It was early morning, July 2, 2022, when the forest of Makova sedmica, a sleepy settlement just short of Serbia’s northern border with Hungary, became a battlefield.
The clatter of automatic weapons sent refugees and migrants fleeing, bullets whistling through the trees around them. The epilogue: one dead, seven wounded, including a 16-year-old girl; some of the victims were collateral damage in a war between rival people-smuggling gangs, both with roots in Afghanistan.
“This isn’t happening anywhere [else] on the Balkan route – only in Serbia is it like this, smugglers firing from Kalashnikovs,” a Syrian smuggler told BIRN in February this year.
His words weren’t far off the mark. Over the past year, reports of armed clashes between gangs making huge sums of money from spiriting refugees and migrants over Serbia’s borders into the European Union have become more frequent.
And larger settlements than Makova sedmica are not spared. In November last year, a gunfight broke out between Moroccans and Afghans in the very centre of the border town of Horgos, wounding six. Video of the clash showed armed men running past the local elementary school. In June and July this year, in armed clashes between gangs, one Afghan person was killed while five people were wounded.
Previous reporting by BIRN has exposed the collusion between such gangs and corrupt police officers. Now, a new investigation reveals the extent of their weapons arsenals, and where they came from.
For more than six months, BIRN monitored the activities of people-smuggling gangs in Serbia, verifying information in real-time and maintaining constant contact with more than a dozen independent sources, including those in the smuggling networks, the police, security services, their informants and collaborators, employees in migrant camps, taxi drivers involved in smuggling, rights activists and experts in the field.
Evidence gathered from hours of collated audio, photo and video material, verified by independent sources in the police, intelligence and smuggling networks, indicate that the chief suppliers of the pistols and Kalashnikovs used by such gangs are Albanian criminal groups, including that of the Xhemshiti twins, Amir and Amar, from the Kosovo capital, Pristina, who have already run foul of the law.
One photo seen by BIRN even shows Amir Xhemshiti posing with members of the Moroccan ‘Tetwani’ people-smuggling gang operating out of Horgos, all of them clutching Kalashnikovs. BIRN has identified them as members of the Tetwani gang by consulting several independent sources as well as by visually comparing an abundance of earlier photos.
Reached by BIRN, Amir Xhemshiti denied any involvement in the smuggling of weapons or people in northern Serbia. The photo with the Tetwani gang came about when he tried to enter the EU illegally, he said, like every “other Albanian with a lot of hardship and concerns”. The Moroccans, however, caught him.
“After they caught me I gave them some money; I saw they had guns and I asked them if we could take a picture together,” he said. “I don’t have any kind of relationship with them at all.”
Despite the dangers posed by such armed groups, the Serbian police appear helpless – or unwilling – to disarm them.
According to BIRN sources, on May 24 this year, members of the ‘400/59’ Afghan gang filmed themselves on the roofs of border police jeeps in a forest near the northern Serbian city of Subotica, posting the pictures on TikTok and Instagram.
Border officers were inside a tent at the time, talking to the gang leaders and taking a cut of their profits, according to audio recordings obtained by BIRN secretly-made by a source with access to smugglers. The police came and took the money, one member is heard saying. Police did not respond to BIRN questions concerning the incident.
BIRN is also in possession of recordings of calls and WhatsApp correspondence between Afghan smugglers and a trusted go-between who served as a mediator between the police and the smuggling gangs after the July 2 gunfight in Makova sedmica. The go-between offers them immunity and to continue their activities in exchange for handing in their weapons. The deal never fully came to fruition and the clashes continued.
“They [smugglers] are smart,” said one smuggler, who opposes the use of weapons. “They give the police a few Kalashnikovs, pistols, but they have many more. And they can always buy more from Albanians.”
Fatjona Mejdini, director of the SEE Observatory of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, GI-TOC, told BIRN that the situation in northern Serbia, with the presence of armed smuggling groups, is dangerous and should be addressed more effectively by Serbian authorities.
“I believe that corruption within Serbia’s police might help smugglers in obtaining arms and facilitate their operations,” said Mejdini.
“The smugglers are fighting for a market that has significantly expanded since 2022, and which continues to grow each day. Thus, the conflict between them has intensified and could further escalate. In this type of illegal business, arms are something that goes with it.”
