Migrant smugglers use private planes to do business

With the support of Eurojust and Europol, judicial and law enforcement authorities from Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and the United States dismantled a criminal network involved in migrant smuggling, document fraud and money laundering.

The migrants, who were mainly Iraqis and Iranians of Kurdish origin, boarded private planes in Turkey using fake diplomatic passports. However, they never reached their official travel destinations (usually the Caribbean). During stopovers at various European airports, including in Austria, France and Germany, migrants were removed from the plane, had their false passports removed and had to systematically apply for asylum. The suspects charged up to €20,000 per person for smuggling.

According to police investigations, at least five smuggling operations took place between October and December 2020 in five different European countries. In addition, several plans were prepared to carry out other smuggling operations.

As well as migrant smuggling and identity document forgery, the organized crime group is also suspected of issuing fake checks and scamming airlines in an attempt to build its own fleet. The suspects also allegedly defrauded hotels by failing to pay several invoices.

The action day on 13 September of this year resulted in:

  • 5 arrests (2 in Belgium and 3 in Italy)
  • 7 house searches (1 in Belgium and 6 in Italy)
  • Seizures of 2 planes, 80,000 euros, 1 high-end car, electronic equipment and equipment for forging identity documents (such as card printers, stamps, holograms, and white plastic cards)
  • 173,000 frozen in Italy

Eurojust supported the authorities involved in the creation and funding of a joint investigation team (JIT) in June 2021. Eurojust also hosted four coordination meetings to facilitate judicial cooperation and support coordinated investigative efforts.

Europol, for its part, prioritised the case at an early stage and assigned an analyst and a specialist, dedicated to supporting national investigations to identify the members of the criminal network and dismantle it.

Europol also facilitated the exchange of operational information and provided analytical and financial support. On the action day, Europol activated a virtual command post to enable real-time information exchange. It also deployed three analysts, one in Belgium and two in Italy, to cross-check operational information against Europol databases to provide further investigative leads to participating national law enforcement authorities.

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El Salvador’s relentless war against the maras continues

For almost five months now, the Government of El Salvador, led by Nayib Bukele, has been carrying out large-scale police and military operations that have led to the arrest of around 50,000 suspected members of the maras.

This is an outstanding figure for a country of less than 6.5 million inhabitants, but it does not seem so high when compared to its rate of violence – around 100 murders per month – and of criminals associated with the maras. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 active members of the maras, of which the majority belong to the Mara Salvatrucha and, to a lesser extent, to Barrio 18 (18th Street). These are the two major criminal groups that were born in the 1980s in the wake of the civil war and the exodus of thousands of refugees to the United States.

These operations have prompted reactions from the Ombudsman for the Defence of Human Rights and civil organizations. They believe that the veil of darkness that covers this anti-violence crusade hides arbitrary arrests, abuses of power and the clear suspicion that some of those imprisoned have not committed the crimes of which they are accused.

At the beginning of September there were more than 3,000 complaints of torture and indiscriminate arrests, as well as 56 prisoners killed, about which the government has maintained total secrecy. Even Amnesty International believes that serious human rights violations have occurred and that there could be international criminal responsibility.

But it seems that none of that concerns the Government of Nayib Bukele. In March, the Legislative Assembly approved the application of the state of exception and the suspension of constitutional guarantees for one month, but it has been in effect for several months.

The government assumes that around 1% of the arrests could be mistaken. And not everyone wears tattoos of the maras on their skin. However, the Workers’ Movement of the National Police also denounces the existence of quotas enforced by some security forces commanders in order to obtain holidays or avoid reprimands. For example, if a police station is required to detain six members of the maras and they have only been able to capture four, they add two detainees for another crime, regardless of whether it was an assault or a robbery.

The state of exception was imposed at the end of March, after a weekend full of murders: 87 in total. According to police, the victims were either chosen at random by gunmen or came between their revolvers and semi-automatic rifles.

Bukele decided to nip this situation in the bud. The state of exception allows the police to extend detentions beyond 72 hours, including placing detainees in limbo with no expiration date, monitoring private communications and suspending the right to legal assistance by the State. In addition, El Salvador has tightened the penal code with the approval of Parliament: a member of a mara of legal age can face up to 45 years in prison.

Until March, the country was experiencing a serious overcrowding problem, with 36,000 prisoners in confinement. That figure has now doubled. Prison overcrowding is suffocating, and logistics cannot be sustained.

