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#Europol - 40 arrested in Spain and France for international vehicle theft and trafficking

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Europol has supported the Spanish Guardia Civil and the French Gendarmerie Nationale to dismantle an organised crime group involved in the stealing of vehicles. 40 individuals were arrested in connection to this case (32 in Spain, eight in France) and 118 stolen vehicles were recovered, the sale of which would have brought over €4,500,000 to this criminal organization.

Several house searches were carried out in the region of Madrid (Spain). Chemical substances and professional tools used to manipulate license plates, chassis numbers and false documents, as well stolen cars ready to be exported abroad were discovered and seized.

Initiated in January 2018 by the Spanish authorities, the investigation uncovered that this crime group had been stealing original vehicle documents and vehicles of the same brand as the ones mentioned in the documents. Afterwards, they falsified the vehicles’ identification numbers, produced fake license plates containing valid information and sold these vehicles to Spanish and French car dealers as well as online. The asking price for the stolen vehicles was always slightly below the market price in order to secure a quick sale.

Throughout the investigation, Europol facilitated the exchange of intelligence, hosted and participated in a number of operational meetings and provided analytical support to the investigators. A Europol property crime expert was deployed to France for the action day earlier in June to provide on-the-spot intelligence analysis and forensic support.

The evidence which was gathered during the action days in France and Spain is now being analyse to recover additional vehicles stolen by this organized crime gang.

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Europol supports Spain and US in dismantling money-laundering organized crime

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Europol have supported the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and the US Drug Enforcement Administration to dismantle an organized crime group laundering money for major South American cartels. 

The criminal network was involved in debt collection and laundering of money coming from drug trafficking. They also provided so-called hitman services involving contract killings, threats and violence targeted at other criminal groups. The criminal organisation used the network of hitmen to collect payments across Spain from other criminal groups buying drugs from the South American cartels to redistribute them locally. The investigation identified also a number of ‘front men’ acquiring luxurious goods for the lifestyles of the group’s leaders. This was only a small part of a large money-laundering scheme that traded high-end cars and used smurfing techniques to place criminal profits into the financial system.

Results

  • 4 suspects arrested (Colombian, Spanish and Venezuelan nationals)
  • 7 suspects charged with criminal offences
  • 1 company charged with a criminal offence
  • 3 home searches in Spain
  • Seizures of high-end cars, luxury items, firearms and ammunition

Europol facilitated the information exchange and provided analytical support during the whole investigation.

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Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU member states in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organized forms of crime. It also works with many non-EU partner states and international organizations. From its various threat assessments to its intelligence-gathering and operational activities, Europol has the tools and resources it needs to do its part in making Europe safer.

 

EMPACT

In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year Policy Cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organised crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU Member States, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organisations, including the private sector where relevant. Money laundering is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.

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European Audit Institutions pool their work on cybersecurity

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As the threat level for cybercrime and cyberattacks has been rising over recent years, auditors across the European Union have been paying increasing attention to the resilience of critical information systems and digital infrastructures. The Audit Compendium on cybersecurity, published today by the Contact Committee of EU supreme audit institutions (SAIs), provides an overview of their relevant audit work in this field.

Cyber incidents may be intentional or unintentional and range from the accidental disclosure of information to attacks on businesses and critical infrastructure, the theft of personal data, or even interference in democratic processes, including elections, and general disinformation campaigns to influence public debates. Cybersecurity was already critical for our societies before COVID-19 hit. But the consequences of the pandemic we are facing will further exacerbate cyber threats. Many business activities and public services have moved from physical offices to teleworking, while ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories have spread more than ever.

Protecting critical information systems and digital infrastructures against cyberattacks has thus become an ever-growing strategic challenge for the EU and its member states. The question is no longer whether cyberattacks will occur, but how and when they will occur. This concerns us all: individuals, businesses and public authorities.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been testing the economic and social fabric of our societies. Given our dependence on information technology, a ‘cyber crisis’ could well turn out to be the next pandemic“, said European Court of Auditors (ECA) President Klaus-Heiner Lehne. “Seeking digital autonomy and facing challenges posed by cyber threats and external disinformation campaigns will undoubtedly continue to be part of our daily lives and will remain on the political agenda in the next decade. It is therefore essential to raise awareness of recent audit findings on cybersecurity across the EU member states.”

