Law enforcement from five countries have disrupted an intercontinental criminal network smuggling migrants from Cuba to the European Union. The investigation, coordinated by Europol and INTERPOL, led to the arrest of 62 persons, 25 of which were Cuban nationals. Members of the migrant smuggling network used a well-known messaging application to advertise their illicit services to Cuban clients in vulnerable situations. For a payment of around EUR 9 000, they would organise the trip, transfers, and provide false documentation. The criminals flew in persons from Cuba to Serbia, taking advantage of the lack of visa requirements to enter Serbia at the time. Migrants would then be smuggled to Greece, from where they flew into Spain. In total, it is suspected that the criminal network successfully smuggled around 5 000 Cuban nationals into the EU, generating a profit of around EUR 45 million.
The investigation revealed a complex criminal infrastructure set up in many cities across Spain, Greece and in Serbia, flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances in order to keep their illicit business going. On the action day in June 2023, police officers from all three countries seized a variety of criminal assets including hundreds of forged documents and forgery equipment. In total, 18 pieces of real estate, 33 vehicles and 144 bank accounts, alongside vast sums of cash in various currencies, were seized.
Unusually long and expensive smuggling route
The investigation was triggered in October 2021 after Serbian, Greek, North Macedonian and Finnish authorities reported an increased number of Cuban citizens attempting to enter Europe with falsified documentation. In January 2023, a Joint Intelligence Notification depicting this trend was issued by Europol, the European Union Agency for Asylum, and Frontex. The notification with the subject “Cuban nationals smuggled into the EU: shifting routes and modi operandi in a changed geo-political landscape” reported on the effect the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine had on migrant smuggling routes.
Initially, Cuban nationals used to fly commercially to Russia from Cuba. There, smugglers offered them the opportunity to either cross the Finnish-Russian border irregularly in order to enter EU territory, or to fly to Serbia to continue their journey into Central or Southern Europe through the Western Balkan region. Since the beginning of the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine, the route was changed. Cuban nationals were flown to Serbia via Frankfurt airport, Germany. Upon the Cuban nationals’ arrival in Serbia, members of the criminal network would facilitate their irregular entry to North Macedonia and Greece by land. Using a variety of routes, the smugglers would direct large groups of migrants and make them walk in the dark without supplies for hours. In addition to these arduous conditions, the criminals would take advantage of the most vulnerable migrants, including minors, and subject them to scams, robberies, and extortion. In some cases, women were transferred to other criminal groups for sexual exploitation.
Upon their arrival in Greece, the migrants would either apply for asylum or use further transport to other EU countries organised by the criminals, such as flights to Spain or sea transport to Italy. In order to travel within the EU, the criminal network provided migrants with forged documents or utilised the so-called lookalike method, in which genuine travel documents are stolen and distributed to a migrant closely resembling the real passport holder.
Europol organised a number of operational meetings and facilitated cooperation, coordination and exchanges of personnel among its partners. During the action day, three Europol analysts and a specialist were deployed to Spain, Greece and Serbia. The analysts and the specialist provided on-the-spot support with intelligence analysis and cross match reports. Furthermore, a team of Europol investigators supported the action day from Europol’s Headquarters in The Hague by providing coordination and guidance to the deployed personnel.
Germany: Federal Police (Bundespolizei)
Greece: Hellenic Police / Organized Crime and Human Trafficking Subdirectorate of Attica (Elliniki Astynomia, Ελληνική Αστυνομία / Υποδιεύθυνση Αντιμετώπισης Οργανωμένου Εγκλήματος και Εμπορίας Ανθρώπων Αττικής), Hellenic Coast Guard (Limeniko Soma - Elliniki Aktofylaki, Λιμενικό Σώμα - Ελληνική Ακτοφυλακή)
North Macedonia: Ministry of Interior (Ministerstvo za vnatrešni raboti, Министерство за внатрешни работи)
Spain: National Police (Policía Nacional)
Serbia: Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia, Criminal Police Directorate, Service for Combating Organized Crime (MINISTARSTVO UNUTRAŠNJIH POSLOVA, UPRAVA KRIMINALISTIČKE POLICIJE, Služba za borbu protiv organizovanog kriminala)