As Mobsters Flaunt Their Piety...Pilgrims Bring In The Big Bucks

It's like a scene from The Godfather. A cortege of bulletproof Ferraris winds its way into the Bosnian mountain village of Medugorje, pulls up by the main square, and disgorges half a dozen middle-aged mobsters sporting pencil mustaches, three-piece suits, and a woman on either arm.

But today at least, the "men of honor" haven't convened to talk business. They've come to pray. Since 1981, when six local peasant children began seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, Medugorje has become a shrine to rival Lourdes. "What's wrong, Sister?" one hatchet-face bodyguard sneers in English at a gaping American nun. "We're pilgrims, just like you."

Well, yes. But their presence owes more to politics than piety. Medugorje lies in the middle of Herzeg-Bosna, a 2,590-square-kilometer strip adjoining Croatia that saw some of the worst ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav war. Now, with the Muslim minority long since dead or fled, the next goal of the separatist leaders is union with the "mother country." And every month or so, by way of reaffirming their hard-line credentials, these guardians of racial purity come down from their power bases in the surrounding hillside towns to pay public obeisance at Croatian nationalism's Holy of Holies.

Officially, Herzeg-Bosna doesn't exist. Under last year's Dayton accords, it lies within the larger Muslim-Croatian Federation, which occupies almost 50% of partitioned Bosnia. Even so, the enclave has all the trappings of a state. "They have their own ministries, police force, law courts, border checkpoints. There's even a Herzeg-Bosna license plate, for God's sake," frets Pierre Santerre, a French army officer at the local NATO peacekeeping base. "The feeling is, there's already a kind of order here, which most of the people accept, and that's better than nothing."

Western aid officials allege that Herzeg-Bosna's Catholic overlords have imposed some distinctly unchristian revenue-raising measures to finance their feudal fiefdom: smuggling stolen cars from Western Europe, levying "taxes" on business, and selling tenancies to formerly Muslim-owned apartments. According to a report published by the French narcotics watchdog, Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, the Herzeg mafia has marijuana plantations near Medugorje, guarded by marksmen.

BLUE EYES. In Medugorje itself, the gangsters apparently maintain only a token presence. "They wouldn't cause trouble here--it would discredit them and force the Americans to do something," insists the Reverend Slavko Barbaric, a Franciscan friar who has worked in the village since 1982. Still, there's no mistaking where the Medugorjans' emotional ties lie. In every shop and home, images of a blue-eyed Virgin Mary hang alongside the nationalists' own blue-eyed boy, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

"We feel about Medugorje the way the Jews feel about Jerusalem," explains tour guide Martin Goranovic. "It should be in Croatia, and one day it will be." With the peacekeeping force due to pull out at the end of this year, that day may come sooner rather than later.

Whether or not the Herzeg dons are taking a piece of the action, the Medugorjans have done well over the years. Since 1981, the shrine has hosted more than 20 million visitors.


Plush two-story villas advertising "rooms for rent" in four languages have long since replaced most of the original rough-hewn stone cottages. The modest Church of St. James has been lavishly rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate round-the-clock services and confessions. The main street is one long strip of flashing neon, where Ave Maria Tours luxury coaches and Pie Jesu Pilgrimages minibuses cruise past souvenir stores selling plastic Virgin Mary soda dispensers, and "I love Medugorje" T-shirts.

Still, for believers, the commercialization--and the politics--of Medugorje are ultimately irrelevant. "At least the traders are honest--it's not like Lourdes, where you have to count your change," says Eileen O'Connor from Belfast, on her fifth visit in eight years. "Once I'm here, though, I tend to ignore that side of things anyway. I'm here for the Holy Mother. Nothing else matters."

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