Spanish police have arrested 83 people, including 28 professional tennis players, suspected of gaining millions of euros by fixing professional matches, Europol revealed on Thursday.
"An organised crime group involved in manipulating professional tennis competitions was dismantled in an operation led by the Spanish Civil Guard and coordinated by the National High Court of Spain," Europol said in a statement.
"In total 83 suspects were arrested, 28 of them are professional players," it added.
The Civil Guard confirmed to Euronews that of those 83 people, so far 15 people had been detained while the other 68 remain under investigation.
It added one of those arrested was Spanish tennis player Marc Fornell-Mestres, 36, who was suspended from professional tennis last month by the Tennis Integrity Unit, the sport's anti-corruption body.
Spanish authorities raided 11 houses, seizing €167,000 in cash, a shotgun as well as five luxury vehicles and froze 42 bank accounts and their balances, according to the statement.
The identities of the other players have not been revealed but Europol added that one of them had taken part in the last US Open.
'Armenian criminal network'
The operation started in 2017 after the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) flagged irregular activities related to pre-arranged matches in the ITF Futures and Challenger tournaments which are lower-tier competitions allowing players to earn sufficient ranking points to become eligible for the main draw in the top tier ATP World Tour.
The suspects, part of "a criminal group of Armenian individuals," are believed to have bribed professional players to ensure pre-determined results.
They did so using a professional player who acted as a link between the gang and the rest of the group. Members of the gang would then attend matches "to ensure that the tennis players complied with what was previously agreed" before national and international bets would be placed using the identities of thousands of citizens.
During the raids, which were all carried out on the same day, Spanish police also seized 50 electronic devices, credits cards and documentation related to the case.
The Civil Guard said in a statement on Thursday that its "officers have proved the group had been operating since February 2017 and estimate that they had earned millions of euros through the operation."
It added that officers were able to "unravel the complex web" woven by the criminal network by focusing their investigation "on a Spanish tennis player" who was later named as Marc Fornell-Mestres.
The athlete was provisionally suspended from professional tennis on December 31 over "an investigation by the Tennis Integrity Unit into alleged breaches of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program," the TIU said at the time.
He was ranked 1,007th in singles at the end of 2018. His career-best ranking was 236th in November 2007.
The operation was carried out by the Economic Crimes Team with Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, providing analytical support and deploying three experts to assist in real-time cross-checks, IT forensic support, and data analysis.
Charges so far include fraud, money laundering, illegal possession of weapons, and identity theft.
At least 264 match alerts flagged
News of the arrests comes just a day after the TIU revealed in its annual report that in 2018 it sanctioned more players for violating anti-corruption rules than at any other time in its 10-year history.
As many as 21 individuals, including players and umpires, were disciplined for match-fixing or betting offences. Eight of them were handed lifetime bans.
In total, 264 match alerts were flagged to the TIU in 2018 — an increase on the previous year (241) but lower than in 2016 (292).
The report highlighted that a vast majority of the alerts were received from the lower levels of men's tennis with the ITF Men's Futures responsible for 163 alerts. The four Grand Slams produced a combined total of three alerts and the main ATP and WTA Tours were responsible for five and three alerts respectively.
In a statement to Euronews, the TIU confirmed that it "has, and continues to support the Guardia Civil investigation into alleged tennis match-fixing offences."