A number of the targets in the series of recent Serb-related hits have lived in South Africa, below the radar of the police and media, for up to a decade. In some instances, they've been making use of numerous identities and fake passports.
It is unclear why the equilibrium has been shaken and violence has now erupted.
"South Africa is seen as a "faraway land" by criminals in the Balkans, where it will be almost impossible for law enforcement authorities to track them down, not least because there are not strong channels for information sharing and extradition. On the other hand, South Africa is considered to be a good place for business opportunities, whether legal or illegal," explains Fatjona Mejdini, field co-ordinator of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime Observatory in south-eastern Europe.
Mejdini points to the example of the so-called Balkan cocaine "kingpin" Darko Saric, who is believed to have hidden in South Africa for several years, around 2010. Originally from Montenegro, Saric is now imprisoned in Serbia. Local media reports claimed Saric was living under a pseudonym in Gauteng and that he was "protected by mafia and police".
Serbian journalist Miloš Lazic suggests the situation needs to be viewed in context of the war in former Yugoslavia which forced criminals to find new opportunities.
"A lot of people moved abroad to avoid conflict. Most of them are honest, hard-working people but also, criminals managed to infiltrate. South Africa is one of those places because it wasn't hard for them to enter the country without any strict control. They often came with significant sums of money and so it was easy for them to start a business," he explains.
"They're highly adaptable, they will not hesitate to get involved in any type of crime, with any local organisation or a mobster. They came with a criminal knowledge of drug smuggling, racketeering, extortion, robberies, murder and theft. This is a conflict between two Serbian/Montenegro criminal groups, probably with assistance of some locals. Those are "old guard" criminals, well established in the underworld, so motive must be something very important for them."
Simone Haysom, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, is currently working on an ENACT research report on foreign criminal actors in Africa.
"One of the things that is interesting about the recent surge in Serbian activity in South Africa is that we last noticed a number of such figures move over a decade ago, when several figures linked to war-time militias started to show up, likely fleeing prosecution for criminal acts or even war crimes. But they did not become major players in South Africa's underworld – they were drivers, bodyguards. There, often became close to powerful figures, but were not themselves in control," says Haysom.
"The questions then would be why has violence suddenly arisen? It could be that new players, or new trafficking routes, linked to serious organised crime networks, have arisen more recently, and they were able to embed in South Africa through these longer term, more low-key players."
South Africa offers underworld figures the opportunity to establish business networks through legitimate structures but without recourse for criminal activity from law enforcement officials because of high levels of corruption.
Milica Vojinovic, investigative reporter at crime and corruption reporting network KRIK says Serbians in South Africa have been able to build networks.
"We know they would choose a country that enables them to do their illegal or criminal business, either by corruption or by some kind of connections with some influential people. We can say that they would go somewhere they have already established connections to some influential criminals or somewhere they think they can make those kinds of connections quickly."
As an example, she points to how Serbians were able to arrive in South Africa and quickly become part of the network around Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir.
"It does seem like South Africa has been a destination for some of the Serbian criminals. They are mostly older criminals who were active in Serbia in the 1990s, like Milan Djuricic who was killed in South Africa last year, and Dobrosav Gavric, now in prison also in SA. They were both convicted in Serbia in 2006 for the murder of another Serbian criminal Željko Ražnatovic Arkan which happened in January of 2000. They both escaped to South Africa and apparently made connections there with other Serbians and also some other influential criminals there."
All to do with drugs
Sources in South Africa and Serbia say it is likely that the lucrative drug trade is the motive for the spate of hits around Joburg, but there is no definitive proof of this. There have been no arrests, no interrogations and no court proceedings, making it difficult to glean any information. The syndicates are also insular, with little trust of police officers or the media.
Researchers, like Mejdini and Haysom have been looking at the established drug routes used by cartels to see whether South Africa could be a feature.
"In this case, the only connection that might be possible is cocaine. (Montenegrin) Serbian networks are major players in the continental cocaine trade. It might be the case that cocaine travels from South America to South Africa and enters Europe via Turkey," explains Mejdini.
"Once South Africa is established as a transit point, cocaine could also be shipped to other locations with lucrative markets and with which we have existing transport corridors, like Australia. In the past there have been several arrests which suggested attempts to set up drug routes between the two countries – such as Krejcir's attempt to ship methamphetamine there. Just recently, there was a large bust in Australia of a cocaine shipment which had arrived from South Africa," adds Haysom.
Vojinovic says their investigations have found that ports in Africa have been used as transit points in cocaine smuggling operations.
"Narco-clans that do this kind of smuggling purchase cocaine in some of the South American countries and smuggle it by ship to Europe. So, the ports in European countries are usually the final destination, but the ships sometimes go through countries on other continents as through some African countries. Narco-clans that are in most cases, very organised, specifically choose ships by their route so they know where it is going and through which ports. They also corrupt workers in different ports that ships go through so they let them load the drugs or not to report if they find something suspicious in the ship's cargo.
"This is the way the most known Balkan narco-clan lead by Darko Šaric worked. They smuggled cocaine from Argentina and Brazil to Western European countries, especially Italy. There was one shipment that we know went through Tunisia because in some conversations between members of the clan who were listened (on) by the police they talk about the ship captured there because port workers wanted more money not to report the drugs found on the ship," Vojinovic said.
Suspicion is enough to kill
Journalist Miloš Lazic says he believes that what has been happening in South Africa could be related to a spate of big drug busts in Europe recently. The syndicates may be hunting down those who tipped off authorities.
"Serbian criminal organisations are not too violent, but when it comes to cocaine trafficking and, what is even worse, cocaine stealing, there is no mercy. There are two ongoing wars between rival gangs in Serbia and Montenegro, Europe too. More than 50 people were killed in the past four years. I assume that fight in South Africa is about supremacy over cocaine trafficking.
"There were big busts in Europe, one ton of cocaine in Romania, 200 kilos in Greece, 55 kilos in Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, only thing which connects all those cases [is the] high purity of cocaine and arrested Serbs/Montenegrins," Lazic points out.
With the cartels looking to establish new routes, under pressure from international policing organisations, they could be looking to step up operations in South Africa. This is an ominous move as those working for the cartels trade in violence.
"I am almost sure that everything is connected, South America, South Africa and Europe. Cocaine trafficking via Africa and South Africa is increasing in the last decade. Serbian criminals over and over again are finding new routes to smuggle cocaine. They are very adaptable, clever, unscrupulous and without any moral code. Even a suspicion is enough for those people to kill someone. If someone is collaborating with authorities or police, that is a death sentence. Those people are working in shadows, so talking too much on the streets can be dangerous. They're making millions of profit and they will not allow anyone to risk it."