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Decline continues in arrests of juveniles in the United States for violent crimes

The number of young people – aged 0 to 17 – arrested by police in the United States for committing violent crimes (murders, homicides, robberies with violence, etc.) is still in decline since the year 2000. During 2020, the number of arrests for violent crimes committed by juveniles reached a new low, 78% below the 1994 peak, and half the number of ten years earlier.

Males accounted for 80% of all arrests of juveniles for violent crimes in 2020, but their share of arrests for murder (92%) and robbery (88%) was much higher.

The 16-17 age group accounted for more than half (55%) of all youths arrested, but for the crime of murder they accounted for 76% of all arrests.

White youths accounted for nearly half (49%) of all juvenile arrests and 57% of juvenile arrests for serious assaults.

During 2020, there were an estimated 424,300 arrests of persons under the age of 18, 38% less than the corresponding figure for 2019 and half the number of arrests than 5 years earlier.

Overall, arrests of persons under the age of 18 accounted for 7% of all violent crime arrests, a decrease of 7 percentage points from 2019, which was 14%.

During 2020, young people between the ages of 18 and 24 accounted for 19% of all arrests and 21% of arrests for violent crimes.

Although juvenile arrests for robbery and assault have been on the decline, arrests for murder have increased since the low point had been reached in 2012. That being said, the number of arrests for violent crimes involving young people decreased by 56% between 2010 and 2020. The smallest decrease was in robberies, which shows a decrease of 24%, while among adults the decrease was 5%. And juvenile arrests for serious assaults fell by 29%, while adult arrests increased by about 1%.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the year 2020 was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and it should also be emphasised that a single offence may entail the arrest of more than one person. The latter may have affected data collection policies, procedures and situations, where many arrests resulting from a single offence are relatively common.

In addition, stay-at-home orders and school closings likely prevented increases in juvenile law-breaking behaviour. For these reasons, the numbers of arrests should be put into context and not draw the attention of law enforcement agencies to the year 2020.

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Affected by ransomware? No More Ransom provides you with 136 free tools to rescue your files

Six years after the birth of the initiative No More Ransom, more than 10 million people have already downloaded its decryption tools.

Ransomware attacks have been increasing in number and severity in recent years, with headlines focusing on ransom demands, which have risen to amounts that were previously unthinkable. Although the data is alarming, this does not mean that you are defenceless against these extortion attempts or the high technologies used to carry them out. The No More Ransom initiative offers more than 136 free decryption tools to rescue files taken hostage.

On its sixth anniversary, No More Ransom provides keys to unlocking encrypted files, as well as information on how to evade getting infected in the first place.

Launched by Europol, the Dutch National Police (Politie) and IT security companies, the No More Ransom portal initially offered four tools to unlock different types of ransomware and was only available in English.

Six years down the line, No More Ransom offers 136 free tools for 165 ransomware variants, including Gandcrab, REvil/Sodinokibi, Maze/Egregor/Sekhmet and more. More than 188 public and private sector partners have joined the program, regularly providing new decryption tools for the latest varieties of malware.

So far, the scheme has helped more than1.5 million people successfully decrypt their devices without having to pay the criminals. The portal is available in 37 languages to better assist victims of ransomware around the world.

The best technique for protecting oneself against hijacking software remains diligent prevention. It is recommended to:

– Make regular backups of the data stored on your electronic devices.

– Keep an eye on your clicks: do you know where a link will take you?

Do not open attachments in e-mails from unknown senders, even if they look important and credible.

– Make sure your security software and operating system are up to date.

– Use two-factor authentication (2FA) to protect your user accounts.

– Limit the ability to export large amounts of corporate data to external file sharing portals.

If you become a victim, don’t pay! Report the crime and check No More Ransom for decryption tools.

You will find more information and prevention tips at http://www.nomoreransom.org.

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Extremists and the use of social networks in the U.S.

Isolating and comparing the social networking habits of two different types of extremists may better prepare justice system agencies to prevent and respond to extremist violence in the United States.

Research sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has found that study samples of individuals in the United States who have been involved in violent and non-violent hate crimes and other forms of extremist crime were influenced by social networks.

One of the key findings of this study is that extremists may mirror the general population in their use of various social networking platforms, especially in terms of dependence on Facebook. Although the sample size was relatively small and less than 20% of this sample said they used this social network, Facebook usage was found to be markedly higher than that of any other social networking platform.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) carried out the study of social media use as part of a larger investigation, which tapped into two major national databases of extremist events and individuals:

ECDB. Extremist Crime Database: ECDB is a database that tracks violent attacks, homicides and financial crimes committed by extremists in the United States. Attacks tracked in ECDB include bombings, shootings or other violent assaults resulting in at least one death. The database primarily, but not exclusively, tracks left-wing, right-wing and jihadist extremists.

