On Sunday 22 January 2023, President Vucic ordered the masz arrest of cocaine dealers in Belgrade, and seizure of their warehouses. But he didn't follow up. He quietly let them all go over the next days, and the seized contraband was handed back to the criminals by corrupt Police.
To explain how such a shocking thing can have happened, which undermines all confidence in the integrity of the Serbian legal system and eviscerates the hopes for its stalled succession process to the European Union, it is important to bear in mind the following factors:
Drug dealers are the wealthiest people in Serbia and also the country's most powerful political class.
They use their influence and their corrupt money to bribe or influence the judicial system, which is notoriously frail in practice (if principled in theory).
The President, who is essentially not corrupt and against drugs, controls parts of the Serbian judicial infrastructure but not other parts.
Hence in Belgrade, some police districts are under heavy influence of drug dealer corruption, taking cuts in drug sales; whereas others are not and enforce the drugs laws more impartially (and strictly).
Prosecutors have a lot of discretion in the Serbian legal system, as it is they who make initial decisions on bail (for example).
Hence drug dealers may agree high bail bonds with prosecutors to get their gang members released on bail, and/or make corrupt payments to prosecutors to achieve the same result. And then the bailed parties simply disappear across borders.
The courts do not generally interfere with prosecutors' bail decisions, bad bail decisions are not subject to effective appeal.
Drugs gangs have been the perpetrators of certain high profile assassinations in Serbia's recent history, including one Prime Minister. Therefore law enforcement officials are often afraid of the biggest drugs gangs.
Drugs gangs are well armed, and there are too few Special Police Officers with adequate equipment and weaponry to execute arrests against well armed drugs gang members.
Belgrade Central Remand Prison is too small and therefore many defendants are granted bail simply because there is no room for them.
Sentencing practice for drugs crimes varies wildly. In many cases, an expensive and/or corrupt defence lawyer can get even egregious drug dealers suspended sentences, whereas impoverished drug dealers are dealt with far more harshly often for lesser offences, being sentenced to several years in prison.
Although the Police are meant to destroy seized caches, in practice they are often bribed to quietly hand them over to the relevant gang.
Drug money is so prevalent in politics that drug dealers get to nominate positions even as high as some Cabinet ministers, because their financial support is essential to winning elections, particularly in some smaller southern Serbian constituencies.
Nobody else is nearly as wealthy as the drug dealers, who often flaunt their wealth with bought women and Swiss watches while most Serbian people barely scrape enough money together to eat.
This glamourises drug dealers and drug dealing; regular people aspire to be wealthy like these criminals and to enjoy their overtly criminal lifestyles.
Serbia has a penal system of highly variable quality. Some of its prisons are really quite comfortable by international standards; others are diabolical. Hence the wealthy drug dealers get assigned to the comfortable prisons and are permitted mobile phones and other similar illicit items through corruption of the guards. Hence they can continue their illegal activities even from inside the prison.
Serbia's constitution unwisely prohibits extradition of her own nationals; therefore many internationally wanted drug criminals, many of whom are Serbian, have a licence to flee back to Serbia unpersecuted while evading international warrants.
Massive root-and-branch legal reforms are necessary to overcome these institutional frailties that permit drug dealers to get off too lightly. Serbia is too poor a country to be building new prisons and new courts. She needs substantial international help, if we are to stop the flow of drugs through Serbia by effective law enforcement. Current Serbian legal institutions cannot cope with the very high volume of cases, still less the corrupt money the drug dealers feed into the political system.