European SAIs have therefore geared up their audit work on cybersecurity recently, with a particular focus on data protection, system readiness for cyberattacks, and the protection of essential public utilities systems. This has to be set in a context in which the EU is aiming to become the world’s safest digital environment. The European Commission and the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in fact, have just presented a new EU Cybersecurity Strategy, which aims to bolster Europe's collective resilience against cyber threats.

The Compendium published on 17 December provides background information on cybersecurity, main strategic initiatives and relevant legal bases in the EU. It also illustrates the main challenges the EU and its member states are facing, such as threats to individual EU citizens´ rights through misuse of personal data, the risk for institutions of not being able to deliver essential public services or facing limited performance following cyberattacks.

The Compendium draws on the results of audits carried out by the ECA and the SAIs of twelve EU member states: Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Finland and Sweden.

Background

This audit Compendium is a product of co-operation between the SAIs of the EU and its member states within the framework of the EU Contact Committee. It is designed to be a source of information for everyone interested in this important policy field. It is currently available in English on the EU Contact Committee website, and will later be available in other EU languages.

This is the third edition of the Contact Committee’s Audit Compendium. The first edition on Youth unemployment and the integration of young people into the labour market was published in June 2018. The second on Public health in the EU was issued in December 2019.

The Contact Committee is an autonomous, independent and non-political assembly of the heads of SAIs of the EU and its member states. It provides a forum for discussing and addressing matters of common interest relating to the EU. By strengthening dialogue and co-operation between its members, the Contact Committee contributes to an effective and independent external audit of EU policies and programmes

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Security Union: A Counter-Terrorism Agenda and stronger Europol to boost the EU's resilience

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Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “The inclusive and rights-based foundations of our Union are our strongest protection against the threat of terrorism. By building inclusive societies where everyone can find their place, we reduce the appeal of extremist narratives. At the same time, the European way of life is not optional and we must do all in our power to prevent those that seek to undo it. With today's Counter-Terrorism Agenda we are putting the focus on investing in the resilience of our societies with measures to better counter radicalisation and to protect our public spaces from attacks through targeted measures.”

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, said: “With today's Counter-Terrorism Agenda, we are boosting experts' ability to anticipate new threats, we are helping local communities to prevent radicalisation, we are giving cities the means to protect open public spaces through good design and we are ensuring that we can respond quickly and more efficiently to attacks and attempted attacks. We are also proposing to give Europol the modern means to support EU countries in their investigations.”

Measures to anticipate, prevent, protect and respond

The recent spate of attacks on European soil have served as a sharp reminder that terrorism remains a real and present danger. As this threat evolves, so too must our cooperation to counter it.

The Counter-Terrorism Agenda aims at:

  • Identifying vulnerabilities and building capacity to anticipate threats

To better anticipate threats as well as potential blind spots, Member States should make sure that the Intelligence and Situation Centre (EU INTCEN) can rely on high quality input to increase our situational awareness. As part of its upcoming proposal on the resilience of critical infrastructure, the Commission will set up advisory missions to support Member States in carrying out risk assessments, building on the experience of a pool of EU Protective Security Advisors. Security research will help enhance early detection of new threats, whilst investing in new technologies will help Europe's counter terrorism response stay ahead of the curve.

  • Preventing attacks by addressing radicalisation

To counter the spread of extremist ideologies online, it is important that the European Parliament and the Council adopt the rules on removing terrorist content online as a matter of urgency. The Commission will then support their application. The EU Internet Forum will develop guidance on moderation for publicly available content for extremist material online.

Promoting inclusion and providing opportunities through education, culture, youth and sports can contribute to making societies more cohesive and preventing radicalisation. The Action Plan on integration and inclusion will help build community resilience.

The Agenda also focuses on strengthening preventive action in prisons, paying specific attention to the rehabilitation and reintegration of radical inmates, including after their release. To disseminate knowledge and expertise on the prevention of radicalisation, the Commission will propose setting up an EU Knowledge Hub gathering policy makers, practitioners and researchers.