PIRUS. Profiles of individual radicalization in the United States: PIRUS is a database of individuals in the United States who radicalised to the point of committing ideologically motivated violent or non-violent criminal activity, or ideologically motivated association with a foreign or domestic extremist organisation. The PIRUS database includes individuals who are typically considered to be perpetrators of hate crimes, i.e., violent acts or spontaneous threats against another person on the basis of gender identity, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual preference. In the PIRUS database the data are anonymous.

The research studied 2,100 cases in ECDB and 1,500 cases in PIRUS. Of these, 454 individuals from the PIRUS database were matched with individuals identified in ECDB.

In a study segment focused on the use of social networks by extremists, researchers searched various social networking platforms for data revealing the use of a specific platform by individuals found in PIRUS or ECDB and associated with an act of violence.

The study focused on cases occurring after 2007. This period has seen a significant increase in the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, according to the researchers’ report.

The results of the social networking research segment suggest that the patterns of use of different platforms vary according to ideological groups and may reflect the use of these platforms in the general population. Differences may also reflect conflicting interests of individuals with respect to groups. The research report noted the need for further research examining the use and quantity of social media posts expressing ideological beliefs within and across radical ideological agendas.

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El Salvador’s fight against las maras results in 20,000 arrests in one month

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, declared a state of emergency in March of this year to combat maras (gang) violence. It was extended for an additional 30 days in April. The police and military have arrested 20,421 suspected maras members in just 33 days since the beginning of the state of emergency. The courts have also remanded 9,672 defendants in custody. The state of emergency allows detainees to be held for up to 15 days without justification, as opposed to the 72-hour limit under normal circumstances.

As reported by the newspaper La Razon America, the Salvadoran president is trying to put an end to the flood of murders in recent months and the control that these powerful criminal gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18, exercise in several areas of this small Central American country of 6.4 million inhabitants. The murder of 87 people during the last weekend of March was the last straw for Bukele.

Salvadoran police and military have spent nearly two months arbitrarily arresting “terrorists” without warrants and based on suspicions only. These indications include having a criminal record, tattoos from gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18, or other marero tattoos. The escalation of homicides in recent months is evidence of growing insecurity in the country.

After the most violent days in El Salvador since the end of the civil war 30 years ago (1979-1992), the Salvadoran Congress gave the go-ahead for the suspension of the right to defence, freedom of association and the inviolability of correspondence without a court order. Salvadoran media and security experts explain the drastic increase in violence in the country by the breakdown of a secret pact between the Bukele government and the Salvadoran maras. However, Bukele has always denied the existence of such an agreement.

Nayib Bukele is the president with the highest popular support in the region, with 76% approval according to M&R Consultores. He justified the state of emergency with the estimated 70,000 members of maras who commit crimes and fight among themselves for control of extortion and drug trafficking operations.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International Americas have shown much concern about mass arrests, especially in the areas most controlled by the maras. They have also condemned the cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of suspects piled up in El Salvador’s precarious prisons.

Nayib Bukele rejected criticism from these international organisations for alleged human rights violations. He even went so far as to declare that, if they defend the members of the maras so much, they should take them back to their countries. The president is trying to justify the prohibition of graffiti or any other visual expression that explicitly or implicitly conveys messages about the maras that control various areas of the country. The police union has denounced the police chiefs for demanding daily quotas of detainees from their agents in the fight against maras.

Amnesty International has once again rejected the measures imposed by the Salvadoran government that prohibit the media from reproducing and transmitting messages or communiqués from maras that could generate panic in the population. This could lead to imprisonment of journalists solely for reporting on gang-related activities. Amnesty also condemns the fact that prisoners may be held without sufficient food and air and that children between the ages of 12 and 16 may be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison without the right to defence.

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Europol action day against migrant smuggling

An operational task force (OTF), directed by the German Federal Police and coordinated by Europol, targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers in the entire European Union. The OTF Pathfinder involved law enforcement authorities from Austria, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands, resulting in the opening of 39 new investigations. The Action Day resulted in the arrest of two high-value targets, 12 house searches and the seizure of more than 80,000 euros in Germany and France.

