Underground drug-money bank shut down

Belgium’s Federal Judicial Police Leuven, in collaboration with Spain’s Guardia Civil and with Europol’s assistance, has disrupted a large-scale money laundering and underground banking system. This has led to the arrest of five suspects in Belgium, one suspect in Spain and the seizure of various assets, including EUR 1.2 million in cryptocurrencies, three real estate properties and EUR 50,000 in cash. The criminal network involved Moroccan, Spanish and Belgian nationals and had laundered at least EUR 180 million in illicit profits generated by cocaine trafficking.

The criminal network was active in Belgium and had extended its operations to the Netherlands, Spain, South America and Dubai. The organisation had established a sophisticated and professional system to launder profits from cocaine imports into the EU via ports and airports. It relied on investments in cryptocurrencies and an underground banking system for cash distribution. The criminals had evaded authorities using a professional and flexible approach, including cover companies and contact persons at entry points, until the decryption of the SKY ECC network by law enforcement.

The investigation began in October 2021 after analysing decrypted SKY ECC messages which indicated the presence of a large-scale criminal network importing cocaine and laundering illicit profits. The investigation revealed that the criminal network had trafficked large quantities of cocaine from South American ports to several maritime ports and airports in Europe. They had succeeded in importing several tonnes of cocaine and selling it on for a massive profit.

Europol provided analytical and operational support since March 2022, confirming links with other countries and identifying new connections. An Operational Task Force was established to combat criminal organisations operating as underground banks, financing criminal activities and laundering illegal profits for other criminal organisations. On the action day in March 2023, a Joint Coordination Centre was established in Leuven, Belgium, where Europol and the Spanish Guardia Civil were deployed. Europol provided on-site support by deploying a money-laundering specialist, an analyst and a cryptocurrency specialist. The operation is a clear indication of the importance of cross-border collaboration among police forces to combat organised crime.

In conclusion, the disruption of the large-scale money laundering and underground banking system has resulted in the arrest of suspects, seizure of assets and a major blow to the criminal network involved in cocaine trafficking. The successful operation was a result of the collaborative efforts of law enforcement agencies, demonstrating the significance of cross-border cooperation to tackle organised crime.

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