A few years ago, Mike MacQueen, a historian working for the Department of Homeland Security, was at his desk combing through decades-old Bosnian military records, in search of war criminals who had eluded justice. The documents listed the names of top officer in a batallion implicated in the massacre of at least a thousand Muslim prisoners at a schoolhouse and dam in eastern Bosnia, in 1995. He noticed that the name of one Bosnian Serb officer kept showing up in the logs: Ilija Josipović.
MacQueen had turned himself into an unlikely expert on the bloodshed that unfolded in the Balkans two decades ago, mastering the Serbo-Croatian language, making two dozen trips to the region, and becoming so well schooled in the carnage that Bosnian prosecutors had flown him over repeatedly to testify at war-crimes trials. He had familiarized himself with the tough-to-pronounce names of many of the key figures involved in the atrocities, but he had never come across Josipović (pronounced yoh-SIP-oh-vitch). He made a note to himself to find out what happened to the Serb officer.
MacQueen, who is sixty-eight, has spent the last three decades tracking down war criminals—from Nazis to Bosnians—who have been hiding in the United States. His role, first with the Justice Department and then with Immigration and Customs Enforcement , has been to find offenders who made it into America disguised as refugees. His official title is senior historian, but MacQueen’s job description is more akin to that of a police detective.
His obsession with war crimes has taken him overseas to interview survivors or obtain documents from authorities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Lithuania. Sometimes, it has meant knocking on the doors of unwitting suspects in the United States. But on many days, it has meant simply sitting in his office, not far from the Capitol, and examining one document after another from some three hundred thousand pages of records about the conflict that he has gathered.
It can be tedious work, MacQueen told me. A tiny phonetic mistake in a foreign dialect can imperil a case. MacQueen’s other preoccupation is building race cars. He uses the same detached precision to describe how he pieces together war-crimes cases as he does when explaining how he rebuilt an engine that blew out on his MG Midget during a recent race in West Virginia. Acts of mass killing can sound almost mundane as he recounts zeroing in on a suspected war criminal. “I guess it’s the banality of investigating evil,” he told me, a variation of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase.
After finding Josipović’s name in the logs that day, MacQueen set out to learn what Josipović did during the war. Records listed him as an officer in an important logistics role at a time when the Bosnian-Serb Army, or V.R.S., was murdering eight thousand Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, in what would become Europe’s worst genocide since the Second World War. He didn’t appear to be a low-level triggerman but, rather, an officer who rose in rank and gained responsibility as the violence grew. Where Josipović lived now was unclear. MacQueen knew that someone with his record should not have been able to get into the United States. But he also knew that the immigration system in the late nineties had allowed hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Bosnian wartime offenders to enter America amid a mass influx of about a hundred and twenty thousand Bosnian refugees. As a precaution, MacQueen searched for Josipović’s name in ICE’s databases. A hit soon came back—from Akron, Ohio. “Josipović had fallen through the cracks,” MacQueen told me. He realized that one of the highest-ranking Bosnian war-crimes suspects he had ever identified had been living quietly in the United States since 2003.
Federal agents with “ICE” emblazoned on their jackets, conducting workplace raids and taking undocumented immigrants into custody, have become a notorious sight under President Trump. But investigators at a separate ICE unit, where MacQueen works, who are largely removed from the raging immigration debate, have carried out a much less visible mission during the past nine years, targeting human-rights offenders who came to America from dozens of countries.
The immigration group, officially known as the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, currently has more than a hundred and thirty-five active investigations of suspected foreign offenders now thought to be living in the United States, officials said. In April, the unit’s investigation into a Liberian warlord living outside of Philadelphia, who had been implicated in murders, rapes, and enslavement in his native country in the nineties, resulted in a thirty-year prison sentence for immigration fraud and perjury—the longest criminal sentence in the team’s history.
Most of MacQueen’s cases have involved Bosnian Serbs, the group blamed for the bulk of the ethnic violence during the war, but his unit has also moved to jail or deport a number of Bosnian Croats and Muslims who were also accused of brutal sectarian violence in what MacQueen described as “a war of all against all.” He says more than fifty of the Bosnian immigrants he investigated have been forced out of the country. (Many cases have not become public, because they came in sealed immigration proceedings.) In January, after thirty years in the federal government, MacQueen officially retired, but ICE asked him to stay on for another five years as a private contractor, because his work on the Balkan front was “invaluable,” Lisa Koven, the chief of ICE’s human-rights law section, said.