Investigations by the operation’s task force have so far led to:

  • 8 high-value targets arrested and 3 subject to a European Arrest Warrant (2 in Austria, 7 in Germany, 1 in Hungary and 1 in Romania)
  • 127 arrests of facilitators (63 in Austria, 19 in Germany, 15 in Hungary, 25 in Romania, 4 in the Netherlands and 1 in Serbia)
  • 916 smuggling incidents detected (600 in Austria, 262 in Germany, 26 in Hungary, 22 in Romania, and 6 in the Netherlands)
  • 151 house searches (37 in Austria, 70 in Germany, 17 in Hungary, 25 in Romania and 2 in the Netherlands)
  • Seizures of various assets for a total value of approximately 900,000 euros

The OTF Pathfinder, set up at Europol in August 2021 and initiated by Germany, targeted some of the most dangerous migrant smugglers active throughout the EU. These Europol high-value targets, primarily Syrian nationals, had global connections to source, transit and destination countries. Europol checked its databases and found that these suspects are already linked to more than 150 investigations.

Since the launch of the OTF Pathfinder, national law enforcement authorities have opened 39 new investigations related to these 14 individuals. One of these connected investigations led to the arrest of one of the high-value targets by the Italian Financial Corps, backed by the Albanian police and the Hellenic police. Another led to the arrest of 18 suspects in Romania. The suspects were paid between 4,000 and 10,000 euros, despite smuggling and housing migrants in extremely poor and often life-threatening conditions.

Investigations revealed that those arrested facilitated the smuggling of at least 10,000 migrants, mainly of Afghan, Pakistani and Syrian origin, into the EU. Europol facilitated the exchange of information and developed a large number of intelligence analysis products, which help national authorities to connect these large-scale cross-border criminal activities, identifying perpetrators and detecting ongoing smuggling activities.

Investigations uncovered that these suspects were managing a large-scale smuggling business, making use of the same logistics, accommodation and travel arrangements. They used loading docks of lorries, closed vans and personal cars to move migrants from Turkey through the Western Balkan region, Romania and Hungary to Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Payments were mainly made through the so-called hawala financial system.

The suspects used social media platforms to advertise their illegal business and to persuade migrants’ relatives that the smuggling was safe. Typically, facilitators must build trust among migrant communities in order to recruit as many people as possible.

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Major cross-border operation against cocaine lords in Europe

Joint actions of the Belgian Federal Police in Antwerp (Federale Politie Antwerpen), the Dutch National Police (Politie), the German Regional Police (Landeskriminalamt Niedersachsen) and Federal Police (Bundeskriminalamt / BKA), coordinated by Europol, led to the identification and prosecution of the main European High Value Targets who import large quantities of cocaine to the European Union from South America. The Paraguayan National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD – Secretaria Nacional Antidrogas) also participated in the operation.

This operation targeted the European and South American drug and money-laundering infrastructure of a large-scale trafficking network, with which the operation already had great success in February 2022 with the seizure of 34 tonnes of cocaine in Belgium and Germany.

Europol facilitated the exchange of information and worked with intelligence studies and data based on criminal analyses, which allowed a detailed picture of the operations of the networks across countries and continents to be obtained.

The action day on 20 April 2022 led to:

  • Over 35 locations searched by the police.
  • 17 arrests (5 in Belgium, 11 in Germany and 3 in The Netherlands).
  • Seizures in Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands, including electronic devices, documents, four vehicles, luxury watches and properties, including four apartments, as well as bank accounts and cash with a total value of 5.5 million euros.

These operational activities are the culmination of a parallel investigation by Belgian, Dutch and German law enforcement authorities into a criminal network trafficking shipments of several tonnes of cocaine from their countries of origin to Europe. The operation began in February 2021 when the police authorities of the ports of Hamburg and Antwerp seized a total of 34 tonnes of cocaine in 3 shipments linked to this criminal network. During the investigation, the cooperating authorities discovered that this criminal group had the capacity to send multiple shipments of several tonnes of cocaine to Europe in just a few months.

The command and control centre of the traffickers and the European targets behind it were headquartered in Dubai. From there, they managed the cocaine trafficking from their own production infrastructure in Bolivia. Logistical and supply lines were also identified in Paraguay.

The leaders of the criminal network used encrypted communication to organise their large shipments. The coordination of the several tonnes of cocaine trafficked was intercepted as a result of taking down the Sky ECC encrypted communications platform in 2021. This also led to the discovery of a large network of legitimate businesses created to allow the import of drugs from South America and the laundering of related revenue. For example, to enter the EU, the cocaine was hidden in shipments of bananas, coffee and plaster.

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European operation against a network that forced homeless people to practice begging

Authorities in Austria, Germany, Hungary and Romania have dismantled a particularly violent family-based criminal network that exploited homeless people.

