Arizona's Number One Business
Arizona's Number One Business
The billboard in downtown Brcko looks as if it is advertising a shopping mall in California.
The gleaming marble buildings, which the billboard promises will replace the shacks of the Arizona Market in northeast Bosnia--infamous until now for its cheap gray market goods, including young Eastern European women sold standing naked along the road like cattle to the highest bidder--seems almost too good to be true.
The existing market with its reputed international organized crime elements, long an embarrassment to the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and international law enforcement, is scheduled to be replaced beginning in early June when Italproject, an Italian/local parntership breaks ground on its magical dream for Brcko.
The Brcko District with its three-faction adminsitration of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs is OHR's model for Bosnia's reintergration. The New Arizona Market has been planned as the capitalist business format for that vision.
That's one of the reasons why law enforcement led by the International Police Task Force (IPTF) began two years ago to crack down on organized crime and their number one business in the district: sex trafficking. They closed most of the so-called 'night bars' in the market and elsewhere in the district, which were well known to be barely hiding brothels in their backrooms.
In May the IPTF announced that more than 116 night bars in Bosnia had been closed by joint teams of international and local police in the Special Trafficking Operations Program (STOP).
“Some of them are being closed or transformed into something different,' ITPF spokesperson Stefo Lehmann said last month. 'There are 103 cases still in court, and 46 people have been charged with or convicted of trafficking in women.”
Lehmann also said at the same time that 15 IPTF policemen themselves had been sent home for using the services of the bars offering prostitutes.
The STOP teams' results are enough of a victory for the Italproject partnership, whose development contract with the Brcko District government stipulates that the government is responsible for guarenteeing the market is crime free, according to Allessandro Lucchetta, the Italian partners' local director.
“I have no information from anybody that anyone is conducting illegal activities in the market now,” Lucchetta said in a recent interview in his top floor office with the billboard just in front of the building on the main road to Serbia.
But an investigation by a seven-member team of reporters from three Balkan countries, recently found plenty of signs that either Lucchetta's carefully chosen words are hiding a deeper knowledge that must surely concern the partnership, or that he is blissfully unaware that organized crime's roots in the area have hardly been disturbed by the international or local community's enforcement efforts.
The regional investigation team (funded in their work by IREX ProMedia, an independent U.S. contractor funded by USAID) spent two weeks interviewing bar owners, prostitution victims, market business owners, developers, police and government officials in the Brcko District to find out if organized crime had really been replaced with international business development in OHR's model district.
The team's results are presented in this story on the sex slave industry in the Brcko District, and in seven other stories in the investigtion series 'Showdown at Arizona Market.'
No one told the team's reporters that remaking the Arizona Market was going to be easy.
Lucchetta said he and the partnership had been told about the market's sordid history by OHR officials. But, Lucchetta added, they were assured by their contract that illegal activities of the past at the market had ended.
The market started as an informal meeting place after the war in ex-Yugoslavia and the Dayton Accords were signed. Legend has it that an Italian IFOR general in 1996 first cordoned off the market area along the Zupanja-Tuzla road to promote commerce between the war's three enemy factions. But the market may have had a more casual beginning as simply a country market.
“There was an IFOR meeting point at (what became) the Arizona market on the opposite side of the road,” Suzana Pejčić, spokesperson for the Brcko District OHR’s office said. “It was a safe spot so locals themselves began to exchange cows and other goods."
Whatever its beginning the market began to grow aided by lax international oversight in the post war period, which meant traders were paying few taxes and making their own laws. The result was that along with the hundreds of small gray marketers of rugs and chickens came a fertile area for the growth of organized crime.
The largest, and soon to be most notorious, of the market’s industries was the trafficking of sex slaves from Eastern Europe. Women kidnapped from their homes or enticed with phony jobs in Western Europe were taken from their villages in Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and other countries and trafficked across the Brcko’s district’s two borders into Bosnia.
From Bosnia the women go on to other countries eventually ending up in Italy and other Western countries, according to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) released this year. But the IOM report, which collected data through the end of 2000, said that Bosnia was primarily a destination, not a transit country, for trafficked women.
