Police have busted a huge drug “super cartel” that controlled a third of Europe’s cocaine trade, arresting 49 people in several countries, including six bosses from the gang’s hub in Dubai, Europol said on Monday.
The international operation codenamed “Desert Light” seized more than 30 tons of the white powder and led to arrests in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, the European Union’s police agency said.
The crackdown in Dubai brought in a “big fish” from the Netherlands, who was said to have links to alleged Dutch crime boss Ridouan Taghi, who was arrested in the Gulf emirate in 2019.
“Drug traffickers, considered high-value targets by Europol, had banded together to form what was known as a ‘supercartel’ that controlled around a third of Europe’s cocaine trade,” Europol said .
“The scale of the importation of cocaine into Europe under the control and command of the suspects was massive.”
The Dutch suspect had allegedly formed an alliance in Dubai with leaders of Irish and Italian drug gangs who were also arrested, Dutch public broadcaster NOS said.
A video released by Europol showed officers, including some from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Spain’s Civil Guard, arresting suspects and seizing luxury cars and hidden stashes of cash.
– “Extremely large fish” –
Dubai arrested two “high value” suspects who are linked to France, two linked to the Netherlands and another two linked to Spain, Europol said.
Europol spokesman Jan Op Gen Oorth said it was a “text example of an international operation against the most dangerous organized crime groups”.
“The Emirates was a safe haven for criminals… but this time it’s over,” he told AFP in The Hague. “We have excellent cooperation with the Dubai Police, so criminals have to find a different place to hide.”
Seizing 30 tonnes of cocaine in one go would have a “huge impact”, he said. European authorities had seized 240 tonnes in total across the continent in 2021, he added.
Ten people were arrested in Belgium, six in France and 13 in Spain during the operation from 8 to 19 November. Another 14 people were arrested in the Netherlands in the same operation last year, Europol said.
They are the latest in a series of arrests across Europe following a police hack of sophisticated encrypted phones used by organized crime networks last year, Europol said.
Most of the cocaine came from South America through the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, although some had passed through South Africa.
Dutch prosecutors said they would seek the extradition of the two Dutch nationals detained in Dubai.
One of them is a 40-year-old Dutch-Bosnian national, named by Dutch media as Edin G., who was reportedly wanted by the US DEA for his links to Ridouan Taghi.
Taghi, of Moroccan origin, was arrested in Dubai in 2019. He is now on trial in the Netherlands for murder and running a large cocaine smuggling ring based in Amsterdam.
The other suspect is a Dutchman and a 37-year-old Moroccan, whom Dutch media named Zouhair B..
“One of the Dutch suspects is an extremely big fish,” a Europol source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He was just as important as Taghi, if not more important.”
– “Torture and barbarism” –
Two Belgian-Moroccans in their 40s suspected of amassing “enormous wealth” running a Dubai-based cocaine-trafficking network in France were among those arrested, a French judicial source told AFP.
The investigation revealed “barbaric methods, of extreme violence,” with “acts of torture and barbarism” practiced by armed members of the group, the source said.
Three people arrested in France were arrested for crimes including kidnapping and torture, after a gang member in Antwerp was tortured after stealing some drugs.
The Spanish Civil Guard has reported that a total of 13 people have been arrested in Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga.
The head of the smuggling operation, a British national, fled to Dubai after an attempted arrest in Spain and continued to run operations from there, it said in a statement.
The cocaine was imported from Panama to Central America and its supplier, a Panamanian, also lived in Dubai, he said.
Belgian prosecutors said the investigation had already led to raids in Antwerp in August, in which local media said around 900,000 euros had been seized.