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#Europol helps recover 9,000 stolen artefacts in art-trafficking crackdown

EU Reporter Correspondent



More than 19,000 archaeological artefacts and other artworks have been recovered as part of a global operation spanning 103 countries and focusing on the dismantlement of international networks of art and antiquities traffickers. 

101 suspects have been arrested, and 300 investigations opened as part of this coordinated crackdown. The criminal networks handled archaeological goods and artwork looted from war-stricken countries, as well as works stolen from museums and archaeological sites.

Seizures include coins from different periods, archaeological objects, ceramics, historical weapons, paintings and fossils. Facilitating objects, such as metal detectors were also seized.

These results were achieved during the global Operation ATHENA II, led by the World Customs Organization (WCO) and INTERPOL, which was carried out in synchronization with the Europe-focused Operation PANDORA IV coordinated by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and Europol in the framework of EMPACT. Details of both Operations, which ran in the autumn of 2019, can only be released now due to operational reasons.

Online illicit markets

Law enforcement officers paid particular attention to the monitoring of online market places and sales sites, as the Internet is an important part of the illicit trade of cultural goods.

During what was called a ‘cyber patrol week’ and under the leadership of the Italian Carabinieri (Arma dei Carabinieri), police and customs experts along with Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages. As a result, 8,670 cultural objects for online sale were seized. This represents 28% of the total number of artefacts recovered during this international crackdown.

Operational highlights

  • Afghan Customs seized 971 cultural objects at Kabul airport just as the objects were about to depart for Istanbul, Turkey.
  • The Spanish National Police (Policia Nacional), working together with the Colombian Police (Policia Nacional de Colombia), recovered at Barajas airport in Madrid some very rare pre-Columbian objects illegally acquired through looting in Colombia, including a unique Tumaco gold mask and several gold figurines and items of ancient jewellery. Three traffickers were arrested in Spain, and the Colombian authorities carried out house searches in Bogota, resulting in the seizure of a further 242 pre-Columbian objects, the largest ever seizure in the country’s history.
  • The investigation of a single case of online sale led to the seizure of 2,500 ancient coins by the Argentinian Federal Police Force (Policia Federal Argentina), the largest seizure for this category of items, while the second largest seizure was made by Latvian State Police (Latvijas Valsts Policija) for a total of 1,375 coins.
  • Six European Police forces reported the seizure of a hundred and eight metal detectors, demonstrating that looting in Europe is still an ongoing business.

Protecting our cultural heritage

This is the second time that Europol, INTERPOL and the WCO have joined forces to tackle the illicit trade in cultural heritage. Given the global nature of this crackdown, a 24-hour Operational Coordination Unit (OCU) was run jointly by the WCO, INTERPOL and Europol. In addition to assisting with information exchanges and issuing alerts, the OCU also carried out checks against various international and national databases, such as INTERPOL’s database on Stolen Works of Art and Europol’s European Information System.

“Organized crime has many faces. The trafficking of cultural goods is one of them: it is not a glamorous business run by flamboyant gentlemen forgers, but by international criminal networks. You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons: we know that the same groups are engaged, because it generate big money. Given that this is a global phenomenon affecting every country on the planet – either as a source, transit or destination, it is crucial that Law Enforcement all work together to combat it. Europol, in its role as the European Law Enforcement Agency, supported the EU countries involved in this global crackdown by using its intelligence capabilities to identify the pan-European networks behind these thefts,” said Europol’s Executive Director Catherine de Bolle.

“The operational success of Customs and its law enforcement partners offers tangible proof that international trafficking of cultural objects is thriving and touches upon all continents. In particular, we keep receiving evidence that online illicit markets are one of the major vehicles for this crime. However, online transactions always leave a trace and Customs, Police and other partners have established effective mechanisms to work together to prevent cross border illicit trade,” said WCO Secretary General Dr Kunio Mikuriya.