Recognizing the specific challenges raised by foreign terrorist fighters and their family members, the Commission will support training and knowledge sharing to help Member States manage their return.

  • Promoting security by design and reducing vulnerabilities to protect cities and people

Many of the recent attacks that took place in the EU targeted densely crowded or highly symbolic spaces. The EU will step up efforts to ensure physical protection of public spaces including places of worship through security by design. The Commission will propose to gather cities around an EU Pledge on Urban Security and Resilience and will make funding available to support them in reducing the vulnerabilities of public spaces. The Commission will also propose measures to make critical infrastructure - such as transport hubs, power stations or hospitals - more resilient. To step up aviation security, the Commission will explore options for a European legal framework to deploy security officers on flights.

All those entering the EU, citizens or not, must be checked against the relevant databases. The Commission will support member states in ensuring such systematic checks at borders. The Commission will also propose a system ensuring that a person who has been denied a firearm on security grounds in one member state cannot lodge a similar request in another Member State, closing an existing loophole.

  • Stepping up operational support, prosecution and victims' rights to better respond to attacks

Police cooperation and information exchange across the EU are key to respond effectively in case of attacks and bring perpetrators to justice. The Commission will propose an EU police cooperation code in 2021 to enhance cooperation between law enforcement authorities, including in the fight against terrorism.

A substantial part of investigations against crime and terrorism involve encrypted information. The Commission will work with Member States to identify possible legal, operational, and technical solutions for lawful access and promote an approach which both maintains the effectiveness of encryption in protecting privacy and security of communications, while providing an effective response to crime and terrorism. To better support investigations and prosecution, the Commission will propose to create a network of counter-terrorism financial investigators involving Europol, to help follow the money trail and identify those involved. The Commission will also further support Member States to use battlefield information to identify, detect and prosecute returning Foreign Terrorists Fighters.

The Commission will work to enhance the protection of victims of terrorist acts, including to improve access to compensation.

The work on anticipating, preventing, protecting and responding to terrorism will involve partner countries, in the EU's neighbourhood and beyond; and rely on stepped up engagement with international organisations. The Commission and the High Representative/Vice-President, as appropriate, will step up cooperation with Western Balkan partners in the area of firearms, negotiate international agreements with Southern Neighbourhood countries to exchange personal data with Europol, and enhance strategic and operational cooperation with other regions such as the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, other African countries and key regions in Asia.

The Commission will appoint a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, in charge of coordinating EU policy and funding in the area of counter-terrorism within the Commission, and in close cooperation with the Member States and the European Parliament.

Stronger mandate for Europol

The Commission is proposing today to strengthen the mandate of Europol, the EU Agency for law enforcement cooperation. Given that terrorists often abuse services offered by private companies to recruit followers, plan attacks, and disseminate propaganda inciting further attacks, the revised mandate will help Europol cooperate effectively with private parties, and transmit relevant evidence to Member States. For example, Europol will be able to act as a focal point in case it is not clear which Member State has jurisdiction.

The new mandate will also allow Europol to process large and complex datasets; to improve cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office as well as with non-EU partner countries; and to help develop new technologies that match law enforcement needs. It will strengthen Europol's data protection framework and parliamentary oversight.

Background

Today's Agenda follows from the EU Security Union Strategy for 2020 to 2025, in which the Commission committed to focus on priority areas where the EU can bring value to support Member States in fostering security for those living in Europe.

The Counter-Terrorism Agenda builds on the measures already adopted to deny terrorists the means to carry out attacks and to strengthen resilience against the terrorist threat. That includes EU rules on combating terrorism, on addressing terrorist financing and access to firearms.

More information

Communication on a Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU: Anticipate, Prevent, Protect, Respond

Proposal for a Regulation strengthening Europol's mandate

Strengthening Europol's mandate – Impact assessment Part 1

and Part 2

Strengthening Europol's mandate – Executive summary of the impact assessment

A Counter-Terrorism Agenda for the EU and a stronger mandate for Europol: Questions and Answers

Press release: EU Security Union Strategy: connecting the dots in a new security ecosystem, 24 July 2020

Security Union – Commission website

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