Smuggling network up in smoke: seven arrested in Spain

26 October 2021
News Article
Press Release/News
Moroccan and Malian nationals apprehended after using former tobacco smuggling routes to facilitate illegal immigration between Spain and France

A joint investigation by Spain’s Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and the French National Gendarmerie (Gendarmerie Nationale), supported by Europol, led officers to dismantle an organised crime group involved in migrant smuggling. The group is believed to have facilitated secondary movements, which is the process of moving irregular migrants from their country of arrival to another destination within the European Union. Incidence of secondary movements is growing, with new organised criminal groups forming in Europe’s transit cities in order to exploit irregular migrants.

Results from 14 and 15 October 2021

  • Simultaneous raids in Spanish cities of Bilbao and Pamplona
  • 2 house searches conducted in Navarra, Spain
  • 7 arrests (6 Moroccan nationals, 1 Malian national), including the group’s three-person leadership

New criminal uses for historic tobacco smuggling routes

The organised crime group would firstly seek newly-arrived irregular migrants in southern and eastern Spanish coastal areas such as Murcia, Alicante, Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, Navarra and Barcelona. The migrants arrived by boat from destinations in North and West Africa. Those irregular migrants would then be taken by road to France via former tobacco smuggling routes in Guipuzcoa and Navarra. The main destination point from there would be Bordeaux, France, with the organised crime group facilitating further illegal immigration from Bordeaux to countries across the European Union. 

The criminal group used at least two vehicles to cross the borders. The first transported the irregular migrants, while the second acted as a scout to warn in advance of possible police checkpoints. The suspects instructed the migrants to step out of the car and pretend to hitchhike in case of police checks. Using historic tobacco smuggling routes between Spain and France, the group was operating for about six months. The criminals charged between €100 and €330 for each border crossing. The investigation suggests that they have facilitated at least 60 border-crossings, with three to four migrants per transit.

Europol facilitated the information exchange and provided analytical assistance during the investigation. During the action days, Europol deployed an expert to Pamplona, Spain, to provide operational, analytical and technical support to officers on the ground. 

The investigation was developed under the umbrella of EMPACT’s Joint Operational Team Dunquett. This project seeks to disrupt migrant smuggling networks active in Europe’s Atlantic coast. 

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In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle 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. Facilitation of Illegal Immigration is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle. From 2022, the mechanism becomes permanent under the name EMPACT 2022+.