Police in six countries have teamed up to take down a “super cartel” said to be controlling a third of Europe’s cocaine trade, leading to dozens of arrests and large-scale drug seizures, the European Union crime agency announced Monday.
Europol said 49 suspects have been cuffed during “Operation Desert Light,” with the latest series of raids across Europe and the United Arab Emirates taking place between Nov. 8 and 19.
The agency said police forces involved in the investigation targeted both the “command-and-control center and the logistical drugs trafficking infrastructure in Europe.”
Over 33 tons of drugs were confiscated in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UAE with the support of Europol.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration also played a role in bringing down the cartel, which was also involved in money laundering, Europol said.
“The scale of cocaine importation into Europe under the suspects’ control and command was massive,” Europol said, adding that the suspects used encrypted communications to organize drug shipments.
The Netherlands was the country where most of the arrests were made, with 14 suspects arrested in 2021. Europol said six “high-value targets” were arrested in Dubai.
Dutch authorities said one of the suspects arrested in Dubai allegedly imported thousands of pounds of cocaine into the Netherlands in 2020 and 2021.
The 37-year-old suspected drug lord with both Dutch and Moroccan nationality is also being prosecuted for laundering large amounts of money and possession of firearms.
Police started investigating him after investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, which is popular with criminals.
A 40-year-old Dutch-Bosnian citizen was also arrested in Dubai following an investigation based on intercepted Sky messages, according to Dutch police. He is suspected of importing into Europe cocaine and raw materials for the production of amphetamines.
Spain’s Civil Guard, which took part in the joint investigation, stated that the leader of the cartel has been identified as a British citizen who fled Spain to avoid being arrested, and relocated to Dubai, from where he continued directing and coordinating the criminal activities of the drug trafficking organization.
Spanish law enforcement said the drugs were being supplied to the cartel by a Panamanian citizen also living in Dubai.
More than 214 tons of cocaine were seized in Europe in 2020, a 6% increase from the previous year, and experts from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction believe that amount could reach 330 tons by the end of 2022.