Arrests Shake Up a Soccer Scene in Serbia Dominated by Gangsters and ‘Gravediggers’

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BELGRADE — Shortly after arresting a person suspected of main a prison gang final month in reference to a sequence of killings involving beheadings and torture, Serbian cops raided what they consider was the band’s secret lair: a bunkerlike room within the bowels of a stadium utilized by Partizan Belgrade, a storied soccer workforce within the Serbian capital.

The room, positioned in a defunct restaurant below the stands, has been sealed off as against the law scene after investigators attempting to find proof of ties between soccer hooligans and arranged crime discovered weapons there.

The wall exterior is daubed in white and black paint with the identify that the Partizan followers use for themselves: “the Gravediggers.”

The identify is nicely deserved. Serbian soccer followers, at the least those that in prepandemic days used to cram into the rowdy south stands of Partizan’s stadium and the equally anarchic north aspect of the sector utilized by its Belgrade archrivals, Purple Star, have lengthy had a status for extraordinary violence.

A French fan who traveled to Belgrade in 2009 to cheer on his workforce, Toulouse, in a recreation in opposition to Partizan died after being crushed with iron bars and bicycle chains. In that case, 14 Partizan followers have been convicted of homicide.

The violent tendencies have additionally made Serbian soccer followers, notably these of the 2 rival Belgrade groups, a robust drive on the road and within the nation’s tumultuous politics.

The query now consuming Serbia is what led to the arrest final month of Veljko Belivuk, who’s suspected of being a gangster and the chief of a gaggle of violent Partizan followers. He has lengthy operated with impunity, and is reported to have had shut ties to the federal government and safety forces.

Within the authorities’s telling, Mr. Belivuk is a brutal mobster whose arrest alerts a willpower to rein within the prison bands that helped gas the horrific violence of the Balkan wars of the Nineteen Nineties, assassinated a reform-minded prime minister in 2003 and have hobbled Serbia’s efforts to turn into a standard European nation.

“Our message is that we’re completed with this gang,” President Aleksandar Vucic, who’s a devoted Purple Star fan and has admitted to brawling at video games prior to now, declared on March 6 after state tv aired grisly photos of a beheaded corpse and the mangled physique of a younger man with a Purple Star tattoo on his leg — purported victims of Mr. Belivuk’s gang.

Investigators have additionally linked Mr. Belivuk to a decade-long drug battle between two rival prison clans over management of a profitable trafficking route throughout the Adriatic Sea from Serbia’s neighbor, Montenegro, to Western Europe.

The federal government’s model of why Mr. Belivuk and 16 of his confederates have been arrested, nonetheless, has dismayed those that observe the workings of Serbian soccer golf equipment and their followers, probably the most violent of that are often called “ultras.”

“Our soccer hooligans are managed by the state — they do what the state tells them to do,” stated Mirko Poledica, the president of the Union of Skilled Soccer Gamers “Independence,” Serbia’s foremost affiliation of gamers.

Violent followers like Mr. Belivuk, he stated, are such a fearsome drive that controlling them has at all times been a precedence for any authorities that wishes to keep away from bother and keep in energy.

Mr. Belivuk was a instrument of the federal government, he stated, used to assist break up opposition rallies and supply road safety for Mr. Vucic’s inauguration in 2017.

Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, stated in an interview that Mr. Vucic, removed from being Mr. Belivuk’s companion, was his goal. “I’ve credible data that his life was in peril,” she stated. “It was excessive time to behave due to all of the threats made by organized crime.”

However she conceded that prison gangs had developed “sturdy hyperlinks” to state and safety constructions, and that these have been now being investigated and uprooted. “Clearly, the mafia wouldn’t be so sturdy if it didn’t have assist within the authorities,” she stated.

Including to a widespread view that Mr. Vucic is hiding one thing, nonetheless, has been a vicious vilification marketing campaign in pro-government media shops directed at those that have challenged the president’s story of a simple crackdown on organized crime.

Vladimir Vuletic, a Belgrade legislation professor and former Partizan vp who went public with accusations of presidency collusion with the arrested gang chief, has been savaged day by day in tabloid newspapers supporting Mr. Vucic.

Ms. Brnabic denied the marketing campaign was orchestrated by the federal government.

Additionally smeared by the tabloids has been Krik, a extremely revered group of investigative journalists that has reported for years on hyperlinks between authorities officers and Mr. Belivuk’s gang.

