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Major 'underground drug-money bank' taken down by European police

A view of shipping containers at the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.
A view of shipping containers at the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Copyright Yves Herman/AP
Copyright Yves Herman/AP
By Sudesh Baniya
Published on Updated
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An operation supported by the EU agency Europol has "liquidated" a criminal banking system, laundering 180 million euros from cocaine trafficking.

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A major underground criminal network was taken down in a cross-border investigation, Europol said on Thursday. 

The large-scale money laundering and banking system raked in 180 million euros in illegal profits from cocaine tracking, according to the EU agency.   

A joint investigation, carried out by Belgian and Spanish law enforcement and supported by Europol, arrested six suspects in March 2023. 

Five were arrested in Belgium while another arrest was made in Spain in a coordinated action day earlier this year. 

The operation has led to the seizure of 1.2 million euros worth of cryptocurrencies, several real estate properties and luxury items, such as jewellery and watches, that were acquired through selling illegal drugs. 

The underground network, consisting of Moroccan, Spanish, and Belgian nationals, had set up a complex, highly-professional system to "clean" illicit profits earned by importing cocaine through Europe's ports and airports. 

Dirty money was invested into opulent real estate in the EU, as well as several Moroccan cities.  

It was active in Belgium and had branched out to the Netherlands, Spain, South America and Dubai. 

The European policing agency started to look into the case in October 2021 after decrypting messages that hinted at the presence of an extensive criminal network in Europe.

Their investigation revealed that large amounts of cocaine were being trafficked from various South American countries to several maritime ports and airports in the region, with the network using "contact persons" at the entry points.  

Several tonnes of cocaine were sold for a "massive profit", with the criminals managing to evade the authorities until their messages on the SKY ECC network were cracked, according to Europol. 

The European law enforcement agency previously supported taking down of a cocaine cartel in March following a six-country bust to arrest several "high-value" targets. 

Despite increasing anti-drug intervention, the illicit drug market in Europe has continued to grow with Belgium emerging as a major port for traffickers.

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