According to the IOM report there are from 600 to 3000 trafficked women in Bosnia at any given time. The border towns of Bijeljina, northeast Bosnia’s largest city and nearby Zvornik are the largest centers for trafficking women in Bosnia, according to the report, followed by Brcko, Sarajevo, Tuzla and Prijedor.
Only two years ago, in September 2000, nineteen-year-old Elena Anka from Moldova told IPTF investigators that she had been sold to the night bar Acapulco near the Arizona Market, according to a story in Panorama Magazine written then by one of the investigation team's reporters.
Anka watched the hectic life of the street-market through the window of her little room where she was held as a sex slave.
From her prison Anka could watch the growing market and the hundreds of people feeling the first signs of freedom since the war. In a desperate bid to escape, Anka swallowed 40 pills to force her “owners” to take her to the hospital where the doctors could help her get to police.
The doctors took her back to her slave owners.
Corruption affected local authorities, including the police. But several high profile international contractors were also caught engaging in the buying and selling of women slaves, not to mention the area's foreign soldiers visiting the local brothels. The international community simply shipped the offenders home and refused further comment. Once home the alleged traffickers were rarely prosecuted.
The OHR had to act to save the future of its model district.
“ We undertook a two-pronged approach,” said Michael Montgomery, head of the economy section of OHR’s Brcko district office, in an interview with team reporters. “Cleaning up the illegal activities… and then using the business method of redevelopment and bringing in a development team.”
Only two weeks ago police finished their last assault on the brothels thinly hidden in the nightbars throughout the Brcko District. The official closing of the nightbars, including the Acapulco where Anka said she worked, in the area controlled by Repulica Serbsca just outside the Brcko District, was supposed to bring to a close the area's reputation as a destination for trafficked women.
“We have closed all the bars in the area of Brcko District and there is no more prostitution”, a confident Sinisa Kisic, Mayor of Brcko District, told the team's reporters.
But some of the area's law enforcement officials do not share Kisic's or Montgomery's optimism. For example, the night bar closings have resulted in at least one new local business.
Fahrudin Selimovic, the head of the Brcko District police, said that his investigators are convinced that the District's brothel business has gone underground rather than moving out of the district. The girls from the night bars can now be “ordered” over the phone. But Selimovic admits that his investigators have been unable yet to uncover the prostitute-calling network and make arrests.
A Bijeljina police inspector, who works closely with the IPTF, and who asked not to be identifed, is also pessemistic that women trafficking has left the Brcko District.
“In the vicinity of Bijeljina there are only two night bars now. There used to be 20,' the inspector said. 'But I think that the girls are still here and that even more are crossing the border with visas issued by Bosnia's embassies abroad.'
The most likely destination for the women now are bars in the Federation part of Bosnia because far fewer bars have been closed there than in Republika Serbsca, he added.
A rescued prostitution victim housed in a local safe house told the investigation team that as recently as mid-May she had been working in a brothel in Bugojno in central Bosnia after having been trafficked through the Brcko District border area.
Even with the Brcko area night bar closings, there is evidence that the businesses have only moved down the road. Near Banja Luka there are at least 20 brothels that are still open. According to the lastest Republika Serbsca police figures there are still a total of 29 night-bars operating in the RS.
Perhaps more threatening for the OHR's Brcko District model for the rest of Bosnia is the apparent lack of any success in dealing with the organized crime network that supported the night bars.
“We managed to convict the people who organized prostitution in their bars, but we could not get to those who were involved in human trafficking,” Brcko District's Public Prosecutor Zekerijah Mujkanovic told investigation team reporters.
Although the bar owners are spending up to two years in prison on the prostitution convictions, none of them are loosing any of their property bought and paid for with income from their sex slaves, according to Dragomir Zivanovic, president of the Bijeljina court.
And no one has tried to charge the bar owners or the traffickers with the time tested racketeer-busting technique of tax evasion either, Zivanovic added.
The success of the original Arizona Market that sprang up like a weed for legitimate and illegal commerce alike is based at least partly on the business coming across the Drina and Sava rivers. High retail prices in Croatia have given the market a steady stream of bargain seekers from Croatia who are as willing to forget their war wounds for a good deal as the gray-marketers are to forget theirs for a steady income.