Moroccans in ascendance
Bordering EU and Schengen zone members Croatia and Hungary, Serbia is a crucial transit country on the so-called Balkan route used by a large part of the migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia trying to reach Western Europe.
Motivated by massive profits, people-smuggling gangs have each carved out their own territories in northern Serbia, particularly the area close to the Hungarian border.
Afghans and Moroccans are currently in the ascendance, edging out the Syrians who, according to BIRN’s sources on the ground, now have to pay a ‘cut’ to their rivals to operate freely.
Among the most violent is the Moroccan group known as ‘Tetwani’, allegedly led by Mohammed Tetwani, also known as Mohammed Maghrebi, and based in Horgos. Mohammed Tetwani is believed to have left Serbia for Belgium. As an illustration of the group’s methods, BIRN has seen video of Tetwani’s chief lieutenant, Hamza, leading a group of refugees at gunpoint near the border with Hungary. Tetwani himself features in a rap video made by Tunisian artists Lady Miro & Dadlee, filmed in Subotica and the gang’s HQ in Horgos.
According to a cache of highly detailed information sent by post to BIRN by an individual in Greece, the Tetwani base features a ‘jail’ where gang members hold people for ransom and sexually abuse women unable to pay their way.
“They put people inside until their family come to pay for their relatives or friends,” the sender wrote in a letter accompanying the material. “Many people are in captivity, they torture them. Some cases of rape, sexual violation happened to women or girls, some are under 18, who don’t have money.”
BIRN has been unable to independently corroborate claims of a ‘jail’, but much of the other information contained in the package posted to BIRN from Greece has been confirmed by other sources.
The Tetwani group has recently been outmuscled in the north by another Moroccan gang reportedly led by a man from Casablanca known as ‘Kazawi’. According to sources on the ground from territory around Srpski Krstur, a settlement near the Tisa River, this group has cornered the market in the smuggling of North African refugees and migrants and Kazawi has made such a name for himself that he is celebrated in a song by a Tunisian rapper Tati G13. Even Google maps features a ‘Kazawi’ pin dropped at a point near the Tisa River.
Afghan turf war
Afghan smugglers, most of them operating out of Radanovac forest north of Subotica and in Palic, have been engaged in a battle over turf for more than a year since one smuggler known as Noor Aga demanded his own “slice of territory” from one of the leaders at the time, Shir Ali. When Ali refused, Aga took it by force of arms.
“We took everything, with 12 rifles and four or five pistols. And we said to him ‘we don’t fight, but you are finished here,’” Aga is heard saying on a tape made by a BIRN source.
Four months later, on July 2, their conflict in Makova sedmica became national news. It has still to be settled.
Aga’s splinter group is known by the name ‘313’, after an elite Taliban battalion, Badri 313. The Taliban unit takes its name from the legend of the Prophet Muhammad’s 313-man army winning the Battle of Badr. In December 2022, Serbian police said it had arrested Hashim Abdul, one of the commanders of the 313 Badri Brigade. The interior ministry did not reply to BIRN’s questions concerning Abdul.
“I need money. I did not come here for enjoyment, I came here for work. I have a big family,” Aga says on one of the audiotapes obtained by BIRN.
Shir Ali’s group, meanwhile, goes by the name ‘400/59’.
Syrian smugglers have long centred on the northwestern town of Sombor, which is close to both the Hungarian and Croatian borders, and have a strong presence in state-run migrant centres in Sombor and Subotica, BIRN sources say.
The Syrians, however, have been on the back foot since a BIRN investigation in June 2022 into the activities of Alen Basil, a Serbian-Syrian who worked as a police translator and took down rivals with the help of police on his payroll.
According to the Syrian smuggler, some members of Basil’s group have since been jailed, including his right-hand man, Abu Omar. The source told BIRN that, after spending six months in a Serbian jail, Omar fled to Italy. BIRN tried to confirm this with the Serbian police, but received no answer by the time of the publication.
The Syrians who continue to operate, some of them former members of Basil’s group, are mostly members of the ‘Sarawi’ and ‘Agedat’ tribes. However, their conflicts are primarily driven by business interests rather than tribal affiliations.
