A drug “supercartel” that controlled about a third of Europe’s cocaine supply has been dismantled, Europol (Europe’s foreign policy agency) has announced.
A two-year investigation resulted in the arrest of a total of 49 people and the seizure of more than 30 tonnes of drugs in four European countries and one in the Middle East, according to a Europol statement.
Authorities from Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates worked together to bring down the cartel. The operation also had cooperation from the US drug agency, the DEA.
The most recent phase of the investigation was called Operation Desert Light and resulted in the arrest of six “key targets” – the most wanted by the international police – in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Among them was a British citizen who is suspected of leading the operation and, according to Spanish police, lived on the Costa Del Sol before fleeing to Dubai.
Other arrests had already been made. Most were in the Netherlands in 2021, and the others were earlier this month, between 8 and 19 November, during coordinated raids in Spain, France and Belgium.
Europol said the traffickers formed a “large criminal network involved in large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering”. And he added that the scale of the drug operation was “enormous.”
The investigation saw a series of police efforts to hack encrypted phones used by organized crime networks to smuggle drugs and launder money.
Cocaine was imported from South America through the Netherlands and was the main focus of investigators.
A video posted on the agency’s YouTube page showed teams of investigators and sniffer dogs searching homes full of luxury cars. However, it is unclear if any property was seized during the arrests.
Escape to Dubai
The Briton suspected of leading the cartel had fled to Dubai after escaping a first attempt to arrest him in Spain. He allegedly continued to lead the UAE cartel.
Europol said a new agreement with the UAE has allowed detectives to access the country’s intelligence data and apprehend criminals who were previously out of reach.
An anonymous Europol source told AFP news agency that police also arrested another Dutch suspect who is a “big shot” in trafficking with alleged links to Ridouan Taghi, the “big boss” of crime in the Netherlands.
Dutch prosecutors said they would seek the extradition of the suspects from the United Arab Emirates, where they now face drug trafficking and large-scale money laundering charges.
Analysts say that data from the last decade indicate that cocaine trafficking in Europe has been increasing annually.
Crimes related to cocaine use or possession are also on the rise, with an estimated 3.5 million adults using the drug last year.
Earlier this month, police in Spain carried out a series of searches that resulted in the discovery of the largest shipment of marijuana ever found. The packaged marijuana found equals approximately 1.1 million plants.
‘No significant impact’
Despite the size of the cartel, Niamh Eastwood, an expert on drug policy, says the operation will not have a significant impact on the cocaine market in Europe. She says it is a “resilient market”.
Eastwood is executive director of the charity Release, which supports drug decriminalization and regulation as a solution to the trafficking problem.
She recalled the 2020 international policing operation that took down EncroChat, a network of modified smartphones used by organized crime groups. The operation led to the seizure of 20 tonnes of drugs in the UK.
“At the time, it was described as ‘the UK’s widest and deepest operation against organized crime,'” Eastwood told the BBC. “However, cocaine and other drugs remained readily available throughout the country.”
*with information from Mattea Bubalo of BBC News