The Bloody Red Berets

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When Franko Simatovic was first dispatched from his native Belgrade to Croatia in 1991, there was little to distinguish him from other young Yugoslav intelligence officers drafted into the early days of Serbia's war effort. Slobodan Milosevic was whipping up Serbian nationalism, and the rest of the world was only dimly aware of the simmering ethnic mix that was about to explode in Yugoslavia. Tall, with fair hair, fluent in English and several other languages, "Frenki" was noted for his calm, professorial manner--and a fondness for Raybans. His main accomplishment was having successfully spied on U.S. diplomats at their Belgrade embassy during the cold war.

But Simatovic was in Croatia on a special mission. Politicians in Belgrade needed a way to make secret war on one of their own republics without involving the military. Simatovic's solution was to set up a small unit of ex-policemen, ex-convicts and other self-proclaimed volunteers who would answer only to Serbian secret police.

The Red Berets, or "Frenki's boys," as they came to be known, were remarkably successful: they helped invent the 1990s version of "ethnic cleansing" and went on to become the most feared paramilitary unit of the Balkan wars. Without such units, politicians like Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic would never have had the means to carry out their radical ethnic policies. When the war expanded to Bosnia in 1992, Frenki moved with it and later went on to Kosovo. Word that Frenki's boys were in the neighborhood was enough to drive tens of thousands of Kosovars from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries. Even other Serbian paramilitaries, lower in the battlefield hierarchy, had to watch their backs. "Everybody was afraid of us," a former Red Beret boasted to Time. "Karadzic trembled before Frenki." Says a U.S. official: "Frenki's boys were at the forefront of several ethnic-cleansing campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia."

But for all his notoriety outside Serbia, at home Frenki has remained oddly invisible. Rumors circulate of his death, resurrection and/or transmogrification into someone else. Few know his precise whereabouts, and significantly, no photograph has ever been published. That is deliberate; when a reporter tried to take his picture on the battlefield, the reporter says, Frenki put a pistol to the man's temple and told him that if he tried that again, Frenki would pull the trigger.

A TIME investigation into Frenki and his boys reveals how he continues to escape scrutiny in Serbia despite his alarming reputation elsewhere. Friends and former colleagues are edgily protective. Dragan Vasiljkovic, alias Captain Dragan, an associate who trained the first contingent of Red Berets and who now runs a Belgrade Internet cafe, calls the ex-chief a "real gentlemen." "I can't see him committing anything that would not agree with my own moral standards," says Vasiljkovic. He adds, dragging on a cigarette, "If anyone will call me as a witness, he can expect me to defend him." Simatovic and the Red Berets still have contacts in high places. Zoran Djindjic, now Serbia's Prime Minister, met with a top Red Beret commander on the eve of Milosevic's ouster in October and obtained a guarantee that the unit would not intervene. Said a senior Western official: "Djindjic feels that he owes Frenki a debt."

No court has indicted Simatovic, and as recently as last month, he was still somewhere within Serbia's labyrinthine Ministry of Interior. But that doesn't make war-crimes-tribunal investigators any less eager to investigate him and his unit. Noted an investigator from the Hague: "Frenki's boys are a direct link between Slobodan Milosevic and war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo."

Simatovic is one of dozens of principal coordinators of the bloody wars of the 1990s who remain comfortably at large in Serbia. Their continued freedom underscores the challenges and risks facing those who would bring key Serbian perpetrators of the Balkan wars to justice. While the world awaits the arrest of Milosevic--expected almost any day now--his detention will not be the watershed that international prosecutors hoped for. Despite his indictment by the international war-crimes tribunal in the Hague, he will be tried in Belgrade, most probably for abuse of office and other misdeeds rather than for ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and elsewhere. This is not a minor distinction. Local trials do not address responsibility for the worst crimes committed in Europe since World War II, and hence they undermine the landmark U.N.-led effort to hold war criminals accountable under international law regardless of nationality.

And the problem runs deeper than Milosevic. Beneath him and his immediate cronies lies a complex web of officials and erstwhile thugs who are escaping scrutiny for war crimes simply by hewing to the law at home. Some are still pulling the levers of power. The real job of bringing Serbian war criminals to justice has not even begun.

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