An extensive network of heroin traffickers, bringing large quantities of the drug into the EU, has been dismantled following the setting up of a joint investigation team, facilitated by Eurojust and supported by Europol.
Almost 400 suspects were arrested and 100 kg heroin was seized, along with quantities of cocaine, cannabis and cash during the course of the long running investigation. Notably, 4 tonnes of drug cutting agents were also seized, indicating the significant scale of the network’s operation. The gang, operating from their bases in Austria, Germany and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, brought heroin into the EU along the Balkan Route and distributed it across several European countries.
Several action days took place during the course of the investigation, which began in 2010, and resulted in significant operational successes by law enforcement agencies in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Law enforcement investigations resulted in arrests and convictions of the main criminal suspects who masterminded the operation, however, such was the extent of the organisation, they had the ability to rebuild their network. Hence it was the setting up of a joint investigation team that dealt the final blow to their ability to operate, culminating towards the end of this year.
The investigation focussed on a number of organised crime groups that cooperated and operated together out of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Their aims were to circulate high-quality heroin in Europe at very low prices and carry out large-scale drug trafficking, especially in Austria and Germany.
The individual members’ areas of operations were rigidly structured within a hierarchy, and members lower down knew very few other members of the group, and none of its principals.
Members were mainly recruited in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where they had the prospect of earning good money and were taken to Vienna and Frankfurt where they had strictly defined roles. These included mixing, packaging and transporting heroin from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or adulterants from the Netherlands to various countries in Europe. In fact, the organisation was characterised by its strict division of labour and well-organised procedures.
The joint investigation team set out to permanently destroy the criminal organisation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as well as its cells in Vienna and Frankfurt. The law enforcement team operated at these locations as well as in Rotterdam.
Notes for editors
The European Union is a significant market for opiates including heroin and, in recent years, organised crime engaged in the illicit trade has been characterised by increasing collaboration across national, ethnic and business boundaries. Heroin consignments destined for the EU are often not controlled by a single criminal organisation, but rather facilitated by several, increasingly cooperative organised crime groups.
Afghanistan is the primary source of heroin encountered in the EU; there is significant trafficking towards Europe of heroin that has exited Afghanistan via the borders with Pakistan and Iran, the latter offering the shortest and most direct route to Europe.
Heroin is also transported from Pakistan to European consumer countries by air, and cells of Pakistani origin traffic heroin to Europe using a variety of transportation options that enable them to react flexibly to changes in law enforcement activity.
From Iran, heroin is smuggled across the border with Turkey and reaches Europe travelling along the Balkan Route. Much of this heroin transits Bulgaria via the former Yugoslavia and Slovenia to Italy or Austria, or via the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania to Italy, or via Romania, Hungary or Ukraine to Slovakia/Czech Republic or Poland, and then to Austria or Germany.
The majority of heroin reaches the EU via Turkey. Extensive commercial trade between Eurasia and Europe and a good infrastructure of land, sea and air connections provide ample opportunity for the trafficking of heroin in which Turkey, due to its geographical position, plays a central role.
While there is growing diversification of trafficking routes toward Europe due to regional developments in politics, infrastructure and law enforcement activities, it is the Balkan routes that remain the traditional main channels into Europe. Law enforcement authorities in many countries in the region state that criminals are collaborating across ethnic lines, for example with shipping/transportation arrangements and the sharing of assets.
About one third of all organised crime groups in the EU are involved in the production and distribution of illicit drugs and its multi-billion euro drug market continues to be highly competitive and profitable for organised crime. Despite a reported moderate decline in heroin consumption levels in the EU, trafficking remains a significant threat. The value of the EU opiates market is estimated at EUR 12 billion.
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Mr Ulf Bergström
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