BELGRADE – Shortly after he arrested a man suspected of leading a criminal gang last month in connection with a series of murders with beheading and torture, Serbian police officers raided what they said was the secret lair of the group was: a bunker-like room in the bowels of a stadium by Partizan Belgrade, a football team in the Serbian capital.
The room, located in a dilapidated restaurant under the plots, was closed off as a crime scene after investigators searched for evidence of links between football farmers and organized crime found weapons there.
The wall outside is covered with white and black paint with the name the Partizan fans use for themselves: ‘the gravediggers’.
The name is well deserved. Serbian football fans, at least those who used to be in the pre-pandemic time in the boisterous southern yards of Partizan’s stadium and the equally anarchic north side of the arena used by its Belgrade arch-rival, Red Star, have long had a reputation as extraordinary violence.
A French fan who traveled to Belgrade in 2009 to cheer on his team, Toulouse, in a match against Partizan, has died after being hit with iron bars and bicycle chains. In that case, 14 Partizan supporters were convicted of murder.
The violent tendencies also made Serbian football fans, especially those of the two rival Belgrade teams, a powerful force on the streets and in the country’s turbulent politics.
The question now facing Serbia is what led to the arrest of Veljko Belivuk, who is believed to be a gangster and the leader of a group of violent Partizan supporters last month. He operated unpunished for a long time, and he apparently had close ties with the government and security forces.
According to the government, Mr. Belivuk a brutal gang member whose arrest is a determination to curb the criminal ties that fueled the horrific violence of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, assassinated a reformist prime minister in 2003 and hampered Serbia’s impediment. efforts to become a normal European country.
“Our message is that we’re done with this gang,” President Aleksandar Vucic, a devoted Red Star fan who admitted in the past that he wrestled with games, declared on March 6 after state television showed gruesome images. of a decapitated corpse and the mutilated body of a young man with a Red Star tattoo on his leg – alleged victims of Mr. Belivuk’s gang.
Investigators told Mr. Belivuk is also linked to a decade-long drug war between two rival criminal tribes over control of a lucrative trade route across the Adriatic from Serbia’s neighboring Montenegro to Western Europe.
However, the government’s version of why Belivuk and 16 of his allies were arrested has upset those who follow the workings of Serbian football clubs and their supporters, the most violent of which are known as ‘ultras’.
“Our football hooligans are controlled by the state – they do what the state commands them to do,” said Mirko Poledica, president of the Union of Professional Football Players ‘Independence, Serbia’s players’ association.
Violent fans like Mr. According to him, Belivuk is such a frightening force that its control has always been a priority for any government that wants to avoid problems and stay in power.
Mr. Belivuk was an instrument of the government, he said, helping to break up opposition rallies and street safety for the inauguration of Mr. Vucic in 2017 could offer.
Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, said in an interview that Mr. Vucic, by far the Belivuk partner, was his target. “I have credible information that his life was in danger,” she said. “It was high time to act because of all the threats posed by organized crime.”
But she conceded that criminal gangs have developed ‘strong ties’ with state and security structures, and that they are now being investigated and uprooted. “It is clear that the mafia would not be as strong if it did not have support in the government,” she said.
The addition to a widespread view that Mr. Vucic hiding something, however, was a brutal scandalous campaign in media government procedures aimed at those who challenged the president’s story of a direct repression of organized crime.
Vladimir Vuletic, a Belgrade professor and former Partizan Vice President which became public with accusations of conspiracy with the arrested gang leader, are destroyed daily in tabloid newspapers that Mr. Vucic supported.
Me. Brnabic denied that the government was organized by the government.
Also smeared by the pony newspapers is Krik, a highly respected group of investigative journalists who for years reported on ties between government officials and Belivuk’s gang.
Steven Dojcinovic, editor-in-chief of Krik, said that organized crime in Serbia – and government officials – had long been linked to the ‘cruel force of nature’ provided by football farmers.
“Politicians have always been afraid of our scoundrels. “No matter who is in power, they always form a partnership with them,” he said.
However, the problems with partnerships with the hooligans are evident from the downfall of Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Under his rule in the 1990s, hooligans flowed into the ranks of state-backed paramilitary groups that spread chaos in Bosnia and Kosovo following the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
That Mr. Milosevic, for whom Mr. Vucic, who served as information minister and whose security services worked closely with hooligans and criminals, was in serious trouble, it became clear when Red Star’s ultroles ‘Slobodan Kill Yourself!’ at games. (His parents both died of suicide.)
Mr. Milosevic lost power in 2000 after the ultras led students and other protesters to storm the parliament building in Belgrade.
When Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then a part, began to unravel in the late 1980s, an early sign of impending war came in May 1990 when Red Star for a match in Zagreb, the capital of neighboring Yugoslavia. Republic of Croatia, traveled. The match was suspended after rival fans staged a violent rally and set the stadium on fire.
Among the Red Star fans who traveled to Zagreb for the match was Mr. Vucic, who later boasted that he “often fought” at games.
Poledica, the head of the footballers ‘association, said:’ Our politicians always fear the stadium and its terrible power. They know that any dissatisfaction in the stadium can spread quickly to the street. They want to control it. ”
He added that he did not know why the authorities were against Mr. Belivuk did not turn, but speculated that Mr. Belivuk and his followers have gone too far. “Everyone knew they were violent, that they had beaten people and made threats. But chopping off heads? ”
Belivuk’s lawyer, Dejan Lazarevic, said his client had not yet been formally charged and that there was no evidence to support the allegations of murder, kidnapping and other serious crimes against him by officials.
Mr. Vuletic, the professor, said Belivuk and a chapel known as ‘Sale the Mute’, which has since been murdered, only took over the southern part of Partizan’s stadium shortly after Mr. Vucic became prime minister in 2014. and start hitting someone who insults him.
The suspicion that Belivuk has powerful friends in government, or at least law enforcement, has been increasing since 2016, when he was arrested on a charge of murder, but then released after DNA and other evidence against him disappeared or had to be thrown away because of toddler.
Krik, the investigation team, later published photos of a member of Serbia’s gendarmerie, a police force, attending football matches with Mr Belivuk. At the time, the officer was in a relationship with a senior official responsible for the Interior Ministry.
This partnership with the government said that Dojcinovic, the Krik editor, broke up last year for unknown reasons, possibly due to an internal rift in the government of Serbian Progressive Party of Mr. Vucic, some of whose members were caught in the investigation into Mr Belivuk.
Among those questioned by police in connection with the case is Slavisa Kozeka, the president of the Football Association of Serbia. Mr. Kozeka, a senior official in the ruling party, was formerly an activist in a far-right nationalist outfit led by a convicted war criminal for years.
All the bad publicity has angered peaceful Partizan supporters like Vladimir Trikic. While touring the central district of Dorcol in Dorcol, he shows murals of artists, theater directors and poets who have cheered the club. Partizan, although closely associated with the former Yugoslav army, “has always been a team for intellectuals.”
For ordinary Partizan supporters, Belivuk was never really a proponent, but a deceiver led by Mr. Vucic was sent to control and discredit the bitter opponents of his own team.
During a Partizan match in Belgrade last week, which was held in front of most empty stands due to the pandemic, Zoran Krivokapic was one of a handful of fans who managed to get into the stadium. He said he attended every home game for 47 years and the rise and fall of Mr. Belivuk blamed what he said was a personal vendetta against Partizan by Mr. Vucic, the president, was.
“He wants to destroy Partizan and make the red star rise,” he said.