An opulent villa once owned by a drug lord is now home to children on cancer therapy, a drug lab has been turned into a youth center, and cars used by gangsters are in the hands of the police that chased them.
Serbia's authorities have decided the best way to stop powerful Balkan crimes bosses is to hit where it hurts. So, they're taking away their valuables and putting them to use after years of relative impunity.
The European Union is insisting that the Balkan nation clamp down on organized crime to become a member of the bloc, pressuring officials to take on the powerful force _ tycoons, mafia bosses and gangsters with ties to state security services.
In nearly three years, authorities have netted some $500 million from impounding sprawling villas, luxury cars, furniture, and even a gas station and a bus depot.
Much of the loot is being used for humanitarian purposes, though other treasures _ a white Ferrari with red-leather interiors, a golden Chrysler Prowler, lines of jackpot machines and roulette tables _ are sitting idle in a multi-story concrete warehouse in Belgrade's industrial zone on the Danube.
Authorities hosting a regional meeting on battling crime Tuesday say they are proud of the work, long used in the West, but new in the emerging democracies of the Balkans.
"Serbia and the rest of the region are no longer a safe haven for organized crime," President Boris Tadic told the conference. The government is "waging a systematic war against crime," he added.
Confiscation of property is "a highly efficient tool" in that struggle, noted Jugoslav Stojiljkovic, who oversees the program.
Gangsters, once so powerful they were able to plot the assassination of Serbia's prime minister, continue to have tentacles within the political establishment and are still able to get away with many illegal activities, said Tanja Tagirov, a crime analyst for the independent Vreme weekly.
For years, the pro-Western authorities that came to power after the Balkan wars of the 1990s were too weak to seriously tackle the criminal network closely connected to the country's own security services.
In 2003, Serbia's first postwar reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic was gunned down in front of the government headquarters, in a bold attack by criminals and paramilitary leaders. Back then, tycoons from the war era were left untouched, but those days are over, Stojiljkovic insisted. "No one is protected any longer," he said.
Some of the impounded property belonged to the once mighty, such as a fugitive tycoon who owned a cell phone network under late president Slobodan Milosevic and the former general manager of the state power company.
A notorious Balkan drug lord whose smuggling operations in Latin America were disrupted by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents lost his villas. Leather sofas, high-tech equipment, a home gym, all were sold at auction.
One of the villas has been converted to host families whose children are receiving cancer therapy in Belgrade. Last week, a villa was handed over to accommodate victims of human trafficking. A small house used for drug manufacturing has been renovated to host youth seminars.
The convicted mastermind of the Djindjic assassination was left without half of his suburban villa, which is to become a day care center. His wife and children stay in the other half.
So far, so good, said Stojiljkovic. "We are very pleased with the results."