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Contract Killings


Thursday, 18 December 2008

four gangland-style killings in October, Croatia's powerful - and previously largely negated - underworld flexed its muscle

four gangland-style killings in October, Croatia's powerful - and previously largely negated - underworld flexed its muscle and sent the authorities scurrying for emergency measures. Ivana Hodak, 26, beautiful celebrity daughter of a socialite lawyer defending powerful clients with lots of enemies, was slain in broad daylight in central Zagreb on October 6. A professional hitman coolly walked off after delivering the fatal shots to her head and neck - all this in broad daylight and not even 100 metres from the main police precinct. On October 23, a bomb killed Ivo Pukanic, an influential journalist and publisher with friends in the elite as much as the underworld - though nowadays the two worlds are not necessarily separated. A close friend died alongside him like collateral damage. Ahead of these killings, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader would have responded angrily when asked about organized crime, insisting there was no such thing in his country. After Hodak's murder, however, Sanader made his first-ever public reference to "mafia," though somewhat clumsily: "We are no longer going to put up with organized crime and the mafia." He then fired interior and justice ministers and and the head of police. Following the Pukanic killings, Sanader promised: "Zagreb will not become Beirut ... I want to state clearly - nobody from the criminal milieu will be able to sleep calmly.
"It is us or them. This is terrorism," President Stjepan Mesic said after Pukanic was killed, who was his personal friend. But that very day, another mafia murder - that time of a less-known member of the Zagreb jet-set and a shadowy businessman, was found parked in his jeep and with a bullet in his head. Why Croatian leaders appeared so surprised and suddenly outraged, remains unclear as roughly 80 other killings in the capital have remained unresolved from the previous 10 years.
Although the motive of the Pukanic and other killings has not yet been determined clearly, police has uncovered am extended business of "Murder-on demand". Pukanic's killing was carried out by two Serbs working on a contract by an unidentified party in Croatia. "We could describe that as 'Murders Incorporated," an unidentified high-ranking state security official told the Jutarnji List daily. "You order a murder and they do it, regardless of who the target is. The scheme is believed to involve the entire Balkans region including Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo and beyond, and involve other criminal activities such as the heroin trade, according to police. And Croats finally had to accept that the tentacles of organized crime penetrated their own society just as well as other countries in the region. Those tentacles date from Croatia's 1991-95 independence war with Yugoslavia and Serb insurgents. The state - then under an arms embargo - turned to black marketeers and criminals to help it smuggle weapons for the fledgling army, in a multi-billion dollar business. Many of the newly rich, their fortune expanded through trafficking of drugs, cigarettes, people and anything else on top of weapons, were also given a badge of social acceptance for their services. A decade-and-a-half later, criminals have emerged as businessmen with millions laundered through construction, sports and even fine art collections. With a foe that rich, ruthless and legally clean, the state is virtually helpless, even state prosecutor Mladen Bajic admitted in confidential report to Sanader and Mesic that was leaked on October 19. Following its initial accumulation of wealth, organized crime "permeated all pores of Croatian society," Bajic warned. "Mobsters became respectable businessmen. The assessment was a hard blow to Croatia's carefully nurtured image of a country which righteously fought a righteous war and remained clean in the process.

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