Drug gang war threatens Kotor's tourist season
WITH its winding cobbled streets and stunning Adriatic bay, the Montenegrin town of Kotor draws crowds of visitors each summer.
But deadly gang violence threatens to cloud the tourist boom.
Dozens of anti-terrorist police officers have descended on the mediaeval fortress town in the past week after a string of public shootouts between rival drug-trafficking clans.
This spells trouble for the tourism sector in Kotor, which was named the top city in the world to visit this year by travel guide Lonely Planet.
Tourism officials expect up to a million visitors this year.
"Kotor is a hostage town," Montenegro's Interior Minister Goran Danilovic said after the special forces were sent into the Balkan resort last weekend.
"Kotor has to stop being the centre of clashes between criminal gangs."
According to police sources, Kotor's main drugs cartel split into three feuding gangs in 2014 over the disappearance of 200kg of South American cocaine in the Spanish town of Valencia.
Their quarrels have led to at least five murders in the past year across the region - and at least four murder attempts in the past two months in Kotor, all of them in public places.
The latest on June 3 - although there were no casualties - pushed the authorities to deploy an anti-terrorist unit that has nearly 70 members, the police sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The town is in a drugs hell, left to criminals," said 52-year-old Mladen who works in an art gallery.
Like most local residents, he was afraid to give his full name to the media because of the tensions in the small community.
The heightened security comes as Kotor, a Unesco World Heritage Site, gears up for a bumper tourist season.
Many arrive on cruise ships carrying up to 3,000 people, and the restaurants, churches and museums behind the 12th-century walls are already filling up.
For now, the police presence is subtle. But some locals are worried the security forces could turn off holiday-makers.
"I'm afraid that sending them only a few weeks before the start of the tourist season will damage it," said Branko, a 55-year-old former sailor, sitting in a cafe in the old town.
With nearly 850,000 visitors last year - making it the country's top tourist destination - Kotor sums up the Montenegrin dilemma: a growing tourism sector under the threat of powerful organised crime.
Kotor has a rich seafaring history and was once home to successful shipping company Jugooceanija, which collapsed with the break up of Yugoslavia. Some out-of-work sailors are thought to have subsequently entered the lucrative cocaine trafficking business.
Foreign visitors expressed little awareness of Kotor's darker side.
Canadian cruise-goer Claire Tremblay, 58, said she had chosen Montenegro over Istanbul owing to recent terrorist attacks in Turkey.
"Now we see that we got a bonus. Kotor and the Adriatic Sea are beautiful," she added.
Kotor's mayor Aleksandar Stjepcevic said the situation had improved since the special police arrived but regretted that his town had become "the scene of clashes" between gangs. "I am disappointed that such scenes became part of everyday life," he said.