Police from eight European countries have brought down a major Balkan drug cartel, charging 61 people and seizing around 2.6 tonnes of cocaine. The group is alleged to have been running the largest cocaine distribution network on the continent.
Police also seized 324 kilograms of marijuana, €612,000 (around $709,000) in cash, nine luxury vehicles and five motorbikes.
The European Union’s police agency, Europol, said the drug cartel had established a “cocaine pipeline,” sourcing the drugs in South America before trafficking them to Spain and other European countries.
The crime gang reportedly had active branches in several European countries. It was composed mainly of individuals from Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, including violent members of paramilitary units.
Europol accused the group of “flooding Europe with cocaine.”
An Operational Taskforce was established by Europol in July last year to facilitate joint action by the countries involved, and bring down the entire network. Since then, Europol has been provided with intelligence and analysis so as to best support field investigators.
The cartel is also alleged to have been involved in a range of other crimes, including money laundering, extortion and kidnapping. The group also had a hand in the transfers of football players in Colombia as a means of laundering illicit funds.
Earlier this year, Spanish investigators believed the cartel was preparing a major cocaine importation from South America into Europe in the spring of 2021. Special surveillance measures were put in place, and individuals were tracked between Spain and South America as they finalised the details of the 1.25 tonne cocaine importation deal.
Two of the leaders of the cartel were known as “high-value targets” by Europol, and both travelled to Spain to prepare for the arrival of the cocaine shipment. They had until then avoided attending meetings in person in a bid to evade law enforcement.
Utilising the opportunity, Spanish law enforcement carried out simultaneous raids in the cities of Tarragona, Barcelona, Gerona and Valencia. They arrested thirteen individuals, including the two gang leaders and a police officer guilty of collaborating with the criminal cartel.
The coordinated international operation included anti-crime agencies from Spain, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Columbia. Police also travelled to Brazil, the Dominican Republic and the United Arab Emirates as part of their investigation.
This particular Operational Taskforce forms part of Europol’s strategy to combat serious organised crime originating in the Western Balkans region.