Cocaine cartel collapses after final arrests in Spain

 The criminal network, with leaders who were intercepted in Dubai and Türkiye, organised multi-tonne cocaine trafficking from South America to all across the EU

A long-run investigation led by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil), supported by Europol, resulted in a major hit on a criminal network involved in large-scale drug trafficking from South America to the EU. This final operation is the culmination of a series of actions against this network that took place over the course of three years. This latest internationally coordinated action is tied to a number of national and international investigations led by Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Serbia and Türkiye. The sting was coordinated by Europol’s Operational Taskforce.

Targeting the full operational chain to dismantle the cocaine cartel

The internationally coordinated actions targeted the criminal network, which was orchestrating multi-tonne cocaine trafficking from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador to the EU. The suspects arranged the trafficking into the EU through maritime shipments going via logistical hubs in West Africa and the Canary Islands. Once the drugs had reached the EU, the suspects used handling centres in Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy and Spain to further distribute cocaine across Europe.

The leaders of the drug trafficking organisation were temporarily based in Türkiye and Dubai. From there, they operated the control and command centres of the criminal network. Investigations into this network identified a significant threat; criminal actors’ ability to collaborate closely and deploy criminal associates on a long-term basis on locations to facilitate their large-scale drug trafficking operations. International law enforcement cooperation was therefore crucial in halting the criminal activities.

In August 2023, officers from the Spanish Civil Guard intercepted a vessel with 700 kilograms of cocaine on board near the Canary Islands. Intelligence analysis of historical data from the encrypted communication investigations revealed that the Croatian-Italian crew previously imported at least 500 kilograms of cocaine from Brazil to Spain via this vessel. The same operational method helped investigators to identify the coordinators and brokers, originating from the Western Balkan region. They were established as High Value Targets by the Operational Taskforce for their involvement in financing and coordinating both shipments. They are also linked to a previous interception of a tonne of cocaine, seized in September 2020 in the Canary Islands. In addition to the investigations carried out in Spain, the information exchange between countries, led by Europol, showed that investigations led by Belgium, Germany and Serbia targeted the same individuals and their associates.

Results of the action day on 12 June 2024:

  • 4 arrests in Spain;
  • 7 house searches in Spain;
  • Seizures of jewellery and luxury watches, a firearm and ammunition, EUR 109 000 in cash, as well as electronic equipment and other material evidence.

Overall results of actions targeting this criminal network:

  • 40 arrests (3 of which were High Value Targets) in Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Serbia, Spain and Türkiye;
  • Around 8 tonnes of cocaine seized in Belgium, Netherlands and Spain;
  • Seizures of assets including EUR 12.5 million and USD 3 million in Brazil, and over EUR 50 million frozen in Serbia.

Concerted actions disconnect criminal network

A number of worldwide actions had already made significant blows to the criminal network. On 11 May 2023, Serbian and Dutch authorities jointly targeted the cartel’s leadership and distribution infrastructure. Throughout the operation, authorities arrested 13 suspects and seized large amounts of weapons and assets estimated at about EUR 50 million. During another operation in October 2023, Croatian, German, Spanish and Turkish law enforcement authorities carried out a joint action against this cartel. The results included 21 arrests in Croatia and Germany and large seizures of drugs, firearms and liquidities. A month later, Turkish authorities arrested one of the network’s main leaders and his close associate, both Croatian nationals, in Istanbul.

Brazilian authorities targeted the Brazilian criminal organisation that had been transporting cocaine inland from source countries to seaports in Brazil and other logistical hubs. They would then deliver cocaine shipments to West Africa, for further shipment operations coordinated by European criminal networks. The Brazilian network provided different criminal networks with a number of criminal services, including logistics, and facilitated money laundering activities. In March 2024, the Brazilian authorities carried out the last phase of an investigation into the laundering of the drug trafficking profits, which revealed that almost 500 bank accounts had handled over two billion BRL (EUR 371 million) in years prior. After the action day, the national authorities arrested two suspects. They also blocked and seized assets estimated at EUR 12 million, as well as USD 3 million in cash.

Europol’s support and Operational Taskforce

The takedown of encrypted communication tools used by criminals has given international law enforcement an unprecedented insight into criminal networks and how they function. One trend that emerged was the important role played by criminal networks, largely composed of nationals from countries in the Balkan region, in the global cocaine trade. Europol created an Operational Taskforce in response to this threat. Led by members with experience working with the region, the Operational Taskforce brings together Balkan, EU and global countries, to effectively target these criminal networks.

During the three years of investigative activities, Europol coordinated the information exchange between national authorities, bringing them together to efficiently target the entire drug trafficking network. In addition, Europol provided continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators. This intelligence allowed law enforcement to uncover a full picture of the covert network operating across various countries and continents. Intelligence provided by Europol contributed to some of the seizures made during the course of these investigations. During the action days, Europol deployed experts to Brazil and Spain to provide analytical and technical support to officers in the field.

Law enforcement authorities:

  • Brazil: Federal Police (Policía Federal)
  • Belgium: Belgium Federal Police (Federale Politie / Police Fédérale)
  • Croatia: Croatian National Police Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime; Service in Split and Croatian Drug Crime Service (Policijski nacionalni ured za suzbijanje korupcije i organiziranog kriminaliteta; Služba u Splitu i Služba kriminaliteta droga)
  • Germany: Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt)
  • Italy: Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome (Direzione Investigativa Antimafia – Centro Operativo de Palermo e Roma)
  • Serbia: Criminal Police – Drugs Combating Service (Канцеларија за борбу против дрога)
  • Spain: Civil Guard (Guardia Civil)
  • Türkiye: National Police; Counter Narcotics Department/Istanbul Narcotics Division (Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü Narkotik Suçlarla Mücadele Başkanlığı/ İstanbul Narkotik Suçlarla Mücadele Şube Müdürlüğü)
  • United Arab Emirates: Dubai Police Force (القيادة العامة لشرطة دبي‎)