But Brcko District's borders have also been the reason for a steady supply of women slaves and the resulting embarrassment to the OHR's Brcko District experimental model.
The conveniet borders with Croatia and Serbia have been an open faucet for traffickers moving women from the east.
The easy bribing of local border police finally pushed the IPTF to help form the national State Border Service (SBS) in June 2000 to replace local police at the borders. Stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and trafficked women was a key goal of the IPTF and the OHR.
If local police are to be believed, however, it continues to be business as ususal for trafficking and illegal immigration.
The Bijeljina police inspector said it took the new SBS only ten days after they took control of the borders to make a new deal with traffickers. The only difference between the new regime and the former border police from the Republic of Srpska is that payoffs to the new SBS are more expensive, the inspector said.
The IPTF trained the new SBS members, who are mostly officers from the ministries of internal affairs from both the RS and BiH.
“The smuggling was expected to be stopped when the State border service took over the border crossings in Bijeljina, Raca and at the Pavlovic Bridge to Serbia,' one of the inhabitants from the local village on the River Drina, told a investigative team member. The mechanic, who works on local smugglers' boats, asked not to be identified.
He and other inhabitants of the mechanic's village, who make ends meet by smuggling small batches of textiles, food, cattle and other commodities, agreed that the smuggling business is as good as its ever been.
One of the most porous Bosnian borders is the Drina River between Bijleljina and Zvornik.
According to the IOM report and trafficking victims interviewed bywomens' shelters, it is one of the most often used transit points to bring women from East Europe to Bosnia.
Diana, a Romanian, said her kidnappers brought her across the Drina and into the Bosnian trafficking system.
'Then they gave me a passport which said that I had crossed the border in Raca,' Diana told a shelter coordinator. 'I don’t even know where or what that Raca is.'
One Drina smuggler told a team reporter that he was approached last month by a man from Sremska Mitrovica who offered him 2000 DM for one night's work taking women slaves across the river at night. He refused because law enforcement pressure has made the crossing at his location too risky. His group of boat owners used to be in that business a year ago before so much attention became focused on their area, he said.
“Now I’m only dealing with cattle, and women are being transported a little further down the stream, where the area is safer,” he added.
The smuggler does not think that SBS has a chance against the network of traffickers connected to organized crime.
The trafficking network is just too highly organized. For example, he said, their men follow the moves of SBS and use mobile phones to keep track of enforcement actions. Some of his colleagues, the smuggler added, transport immigrants across the Sava in stainless steel tanker trucks that usually transport milk.
“Can SBS stop trafficking in women?' he laughed. ' Well, they’re the ones who transport them. A few days ago, one of their officers was caught with three foreign women in his car!”
The SBS's assistant director, Nijaz Spahic, admitted that several of the new border guards had been suspended for criminal activities. At least one officer, in Zvornik, has been charged with trafficking in women, he said.
'These are isolated examples,' Spahic insisted.
But Tomislav Mihalj, the second assistant director of the State Border Service, said the number was higher.
“Three DGS policemen from Zvornik have been caught while transporting trafficked women across the border, and that is why thay have been fired and prosecuted,”Mihalj said.
IPTF officials in the Brcko District were not available last week to comment on the battle against trafficking, or what will happen in the area when the ITPF pulls out of Bosnia this fall.
But three months ago, Jacques Paul Klein, the recently retired UN coordinator in BiH, declared victory in at least the Arizona Market.
“No longer is (the Arizona Market) a center of human trafficking,” Klein said at a ceremony recognizing that the Brcko District police had met international law enforcement standards.
Klein said 16 bars and motels used for prostitution had been shut down in the market.
But other than temporarily putting the market bar owners out of business or forcing them to move down the road, the supply and demand for sex slaves apparently has not changed.
“The smugglers were confused for about ten days after the State Border Service took over,' the reporting team was told by the Bijeljina police inspector, who asked not to be identified. 'But after that they made a fresh start and from then on the smuggling has been thriving undisturbed.”