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#NATO and EU must toughen up on #Balkan drug gangs

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Earlier this month, the Greek capital was rocked when two men were murdered in cold blood at a popular Athens restaurant in front of their wives and children. The victims, Stevan Stamatović and Igor Dedović, were believed to be members of the infamous Montenegrin drug-smuggling Skaljari clan, with the hit allegedly ordered by their rivals, the Kavac outfit.

Depressingly, high-profile incidents such as this one have become increasingly commonplace in recent years. The spiraling violence is testament not only to the emergence of Balkan gangs as a force to be reckoned with in the importation of narcotics into Europe from South America, but its brazen nature also underlines the fact that those responsible feel they’re able to act with impunity outside of their national borders. For countries like Montenegro and Albania – which harbor ambitions of joining the EU – that kind of lawlessness should not be allowed to go on unchecked.

Par for an increasingly violent course

The Athens atrocity is only the latest in a concerningly lengthy list of overseas attacks. In January 2018, a prominent member of the Kavac gang was gunned down in his own vehicle in Belgrade. At the end of the same year, a Viennese restaurant became the battleground, as one man was killed and another grievously injured when gunmen opened fire at a famous Austrian eatery. No arrests have yet been made for any of these three incidents, which represent just the tip of the iceberg in this ever-bloodier spat between the two gangs.

The vendetta is still fairly fresh. Just ten years ago the two factions were united, but the assassination of high-ranking member Dragan Dudić in May 2010 – followed by the subsequent arrests of kingpins Dusko and Darko Šarić – left behind a power vacuum that tore the gang apart. The disappearance of around 250kg of cocaine in 2015 was the spark that lit the touchpaper which continues to fuel this raging inferno even to this day.

Drugs as the root cause

Of course, the drugs themselves are the real root cause of the problem. Taking into account the sums at stake, it’s little wonder that the feud is such an intense one. According to the latest figures, there are 3.6 million adults in the EU using cocaine each year, which fuels a demand of around 91 tons of the stuff flowing in from South America on an annual basis. With a market value of €5.7 billion, it’s easy to see why everyone is desperate for a piece of the pie.

The most recent Global Initiative report has highlighted how those Balkan gangs are commanding a bigger share than ever before. Given that a single kilo of cocaine can fetch up to €80,000, and that the average drug ring traffics between 500kg and 1,000kg per year, the potential gross profits can be substantial and the net is over half of that amount.

New kids on the bloc

As recently as 2014, 80% of the cocaine entering Europe came from Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands or Spain. However, times have changed, and the GI report has identified Balkan ports as new epicenters of the drug trade. In particular, Bar, Budva and Kotor (where the Kavac and Skaljari clans are originally from) in Montenegro and Dürres, Vlorë and Saranda in Albania have developed into so-called “illicit transit zones”, experiencing a high volume of illegal activity in recent years.

This is due to their ideal location, advanced infrastructure, high unemployment rates and, most significantly of all, weak governments. They are either situated in disputed territories where jurisdictions are unclear or, most concerningly of all, in areas where the authorities seem to be complicit in the crimes. Indeed, investigative reports in both nations have turned up incidences of political figures embroiled in unsavory stories linked to the drug trade, which paint their regimes in less than flattering colors.

Unbecoming behavior

In 2019, Saimir Tahiri was found guilty of abuse of his former position as Albanian Interior Minister – but crucially, he escaped charges of corruption and drug trafficking. Instead of serving the 12-year prison sentence which prosecutors were hoping for, he was given a three-year probation. The verdict came just one month before the EU met to decide whether to allow Albanian accession to the bloc and the lax ruling can hardly have been met with approval.

Meanwhile, an exposé from the OCCRP has revealed that First Bank of Montenegro – which is controlled by the family of incumbent President Milo Đukanović – counted the aforementioned kingpin Šarić among its most valued customers. Šarić is in control of a number of shell companies based in overseas locations like Delaware and the Seychelles, which have deposited vast sums into First Bank and received generous loans in return, with no due diligence done by the bank at the time. In just one example, one of those companies (Lafino Trade LLC) bailed out the bank when it was struggling to stay afloat in 2008, depositing €6 million for five years at a measly 1.5% interest rate. Clearly, First Bank has no qualms about taking money from one of the country’s biggest criminals, and the institutions connections to the highest echelons of power is even more troubling. Worth noting that President Đukanović himself was accused by Italian prosecutors of running a billion-dollar cigarette - smuggling ring; he was never charged because of his diplomatic immunity.

EU must act

Given that both Albania and Montenegro are members of NATO and candidates for EU accession, such blatant fostering of a reckless drug trade cannot be allowed to continue. Not only does the practice increase the likelihood of bloodbaths like those seen in Athens, Vienna and Belgrade occurring, but it also destabilizes regions, discourages foreign investment, weakens tourism and exacerbates the brain drain effect.

In order to stop the rot and bring this damaging industry to heel, the eyes of the authorities must no longer be blind. If it means that NATO and the EU must intercede to bring about such a change, so be it – but the change must come soon, or the wounds caused by the South American drug trade in Europe will continue to fester.

Crime

Over 40 arrested in biggest-ever crackdown against drug ring smuggling cocaine from Brazil into Europe

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In the early hours of the morning (27 November), more than a thousand police officers with the support of Europol carried out co-ordinated raids against the members of this highly professional criminal syndicate. Some 180 house searches were executed, resulting in the arrest of 45 suspects. 

