Balkan cartel’s European ‘cocaine pipeline’ busted

Law enforcement agencies from eight countries have smashed a drug-trafficking organisation run by Balkan gangsters and Colombian cocaine suppliers who laundered the money via football transfers.

Europol, which coordinated the efforts of eight national police forces in an investigation that stretched across three years, described the network as Europe’s largest cocaine-smuggling organisation.  

A total of 61 arrests were made and four tonnes of cocaine seized, as well as 2.7 tonnes of cannabis, smaller quantities of heroin and amphetamines, firearms and €6m in cash. “It was flooding Europe with cocaine,” a statement by Europol said.

The Balkan drug cartel was made up largely of individuals from Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro and included paramilitary elements and a serving police officer.  

It was busted in Spain in March, with 13 arrests made as a shipment of cocaine was received near the coast of Catalonia.

Europol said that those arrested included two criminal “kingpins”. 

In Colombia, the gang was involved in transfers of football players between clubs to launder their illicit drug gains. 

In a follow-up operation in May, 48 other members of the organised criminal group were charged in Slovenia for their involvement in the distribution of the cocaine and marijuana throughout Europe.

Europol described the cooperation between investigators from Spain, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, the US and Colombia as “unprecedented”. The delay in releasing the information was due to the need to require approval from many different agencies, it explained.

Spanish police first raided a sailboat with more than a tonne of cocaine in 2018, but were unable to connect the shipment with the suspected Balkan cartel chiefs.

In 2019 Spanish police identified a suspected cartel leader from Montenegro based in Málaga, but who travelled to meetings in several cities in Spain, as well as other countries in Europe and Latin America.

The ultimate leader of the organisation is said by Spanish police to be based in Dubai.

“The most notable feature of the group was its significant economic muscle and lack of roots, which allowed all its members to settle in different countries, make trips to hold meetings and enjoy an extraordinarily high standard of living,” Spain’s National Police said.

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