Europol report on criminal networks: Serbia is a hub for the modification of stolen vehicles, Albanians are „key figures“ in the drug trade, active in robberies, smuggling weapons

FOTO: FB/Europol

Europol – European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, published a report on the most dangerous European criminal networks and the consequences of their activities on European soil. Drug trafficking, organized property crime, smuggling of goods, and trafficking of human beings are the main „activities“ of more than 800 criminal networks identified by Europol. In these networks, the dominant role is played by criminals from the European Union, but from the Western Balkans as well.

While Serbia is defined as a hub for „the modification of stolen vehicles to give them a new identity and sell them further on“, in several places in this 60-page long report, Albanians are identified as „key figures“ in criminal networks that are mainly active in the cocaine, heroin, and cannabis trade, as well as active players in other forms of crime.

Also, according to the report, multi-national criminal groups from the Western Balkans, are often centered around Serbian nationals.

Published as part of the European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2021, the report sheds light “on the pervasive threat posed by criminal networks to the internal security of EU Member States.”

Titled „Identifying the Most Threatening Criminal Networks,“ this report marks the first comprehensive analysis of the characteristics that render certain criminal actors exceptionally dangerous.

“At the heart of the report lies a recognition of the evolving nature of criminal networks in today’s interconnected world.”

The concept of a „criminal network“ encompasses a diverse array of associations, ranging from tightly-knit groups to individuals operating on the fringes of organised crime. By dissecting the key characteristics of these networks, the report provides invaluable insights for policymakers and law enforcement agencies striving to stay ahead of the curve in the fight against organised crime.

“In an environment characterized by fluid cooperation and profit-driven motives, these networks operate with unprecedented sophistication and resilience,” the report underlines.

According to the EU, the “groundbreaking report” released by Europol is a significant step forward in understanding and combating serious and organized crime.

“By delving deep into the modus operandi and core capabilities of these networks, law enforcement agencies aim to bolster their efforts in the relentless fight against organised crime across the European Union,” the report states.

“Backed by initiatives from EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers and the Belgian Presidency of the EU Council, the report represents a significant milestone in the EU’s ongoing efforts to combat drug trafficking and organised crime. By complementing existing assessments with a detailed analysis of criminal actors, the report sets the stage for a more targeted and effective approach to tackling the most pressing challenges facing European law enforcement agencies.”

The findings of this report will inform the development of operational strategies aimed at dismantling high-risk criminal networks.

This report decodes the ABCD of the most threatening criminal networks and assesses what makes these networks most threatening – they are Agile, Borderless, Controlling and Destructive.

Key members from the Western Balkans as well

The report identified a total of 821 most threatening criminal networks active in the EU.

Out of this number, 295 (36%) are engaged in drug trafficking, and of this number, 147 (50%) deal with other types of crime in addition to drug trafficking; of the total number, 18% are criminal organizations that deal with multiple types of crime; 48 (6%) organizations deal with migrant smuggling; 63 organizations (8%) deal with organized property crime; 36 organizations (4%) are engaged in human trafficking; 9 organizations with cybercrime (1%); 85 organizations (11%) are involved in some other type of crime.

According to estimates, 76% oare active in two to seven countries simultaneously. With over 25,000 individuals identified, they are of 112 different nationalities.

A total of 68% of criminal networks have members of multiple nationalities. The main nationalities are Albania, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Poland, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. Most criminal networks are made up of EU and non-EU nationals.

There are criminal networks that are made up of individuals, that is, key members who come from neighboring countries.

“They join forces on criminal projects capitalizing on regional opportunities.”

Belgo-Dutch criminal networks are identified as distinct groups. The elements that connect them are a common language, proximity , and good road infrastructure between relevant locations (such as the port of Antwerp and Rotterdam).

Several key members of these criminal networks of Belgian or Dutch nationality come from other countries, mainly Morocco and Turkey, but they include „key members“ of other nationalities such as Albanians, British, Italians, Moroccans , and Turks, the report added.

These networks are mainly active in the cocaine trade and to a lesser extent in the cannabis trade and money laundering. They are present in more than 40 countries, with main operations in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain in the EU and the United Arab Emirates outside the EU.

Among the groups composed of multiple nationalities, various groups are bound by common origin. They are bound together by a common culture, language, and history.

“These groups often operate within EU Member States while maintaining close links to their regions of origin outside the EU.”

According to Europol, these networks often combine membership from various Western Balkan countries and are often centered around Serbian nationals.

“They include Albanian, Belgian, Bosnian, Croatian, Dutch, German, Montenegrin, Slovenian and Turkish nationals. Their main criminal activity is drug trafficking, primarily cocaine and cannabis, and to a lesser extent synthetic drugs and heroin. They also engage in organised property crime, tobacco smuggling and THB for sexual exploitation. They primarily operate in Belgium, Colombia, Croatia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Western Balkan countries. For some criminal networks, there are no distinct patterns in terms of nationality composition.”

Albanians dominate

Next to these, criminal networks composed of one non-EU nationality originate mostly from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Georgia, Iceland, Nigeria, Serbia, Türkiye, the United Kingdom and Ukraine.

In this report, Albanians are highlighted as members or as key figures in various profiles of the activities of these networks.

Albanians have been identified as „key figures“ in criminal networks that are mainly active in the trade of cocaine, heroin, and cannabis, mainly in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands , and Spain.

Outside the EU, they mostly „do business“ in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador , and their home country of Albania.

