The Škaljarski and Kavački clans are two Montenegrin criminal groups originating from the coastal city of Kotor. Formerly united as a single criminal group, in 2014, the Škaljarski and Kavački clans engaged in a violent clash following the disappearance of 200kg of cocaine from South America, which was hidden in an apartment in Valencia. The war between the two factions has resulted in the deaths of at least fifty people.
The Rise of the Škaljarski Clan
The Škaljarski clan’s ascent in the Balkan criminal scene occurred following the international police operation called Balkanski Ratnik (Balkan Warrior), which led to the seizure of around two tons of cocaine along the shores of Uruguay in October 2009. This operation dealt a severe blow to the criminal organization led by the drug lord Darko Šarić, who controlled a significant portion of drug trafficking from Latin America to Europe. Forced into hiding, Šarić surrendered to law enforcement in Serbia in 2014 after negotiations conducted by his lawyer with the Serbian government. His downfall created a significant criminal void that was filled by the Škaljarski clan, which took control of the drug trade in collaboration with South American partners. Gradually, the Škaljarski clan asserted itself in the criminal landscape of the region.
Internal Feud and the Split into Škaljarski and Kavački Clans
However, the unified rise of the criminal group in Kotor was short-lived. The immense profits from illicit activities generated many internal disputes within the clan, where the desire for power and financial gain led to palpable tensions and the creation of opposing factions regarding the division and management of money.
The tensions peaked in 2014 over a disputed shipment of cocaine that went missing in Spain. The leaders of the Škaljarski clan discovered 200kg of cocaine that their collaborators had secretly deposited in a warehouse in Valencia. To seek retribution, they confiscated the drugs and hid them in an apartment in the city, sparking the internal feud.
As a result, the Kotor clan split into the Škaljarski and Kavački clans, named after two localities in the coastal city. From that moment on, the Škaljari group was led by Jovan Vukotić and Igor Dedović, while the Kavač group was led by Slobodan Kašćelan and Radoje Zvicer.
The first victim of the criminal clash was Goran Radoman, a 37-year-old member of the Škaljarski clan, who was killed in Belgrade on February 20, 2015. This event marked the beginning of a relentless war between the two criminal groups, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty people, including some innocent victims. The conflict targeted not only criminals but also their family members, collaborators, witnesses, journalists, lawyers, and former members of government institutions – including police and a parliamentarian.
As shown by the database of the Serbian investigative journalism portal KRIK, in most cases, the actual perpetrators of these murders have not been identified. From 2012 to 2023, approximately 53% of mafia-related homicides committed in Serbia and Montenegro had unknown direct culprits.
Modalities of the Criminal Clash
There are various methods through which the Kotor clans carry out their criminal actions. They resort to both sensational and silent executions, explosions, attacks, and various forms of intimidation. The difficulty in identifying and apprehending the killers is also due to the professionalism with which these criminal groups operate. There are primarily two types of killers recruited by the Škaljari and Kavač clans:
On one hand, there are professional killers who act effectively and without leaving traces. They are recruited from outside the fighting criminal groups and often have military experience. In addition to professionals from the former Yugoslavia territories, the bKotor clans also rely obn forebign mercenaries. Some of them have fought in Iraq or have been members of the French Foreign Legion. These killers are primarily responsible for high-profile murders and targeting rival clan leaders. Crucially, as professionals are expensive, they are only entrusted with the most delicate targets.
On the other hand, there are amateurs who join the criminal clans at a very young age, often due to the lack of opportunities in their home country and enticed by the prospect of quick earnings. They are provided with firearms and convinced to carry out murders to seal their allegiance to the clan. They primarily target lower-ranking members of rival clans. Due to their lack of experience, they are less precise in execution, leading to a higher number of failed attempts and innocent casualties.
Alliances and Factions Play a Role in the Conflict
Other criminal groups rooted in Serbia and Montenegro have decided to align themselves and lend support to either the Škaljari or Kavač clan. According to reports from the Serbian intelligence (BIA) in 2018, the Montenegrin clans have strong interests and exert significant influence in criminal circles in Serbia, where this war has caused major divisions and formed new alliances.
The Škaljari clan has received support in Serbia from the criminal organization led by Filip Korać, whose identity remained in the shadows for a long time. Eventually, he gained great visibility in 2020, after the BIA and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić defined his criminal group as extremely dangerous internationally and a threat for the Serbian population.
On the other hand, the Kavač clan relied on the ‘Janjičari,’ an ultra-group associated with Partizan Belgrade with significant ties to law enforcement and Serbian institutions. The criminal leader of the group, Aleksandar Stanković, better known as Sale ‘Mutavi’ (the mute), was eliminated in the autumn of 2016, provoking a strong reaction from the Serbian government. The Minister of Police, Nebojša Stefanović, proclaimed a decisive ‘fight against the mafia’ in the country.
The Connection between Hooligans, Criminal Clans, and Institutions
However, according to investigations by the KRIK investigative journalism portal, the Serbian state’s fight against the mafia has primarily targeted the Škaljari clan, while allowing the opposing faction to thrive.
The Kavač clan and the ultra-criminal group ‘Janjičari’ enjoyed significant cover from institutions, and these connections have come to public attention on multiple occasions. Notably, these connivances involved important members of the Serbian gendarmerie, a former Secretary of State at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the son of the Serbian President. Considering these connections, after the death of Sale ‘Mutavi,’ Serbian institutions launched a crackdown that over the years primarily impacted and weakened the Škaljari clan and Filip Korać’s group, without ever capturing members of the opposing faction.
However, in a surprising move in February 2021, a severe blow was dealt to the ‘Janjičari’ group associated with the Kavač clan with the arrest of Veljko Belivuk, who succeeded as the leader of the ultra-group (which he renamed ‘Principi’) following Sale ‘Mutavi’s death. Alongside him, 16 other members of the criminal group were captured, facing serious charges.
The Spread of Clan Clashes in Europe
The conflict between the clans for control over lucrative drug trafficking has not been limited to Serbia and Montenegro. This war has also reached other European countries, including Spain (Valencia and Malaga), Germany (Brandenburg and Hanover), Austria (Vienna), the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Greece (Athens), Ukraine (Odessa), and Turkey (Istanbul).
Several members of the Škaljari clan have moved beyond the Balkans to evade law enforcement and the murderous wrath of the Kavač clan, which has still managed to track down and eliminate its enemies.
The clash between Montenegrin clans in Europe draws attention to a complex phenomenon deeply rooted in the society of this Balkan country. The struggle for power and resources has significant consequences for the stability of Montenegro, as well as its path towards European integration.
Dusan Desnica is a Ph.D. candidate in Organized Crime Studies at the University of Milan. His research project focuses on the expansion dynamics of mafias into non-traditional territories. Among his research interests is the study of organized crime in the Western Balkans.
Main image Credit: Bay of Kotor from Michal Cygan via Pexels.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI, ECPR, Focused Conservation or any other institution.