Stevan Dojcinovic, Krik’s editor in chief, stated that organized crime in Serbia — and authorities officers — had lengthy been tied to the “brutal drive of nature” supplied by soccer hooligans.

“Politicians have at all times been afraid of our hooligans. Regardless of who’s in energy they at all times kind a partnership with them,” he stated.

The difficulties of partnering with the hooligans, nonetheless, was made evident by the demise of Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Below his rule within the Nineteen Nineties, hooligans flooded into the ranks of state-sponsored paramilitary teams that unfold mayhem in Bosnia and Kosovo after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

That Mr. Milosevic, for whom Mr. Vucic served as data minister and whose safety providers labored intently with hooligans and criminals, was in deep trouble turned clear when Purple Star’s ultras began chanting “Slobodan Kill Your self!” at video games. (His mother and father had each died in suicides.)

Mr. Milosevic misplaced energy in 2000 after the ultras led college students and different protesters in storming the Parliament constructing in Belgrade.

When Yugoslavia, of which Serbia was then an element, started to unravel within the late Eighties, an early signal of impending battle got here in Could 1990 when Purple Star traveled for a recreation in Zagreb, the capital of the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Croatia. The sport was suspended after rival followers staged a violent melee and set hearth to the stadium.

Among the many Purple Star supporters who had traveled to Zagreb for the match was Mr. Vucic, who later boasted that he “usually fought” at video games.

Mr. Poledica, the chief of the soccer gamers’ affiliation, stated: “Our legislators at all times concern the stadium and its horrible energy. They know that any dissatisfaction within the stadium can rapidly unfold to the road. They need to management it.”

He added that he didn’t know why the authorities had turned in opposition to Mr. Belivuk however speculated that Mr. Belivuk and his followers had gone too far. “Everybody knew they have been violent, that they beat folks and made threats. However slicing off heads?”

Mr. Belivuk’s lawyer, Dejan Lazarevic, stated that his consumer had not but been formally charged and that there was no proof to assist the accusations of homicide, kidnapping and different critical crimes made in opposition to him by officers.

Mr. Vuletic, the professor, stated that Mr. Belivuk and a hoodlum often called “Sale the Mute,” who has since been killed, first took management of the south a part of Partizan’s stadium quickly after Mr. Vucic turned prime minister in 2014, and started beating up anybody chanting insults in opposition to him.

Suspicions that Mr. Belivuk had highly effective pals within the authorities, or at the least law-enforcement, have been rising since 2016, when he was arrested on homicide fees however then launched after DNA and different proof in opposition to him both disappeared or needed to be discarded due to tampering.

Krik, the investigative reporting group, later revealed pictures exhibiting a member of Serbia’s gendarmerie, a police drive, attending soccer video games with Mr. Belivuk. On the time, the officer was in a relationship with a senior official accountable for the Inside Ministry.

This partnership with the federal government, stated Mr. Dojcinovic, the Krik editor, broke down final yr for unknown causes, presumably due to an inner rift in Mr. Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Celebration, a few of whose members have been caught up within the investigation into Mr. Belivuk.

Amongst these taken in for questioning by the police in reference to the case is Slavisa Kozeka, the president of the Soccer Affiliation of Serbia. Mr. Kozeka, a senior official within the governing get together, was earlier an activist in a far-right nationalist outfit that was led for years by a convicted battle prison.

All of the dangerous publicity has infuriated peaceful Partizan followers like Vladimir Trikic. Strolling across the central Belgrade district of Dorcol, he confirmed off murals of artists, theater administrators and poets who’ve cheered on the membership. Partizan, although intently tied to the previous Yugoslav Military, he stated, has “at all times been a workforce for intellectuals.”

For unusual Partizan followers, Mr. Belivuk was by no means actually a supporter however an impostor despatched by Mr. Vucic to manage and discredit his personal workforce’s bitter rivals.

At a Partizan recreation in Belgrade final week, held earlier than largely empty stands due to the pandemic, Zoran Krivokapic was one in all a handful of followers who managed to get into the stadium. He stated that he had attended each dwelling recreation for 47 years and blamed the rise and fall of Mr. Belivuk on what he stated was a private vendetta in opposition to Partizan by Mr. Vucic, the president.

“He needs to destroy Partizan and let Purple Star rise,” he stated.

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