onto the illegal market.

Officers confiscated cannabis with a black market value of up to five million euros, experts at the health ministry said, and the trail led to two Albanian nationals who share business ties with another Albanian convicted of drug-related crimes in Italy.

It was not the only case of suspect capital in North Macedonia’s medicinal cannabis industry, a BIRN investigation has found, suggesting that a determination to promote the sector has led to lapses in the vetting of potential investors.

Link to convicted drug trafficker, later pardoned

North Macedonia legalised the cultivation of medical cannabis in 2015 and gave the task of monitoring investors to a five-person commission under the health ministry which is expected to track production in minute detail and conduct inspections of each plantation twice a year.

But it was only after Zaev came to power in 2017 that the industry really took off. He made predictions of 250 million euros in revenues, new development, and new jobs.

By the time Zaev left office in 2021, more than 60 companies had permits, which came with strict rules on how such operations should be run, including rigorous record-keeping and high standards of security, from video surveillance to tall fences. Around half are actually producing.

The rules, however, did not stop the owners of the plantation in the Ohrid region from growing many more plants than they actually reported to the state, according to police records from July 13 last year. Having reported only 600 of the 1,000 plants they grew, the owners had taken the audacious step of planting another 2,000 outside the original plantation, in the open air, which is strictly forbidden.

Police found seven kilos of cannabis buds more than had been reported to authorities; there was even a second floor where cannabis oil was being extracted, despite the fact the plantations did not have the special permit required for such an operation. And the video surveillance wasn’t working.

At the other plantation in the area, near the town of Struga, the video surveillance was also faulty and only covered parts of the facility, police found during the July raid. There were holes in the wire fence big enough for a person to get in and out and roughly 1,000 cannabis plants were being grown in the open, outside the compound.

The first plantation, in Ohrid, is operated by a company called Greengo 2018, which has three owners, while the other, in Struga, is the property of Green & Bio Farm, owned by two people.

Among the founders of Green & Bio Farm was a man from the town of Pogradec, just across the nearby border with Albania, called Luan Kapri. His daughter, Marinela Kapri, is one of the three owners of Greengo 2018.

Luan Kapri, who sold his own stake in Green & Bio five months before the police raid, owns a company in Albania called REJ 3, which deals in waste collection and hydro power and has collaborated extensively with local authorities.

Kapri’s partner in REJ 3 is another Albanian citizen called Gezim Salillari, who, according to Italian authorities, used to smuggle drugs into the southern city of Bari from the Albanian port of Durres in the late 1990s.

Convicted by a Bari court in 2002 and sentenced to eight years in prison, later cut to four, Salillari lived freely in Albania until 2006, when he was arrested in Durres on an Interpol warrant. He still avoided jail, however, thanks to a ruling by the Albanian Supreme Court that the arrest order was illegal on the grounds that 294 pages of case documents from the Bari court had not been translated into Albanian.

Meanwhile, in July 2006, Salillari benefitted from a clemency bill issued by Italy’s then justice minister, Clemente Mastella, to free up prison space.

Serbian crime figure

Kapri’s ties to Salilari were not an issue, as far as authorities in North Macedonia were concerned. Under the law, to get a permit to cultivate medicinal cannabis, the investor must confirm in writing that they have not been convicted of any drug-related crime. Kapri hadn’t, and nor had his daughter, so both Greengo 2018 and Green & Bio Farm received permits in 2019 and 2020.

The permits were revoked, however, following the police raids, and prosecutors in Struga opened investigations into the two companies, each for violating regulations and illegal drug production and trade.

A settlement was reached on the first, but the second is ongoing. The prosecution told BIRN that the case was “still in regular procedure.”

REJ 3, the company co-owned by Kapri and Salillari, did not respond to a request for comment.

But it’s not just Kapri’s exploits that are a cause for concern, BIRN’s investigation shows.

Another investment was in the pipeline involving a Serbian national called Nebojsa Mihajlovic, who, according to media reports, served a prison sentence in Serbia for drug trafficking, and Vladimir Stojinovic, who had a Greek passport and was accused of money laundering in North Macedonia

Their troubles with the law did not stop them from founding a company together in North Macedonia in 2018 called Botanique and securing a permit in 2020 to grow medicinal cannabis in the southern Gevgelija region.

Mihajlovic, who has since died, features in the Serbian interior ministry’s so-called ‘White Book’ on organised crime, issued in 2001 following the ouster of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The book lists Mihajlovic, known as ‘Trta’, as the “second most important person” in an organised crime group based in the central Serbian town of Jagodina and was involved in heroin smuggling in Serbia, Austria and Germany.

In fact, according to Serbian media reports, Mihajlovic was arrested several times, but served time in prison for drug trafficking only after he was among hundreds of alleged crime figures rounded up during a police dragnet following the assassination of reformist Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

It was also reported in the media that Mihajlovic had been tried after heroin was found in his house; this was confirmed for BIRN by the Supreme Court in Belgrade.

The court said that Mihajlovic had been acquitted in late 1998 on charges of the illegal production and trade of drugs and illegal possession and trade of weapons and ammunition, but that the ruling was overturned almost a year later. The case was dropped after the deputy prosecutor pulled out in mid-2004.

Besides being majority-owner of Botanique, Mihajlovic owned a petrol station and built apartments in Jagodina; in 2019, his Jagodina-based firm Iks Trejd paid 420,000 euros to buy an historic, bankrupt brewery from the state that media reports valued at six million euros.

Despite holding a licence, Botanique, which is a subsidiary of Iks Trejd, has not reported any cannabis production as yet, the health ministry commission said.

Like REJ 3 in Albania, Botanique did not respond to BIRN questions.

Ties to discredited former government

Until 2019, Mihajlovic’s business partner in Iks Trejd was Stojinovic, listed in the Macedonian business registry under the name in his Greek passport, Vlantimir Stoginovits.

Stojinovic is under investigation in a case concerning the illegal siphoning of money from the construction of a stretch of highway – co-funded by the European Union – between the southern towns of Demir Kapija and Smokvica, near the Greek border.

Investigators have been probing suspicious transactions between the Greek company Aktor, which was hired to build the road, and a Macedonian company owned by Stojinovic called Invikta.

The investigation is ongoing, but may be split into two, with one part, concerning Stojinovic, passed to Greek authorities, prosecution sources told BIRN.

In 2015, when the highway was under construction, Stojinovic set up a joint company – VSM Inter – with an offshore company called Eksiko, a firm that was embroiled in a number of controversial business deals under the governments of fugitive former PM Nikola Gruevski between 2006 and 2016.

It later emerged in court that Eksiko is owned by the family of Sasho Mijalkov, Gruevski’s cousin and former head of the secret police who was convicted in 2021 of abuse of office over the illegal purchase of surveillance equipment.

Stojinovic could not be reached for comment and the companies he owns in the capital, Skopje, are no longer at their registered addresses.

This story was produced with support from the Global Programme ‘Combating Illicit Financial Flows’ implemented by the GIZ and financially supported by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Its contents are the sole responsibility of BIRN and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GIZ, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development or the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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