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Belgrade and Skopje Airports ‘Hubs for Illicit Activities’: Report

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, GI-TOC, a Geneva-based NGO, published a report on Monday warning that Balkan airports are vulnerable to organised crime and that Belgrade and Skopje airports in particular are regional hubs for illicit activities.

Among the criminal activities, GI-TOC names smuggling of migrants and goods, human trafficking, but also shipments of illegal drugs and chemical precursors.

The report noted that seizures of cocaine arriving from Latin America, mostly from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, have been made at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport.

“In 2015, for instance, Serbian authorities discovered that the suitcase of a Brazilian citizen contained 8.5 kilogrammes of cocaine, the largest quantity ever discovered at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. In 2018, a similar case occurred at Skopje airport: customs officials seized nearly 2 kilogrammes of cocaine hidden in the suitcase of a Venezuelan citizen,” the report said.

Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport is located close to three European road corridors key for illicit flows of drugs and people across the Western Balkans: the E-70 connecting Croatia to Romania, the E-75 connecting North Macedonia to Hungary and the E-763connecting Montenegro to Serbia.

The report said that drug-smuggling through Skopje International Airport in personal luggage is relatively small-scale and gherefore probably unsophisticated.

“Cargo is a different story, however, both in terms of the quantities involved and the multiple steps of the supply chain exposed to criminal exploitation,” it said.

It noted that in February 2022, Turkish customs and North Macedonia’s police conducted a joint operation that led to the detection of 1 ,05 kilograms of 1-phenyl-2-propanone, a precursor chemical that could have been used for the production of up to 50 million euros’ worth of amphetamines and methamphetamines.

The shipment was sent via Istanbul from Shanghai to Skopje by air, with Western Europe being the intended destination.

As a result, two citizens of North Macedonia allegedly affiliated with an international drug-trafficking organisation were arrested.

The reports also claims that there is evidence of corruption at Balkan airports that ranges from petty bribes offered to airport security personnel to misappropriation and mismanagement of public funds by senior officials and managers.

“Corruption not only represents an additional cost, but it also affects the development of air traffic-related infrastructure. In 2018, for instance, the media reported on a Serbian businessman twice indicted for cigarette smuggling (but later acquitted of all charges) and known for his links to an alleged drug lord, who was set to make millions from the expansion of Belgrade’s airport,” it said.

The report was referring to controversial Serbian businessman Stanko ‘Cane’ Subotic.

The report also claims that evidence shows that airports in the Balkans are starting points for human-trafficking victims who are mainly being sent to Western Europe for sexual exploitation.

“With regard to illegal migrants apprehended on arrival at Balkan airports, their countries of origin – such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – suggest that these airports are the final step of the flow, and that migrant-smuggling schemes are in place to supply the informal workforce in the region’s industrial, agricultural and tourism sectors,” the report added.

The assessments by GI-TOC were carried out at Belgrade and Skopje airports between November 2022 and January 2023, and involved interviews with more than 20 airport experts, including security providers – representatives of customs, border police, state police, prosecutors’ offices and private security companies – plus representatives of logistics companies, international experts on aviation security, academics and journalists reporting on illicit trade through airports.

Source: Balkan Insight