A Belgrade court sentenced Darko Saric to 20 years in jail for trafficking cocaine from Latin America to Europe and laundering 22 million euros, the Tanjug news agency reported. Three associates, one of whom remains on the run, each received sentences of over 11 years, and three co-defendants who enjoyed protected witness status got five to 10 months. The court also acquitted three alleged members of Saric's gang.
Prosecutors had charged Saric, now 44, with masterminding a trafficking ring that smuggled drugs from Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay to Europe between 2007 and 2009. In October 2009, an international police action involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration intercepted a shipment of 2.7 tons of premium cocaine allegedly belonging to Saric's group near Uruguay's coast. In September 2010, Serbia launched an investigation into Saric and 19 others accused of involvement in the drug trade, with 11 appearing in court and the coke king and six others tried in absentia.
In a dragnet involving the US Central Intelligence Agency, Serbian officials said they had located Saric moving within four Latin American countries and that, having run out of options, he had agreed to turn himself in. Saric was finally arrested in Belgrade in March 2014, after previously negotiating his surrender from an unspecified Latin America country. He pleaded not guilty to the charges. He had successfully eluded the law for five years.
Saric's lawyers say they intend to challenge Monday's verdict. Throughout the trial, he had called the charges against him fabricated. Saric did not attend the reading of the verdict.
Saric's cocaine kingdom
Serbia lies on a well-known route for smuggling people, drugs and weapons into the EU. The 28-nation bloc has made cracking down on narcotics one of the key membership conditions for Balkan countries.
Serbia launched accession talks in January 2014. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined.
Organized crime flourished during and after the various 1990s wars in the Balkans, with crime networks exploiting porous borders, a glut of cheap firearms and political and security establishments riddled with corruption. In 2013, Serbia also opened an inquiry into suspected links between top government officials and members of organized crime groups after the press reported that former Interior Minister Ivica Dacic had met with an accomplice of Saric's in 2008. He has denied all the allegations.
The drugs trade has also touched the Bundesrepublik. In May, workers at a low-range German grocery chain found a record 400 kilos of cocaine stashed in a banana shipment.
Saric's sentence came with a search ongoing in Mexico for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, perhaps the most successful drug-trafficking kingpin in history - and, as of Saturday, a two-time high-security prison escapee.
mkg/jil (Reuters, AFP, AP)