“A criminal network active in heroin and cocaine trafficking and money laundering across Europe was taken down by law enforcement. The network has a family-like structure tied together by common nationality, composed mainly of Albanian and dual Albanian nationals. The criminal network smuggles drugs in containers into Belgium. The drugs are then moved to Germany in vehicles equipped with sophisticated hidden compartments, and from there distributed throughout Europe,” one case example reveals.

Criminal networks centered on Albanians consist either of exclusively Albanian nationals or of Albanians combined with nationalities such as Belgians, Dutch, French, Greeks, Italians , and Serbs. The report states that in more than half of these criminal networks, Albanians are the dominant group.

They are active in drug, and firearms trafficking, robbery, and migrant smuggling. They operate in a large number of EU member states and third countries such as Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Latin American countries.

“The leader of a criminal network, an Italian businessman of Argentinian origin residing in Marbella, uses his companies to conceal both drug trafficking and money laundering activities. He manages several companies, including one importing bananas from Ecuador to the EU. He also owns sports centres in Marbella, commercial centres in Granada and multiple bars and restaurants. An Albanian accomplice, based in Ecuador, takes care of the import of cocaine from Colombia to Ecuador and the subsequent distribution to the EU. Ecuadorian fruit companies are used as a front for these criminal activities,” the report cited as an example.

Trgovina - transport droge Europol
FOTO: Europol
Criminal networks in the Western Balkans with a strong presence in Latin America, criminals from Latin America do not have a significant influence on the European market

The report also mentions several different criminal networks in the Western Balkans, composed of members originating from the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, involved in the large-scale trafficking, including financing and distribution, of cocaine from South America to various European destinations, and beyond.

They are characterized by a powerful presence throughout the EU and in the Western Balkan region.

“They have also established very strong presence in Latin America by exploiting corruption opportunities in and around key ports and in shipping companies. They thus exercise end-to-end control over the supply of cocaine. Some of these groups are also specialised and/or heavily involved in excessive violence, professional kidnappings and executions, corruption, money laundering, trafficking of weapons and explosives , and forged documents. Violence is mainly used as retaliation for lost or un-finalised drug shipments, but also to gain dominance over the territory or the supply chain.”

The number of criminal networks with a Latin American national is limited in the EU despite the high occurrence of drug trafficking networks.

Their main activity is cocaine trafficking and the main countries of activity are Belgium, Colombia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Cocaine trafficking brings these members together, with shared language and history as additional uniting factors for Latin American, Portuguese, and Spanish nationals. Only 1 out of 10 criminal networks include a national of a Latin American country. The main nationalities are Brazilian and Colombian, along with a handful of nationals from Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guinea, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. These networks are often led by key members from Albania, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal , and Spain.

“The low number of criminal networks with key members from Latin America and the Caribbean indicates that criminals from these regions currently do not exert significant influence on EU criminal markets.”

The cocaine trafficking network may be dominated by nationals from Albania, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, and Turkey.

The most represented nationalities in cocaine trafficking networks are Albanians, Belgians, Dutch, Italians, and Spaniards. When it comes to the cannabis trade, the most often involved are Albanian, Belgian, Dutch, German, Spanish, and Turkish members.

It is precisely the criminal networks that deal with the trade, that is, the distribution of drugs, that are marked as the most dangerous, and the EU members in which these criminal activities are carried out are marked as the most dominant: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. When it comes to countries outside the EU, they are: Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the United Kingdom.

Serbia is a hub for the modification of stolen vehicles

Europol also identified 73 of the most threatening criminal networks engage in organised property crime, mainly in burglaries and thefts (33) and motor vehicle crime (19), as their sole main activity.

The countries most affected by networks committing burglaries and thefts are France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain. The most represented nationalities in these networks are Croatian, Georgian, Italian and, Romanian. The networks are described as either clan/family-based mobile organised crime groups, or as Thieves in Law.

They usually have full control over the criminal process. Some are also active in other types of property crime, in forcing victims into criminality (THB) or in drug trafficking. Alongside the leader, the role of a scouter is considered critical in many of these networks.

The countries most affected by motor vehicle crime networks are Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Serbia.

“Serbia appears to be a hub for the modification of stolen vehicles to give them a new identity and sell them further on.”

These networks are often composed of nationals from Germany, Italy, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. The networks are usually hierarchical with a clear division of tasks and end-to-end control over the criminal process.

Organizovani kriminal Europol
FOTO: Europol
Up to 20,000 euros per migrant

Organized crime of trafficking in human beings, including migrants, was highlighted as a special problem. Nine such networks have been identified. Their job is to facilitate the entry and secondary movements of migrants into the EU.

“Migrants pay enormous sums to the smugglers to enter the EU clandestinely and move on to further destinations within its borders. The entire journey from the country of origin to the EU costs between EUR 15 000 and 20 000. The criminals advertise their illicit activities on various social media platforms to lure migrants, also by posting videos of successful transports. Migrants are moved along two main routes, either from Croatia via Slovenia to Italy, or from Serbia via Hungary to Austria.”

In conclusion, the so-called „ground-breaking“ Europol report on Europe’s most dangerous criminal networks, states that it represents a significant milestone in the fight against organized crime.

By providing a comprehensive understanding of the threats posed by these most dangerous criminal networks, the report provides law enforcement agencies and policymakers with the tools needed to effectively combat organized crime.

As Europe continues to face the challenges of a rapidly evolving nature of criminal networks, the insights contained in this report will be key to shaping strategies for a safer and more secure future, reads one of the report’s conclusions.

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