MacQueen is determined to continue working on the investigations of the suspects he has already identified, and help prosecutors prepare to take them to court. His aim is to finish what he began and get as many war criminals as he can forced out of the country. “I don’t really need the money,” he said.
A native New Yorker, MacQueen comes across as soft-spoken and stoic, with a wry sense of humor, but he admits to losing his temper with suspects whom he believes are lying to him. In an angry confrontation a few years ago with a Bosnian woman in Wisconsin who concealed her involvement with a Serbian military unit, he used a vulgar sexual expression in Serbo-Croatian to show what he thought of her claims of innocence. A judge “gave me a little talking to,” MacQueen said. “I have a stunning lack of sympathy for anyone with an unclean record. They can go fuck themselves.”
I first interviewed MacQueen five years ago, about his earlier work in hunting Nazis. I was writing a book about the thousands of Nazi war criminals who came to America after the Second World War, and a source mentioned MacQueen’s role in breaking a critical case, in 1994, when he was at the Justice Department. For years, prosecutors suspected that a Lithuanian immigrant and naturalized American citizen in Massachusetts named Aleksandras Lileikis, who had led a special police force in Vilnius during the war, was a top Nazi collaborator who ordered the roundup of Lithuanian Jews in the nineteen-forties and turned them over to the Nazis for execution. But the Justice Department couldn’t prove it, and Lileikis denied any role in the massacres. “Show me something that I signed,” Lileikis had dared a prosecutor who showed up at his door, in Boston, in 1983.
The case languished for a decade, until MacQueen went to Lithuania to examine dog-eared Nazi records that had become available to Americans after the fall of the Soviet Union.
MacQueen scoured the Lithuanian archives for days without success. Finally, he found a canvas-bound book with the names of nearly twenty-nine hundred wartime prisoners held in Vilnius typed in Russian. (MacQueen speaks six languages, including Russian, which he brushes up on by watching “The Americans,” on FX.) The logs listed hundreds of Jews, many of them children, who were jailed, turned over to the Nazis, marched to an excavation site six miles away, and methodically gunned down. In all, some sixty thousand Lithuanian Jews were massacred. In thick black ink at the bottom of an arrest order, MacQueen finally spotted the signature: Aleksandras Lileikis, chief of the special security police in Vilnius. Then he found twenty more signatures just like it.
Lileikis was ultimately stripped of his citizenship and returned to Lithuania, in 1996, where he died awaiting trial for war crimes. MacQueen considers this one of the most important achievements of his career. For years, he kept on his bulletin board in his office the Nazis’ neatly typed “execution cards” for two of the Lithuanian victims—a six-year-old Jewish girl named Fruma Kaplan and her mother. Lileikis’s men had jailed them after they were found hiding in a Catholic family’s home. Below Fruma’s name on the card was the local Nazi euphemism for what befell her and tens of thousands of others: Befehlsgemass behandelt—“treated according to orders.” MacQueen rarely displays much emotion over his investigations, but he had nightmares for years over victims like Fruma. “If you have any human sensibility, it sticks,” he told me.
MacQueen switched to Bosnian crimes in 2004. “The Nazis were all dying,” he said, and a generation of Balkan suspects was beginning to surface in the United States. In both eras, holes in America’s immigration system allowed offenders into the country based on little more than their word about what they did during the war. “We didn’t learn our lesson” after thousands of Nazis got into the United States after the war, MacQueen said. “That the whole situation was allowed to repeat itself in Bosnia was historical amnesia.”
On July 11, 1995, Srebrenica, a predominantly Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia that had been declared a United Nations protected safe area, fell to Bosnian Serb forces after U.N. and NATO forces did little to save it. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim men were bused to schools, warehouses, and other buildings that served as makeshift prisons. In the nearby village of Petkovci, soldiers from the 6th Infantry Battalion of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Zvornick Brigade herded more than a thousand Muslim men into hot, crowded classrooms. With no food or water, some prisoners “became so thirsty they resorted to drinking their own urine,” according to the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Shouting “Long live Serbia, Srebrenica is Serbian,” the soldiers shot some prisoners to death outside the school, the tribunal found, then took the rest to a nearby dam and executed them, burying them in mass graves.