An investigation by the Upper Austrian Regional Criminal Office (Landeskriminalamt Oberösterreich), the Austrian Federal Police (Bundeskriminalamt), the German Bavarian State Police (Polizei Bayern), the Hungarian National Police (Magyar Rendorseg) and the Romanian Police (Poliția Română), with the support of Europol and Eurojust, led officers to dismantle an organised crime group involved in human trafficking for forced begging. The criminal network was particularly violent and abused extremely vulnerable individuals.

Thanks to the investigations, a police action day was held in early April of this year, which resulted in the following:

  • 7 locations searched (1 in Austria, 2 in Germany, 1 in Hungary and 3 in Romania).
  • 4 arrests (1 in Germany, 1 in Hungary, 1 in Austria and 1 in Romania).
  • Seizures of telephones and other electronic devices, more than €90,000 in cash and 9,400 RON in cash, as well as 1 kg of gold.
  • Two victims, who died during the operation of the criminal network.

Since 2017, national authorities in the four countries in question have been investigating this organised crime group based on family ties. This has included the investigation of group members of Romanian and Hungarian origin who trafficked and exploited people, with victims in Austria and Germany. The victims of Hungarian and Romanian origin were particularly vulnerable as a result of alcohol addiction and homelessness.

These people were forced to beg at specific locations in various cities, such as the German cities of Ingolstadt, Nuremberg and Berlin and the Austrian cities of Feldkirch, Linz, Bad Hall and Stayer. They were totally dependent on the criminal network and their documents were seized upon arrival in foreign countries where they did not speak the language. The criminal network provided them with a sandwich or just enough alcohol to survive the day, while earning more than 200,000 euros from the victims’ activities. These individuals were subjected to inhumane treatment and living environments and suffered violent behaviour at the hands of the suspects.

Two of the victims died from health-related problems while being exploited in extremely degrading conditions. The criminal gang also forced an equally vulnerable person to work at their house and treated them as a domestic slave.

Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support in this investigation. On the action day, Europol deployed a virtual command post to enable real-time information exchange between investigators, Europol and Eurojust.

Eurojust had set up a joint investigation team between Germany, Hungary, Romania and Europol in 2021.

In 2017, the European Council decided to continue the EU policy cycle for the 2018-2021 period. It aims to address 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. There are currently ten EMPACT priorities. As of 2022, the mechanism becomes permanent under the name EMPACT 2022+.

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Extensive cross-border operation against human traffickers in France and Romania

The French National Police (Police Nationale), the Romanian Police (Poliția Română) and the Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional), with the support of Europol and Eurojust, dismantled a criminal network involved in human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. For the purposes of this investigation, Europol set up an operational task force that led to the identification of the leader of the criminal gang.

The police action day on 22 March of this year resulted in:

  • 16 house searches (10 in France and 6 in Romania).
  • 7 arrests (2 in France and 5 in Romania, including one high-value target identified by the law enforcement authorities involved).
  • 32 victims identified, mostly Romanian nationals (13 in France and 19 in Romania).
  • The seizures included digital equipment and mobile phones, cannabis from an indoor laboratory, luxury vehicles and more than 23,000 euros in cash.

From the evidence collected during the investigation it seems that the criminal network had been active since 2014. The members of the criminal gang manipulated their victims into prostitution for the financial benefit of the criminal network.

The modus operandi was to target vulnerable victims in financially and emotionally unstable situations with the so-called “lover boy” method. The criminal network recruited them with false loving relationships, seduced them with expensive gifts and promises of a better life abroad and forced them to continue working by using threats and acts of violence against them or their family members. Using this technique, the criminals pocketed more than 400,000 euros by exploiting vulnerable victims from Romania.

Investigators have already identified 28 victims exploited by the gang in France. Evidence indicates that the criminal network channelled about €1.3 million in illegal proceeds to Romania through money transfer companies and transferred more assets via cash couriers.

This money comes from 250 localities in 25 different states. 80% of the money transfers were made from internet cafes in Barcelona and were addressed to the organisation’s leaders in Romania. Subsequently, they laundered the criminal proceeds in Romania through investments in real estate and luxury goods. They also used part of the illegal profits to finance various criminal activities.

In 2020, together with France, Spain and Romania, Europol set up an operational task force to jointly target this criminal network. The specific set-up of this task force allowed investigators to easily identify the modus operandi of the criminal group and use the information gathered to identify the leaders and their associates.

Europol coordinated the operational activities, facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. It also deployed an expert to Romania to cross-check operational information in real time and support the investigators on the ground.

Eurojust created a joint investigation team (JIT) between France and Romania. Five suspects were arrested as a result of five European arrest warrants.

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