A Europe-wide organised crime network was broken up last week following a joint operation between several national police forces, leading to the arrest of 22 suspects, Europol has announced.
The European crime agency estimates that the “highly professional and dangerous” international criminal group earned about €680 million from its activities between 2017 and 2019. The group used “specialized encrypted communication devices” and counter-surveillance techniques to try to stay a step ahead of police, Europol said.
“The operation, code-named ‘Icebreaker’, is the biggest of its kind to date in Europe against such an organised crime group, comprising nationals of Lithuania and other EU countries, involved in large-scale drug and cigarette trafficking, assassinations and money laundering,” Europol said in a statement.
More than 450 police officers in Poland, the United Kingdom, Lithuania and Spain carried out simultaneous raids on members of the gang between 15 and 16 May.
The alleged leader of the group, a 48-year-old Lithuanian, was arrested in Spain while 21 other suspects were arrested in the UK, Poland, Lithuania and Spain.
Police raided 40 homes and confiscated eight million euros in cash, diamonds, gold, jewelry and luxury cars, according to Europol. A substantial quantity of illicit cigarettes was also seized.
The criminal group smuggled drugs and cigarettes to the UK and transferred the money to Poland before laundering it in Spain and other countries, through property investments.
Operation “Icebreaker” was coordinated on an international level by Europol and Eurojust and was the culmination of many months of meticulous planning between law enforcement and prosecuting agencies.
Initially started by Lithuanian authorities in 2016, the investigation was then referred to Estonia, Poland and Europol to help gather evidence against top-level members of the network. The investigation was then rapidly extended to the United Kingdom and Spain after criminal links were detected in those countries.
Approximately 5,000 international organized criminal gangs are under investigation in the EU, according to Europol’s latest Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, carried out in 2017.