All told, the U.N. tribunal has implicated the 6th Infantry Battalion in the murders of more than a thousand Muslims from Srebrenica, at the school and elsewhere. Using Bosnian documents and U.S. government records, MacQueen managed to identify a handful of Balkan immigrants in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and elsewhere who served in the notorious unit. In 2014, he began focussing on Josipović. “I just kept finding more and more stuff on this guy,” he told me. The other 6th Battalion members he had found living in the United States were lower-level soldiers, but the logs placed Josipović several rungs above them, with a rank of company commander and the role of the chief logistics officer for the battalion in mid-1995. Piecing together the Bosnian Serb personnel records from 1992 to 1995, he was able to track Josipović’s whereabouts in those years, his promotions in rank, and, most important, his senior role at the 6th Battalion headquarters in July, 1995, in Petkovci, at the time of the killings of the Muslims from Srebrenica. There were no eyewitness accounts of Josipović’s role, but MacQueen found documents that showed he had significant responsibility for a range of operations, including summoning the trucks needed to shuttle prisoners to the execution site and dispatching personnel to clean up the blood and waste from the school. Josipović “was at the hub of the machine,” MacQueen told me. “He was a key functionary without whom mass-murder operations could not be carried out.” A former prosecutor in Bosnia, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Josipović as a “medium to big fish” in the Petkovci operation.
In 2003, Josipović settled in the United States. On the surface, his life looked like that of many other Bosnian refugees. He was married, with three children. He spoke spotty English, but held a steady factory job. He had a house and a mortgage in a blue-collar area of Akron near a local diner. He’d received a few traffic tickets but had no major run-ins with the law.
In 2012, Bosnian officials asked the U.S. government to interview Josipović, because they thought he might have information that could help in their investigation into the 6th Battalion’s top commander, Ostoja Stanišić. F.B.I. agents questioned Josipović in Akron—not as a suspect but as a possible witness. He told them that he hadn’t served in the battalion and knew nothing about the commander. Two years later, MacQueen began his own investigation and learned about the F.B.I. interview. He was frustrated to read in the F.B.I.’s report just how easily Josipović had evaded scrutiny. Josipović “blew smoke” and “Bureau agents wrote it all down,” MacQueen said. The F.B.I. declined to comment on the case.
In September, 2014, MacQueen obtained a search warrant and, accompanied by four immigration agents, knocked on Josipović’s door. After the visitors showed Josipović their credentials, Josipović became agitated, but he agreed to answer some questions, MacQueen said. The conversation started civilly, in English, but he began cursing in Serbo-Bosnian as questions turned to the war.
Josipović again denied serving in the military. MacQueen brought out the records showing Josipović’s name, rank, and identification number. “How do you square what you’re telling me with this?” he recalled asking. Josipović got his eyeglasses and began reading. He declared the records a forgery. “I don’t know who made this document,” MacQueen recalled him saying. It had been authenticated, MacQueen told him. Josipović’s story shifted. He had served in the 6th Battalion, he admitted, but he wasn’t in Pekovci. He had “granted himself leave,” he said, and was visiting relatives across the river in Serbia. MacQueen didn’t believe him. The bloodletting at Petkovci involved the entire unit, and Josipović’s name was in the officer staffing logs. MacQueen finally left, convinced that Josipović had been lying to American officials for more than a decade.
For two years, Josipović’s case was stalled owing to a backlog of immigration cases. Photos that Josipović posted on Facebook during that time show him smiling, his graying hair cropped short, as he posed with his children at a family wedding and at a graduation ceremony for his daughter with balloons in hand. Early last year, things changed. Federal prosecutors in Ohio charged Josipović with immigration fraud, and, three weeks later, just days after his sixtieth birthday, he walked into the federal courthouse in Akron. He had decided to plead guilty, which meant near-certain deportation. His wife, who came from Bosnia with him, had died of cancer two months earlier, and he was eager to take a deal rather than face more serious war-crimes charges. “I figured it was the easiest route to go,” he told the judge through a translator, before admitting he had concealed his military service with the Bosnian Serbs.
