July 13, 2015 / 2:35 PM / 2 years ago

Serbia sentences Balkan drug trafficker to 20 years in jail

Alleged Balkan drugs boss Darko Saric, who surrendered to Serbian police last week after almost five years on the run, gestures inside a court in Belgrade March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic

BELGRADE (Reuters) - A court in Belgrade on Monday sentenced Darko Saric, for years one of the most wanted crime figures in the Balkans, to 20 years in jail for trafficking cocaine from Latin America to Europe and laundering 22 million euros, the Tanjug news agency reported.

Saric, 44, stood accused of trafficking 5.7 tonnes of cocaine and laundering the proceeds of drug crime in Serbia.

After almost five years on the run, Saric surrendered in March last year. In a dragnet involving the CIA, Serbia said it had located Saric moving within four Latin American countries and that, having realized his arrest was imminent, he had agreed to turn himself in.

Throughout the trial Saric said the charges against him were fabricated. His lawyer, Radoslav Bacovic, said Saric would appeal against the verdict in a higher court, Tanjug reported.

Three other men were given jail terms of between 11 and a half years and 20 years.

Organized crime flourished during and after the Balkan wars in the 1990s, with crime networks exploiting porous borders, a glut of cheap firearms and political and security establishments riddled with corruption.

The Balkan region is also a well-known transit route for illicit drugs bound for western Europe.

All former Yugoslav republics have since set their sights on joining the European Union -- Slovenia and Croatia have already joined -- and are under pressure from Brussels to root out organized crime and corruption as a condition for integration.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones

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