Investigation supported by Europol and part of EMPACT actions (European multidisciplinary platform against criminal threats, created with the aim of strengthening intelligence, strategic and operational cooperation between national authorities, EU institutions and bodies and international partners).
At the end of complex investigations, on February 23, the Spanish Guardia Civil, with Europol and intelligence support from the Central Directorate for AntiDrug Services, dismantled an international drug trafficking criminal organization composed of Italians in Spain. The operation led to the arrest of 20 members of the criminal network – also composed of Albanian, Spanish and Moroccan nationals – and the seizure of more than 2 tons of narcotics and assets, proceeds of the illegal activity, exceeding 5.5 million euros.
The leaders of the organization, who are Italian nationals, have currently managed to escape by using false documents, and European arrest orders have been issued for them. The proceeds of drug trafficking were laundered through the use of false invoices and forms of payment through shell companies involved in drug trafficking and through real estate investments and luxury goods.
The investigation was launched in late 2021, following the discovery of a shipment of hashish concealed inside a truck transporting pallets. In 2022, Law Enforcement also intercepted an offshore vessel chartered by the organization with nearly 200 kg of hashish on board. To avoid further seizures, the drug traffickers had built a laboratory for drug production and set up a large marijuana plantation in southeastern Spain.
Below is the text of the press release issued by Europol, on the outcome of the operation:
20 suspected money launderers and drug traffickers arrested
Spanish law enforcement seized more than EUR 5.5 million in assets; criminals had built drug production infrastructure
A joint investigation supported by Europol has led to the arrest of 20 suspected money launderers and drug traffickers. The operation was led by the Spanish Guardia Civil, with support from the Italian Central Directorate for Anti-Drugs Services (Direzione Centrale Servizi Antidroga), and resulted in the seizure of more than EUR 5.5 million in criminal assets and over 2 tons of drugs. Based in the South of Spain, the criminal network was composed of Albanian, Italian, Spanish and Moroccan nationals, and was led by Italian nationals who evaded capture using forged identity documents.
Results of the operation include:
- 6 houses searched in Seville, Spain
- 20 suspects arrested
- assets seized worth an estimated at EUR 5.5 million
- 2 luxury watches and EUR 16 545 in cash seized
- 2 500 kilograms of hashish and 45.6 kilograms of marijuana seized
- criminal infrastructure seized including lorries, a boat, tools for marijuana cultivation and hashish production, and 34 mobile phones
- large marijuana plantation and drug lab discovered
- forged travel and identification documents seized
Criminals relied on false identities
As the Italian leaders of the criminal network were subjects of European Arrest Orders, they used falsified documents to veil their identities. Residing in towns between Seville and Malaga, they attempted to avoid detection by taking various security measures and by frequently changing their addresses.
The criminal network used a variety of money laundering methods to obfuscate their drug trafficking proceeds. These included the channelling of money – through business bank accounts using fake invoices, loans, or other debts – among a network of companies involved in the transport of drugs. Other methods used were investments in luxury real estate, rentals, luxury goods and vehicles, as well as cash payments.
Drug lab and marijuana plantation
Investigations in this case were kicked off in October 2021, when a hashish shipment was found hidden in a lorry transporting pallets of onions. Law enforcement arrested the two drivers and seized 468 kilograms of hashish. This was followed by another seizure of 194 kilograms of hashish and 30 kilograms of marijuana in May 2022. In the same month a boat chartered by the criminal organisation was intercepted by law enforcement on the open sea, resulting in the arrest of its three occupants, as well as the seizure of 1 800 kilograms of hashish and the vessel itself.
The interception of this large shipment from Morocco shows that is has become increasingly difficult for criminals to import drugs via the sea. To circumvent this issue, the organisation had built a laboratory for hashish production and set up a large marijuana plantation in southern Spain. These were discovered in the course of the operation, which involved more than 150 law enforcement officials. Europol provided operational expertise as well as analytical and operational support from the very beginning of the investigation. Furthermore, a Europol specialist was deployed on location in Spain during the main action day.
The European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) tackles the most important threats posed by organised and serious international crime affecting the EU. EMPACT strengthens intelligence, strategic and operational cooperation between national authorities, EU institutions and bodies, and international partners. EMPACT runs in four-year cycles focusing on common EU crime priorities.