Today, during a press conference at the Comando Regionale della Guardia di Finanza ‘Sicilia’ in Palermo, Italy, a multinational police team including Europol announced the arrest of a major Moroccan drug kingpin, who had acted at the peak of the hashish supply chain impacting on the European Union and North Africa.
The event took place in the margins of an operational meeting between France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Europol. The meeting was presided by the Nucleo di Polizia Tributaria di Palermo, the police unit that triggered the international team of front-line investigators known as Joint Operations Team (JOT) ‘Rose of the Winds’.
The Europol Drugs Team played a key role in the operations. Over 20 operational meetings have been funded in three years, bringing investigators to the same table. On-the-spot support was also provided during five operations.
Europol specialists in analysis, forensics and organised crime were deployed in the Member States to extract and analyse huge amounts of electronic data from the devices that were seized. By collecting and analysing this data, Europol produced and provided the affected states with 29 analytical reports on the criminal networks behind these deeds.
The work that led to this arrest began in April 2016. The on-going role and commitment ensured by the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale was vital. Investigators from the Nucleo di Polizia Tributaria di Palermo gained convincing intelligence that a Moroccan national, previously identified in cooperation with the Moroccan counterparts, had orchestrated a multi-tonne drug delivery disclosed by the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale just a few days earlier. The latter had in fact intercepted two road convoys, which were delivering a total of over 30 tonnes of hashish from the Moroccan Regions of Settat and Agadir, with the purpose of loading it on a cargo ship waiting off the shores of Agadir.
Immediate reaction to the leads provided by the Italian authorities triggered the issuance of an arrest warrant for international drug trafficking against the individual who had initially managed to avoid capture in Oujda. Also, the criminal’s son had attempted to offer the Moroccan authorities EUR 250 000 in Moroccan currency as bribe, in exchange for backing off from any subsequent actions. The attempt ended in the seizure of the money and prison sentence for the briber.
The criminal was nevertheless apprehended on 1 October 2016 in Casablanca, along with two of his associates. Intelligence gathered by Guardia di Finanza on the suspect revealed his capacity to supply wholesale buyers with 20 to 30 tonnes of hashish per month, adding up to a total of 180 tonnes of narcotics shipped since he was first identified.
This is the latest successful result achieved by JOT ’Rose of the Winds’. Approximately one week prior to his apprehension, the Spanish Guardia Civil, supported by Europol, the French Direction Nationale du Renseignement et des Enquêtes Douanières and the Italian Guardia di Finanza, localised and intercepted a merchant vessel flying the flag of Panama. The ship was subsequently escorted to the port of Almeria, where a thorough search revealed the illegal cargo of 19.6 tonnes of hashish. The crew (11 Ukrainians and 1 Uzbek) were arrested and the shipment was seized.
Another notable success was obtained in the second half of 2015, when four cargo ships carrying over 61 tonnes of cannabis resin were interdicted in Palermo, Malaga, Cagliari and again Palermo, and 46 crew members – Turkish, Syrian, Indian, Ukrainian and Georgian nationals were arrested.
JOT ‘Rose of the Winds’ embraces and enhances the effectiveness of the international investigations launched between 2013 and 2015 by Italian Guardia di Finanza and D.C.S.A., Spanish Guardia Civil, French Direction Centrale de Police Judiciaire - Office central pour la répression du trafic illicite des stupéfiants (L'O.C.R.T.I.S.) and Centre de coordination et de lutte anti-drogue en Méditerranée, the Hellenic Coast Guard and Europol. An impressive series of multi-tonne drug loads have been intercepted before reaching wholesale distribution hubs, consequently safeguarding the final destination countries and optimising the resources they devote against the drug trade.
The investigations also revealed a poly-crime involvement of the transnational organised crime networks active in large-scale drug trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea. Namely, concrete links with facilitation of irregular migration and cocaine trafficking have been ascertained. There is also convincing intelligence suggesting links to firearms trafficking. In addition, the routes used, the financial flows and the nationalities of the perpetrators suggest that at least some of the huge revenues generated may be destined to finance the activities of terrorist groups or their associates.
The modern multilateral police cooperation in place follows a multidisciplinary model that pools and synergises resources, expertise and strengths. The JOT acts as a permanent virtual team that genuinely shares developments and new leads in real time and, when necessary, convenes on short notices and on the crime scene. Without such combined efforts, the identification and targeting of the organised criminal structures and their top components running transnational poly-criminal enterprises would be impossible.
Furthermore, various other competent authorities from EU Member States and third countries have been engaged. In certain cases, they were provided with noteworthy intelligence and leads pertaining to linked organised criminal groups and associates based in those countries, with the aim of triggering further investigations.