Thirty-five coordinated simultaneous house searches were carried out in Serbia and the Netherlands in early May 2023, targeting both the leaders of the cartel and the drug distribution infrastructure. Seven other members of this criminal organisation had been arrested in Belgium in 2021. Two people were previously arrested for other crimes in Serbia and Peru, while another suspect was arrested in the Netherlands on 8th May of this year.
In total, 23 people have been arrested in this international police operation, including the three leaders of the criminal organisation, considered by Europol as high-value targets.
As a result of the searches, a significant amount of incriminating material was seized, such as: 15 high-end cars, jewellery and luxury watches worth an estimated 2 million euros and almost 3 million euros in cash, weapons and explosives, including 2 sniper rifles, 3 automatic rifles, guns, silencers, 24 detonator capsules and 5 devices for remote initiation of detonators, 13 packs of plastic explosives and several hundred rounds of ammunition.
This cross-border operation is the result of intelligence development within the framework of the Europol operational task force investigating the use of the Sky ECC encrypted communication platform, which has been removed since March 2021.
Serbia was able to identify key targets on its territory and trace their criminal activities worldwide, in cooperation with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and with the support of Europol’s Drugs Unit.
This criminal organisation is believed to be behind shipments of several tonnes of cocaine that arrived in Europe directly from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, or by transiting through logistical infrastructures in West Africa.
This criminal gang was known in the criminal realm for its extreme violence and for its constant involvement in high-end robberies. One of the targets arrested in Serbia was a former leader of the notorious Pink Panther criminal group.
Thanks to the analysis of Sky ECC data, at least seven tonnes of cocaine seized at European ports in 2020 were linked to this cartel, including: 700 kilos of cocaine seized in Rotterdam, Netherlands; 1.2 tonnes of cocaine seized in Hasselt, Belgium; and 5 tonnes of cocaine seized in Aruba, Netherlands Antilles.
The crime bosses, arrested in Belgrade as part of this operation, were the largest cocaine traffickers in the Western Balkans identified as part of ongoing analysis work conducted on Sky ECC data.
The recent removal of three encrypted communication tools used by criminals, such as Encrochat, Sky ECC and Anom, showed the prevalence of Balkan criminals in the global cocaine trade and organised crime activities.
To respond to this threat, Europol created the operational task force called the ‘Balkan Cartel’ and brought together countries in Europe and around the world to effectively attack this threat originating from this region. This action day will be the result of this operational task force.
In addition, Europol has been provided with continuous analysis and development in the field of intelligence to support field researchers. Two Europol staff members were also dispatched to Belgrade to support the Serbian authorities with their investigative measures during this day of action.
Eurojust enabled judicial cooperation between the countries involved in the investigation.