Balkan cartel sinks as Spain seizes 2.7 tonnes of cocaine on board large vessel

Europol supported the dismantling of a large-drug trafficking organisation, investigated under the Europol coordinated Operational Taskforce Balkan Cartel. The Serbia-led operation, involved law enforcement authorities from Brazil, Croatia, France, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia, and was supported by the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC-N).

In January 2022, the Belgrade Department of the Serbian Criminal Police initiated an investigation into this drug cartel, believed to be involved in the wholesale trafficking of cocaine from South America to the EU. The law enforcement activities against this network extended to authorities across the EU and beyond, resulting in a large international investigation coordinated by Europol. The targeted organisation was soon suspected of organising multi-tonne cocaine shipments from Brazil to the EU.

Operational intelligence pointed out that the skippers from Ukrainian and Czech nationality travelled several times to Capo Verde or other locations in West Africa to prepare their vessel for smuggling operations. Recently uncovered operational information revealed that the vessel was located in Brazil. This enabled Brazilian and Spanish authorities, supported by MAOC-N, to closely monitor its movements.

The action day on 24 August 2023 led to:

  • 6 arrests
  • 15 house searches
  • 2.7 tonnes of cocaine seized
  • Other seizures include: two high-end vehicles, luxury watches and over EUR 550 000 in cash
  • Large number of bank accounts and real-estates blocked for the duration of the on-going financial investigation

Investigators identified a Serbian national as one of the main organisers in the criminal network, who was then designated to be a High Value Target (HVT). The law enforcement actions targeted this Serbian HVT, as well as other individuals instrumental for the continuous functioning of the drug cartel’s operations. These main coordinators of the drug cartel arranged the shipping operations via encrypted communication platforms.

Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided continuous analytical support to the investigation. The intelligence development revealed a complete covered network operating across continents and countries. Europol facilitated the coordination among national authorities and deployed an expert to Belgrade on the action day to support investigators on the field. Europol also facilitated the deployment of two Serbian investigators to team with the Spanish authorities during the searches of the seized vessel.

Operational Taskforce targets Balkan Cartels
The takedown of three encrypted communication tools used by criminals, namely Encrochat, Sky ECC and Anom, has given international law enforcement an unprecedented insight into criminal networks and how they function. One trend uncovered was the important role of criminal networks largely composed of nationals from nationals of countries in the Balkan region play in the global cocaine trade.

Europol created the Operational Taskforce Balkan Cartel to provide a response to this threat. The Operational Taskforce brings together countries from the Balkan region, the EU and worldwide, so they can effectively target these criminal networks under the leadership of members with close ties to the region.