International Operation Brings Down Balkan Drug Smuggling Ring
An international police operation led by Serbia seized 2.7 tonnes of cocaine aboard a vessel in the Atlantic Ocean and arrested six suspected members of a Balkan cartel believed to have organized several large shipments of the drug from Latin America to the European Union, Europol reported on Friday.
Four of the six suspects were apprehended in Serbia, including the alleged leader of the criminal network, 70-year-old S.K.
Serbian police initiated their investigation into this drug cartel in January of last year, suspecting the gang was transporting tonnes of cocaine from Brazil and other South American countries to the European Union via sailboats.
The investigation soon expanded to other European countries - Croatia, France, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Slovenia - as well as Brazil, and it was coordinated by Europol.
Authorities dismantled three encrypted communication tools used by criminals - Encrochat, Sky ECC, and Anom - providing them with "unprecedented insight into criminal networks and their operations," according to the agency.
In particular, this enabled them to uncover the significant role played by criminal networks primarily composed of Balkan nationals in the global cocaine trade, the agency added.
While monitoring the organization, authorities began to discern certain travel patterns. The intelligence gathered indicated that skippers of Ukrainian and Czech nationality frequently traveled to Capo Verde and other locations in West Africa to prepare their vessels for smuggling operations.
More recently, they spotted the vessel in Brazil. This enabled Brazilian and Spanish authorities, with support from the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre - Narcotics, to monitor its movements. The MAOC-N is an initiative launched by France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom to cooperate in the fight against illegal drug trafficking by sea and air, based in Lisbon, Portugal.
The authorities' action day took place on August 24th. In addition to seizing the large quantity of cocaine, they conducted 15 house searches, confiscated two high-end vehicles, luxury watches, and more than 550,000 euros (US$593,174) in cash. They also froze numerous bank accounts and real estate assets as part of the ongoing financial investigation, as confirmed by Europol.
A video released by Europol showcases the seized items and cash, as well as moments from the operation on board the vessel and the arrests of some of the alleged criminals.
Europol has established the Operational Taskforce Balkan Cartel to respond to the threat posed by criminal rings originating from this part of Europe. This task force brings together countries from the Balkan region, the EU, and other parts of the world to target the criminal networks under the leadership of individuals with close ties to the region.
This operation follows the largest cocaine bust ever carried out by Spanish police. Last week, Spanish authorities unveiled the seizure of a record-breaking 9.5 tonnes of cocaine concealed inside boxes of bananas that were shipped from Ecuador to the southern port of Algeciras.
At the time, authorities discovered over 30 distinct logos corresponding to various European criminal rings on the boxes containing the illicit drug.