Prosecutors wanted the sure thing, as well. “This was someone we wanted to get out of the United States as soon as possible,” Jason Katz, the federal prosecutor who brought the case with MacQueen’s help, told me.
A deportation order came three months later. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cleveland put out a short press release, picked up by a few media outlets in Ohio, that said Josipović was being deported “for failing to disclose his involvement in a military unit engaged in war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.” The statement made no mention of his role as a ranking officer in the 6th Battalion or the unit’s involvement in the Srebrenica massacre.
ICE agents put Josipović on a plane back to Bosnia last summer. Boro Josipović, his thirty-one-year-old son, told me that it was “heartbreaking” for him and his two sisters, who all remained in Ohio, to see their father deported after fourteen years in America. His father had no real choice but to conceal his military service from U.S. immigration officials in his application papers, Boro maintained, or he and his wife and three children would never have been let into the country. “He just basically wanted to provide a better life for his family,” Boro said. “It was a civil war. From what I knew, he was just a regular officer.”
Josipović has been living with a cousin in Zvornik since his deportation, Boro said. I asked to speak to the elder Josipović, but Boro declined several requests to put me in touch with him directly and said his father was uninterested in being interviewed. His health has not been good, Boro told me, and “he doesn’t feel like talking about it.” Asked whether he thought his father was involved in war crimes, Boro Josipović said he did not really know. He has heard accounts of the Srebrenica killings, he said, ‘‘but there’s so many different stories. I really don’t know what happened. God only knows.’’Bosnian authorities had told MacQueen that they would consider prosecuting Josipović on war-crimes charges.
MacQueen was hopeful but not confident. Over the years, he had seen many suspects—both Nazis and Bosnians—escape the punishment he thought they deserved, and human-rights advocates have long complained of uneven justice for Balkan war criminals. The U.N. war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which closed last December, after twenty-four years, brought charges against a hundred and sixty-one high-level offenders, including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, who died while on trial; the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, the so-called Butcher of Bosnia, who oversaw the Srebrenica massacres; and the Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak, who killed himself in court last year by drinking a vial of poison seconds after his sentence was affirmed.
But justice has been more erratic in the cases that have been brought before the Bosnian state court. MacQueen testified as an expert in state court in the joint trial of Stanišić, the 6th Battalion commander, and his top deputy, Marko Milošević (no relation to Slobodan), for crimes of genocide in the killings of hundreds of Muslims at the dam in Petkovci. Stanišić was found guilty and imprisoned, but his deputy was acquitted because of what the court called a lack of evidence.
Trying accused war criminals remains politically contentious in Bosnia two decades after the conflict. The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has called for a referendum to reject the authority of the court, saying it is biased against Serbs. The court has an enormous backlog and hopes to resolve five hundred and fifty war-crimes cases involving more than forty-five hundred perpetrators by 2023. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors war-crimes trials in Bosnia, has observed a dramatic decrease in conviction rates in the state court in the past few years. A 2016 report by the group found that “many potential witnesses have died or emigrated” and acknowledged that it would be impossible to try every perpetrator: “The conflict in BiH lasted for over three years. Innumerable crimes were committed by innumerable people. Available resources render it impossible to prosecute all those who committed crimes.”
MacQueen told me that an ongoing “culture of silence” in Bosnia discourages eyewitnesses and victims from testifying and made it difficult to get convictions. In the case of Josipović, a Bosnian prosecutor “reviewed the available evidence” and “issued an order not to initiate an investigation,” Boris Grubešić, a spokesman for the Bosnian state prosecutor’s office, told me. That will stand, he said, “unless we find some additional and sufficient evidence.”
Free for now from the threat of prosecution, Josipović has been trying to find work in Zvornik, without success, Boro said. Father and son talk on Skype when they can. MacQueen had heard nothing about Josipović for months after his deportation and didn’t know about Bosnia’s decision not to initiate an investigation. He expressed disappointment but was not altogether surprised. MacQueen’s main goal—getting Josipović deported—was accomplished. “We got done what we could do,” he said. “He’ll never be coming back.”
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting to this article.