The investigation uncovered that this drug trafficking network was responsible for the annual importation of at least 45 tonnes of cocaine into the main European seaports, with profits exceeding €100 million over the course of 6 months.

This international sting, led by the Portuguese, Belgian and Brazilian authorities, was carried out simultaneously by agencies from three different continents, with coordination efforts facilitated by Europol:

  • Europe: Portuguese Judicial Police (Polícia Judiciária), Belgian Federal Judicial Police (Federale Gerechtelijke Politie, Police Judiciaire Fédérale), Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional), Dutch Police (Politie) and the Romanian Police (Poliția Română)
  • South America: Brazilian Federal Police (Policia Federal)
  • Middle East: Dubai Police Force and Dubai State Security

Results in brief 

  • 45 arrests in Brazil (38), Belgium (4), Spain (1) and Dubai (2).
  • 179 house searches.
  • Over €12m in cash seized in Portugal, €300,000 in cash seized in Belgium and over R$1m and US$169,000 in cash seized in Brazil.
  • 70 luxury vehicles seized in Brazil, Belgium and Spain and 37 aircrafts seized in Brazil.
  • 163 houses seized in Brazil worth in excess of R$132m, two houses seized in Spain worth €4m, and two apartments seized in Portugal worth €2.5m.
  • Financial assets of 10 individuals frozen in Spain.

Global co-operation 

In the framework of intelligence activities underway with its operational counterparts, Europol developed reliable intelligence concerning the international drug trafficking and money laundering activities of a Brazilian organized crime network operating in several EU countries.

The criminal syndicate had direct contact with drug cartels in Brazil and other South American source countries who were responsible for the preparation and the shipments of cocaine in maritime containers bound to major European seaports.

The scale of cocaine importation from Brazil to Europe under their control and command is massive and over 52 tonnes of cocaine were seized by law enforcement over the course of the investigation.

In April 2020, Europol brought together the involved countries who have since been working closely together to establish a joint strategy to bring down the whole network. The main targets were identified on either sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since then, Europol has provided continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators. During the action day, a total of 8 of its officers were deployed on-the-ground in Portugal, Belgium and Brazil to assist there the national authorities, ensuring swift analysis of new data as it was being collected during the action and adjusting the strategy as required.

Commenting on this operation, Europol’s Deputy Director Wil van Gemert said: "This operation highlights the complex structure and vast reach of Brazilian organized crime groups in Europe. The scale of the challenge faced today by police worldwide calls for a coordinated approach to tackle the drug trade across continents. The commitment of our partner countries to work via Europol underpinned the success of this operation and serves as a continued global call to action."

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Crime

European day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse

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On the occasion of the European day on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (18 November), the Commission reaffirmed its determination to fight child sexual abuse with all the tools at its disposal. Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “Under the Security Union Strategy, we are working to protect all those living in Europe, both online and offline. Children are particularly vulnerable, especially as the coronavirus pandemic correlates with increased sharing of child sexual abuse images online, and we have an obligation to protect them.”

Home Affairs Commisioner Ylva Johansson said: “Imagine as a child victim knowing the worst moment in your life is still circulating on the internet. Even worse, imagine that an opportunity to be saved from ongoing abuse was missed because tools had become illegal. Companies need to be able to report so that police can stop images circulating and even save children.”

Over the last years, there has been a significant increase in child sexual abuse and exploitation cases and recently the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Europol found that as member states introduced lockdown and quarantine measures, the number of self-produced materials increased, while travel restrictions and other restrictive measures means that offenders  increasingly exchange  materials online.

In July, the Commission adopted a comprehensive EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse. Under the Strategy, we proposed legislation to ensure that providers of online communications services can continue voluntary measures to detect child sexual abuse online. In addition, Europol provides support to operations such as the recent action targeting child trafficking. The agency also monitors criminal trends in the Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) and dedicated reports on the evolution of threats, including child sexual abuse, in the times of COVID-19.

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High-level conference on anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing - closing the door on dirty money

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On 30 September, the European Commission hosted a high-level conference on the EU's fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. This conference marked the conclusion of the public consultation that was launched in parallel with the adoption of the Anti-Money Laundering Action Plan on 7 May 2020.

There was a series of dedicated panel debates and keynote speeches by high-profile speakers who are on the front line of the fight against dirty money, including Catanzaro Chief Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri and French Court of Cassation General Prosecutor Francois Molins.

An Economy that Works for the People Valdis Executive Vice-President Dombrovskis said: “Dirty money should have nowhere to hide. The EU has been ramping up its anti-money laundering rules. They are now among the toughest in the world - but still not enforced equally across the board. It is clear that we must do a lot more to shut off remaining loopholes, remove weak links, and co-ordinate better between EU countries. Effectiveness, efficiency, enforcement: these are the governing principles of our strategy in tackling money-laundering. They should apply across the EU and across the world. That is how we can beat it.”

Three thematic panels will cover the areas for future reform of EU rules, while a closing roundtable will bring together representatives from the European Commission, the German Presidency and the European Parliament to highlight the EU's united position and commitment to fighting money laundering and terrorist financing. Each panel will include an opportunity for questions via Twitter with the hashtag #StopDirtyMoneyEU. For more information, details on the programme and a link to the live feed, please see here.

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