Albanian arms suppliers
In the spring of last year, two men took a drive down Braca Radic Street in central Subotica, listening to loud music and smoking what appeared to be a joint. Videoing their drive, one of the men casually displays an automatic rifle in a sport’s bag in the front passenger seat. BIRN received a video of the ride from two independent sources.
“They made the video as an advertisement,” said a smuggler who claimed he was offered the weapon to buy. “The rifle came from Kosovo. I heard they sold it later to Afghans.”
He named the people in the video and a police informant confirmed their identities.
Evidence gathered by BIRN, including videos, audio, and written correspondence, as well as the claims of smugglers, police and sources within the Serbian intelligence service, BIA, point to Albanian criminal gangs in Albania, Kosovo and Serbia’s Raska and Presevo regions as the main source of the weapons now in the hands of smugglers in northern Serbia.
Mejdini from GI-TOC confirmed that her sources also indicate that Albanian criminals, particularly from Kosovo, are among those equipping smuggling gangs.
“There are a lot of weapons left from wars in the Balkans and that makes them easy to get,” Mejdini told BIRN. “Kosovo is one of the channels. They [Kosovo criminals gangs] probably also have a local partner in Serbia.”
After the clashes in Horgos in November 2022, Serbian police said that, besides weapons, they had also found a cap bearing the insignia of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla force that took up arms in the late 1990s in a war for independence from Serbia.
A Syrian smuggler said the gangs began arming themselves more seriously in 2021. At that time, he told BIRN, a Moroccan smuggler known as Yaseen brokered a deal with Kosovo Albanians.
“There were some guns, but a year and eight months ago was the first time they brought seven Kalashnikovs into Subotica,” the smuggler said in early June. “Yaseen went to Kosovo and made a deal with a group of Albanians. Later, the Albanians delivered the weapons.”
On a recording obtained by BIRN, a member of the Afghan 400/59 gang is heard saying, “Yes, all people have connections with Albanians.”
BIRN’s smuggling source, who opposes mass use of weapons, said that it’s not just a few Kalashnikovs anymore.
“You know how much they bring? Minimum 100 Kalashnikovs. Tetwani, Afghans, every crew at least 20-30 Kalashnikovs each.”
Another smuggler featured on one of the recordings from July 2022 brags to a police go-between: “I can now take 50 Kalashnikovs from the border with Kosovo. Do you understand? (…)There is one phone for a person in Kosovo, my brother. He brings to Serbia 50 Kalashnikovs. It’s not a problem. I have contact with those people.”
BIRN obtained another video made by Moroccan smugglers of 18 Kalashnikovs on the floor of a room, the Moroccan flag tagged to the tape. A BIRN source explained the circumstances of how and where the video was created. Taking a distinctive frame from the video and searching for it on Google images, BIRN found no evidence of the video ever being posted online.
Mainly Kosovo Albanian crime gangs have operated in Subotica for decades, including in narcotics and people-smuggling, mainly Turks as well as Kosovo Albanians who for years had difficulties entering the EU.
Now they have cornered the market in weapons supplies to the smugglers, charging up to 1,700-1,800 euros for automatic rifles and 900 euros for pistols, according to an intelligence informant.
Police in Kosovo said they had no “official information” about citizens of Kosovo entering Serbia and supplying criminal groups, but that they do have information about citizens of other countries entering Serbia via Kosovo to take part in such activities.
One smuggler said the price of a Kalashnikov had shot up after so many armed clashes, reaching around 2,000 euros. He cited a deal made by a Moroccan with an Albanian supplier for eight Kalashnikovs, 4,000 bullets, and three pistols. “The arranged price was 24,000 euros,” he told BIRN.
The Xhemshiti twins, from Pristina, are believed to be important ‘players’.
Intercepted correspondence, shown to BIRN by the informant, identified the twins as offering weapons for sale.
Separate correspondence from early February featured Syrian smugglers discussing a delivery of eight Kalashnikovs allegedly from Amar Xhemshiti to the Simke motel in Subotica.
“The deal didn’t happen because the Syrian smugglers were afraid the police will come,” a smuggler familiar with the transaction told BIRN.
A BIA source said police let Amir Xhemshiti get away when a number of other Albanians were arrested in March. The police did not respond to a request for confirmation.
Amir Xhemshiti said he had been detained by police in Kosovo some two months ago. When they asked him if he ever funnelled weapons to Serbia, Amir said he told them: “Are you okay? Kragujevac is where the AK-47 is produced, not Kosovo.”