“The number of arrests and objects show the scale and global reach of the illicit trade in cultural artefacts, where every country with a rich heritage is a potential target,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “If you then take the significant amounts of money involved and the secrecy of the transactions, this also presents opportunities for money laundering and fraud as well as financing organized crime networks,” added the INTERPOL chief.


Many activities carried out during the Operation were decided on and conducted jointly between customs and police at national level, with the support and participation of experts from the Ministries of Culture as well as from other relevant institutions and law enforcement agencies.

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In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year Policy Cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organized crime. In March 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for organised and serious international crime for the 2018 - 2021 period. This multiannual Policy Cycle aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organized and serious international crime to the EU in a coherent and methodological manner. 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. Property crime is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.


Fight against organized crime: New five-year strategy for boosting co-operation across the EU and for better use of digital tools for investigations

EU Reporter Correspondent



The Commission has presented a new EU Strategy to tackle Organized Crime, focusing on boosting law enforcement and judicial cooperation, tackling organised crime structures and high priority crimes, removing criminal profits and ensuring a modern response to technological developments. Organized crime groups continue to develop and evolve, as shown by their rapid adaptation to the coronavirus pandemic, for example through the increase in counterfeit medical products and online crime. Organised crime groups active in Europe are involved in a variety of criminal activities, with drugs trafficking, organised property crime, fraud, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings being prevalent. In 2019, criminal revenues in the main criminal markets amounted to 1% of the EU's GDP, i.e. €139 billion, Related media

The Strategy sets out the tools and measures to be taken over the next five years to disrupt the business models and structures of criminal organisations across borders, both online and offline. 

Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas said: “Criminal syndicates increasingly use new technologies and seize any opportunity to expand their illegal activities, online or offline. The recent emblematic cases like EncroChat have exposed how sophisticated these organised crime networks are. This shows how important our efforts to tackle organised crime across borders are. Today's Strategy will help hit these criminals where it hurts the most, by undermining their business model which thrives on a lack of coordination between states.” 

Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said: “We clearly need to step up to fight organized crime groups. They are among the biggest threats to our security. They are highly professional and transnational: 70% of criminal groups are active in more than three member states. They quickly adapted to the pandemic, moving online and selling fake or non-existent cures. We have already detected attempted scam sales of over 1 billion vaccine doses. Our strategy is a 5-year programme to strengthen European law enforcement in the physical and the digital world. With the measures we're proposing today, we'll be moving from occasional police cooperation to permanent police partnerships, and we'll follow the money to catch criminals in financial investigations.”    

The Strategy aims to: 

  • Boost law enforcement and judicial cooperation: With 65% of the criminal groups active in the EU composed of multiple nationalities, effective exchange of information among law enforcement and judicial authorities across the EU is key to effectively tackle organised crime. The Commission will expand, modernise and reinforce funding for the European multidisciplinary platform against criminal threats (EMPACT), the structure that since 2010 brings together all relevant European and national authorities to identify priority crime threats and address them collectively. The Commission will propose to upgrade the ‘Prüm' framework for exchanging information on DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration. To make sure that law enforcement across the EU can work together better under a modern rulebook, the Commission will propose an EU Police Cooperation Code which will streamline the current patchwork of various EU tools and multi-lateral cooperation agreements. Achieving the 2023 objective to make information systems for security, border and migration management interoperable will help law enforcement better detect and combat identity fraud often used by criminals. Finally, to better tackle criminal networks operating internationally, the Commission is also proposing to start negotiating a cooperation agreement with Interpol.  
  • Support more effective investigations to disrupt organized crime structures and focusing on high and specific priority crimes: There is a need to step up cooperation at EU level to dismantle organised crime structures. To ensure an effective response to specific forms of crime, the Commission will propose to revise the EU rules against environmental crime and will establish an EU toolbox against counterfeiting, notably of medical products. It will present measures to address the illicit trade in cultural goods. The Commission is also presenting today a Strategy dedicated to combatting trafficking in human beings. 
  • Make sure crime does not pay: Over 60% of criminal networks active in the EU engage in corruption and more than 80% use legitimate businesses as a front for their activities, while only 1% of criminal assets is confiscated. Tackling criminal finances is key to uncover, punish and deter crime. The Commission will propose to revise the EU rules on confiscating criminal profits, develop the EU anti-money laundering rules, promote the early launch of financial investigations and assess the existing EU anti-corruption rules. This will also help prevent infiltration into the legal economy.  
  • Make law enforcement and the judiciary fit for the digital age: Criminals communicate and commit crimes online and leave digital traces online. With 80% of crimes having a digital component, law enforcement and the judiciary need swift access to digital leads and evidence. They also need to use modern technology and be equipped with tools and skills to keep up with modern crime modi operandi. The Commission will analyse and outline possible approaches to data retention as well as propose a way forward to address a lawful and targeted access to encrypted information in the context of criminal investigations and prosecutions that would also protect security and the confidentiality of communications. The Commission will also work with relevant EU Agencies to provide national authorities with the tools, knowledge and operational expertise needed to conduct digital investigations.  


