BELGRADE Alleged Balkan drug boss Darko Saric, one of the most wanted figures in the crime-riddled region, surrendered to Serbian police on Tuesday as a dragnet involving the CIA closed in on him in Latin America, Serbian authorities said.
Serbia's government said the 43-year-old had set no conditions for his surrender, other than to see his wife, son and daughter for 30 minutes at Podgorica airport in neighboring Montenegro en route from an unspecified third country to Belgrade.
Saric, a Serbian citizen of Montenegrin origin, faces 13 indictments including the trafficking of 5.7 metric tons of cocaine from South America to Europe and laundering of 22 million euros in Serbia.
After almost five years on the run, Serbia said it had located Saric moving within four Latin American countries and that, having realized his arrest may be imminent, he had offered to surrender.
"On February 24, his lawyer contacted the Serbian government and offered his unconditional surrender, which we accepted," Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told a televised cabinet session. He said Serbian and Montenegrin security officers had been in the third country, and that Saric was escorted to Montenegro and then on to Belgrade.
"Our huge efforts have borne fruit," Vucic said, adding that particular gratitude was owed to the CIA. Television pictures showed a handcuffed Saric emerging from a Serbian plane in Belgrade in jeans and a white shirt and stepping into a police vehicle.
The breakthrough came two days after a parliamentary election won in a landslide by Vucic's center-right Progressive Party thanks, in large part, to Vucic's role as leader of a popular campaign against crime and corruption.
It follows the arrest last year in Serbia's former Kosovo province of Naser Kelmendi, blacklisted by the United States on suspicion of trafficking drugs to Europe.
Organized crime flourished during the Balkan wars in the 1990s as socialist Yugoslavia fell apart, spawning sophisticated crime networks that exploited poorly policed borders, a glut of cheap firearms and a political and security establishment riddled with corruption. The region is a well-known transit route for illicit drugs heading to western Europe.
All former Yugoslav republics have since set their sights on joining the European Union, alongside members Slovenia and Croatia, and face pressure to tackle organized crime as a condition of integration.
Police first accused Saric of being a narco-boss after more than two metric tons of cocaine was seized in 2009 on a boat off the Uruguayan coast in an international police operation codenamed Balkan Warrior.
Serbian authorities have since issued the 13 indictments against him and seized millions of euros worth of assets, including apartments, hotels and businesses. Saric has not commented on the allegations.
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Alison Williams)