Law enforcement agencies from five European countries have neutralised an intercontinental criminal network that smuggled migrants travelling from Cuba to the European Union. The investigation, which was coordinated by Europol and Interpol, led to the arrest of 62 people, 25 of whom were Cuban.
Members of the migrant smuggling ring used a popular messaging application to advertise their illicit services to vulnerable Cuban clients. For a payment of approximately 9,000 euros, they would arrange travel and transfers and provide false documentation. Taking advantage of the fact that no visa was required in order to enter Serbia at the time, criminals flew migrants from Cuba to Serbia.
The migrants were smuggled to Greece, from where they were flown to Spain. It is thought that, in total, the criminal network successfully introduced around 5,000 Cuban nationals into the Union, creating a profit of around €45 million.
The investigation revealed the existence of a complex criminal infrastructure established in many cities in Spain, Greece and Serbia, which was flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances in order to maintain its illicit business. On the June 2023 police action day, police officers from the three countries seized a number of criminal assets, including hundreds of forged documents and equipment for further forgery. In total, 18 real estate properties, 33 vehicles and 144 bank accounts were seized, along with large sums of cash in various currencies.
The investigation was launched in October 2021 after Serbian, Greek, North Macedonian and Finnish authorities reported greater numbers of Cuban nationals attempting to get into Europe with forged documentation. In January 2023 Europol, the European Union Agency for Asylum and Frontex issued a joint Intelligence Notification describing this trend. The notification, described as Cuban nationals smuggled into the EU: shifting routes and modi operandi in a changed geo-political landscape, reported on the impact that the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has had on migrant smuggling routes.
Originally, Cubans used to fly commercially to Russia from Cuba. There, smugglers offered them the opportunity to irregularly cross the Russian-Finnish border to enter EU territory, or to fly to Serbia to continue their journey to Central or Southern Europe via the Western Balkan region.
Since the start of the war sparked by Russia, the route was changed. Cuban nationals were transferred to Serbia through Frankfurt airport in Germany. Upon arrival of the Cubans in Serbia, members of the criminal network facilitated their irregular entry into North Macedonia and Greece via land. Using different routes, smugglers led large groups of migrants and made them walk in the dark without supplies for hours. In addition to these harsh conditions, criminals preyed on the most vulnerable migrants, including minors, and subjected them to scams, robbery and extortion. Women were sometimes transferred to other criminal groups for sexual exploitation.
Upon arrival in Greece, the migrants applied for asylum or used other methods of transport to other EU countries organised by the criminals, such as flights to Spain or maritime transport to Italy. To travel within the EU, the criminal network provided victims with falsified documents or used the so-called ‘look-alike method’, in which genuine travel documents were stolen and distributed to a migrant who closely resembled the real passport holder.