Mobsters And Hail Marys

It's like a scene from The Godfather. A cortege of bulletproof Ferraris winds its way into the remote Bos-nian 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 pretty woman on either arm.

But today at least, the "men of honor" haven't convened to talk business. These ethnic Croats who live in Bosnia have 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. It has hosted more than 20 million visitors since 1981.

To accommodate them, plush two-story villas advertising rooms for rent in four languages have replaced most of the original rough-hewn stone cottages. The modest Church of St. James has been lavishly rebuilt and enlarged for 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 that sell plastic Virgin Mary soda dispensers. Visitors snap up "I love Medugorje" T-shirts and hologram postcards of a crucified Christ whose eyes open and close when tilted against the light.

POLITICS AND PIETY. The religious here include some unlikely supplicants. "What's wrong, Sister?" a hatchet-faced bodyguard of one of the mobsters sneers in English at a gaping American nun. "We're pilgrims, just like you."

Well, yes. Their presence, however, owes more to politics than piety. Medugorje lies in the middle of Herzog-Bosna, a 1000-square-mile strip of barren hinterland adjoining coastal Croatia, which saw some of the most ferocious ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav civil war. Now, with the Muslim minority long since dead or fled, the next goal of the separatist leaders is union with the Croatian "mother country." And every month or so, by way of reaffirming their hard-line credentials, these self-appointed 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, Herzog-Bosna doesn't exist. Under last year's Dayton Peace Accord, 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 genuine state. "They have their own ministries, police force, law courts, border checkpoints.... There's even a Herzog-Bosna license plate, for God's sake," frets Pierre Santerre, a French army officer at the local NATO peacekeeping Implementation Force, or IFOR. Santerre is exasperated by his leadership's reluctance to impose its authority: "The feeling is there's already a kind of order here, which most of the people accept, and that's better than nothing."

POT PLANTATIONS. To finance their feudal fiefdom, say IFOR and Western aid officials, Herzog-Bosna's Croatian Catholic mobsters have imposed some distinctly un-Christian revenue-raising measures. These include smuggling stolen cars from Western Europe, levying "taxes" on business, and renting out formerly Muslim-owned apartments that they have appropriated. According to a report published by the French narcotics watchdog, Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues, the Herzog mafia has marijuana plantations near Medugorje, guarded by marksmen.


In Medugorje itself, though, 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 Father Slavko Barbaric, a Franciscan friar who has worked in the village since 1982. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking where the Medugorjans' emotional ties lie. In every shop and home, images of a blue-eyed Virgin Mary hang side by side with 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 IFOR peacekeeping force due to pull out at the end of this year, that day may come sooner rather than later.

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