BELGRADE — Shortly after arresting a person suspected of main a legal gang final month in reference to a collection of killings involving beheadings and torture, Serbian law enforcement officials raided what they imagine 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, situated in a defunct restaurant beneath the stands, has been sealed off as a criminal offense scene after investigators looking for proof of ties between soccer hooligans and arranged crime discovered weapons there.
The wall exterior is daubed in white and black paint with the title that the Partizan followers use for themselves: “the Gravediggers.”
The title is properly deserved. Serbian soccer followers, no less than those that in prepandemic days used to cram into the rowdy south stands of Partizan’s stadium and the equally anarchic north facet of the sector utilized by its Belgrade archrivals, Pink 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 sport in opposition to Partizan died after being overwhelmed 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 strong 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 indicators a willpower to rein within the legal bands that helped gasoline the horrific violence of the Balkan wars of the Nineties, assassinated a reform-minded prime minister in 2003 and have hobbled Serbia’s efforts to develop into a standard European nation.
“Our message is that we’re completed with this gang,” President Aleksandar Vucic, who’s a devoted Pink Star fan and has admitted to brawling at video games up to now, declared on March 6 after state tv aired grisly photographs of a beheaded corpse and the mangled physique of a younger man with a Pink Star tattoo on his leg — purported victims of Mr. Belivuk’s gang.
Investigators have additionally linked Mr. Belivuk to a decade-long drug conflict between two rival legal 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, nevertheless, has dismayed those that comply with the workings of Serbian soccer golf equipment and their followers, essentially the most violent of that are referred to as “ultras.”
“Our soccer hooligans are managed by the state — they do what the state tells them to do,” mentioned Mirko Poledica, the president of the Union of Skilled Soccer Gamers “Independence,” Serbia’s fundamental affiliation of gamers.
Violent followers like Mr. Belivuk, he mentioned, are such a fearsome drive that controlling them has all the time been a precedence for any authorities that desires to keep away from hassle and keep in energy.
Mr. Belivuk was a software of the federal government, he mentioned, used to assist break up opposition rallies and supply road safety for Mr. Vucic’s inauguration in 2017.
Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, mentioned in an interview that Mr. Vucic, removed from being Mr. Belivuk’s accomplice, was his goal. “I’ve credible info that his life was at risk,” she mentioned. “It was excessive time to behave due to all of the threats made by organized crime.”
However she conceded that legal 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 help within the authorities,” she mentioned.
Including to a widespread view that Mr. Vucic is hiding one thing, nevertheless, 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 regulation professor and former Partizan vice president who went public with accusations of presidency collusion with the arrested gang chief, has been savaged each 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 highly respected 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, mentioned that organized crime in Serbia — and authorities officers — had lengthy been tied to the “brutal drive of nature” offered by soccer hooligans.
“Politicians have all the time been afraid of our hooligans. Regardless of who’s in energy they all the time type a partnership with them,” he mentioned.
The difficulties of partnering with the hooligans, nevertheless, was made evident by the demise of Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Underneath his rule within the 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 info minister and whose safety companies labored carefully with hooligans and criminals, was in deep trouble turned clear when Pink 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 Nineteen Eighties, an early signal of impending conflict got here in Could 1990 when Pink Star traveled for a sport in Zagreb, the capital of the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Croatia. The sport was suspended after rival followers staged a violent melee and set fireplace to the stadium.
Among the many Pink Star supporters who had traveled to Zagreb for the match was Mr. Vucic, who later boasted that he “typically fought” at video games.
Mr. Poledica, the chief of the soccer gamers’ affiliation, mentioned: “Our legislators all the time worry the stadium and its horrible energy. They know that any dissatisfaction within the stadium can rapidly unfold to the road. They wish 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 reducing off heads?”
Mr. Belivuk’s lawyer, Dejan Lazarevic, mentioned that his consumer had not but been formally charged and that there was no proof to help the accusations of homicide, kidnapping and different critical crimes made in opposition to him by officers.
Mr. Vuletic, the professor, mentioned that Mr. Belivuk and a hoodlum referred to as “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 commenced beating up anybody chanting insults in opposition to him.
Suspicions that Mr. Belivuk had highly effective mates within the authorities, or no less than 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 printed pictures displaying 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 liable for the Inside Ministry.
This partnership with the federal government, mentioned Mr. Dojcinovic, the Krik editor, broke down final yr for unknown causes, presumably due to an inside rift in Mr. Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Occasion, 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 celebration, was earlier an activist in a far-right nationalist outfit that was led for years by a convicted conflict legal.
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 carefully tied to the previous Yugoslav Military, he mentioned, has “all the time been a workforce for intellectuals.”
For peculiar 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 sport 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 mentioned that he had attended each residence sport for 47 years and blamed the rise and fall of Mr. Belivuk on what he mentioned was a private vendetta in opposition to Partizan by Mr. Vucic, the president.
“He desires to destroy Partizan and let Pink Star rise,” he mentioned.