A highly professional and dangerous international organised crime group was dismantled last week after a complex investigation carried out in the framework of a Joint Operational Task Force, established at Europol, between the Lithuanian Criminal Police Bureau, the British HM Revenue and Customs, the Polish Police Central Bureau of Investigation, the Estonian Central Criminal Police under the Police and Border Guard Board and the Spanish Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional.
The operation, code-named ‘Icebreaker’, is the biggest of its kind to date in Europe against such an organised crime group, comprising nationals of Lithuania and other EU countries, involved in large-scale drug and cigarette trafficking, assassinations and money laundering. Over 450 police and customs officers, including special interventions units, in Poland, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and Spain carried out coordinated raids targeting the members of this long term existing, highly professional and dangerous criminal network in the early hours of 15 and 16 May with the support of Europol and Eurojust.
As a result, the suspected ringleader – a 48 year old Lithuanian national, was arrested in Spain. A further 21 suspects were detained in Poland, Lithuania, Spain and the United Kingdom. 40 house searches took place, resulting in the seizure of €8 million in cash, diamonds, gold bars, jewellery and luxury vehicles, as well as the discovery of hidden compartments used to smuggle drugs and psychotropic substances. A substantial quantity of illicit cigarettes was also seized.
The magnitude of the damage caused by this organised crime group is significant: it is believed that these criminals acquired an estimated €680 million as a result of their criminal activities for the period 2017-2019 alone. This criminal group would traffic drugs and cigarettes into the UK, before smuggling the illegally obtained cash to Poland by different means. The money was then laundered via currency exchange offices and subsequently invested in real estate in Spain and other countries. The leaders and members of this crime group used counter surveillance and counter intelligence measures to try to evade law enforcement authorities, as well as specialised encrypted communication devices.
Unprecedented international police and judiciary cooperation
Operation ‘Icebreaker’, coordinated at the international level by Europol and Eurojust, was the culmination of many months of meticulous planning between law enforcement and prosecuting agencies to prepare for the action.
Initiated by the Lithuanian authorities in 2016, the investigation was then referred to Estonia, Poland and Europol to help to gather evidence against top-level members of this network. The investigation was then rapidly extended to the United Kingdom and Spain after criminal links were established in all these countries.
The creation of an Operational Task Force between all five countries and Europol in November 2018 had a catalytic effect on the scale and the intensity of the investigation, facilitating the development of a joint strategy to target the whole network. It led to carrying out one of the largest covert police operations recently against an organized crime group.
Due to the demanding investigative measures run on an international level, Joint Investigation Teams (JIT) were set up between the cooperating countries with the assistance of Eurojust.
This smooth cooperation across borders was mirrored on the field during the action days. 3 Europol experts were deployed to Lithuania and Poland to provide tailor-made operational support. Police officers from Lithuania, Spain and Poland were also deployed on-the-spot in the participating Member States in order to facilitate in real-time the exchange of information between their national authorities.
During the joint action days, Europol coordination allowed law enforcement and judicial authorities in the field to follow the action in real time, whilst making possible the swift analysis of new data as it was being collected during the action and adjusting the strategy as required.
The Operational Task Force established at Europol provided a platform for law enforcement from different countries to work directly together on this case and systematically exchange operational information. Building on this, investigators were able to deploy new and advanced special tactics on the field to effectively identify and apprehend the suspects.
Europol and Eurojust played a pivotal role in bringing together all the involved countries, ensuring the coordination of the investigations as well as analysis and other operational support.