Today's Strategy is part of the EU's work towards fostering security for all those living in Europe, as outlined in the EU Security Union Strategy.  

The Strategy to tackle Organised Crime builds on Europol's latest four-yearly assessment of serious and organised crime threats released on 12 April 2021.  

More information  

Communication on an EU Strategy to tackle Organized Crime for 2021-2025 

Commission Staff Working Document on EMPACT, the flagship EU instrument for cooperation to fight organized and serious international crime 

Recommendation for a Council Decision authorizing the opening of negotiations for a co-operation agreement between the EU and Interpol 

MEMO: EU Strategy to tackle Organized Crime & EU Strategy on combatting Trafficking in Human Beings  

Factsheet: Tackling Organized Crime

Press release: Fighting trafficking in human beings: new strategy to prevent trafficking break criminal business models, protect and empower victims 

Europol reports on the evolution of organised crime during the COVID-19 pandemic 

Europol's 2021 Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment 

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Criminal networks continue to prosper under the COVID pandemic

Guest contributor



COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends of organized criminal activity with more infiltration in the legitimate economy, as well as enlarging the scale of illicit trade, including in opportunities specifically driven by the pandemic, writes Transcrime Director Ernesto U. Savona.

At Transcrime we have continued to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on organised crime and illicit trade, reporting our findings to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Cybersecurity researchers in Israel estimate that more than 1,700 new vaccine-related websites have cropped up since November. On the dark web, counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines are offered next to cocaine, opioid medications, handguns, and fake passports. 

To understand the scale of the problem, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that over US$2.2 trillion (3% of global GDP) was lost due to illicit trade leakages in 2020. Meanwhile, the International Chamber of Commerce predicts that global counterfeit trade will reach $4 trillion by 2022, primarily fueled by e-commerce.

The ingredients for illegal trade are almost always the same: consumer demand, business supply and regulation. Euromonitor recently pointed out how these drivers have accelerated under the COVID pandemic, and what the potential social and economic consequences are going to be in the years ahead, including the ‘normalization’ of criminal behaviour.

Countries concerned about health and socio-economic problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic should take note. We are now in the realm of regulatory overreach, which happens when a government’s capacity to place bans or excess regulation could be counterproductive. This, ultimately, increases the amount of bureaucracy and, in some cases, pushes consumers into the illicit market.

A possible driver in illicit trade is the authorisation of extra excise taxes as cash strapped governments try to balance fiscal budgets. Enacting these policies should be closely studied to measure the effect the increase in prices by excise taxes could have. Consumers could be pushed into seeking illicit products as the price gap between legal and illicit goods widens.

