BELGRADE Organized crime in Serbia has likely laundered about a billion euros over the past decade but the current government will "spare no one" in clamping down on such groups, the interior minister said on Thursday.
Estimates that a billion euros had been laundered through the Balkan country were very plausible, Ivica Dacic said in an interview.
"Intelligence data also indicate we are dealing with such figures," added Dacic, who is also first deputy prime minister of the EU applicant country.
The dirty money has affected the development of a country still trying to emerge from the isolation of the 1990s war years and progress toward the European Union.
"Money with no origin appeared in privatization deals. Laws were deficient and we have improved that in cooperation with European bodies," Dacic said.
The European Union has demanded Serbia combat crime, corruption, nepotism and red tape as a condition of moving toward membership of the 27-nation bloc.
It granted Serbia visa-free travel after its authorities, including police, proved their credibility to crack down on crime and to improve control of previously porous borders.
In the last year and a half Serbian police have arrested hundreds on suspicion of involvement in mafia groups. So far this year Serbian authorities have impounded real estate and cars worth about 100 million euros from suspects charged with organized crime and corruption.
Global agencies say the Balkans are a major crossroads for organized crime. Dacic said groups involved in extortions, money laundering, drugs, weapons and human trafficking "have became a menace to society."
"These groups sought backing from politicians and business circles," Dacic said. "Investigations will identify companies privatized with dirty money. We will spare no one."
Last month Serbia's chief prosecutor for organized crime indicted a 20-strong mixed Serbian and Montenegrin group, led by fugitive suspect Darko Saric, on charges of smuggling 2.6 tonnes of cocaine in 2009 from South America.
"Smaller groups processed millions (of euros). Major groups such as Saric's gang -- much, much more," said Dacic, who heads Serbia's junior coalition Socialist Party.
Communist authorities in the 1980s forged ties with organized crime to clamp down on anti-communist emigrants abroad and later used such groups for ethnic cleansing and clandestine operations in the 1991-1999 wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
Dozens died in subsequent gangland-style shootouts in Serbia and its ex-federal partner Montenegro in the 1990s, including officials, industrialists and key underworld figures.
Following Slobodan Milosevic's overthrow in 2000, Serbian authorities tried to crack down on organized crime, but dissident secret service officers and criminals in 2003 killed Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Recently, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned that the country's prosperity depended on the crackdown on the mafia, which he described as a key threat to the nation of 7.3 million.
Serbian authorities last month have stepped up protection for Tadic and other officials, fearing assassination attempts.
"These threats will be even bigger because our fight against organized crime and corruption will accelerate," Dacic said.
(Editing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Jon Boyle)