The first murder of a journalist since Slovakia’s independence really shook the country in 2018, but – most importantly – it led to the toppling of Slovakian government and exposure of its direct links with business and mafia.
Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were shot dead on February 21, 2018, around the time Kuciak was looking into the Slovakian government’s links to the Italian mafia.
The case of the murdered Kuciak sparked the largest demonstrations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Prior to the murder, Pavla Holcová, who is the founder of investigace.cz and regional editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), worked with Kuciak on the mafia investigation. She admits rushing the publication of the article because it seemed highly likely that the ‘Ndrangheta crime group - based in Calabria, Italy - was involved in the murder.
Later, however, a different lead suspect emerged - Marián Kočner - a prominent Slovakian businessman, whose shady dealings were also covered by the late Kuciak. According to Holcová, Kočner is iconic for Slovakian business and its ties with politics.
[Kočner embodies] everything wrong with Slovakia since independence in 1993
Holcová believes that people took to the streets because they were skeptical that the case would be properly investigated. At the same time, she praises the police for their efforts in investigating the crime and surmises the judges have “strong evidence” against the businessman.
The journalist notes that investigations over the last two years revealed Slovakia to be a “mafia state,” where organized crime became an integral part of politics. It was for this reason that Kočner thought himself “untouchable.” Holcová reveals that this businessman had so much compromising information on all top politicians that “they would rather cover his back and [abandon] the investigation” than risk being exposed to the public.
What adds to the problem is that nobody suspected anything other than “white-collar” economic crime in Slovakia. Long gone are the days when the Mafia drove “gold Mercedes and [wore] tracksuits”. These people now manage to stay below the radar even in the eyes of law enforcement - they do not play up to the 20th-century stereotypes for our convenience.
Slovak government ties with mafia
Despite there not yet being a proven connection of ‘Ndrangheta to the Kuciak case, Holcová believes their joint investigation exposed Robert Fico’s misdeeds during his tenure as prime minister. Fico’s assistant Mária Trošková was “a shareholder and had access to the company accounts of Antonio Vadalà”. These companies took advantage of various EU funding programs, including green energy subsidies.
According to the journalist investigation, Vadalà was planning to return to Italy and expand drug trade by entering a high-profile business, which involved the import of “cocaine underneath the shrimps from Ecuador”. Vadalà was actively collecting money and forming companies, layering the money and offering stakes in the business.
The investigation also uncovered that there was “direct phone exchange between Fico and Vadalà with no need for a middleman”. This is consistent with Fico’s reputation for being “able to collect money for his party 'off the books”. Vadalà was allegedly the provider of such money.
Vadalà was incriminated with subsidy fraud and extradited to Italy in May 2018 where he was also charged with mafia affiliation, as well as drug trafficking. His fate is now in the hands of the Italian prosecutors - who Holcová believes - consider it a high-profile case with hard evidence against the gangster.
A fresh start for Slovakia
Holcová views the newly elected first female (and youngest) president Zuzana Čaputová in a positive light - “she embodies the hope of Slovak people.” At the same, the journalist notes that the role of the president in Slovakia is more of a representative one, as it does not grant “the power to really change the judiciary system or the police forces,” for instance.
However, with the facilitated exchange of information across the E.U. and assistance from the Europol, Holcová hopes it will become easier to investigate crimes and put the guilty on trial.