For example, EU border forces seized 370 million illegal cigarettes in 2020 alone, with around a third of them originated from non-EU Eastern European countries like Belarus. One of the reasons the trade remains so profitable – and why so much of the contraband continues to flow over the EU border – is that cigarettes, heavily taxed in the EU, are priced much lower in Belarus. This discrepancy has been tolerated for years and it is important to note that recently the EU has decided to address it.

Political trends often go in contradictory directions: overregulating to fight against crime and illicit trade at a country and international level, while at the same time deregulating public spaces, for example, through the creation of Free Trade Zones (FTZs).

Overregulated legislative landscapes, which contain legal and economic loopholes based on the differences between countries, co-exist with the increasing number of exceptions that can be found in FTZs.

This combination makes international police cooperation difficult, inefficient, and ineffective, and allows illicit trade to develop. The task of combatting organised crime and illicit trade has been made harder by overregulation, mostly in the last twenty years. Deregulation in the free trade zones is the result of increased demand for more efficiency in the customs and transit procedure of goods.

But you now have two contradictory and opposing regimes. The former is more complex, with many loopholes, while the second is simple, efficient and in some cases criminogenic because criminals exploit the lack of regulation and control. International police co-operation in the first regime is overloaded by procedures, in the second it is quite rare. Yet the two regimes coexist.

Is there any room to unify these trends and build a single regime to control organized crime and illicit trade?

We can achieve this by analysing the main legislative and organizational obstacles to international cooperation between the police and the judiciary, but we need to find good methodologies and data for analysing the dynamics of criminal phenomena. At the same time, we need to understand why some free trade zones produce opportunities for organized crime and illicit trade and others do not, and then see whether we can reduce the trade-off between the lack of law enforcement controls and their efficiency.

Legislators must seek to simplify the legislative landscape and cut bureaucracy that prevents us from having a complete view of the problem. Meanwhile, there must be more dialogue through public and private partnerships, which will facilitate greater international police cooperation. 

Ernesto U. Savona is the director of Transcrime, Joint Research Centre of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Università of Perugia and University of Bologna, and professor of criminology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and at the University of Palermo.

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Serious and organized crime in the EU: A corrupting influence

EU Reporter Correspondent



On 12 April, Europol published the European Union (EU) Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, the EU SOCTA 2021. The SOCTA, published by Europol every four years, presents a detailed analysis of the threat of serious and organised crime facing the EU. The SOCTA is a forward-looking assessment that identifies shifts in the serious and organized crime landscape.

The SOCTA 2021 details the operations of criminal networks in the EU and how their criminal activities and business practices threaten to undermine our societies, economy and institutions, and slowly erode the rule of law. The report provides unprecedented insights into Europe’s criminal underworld based on the analysis of thousands of cases and pieces of intelligence provided to Europol. 

The SOCTA reveals a concerning expansion and evolution of serious and organised crime in the EU. The document warns of the potential long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and how these may create ideal conditions for crime to thrive in the future. The report clearly highlights serious and organised crime as the key internal security challenge currently facing the EU and its Member States.

Launched at the Portuguese Police’s headquarters (Policia Judicária) in Lisbon during the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the SOCTA 2021 is the most comprehensive and in-depth study of serious and organised crime in the EU ever undertaken. 


EU citizens enjoy some of the highest levels of prosperity and security in the world. However, the EU still faces serious challenges to its internal security, threatening to undo some of our common achievements and undermine shared European values and ambitions. As the EU is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most significant crises since the end of World War II, criminals seek to exploit this extraordinary situation targeting citizens, businesses, and public institutions alike.

The analysis presented in the SOCTA 2021 highlights key characteristics of serious and organised crime such as the widespread use of corruption, the infiltration and exploitation of legal business structures for all types of criminal activity, and the existence of a parallel underground financial system that allows criminals to move and invest their multi-billion euro profits. 

Serious and organised crime encompasses a diverse range of criminal phenomena ranging from the trade in illegal drugs to crimes such as migrant smuggling and the trafficking in human beings, economic and financial crime and many more.

