Europol supported the Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional) in dismantling an organised criminal network smuggling migrants from Syria to the EU. Law enforcement authorities from France, Germany and Norway were also involved in the investigation.
The investigation revealed that the criminal network, possibly active since 2017, was involved in a wide range of illegal activities, including migrant smuggling and the trafficking of drugs and firearms. Well established in several EU and Middle Eastern countries, the criminal network used an unusually long and expensive route to smuggle irregular migrants from Syria into the EU; starting in Syria, irregular migrants were taken via Sudan or the UAE towards Libya. From Libya they were taken to Algeria, before the journey into Europe via the Mediterranean.
For the final leg of the journey, the suspects facilitated their illegal entry into Spain across the Western Mediterranean. Syrian nationals are usually smuggled through the Eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Greece. Although some irregular migrants remained in Spain, the final destination countries for the majority of those who managed to reach Spanish shores were France, Belgium, Germany and Norway.
The action day resulted in:
13 locations searched
15 individuals arrested
items seized include 2 speed boats, 6 vehicles, electronic equipment (laptops and a tablet, GPS device, storage devices), drugs, fuel, phones (42 cell phones and two satellite phones), over EUR 500 000 in cash and documents.
Network spanned nine countries
The criminal network, led by a Syrian suspect, benefited from a widespread infrastructure in the countries along the route, mainly Lebanon, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. The suspects arranged for the smuggling of at least 200 migrants through the rarely used migration route from Syria through Sudan or the United Arab Emirates. In Libya, the smugglers used corrupt officials to facilitate the transfer to Algeria, from where the migrants were transported to Spain on high-speed boats. In Europe, members of the criminal network based in Belgium, Germany and Spain coordinated the sea crossings and facilitated the secondary movements to the destination countries. The suspects charged between EUR 7 000 and EUR 20 000 per person for the trip.
The criminal network facilitated the entire logistics of the journey, including transport, paperwork in some countries, flight tickets and accommodation along the route. The ‘VIP service’, which costs up to EUR 20 000, included special extras such as a transfer from the arrival point on the Spanish mainland as well as accommodation in Spain. The criminal network implemented stringent security measures to ensure the successful outcome of its illegal operations. The suspects had placed physical and video surveillance at several clandestine points along the coast where the irregular migrants were expected to be brought.
Information exchange – a crucial step in the investigation
Europol facilitated the exchange of information, provided operational coordination and analytical support. A number of operational meetings were organised throughout this year-long investigation. During the action week, Europol deployed the lead analyst to Spain as well as teams of investigators to enable the real-time exchange of information and cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases to provide leads to investigators in the field. Following the actions, Europol provided extensive forensic support to the Spanish authorities to analyse the new data collected during the operational actions.
A large part of the operational analysis was developed in the framework of the Information Clearing House, created to enhance the intelligence picture on organised migrant smuggling from source and transit countries. This exchange of criminal intelligence has resulted in the detection of new trends, including new modi operandi in the migrant smuggling landscape. The exchange of intelligence related to such trends and smuggling incidents detected en route provides investigators from national authorities with valuable investigation leads on the extent of the criminal activity and the wide geographical span of such criminal network.