Europol supported the Italian Financial Guard (Guardia di Finanza) and Spanish Regional Catalan Police (Mossos d’Esquadra) in dismantling a large criminal network behind several tonnes of cannabis being trafficked to the EU. The investigation, also supported by Eurojust, dealt a blow to the money laundering network clearing the illicit proceeds.
The action day on 17 October led to:
- 78 arrests (58 in Italy and 20 in Spain)
- 25 house searches (89 in Italy and 25 in Spain)
- Seizures of about 350kg of cannabis (327 of hashish and 33kg of marijuana), weapons, electronic equipment, documents and assets worth EUR 845 000
The criminal network had already taken a hit in November 2022, when Europol supported a coordinated action leading to the arrest of 36 suspects of Albanian, Italian and Spanish nationality in Italy. Dutch and Spanish authorities arrested six other suspects through the execution of European Arrest Warrants. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, law enforcement authorities in Italy and Spain seized more than six tonnes of cannabis and hashish, as well as refills for cannabinoid-based electronic cigarettes. Criminal investigations were launched in 2019 in Italy and 2022 in Spain, while links were established as the investigations and international cooperation progressed. It was discovered that the suspects had enabled the logistics behind the trafficking operation through the use of the encrypted communication platforms Sky ECC and Encrochat.
Moroccan nationals based in Spain arranged the drug deliveries to Spain and their subsequent shipment to different distributors in Italy. Various actors facilitated the overall supply and logistical process of the network: from cannabis collection, storage, transportation and distribution to payment and money laundering activities. The payments for the drug shipments were arranged via an informal banking system similar to hawala known as fei-ch’ien. This underground banking system is run mainly by Chinese nationals and allows the transferral of cash from one country to another through a network of trusted offices. The money is not physically sent, rather the offices compensate each other afterwards. The investigations uncovered two separate networks, one dealing with the drug trafficking and the other with the money laundering activities. Although different, the networks are linked through their leaders. The financial and asset recovery investigations are still ongoing.
Europol facilitated the exchange of information and supported the coordination of the investigation. Europol also provided continuous analytical support, including with the production of in-depth operational analysis packages to help investigators advance both the drug trafficking and financial investigations. During the action day, Europol deployed an expert to Barcelona to cross-check operational information in real time in order to provide leads to investigators on the ground. Europol is further supporting the investigation by providing forensic expertise.