A drugs cartel believed to control up to a third of Europe's cocaine trade was taken down in a six-country bust, with 30 tonnes of drugs seized, Europol said on Monday.
The European policing agency had helped co-ordinate the takedown, with police arresting a total of 49 suspects in raids in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Arab Emirates with help from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, over the space of 11 days in November.
At least six high-value targets of what Europol dubbed a "super cartel" were arrested in Dubai.
The operation, dubbed "Desert Light," had been planned over a period of two years, helping authorities gain insight into what was described as a "prolific criminal network involved in large-scale drugs trafficking and money laundering".
"The scale of cocaine importation into Europe under the suspects’ control and command was massive," Europol said in a statement, adding that there is "no safe haven for drug lords".
Dutch authorities said one of the suspects arrested in Dubai allegedly imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the Netherlands in 2020 and 2021.
The 37-year-old man with dual Dutch and Moroccan citizenship is also being prosecuted for laundering large amounts of money and possession of firearms.
Police started investigating him after its officials cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, which is popular with criminals.
A 40-year-old Dutch-Bosnian citizen was also arrested in Dubai following an investigation based on intercepted Sky messages, according to Dutch police.
Dutch outlets have identified him as Edin Gačanin, aka "Tito". He is believed to have belonged to a major crime ring that sought refuge from European authorities in Dubai.
The Dubai-based criminal circle included Raffaele Imperiale, a senior member of the Italian Camorra criminal organisation.
Another notorious member of the group is Riduan Taghi, who is suspected by Dutch prosecutors of having ordered the 2021 assassination of investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries in Amsterdam.
Taghi was arrested in late 2019, while Imperiale was apprehended in 2021.
Gačanin is suspected of importing cocaine and about 8 tonnes of raw materials for the production of amphetamines into Europe through Antwerp, which were meant to be processed at a lab in the Netherlands.
Second pan-European crackdown in less than a week
The super cartel takedown comes as authorities across Europe report record cocaine busts, particularly in the Belgian port.
Earlier in November, Belgian authorities stated that the cocaine shipments intercepted at Europe's second-largest cargo port of Atwerp had created a significant backlog in its disposal, causing security concerns as tonnes of it were still waiting to be incinerated.
Just one raid in mid-October saw more than six tonnes of cocaine seized in the Belgian port, found in two shipping containers coming in from Suriname, Belgian customs revealed.
The raid was one of more than 100 large-scale trafficking busts made at the port since the start of the year, adding up to some 71 tonnes from January up to that point.
With further major busts in recent weeks, the Belgian authorities expect that the 100-tonne mark will be surpassed by the end of 2022, domestic media reported.
The Europol operation is also the second large-scale European authorities-led nab in less than a week.
On Tuesday, 11 countries carried out an operation to target one of Europe's most dangerous criminal networks, said to have been "carrying out large-scale polycriminal activities inside and outside the EU", Europol and Eurojust said in a statement last Friday.
These include drug trafficking and money laundering, they said.
"The scale of drug trafficking attributed to the network is immense, with activities reported on three continents," said Europol and Eurojust.
Around 100 searches were carried out across Europe, targeting both the heads of these criminal organisations and their associates.
The network, which is also linked to large drug trafficking organizations outside the EU, operated in Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Germany and Slovakia.
Large quantities of cocaine, hashish, cannabis and methamphetamine were seized.
"Highly flexible, these criminals were quickly adapting to new drug trafficking methods in an attempt to evade law enforcement," the two European agencies stated.