Amir said he spent 14 days in custody because the Vienna licence plates on his car were fake. He said he did not know if the investigation against him would continue.
The Xhemshiti brothers have a criminal background in Kosovo. Their lawyer, Mentor Neziri, told BIRN that there is an ongoing case against them in Pristina for drug smuggling. According to the indictment in that case, during a search of their house police found more than a kilo of marijuana.
Media in Kosovo have previously reported that Amir Xhemshiti was charged with the unauthorised purchase, possession and sale of narcotics and possession of illegal weapons. On the weapons charge, he pleaded guilty and paid a fine of 500 euros.
They are not the only ones.
In November last year, 36-year-old Kosovo Albanian Dine Hetaj was found in possession of five Kalashnikovs, nine pistols and over 500 bullets in a house in Subotica. In April 2023, the High Prosecution Office in Subotica issued an indictment against Hetaj, accusing him of the criminal offence of illegal production, possession, carrying and traffic of weapons and explosive substances. Hetaj, who previously spent 11 years in prison in Pristina for murder, denied the charges, saying the weapons were not his.
Dismissing Hetaj’s explanation as implausible, the Serbian police said they “believe that the defendant came to Subotica to sell weapons and ammunition to migrants who live in Subotica and its surroundings, near the border with Hungary”.
According to the indictment obtained by BIRN, at the moment police arrested Hetaj in the house he was renting, Hetaj was meeting with an Afghan called Salam Khan Ahmadzaiа who, allegedly, wanted to rent a place from him. A police go-between BIRN talked to and who monitored the case linked Salam Khan to a people smuggling group close to the ‘400/59’ gang.
‘They must have protection’
Insiders and experts say it is highly unlikely that Kosovo Albanian crime groups could operate in northern Serbia without the collaboration of the police.
“They must have protection. How else could they work like this?” asked one smuggler.
Referring to Subotica, the BIA informant told BIRN: “They are meeting at public places in the very town centre. They know who’s in the café, all the [security] services, who’s in civilian clothing etc. They say hello to police officers.”
After complaints from locals, Serbian police recently began regular activities in the area: on August 1, 820 officers took part in a large-scale operation targeting people-smugglers in which 13 people were detained and 27 were charged with misdemeanour offences. Officers confiscated nine automatic rifles, a hunting carbine with an optical sight, three pistols, and 841 pieces of ammunition of various calibres.
Yet gunshots still regularly ring out in the forests north of Subotica.
“I live near Makova sedmica,” said one resident. “My window is open and I constantly hear gunshots, even at two o’clock in the morning.”
It appears it’s not so easy to disarm such groups. In recordings of calls and WhatsApp correspondence obtained by BIRN after the July 2 clash, a police go-between urges the Afghan smugglers to hand in their weapons in return for immunity and the continuation of their operations.
“Give me criminals. Clean the weapons. All border is yours. Put man you trust and work,” the go-between says in one WhatsApp message, written in English.
Other correspondence and audio recordings obtained by BIRN point to an effort by the Serbian Gendarmerie to encourage the smugglers to disarm, without much success. But there’s no evidence of any significant handover of weapons.
The police go-between said that some in the Gendarmerie wanted to do the disarmament job properly but were sabotaged. He pointed the finger at corrupt border officers and local police officers in Subotica.
“I even had some evidence,” he said. “Some smugglers showed me the names and the number of a police officer who took money. That policeman was not investigated.” He showed BIRN a printscreen of the exchange.
On July 1, media reported the head of the Subotica Police Department, Borivoje Mucalj, was dismissed, with media linking his fall to two shootouts in June involving Afghan smugglers.
Asked about the armed people smuggling groups at the border with Hungary, Frontex told BIRN they “do not have any information about this issue”.
“We, as an EU agency, do not have the powers to perform such investigations.”
Interpol did not respond to BIRN questions on the matter. EUROJUST, an organisation that works with national authorities to investigate serious across-border criminal investigations, told BIRN they will “look into this and check if this is a case where Eurojust is involved”.
“Not all cases of cross-border criminal cooperation necessarily are handled via Eurojust. We usually only act upon specific requests of national authorities”, its spokesperson told BIRN.
Source : balkaninsight