Key findings of the SOCTA 2021:

  • Serious and organised crime has never posed as high a threat to the EU and its citizens as it does today.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic and the potential economic and social fallout expected to follow threaten to create ideal conditions for organised crime to spread and take hold in the EU and beyond. Once more confirmed by the pandemic, a key characteristic of criminal networks is their agility in adapting to and capitalising on changes in the environment in which they operate. Obstacles become criminal opportunities.
  • Like a business environment, the core of a criminal network is composed of managerial layers and field operators. This core is surrounded by a range of actors linked to the crime infrastructure providing support services.
  • With nearly 40 percent of the criminal networks active in drugs trafficking, the production and trafficking of drugs remains the largest criminal business in the EU. 
  • The trafficking and exploitation of human beings, migrant smuggling, online and offline frauds and property crime pose significant threats to EU citizens. 
  • Criminals employ corruption. Almost 60% of the criminal networks reported engage in corruption.
  • Criminals make and launder billions of euros annually. The scale and complexity of money laundering activities in the EU have previously been underestimated. Professional money launderers have established a parallel underground financial system and use any means to infiltrate and undermine Europe’s economies and societies. 
  • Legal business structures are used to facilitate virtually all types of criminal activity with an impact on the EU. More than 80% of the criminal networks active in the EU use legal business structures for their criminal activities. 
  • The use of violence by criminals involved in serious and organised crime in the EU appears to have increased in terms of the frequency of use and its severity. The threat from violent incidents has been augmented by the frequent use of firearms or explosives in public spaces.
  • Criminals are digital natives. Virtually all criminal activities now feature some online component and many crimes have fully migrated online. Criminals exploit encrypted communications to network among each other, use social media and instant messaging services to reach a larger audience to advertise illegal goods, or spread disinformation. 

Portugal’s Minister for Justice, Francisca Van Dunem: "The strengthening of the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice requires us all to build a Europe where citizens feel safe, free and protected, a Europe that promotes justice for all, ensuring respect for human rights and protecting victims of crime. Cooperation and information sharing are essential to combat serious and organised crime and terrorism and to tackle the threat the EU is confronted with. Therefore, at a time of transition to the new EMPACT cycle 2022-2025, SOCTA 2021 is of particular relevance in identifying priorities for the operational response to these phenomena".

Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle: "With the launch of the SOCTA 2021, Europol has harnessed its position as the nerve centre of the EU’s internal security architecture with its platforms, databases, and services connecting law enforcement authorities across the EU and beyond. The intelligence picture and assessment presented in the SOCTA 2021 is a stark reminder of the dynamic and adaptable adversary we face in serious and organised crime in the EU.”

Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs: “The 2021 SOCTA report clearly shows that organised crime is a truly transnational threat to our societies. 70% of criminal groups are active in more than three Member States. The complexity of the modern criminal business models was exposed in 2020 when French and Dutch authorities supported by Europol and Eurojust dismantled EncroChat; an encrypted phone network used by criminal networks. Organised crime groups are professional and highly adaptable as shown during the COVID-19 pandemic. We must support law enforcement to keep up, offline and online, to follow the digital trail of criminals.”

Minister of Internal Affairs, Eduardo Cabrita: “The EU's Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA 2021), produced by Europol, constitutes an important instrument for affirming the European police partnership. It allows police action to go from pursuing criminal facts and minimising their impact, to anticipating trends in the criminal landscape. By placing intelligence at the service of security, we enable police to be more pro-active and efficient in tackling crime.”

The SOCTA 2021 assists decision-makers in the prioritisation of serious and organised crime threats. It is a product of close cooperation between Europol, EU Member States law enforcement authorities, third parties such as EU agencies, international organisations, and countries outside the EU with working arrangements with Europol. These crucial stakeholders’ involvement is also reflected in the SOCTA’s role as the cornerstone of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) in the EU. Headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, Europol supports the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime, and other serious and organized crime forms. Europol also works with many non-EU partner states and international organisations. 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.

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