Europol report identifies more than 800 criminal networks in EU

Europe AFPFile

The Hague-based crime-fighting body Europol has mapped 821 of the EU's "most threatening networks" involving some 50,000 people engaged in drug trafficking, fraud, migrant smuggling, human trafficking and organised property crime.

For the first time in history, Europol has gathered the information into one data centre for the judicial authorities of all 27 EU member states to access.

The result of the 12-month investigation commissioned by Brussels was presented in a 59-page report.

"Until now, every country had its own criminal oversight," Belgian Justice Minister Paul van Tigchelt told a press conference on Friday.

"Now for the first time, we have a European oversight. A network of specialised prosecutors will be put in place on a EU level, which will use the mapping to coordinate their actions."

Transnational operations

The main findings of the report have revealed that 821 "most threatening networks" are active across the EU.

"They commit crimes for profit and are able to operate in different countries simultaneously," according to Catherine de Bolle, executive director of Europol, which was founded in 1993 as the "Europol Drugs Unit (EDU)".

Gangs are active in fields ranging from drug trafficking to fraud, property crime, migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

They're hard to get, as most of them operate semi-legally, and manage to remain under the police radar.

According to the report, 86 percent of the gangs make use of legal business structures. They Infiltrate companies at a high level, or they set up their own legal business structures, most often within the European Union.

'Under the radar'

Sectors most vulnerable to infiltration are construction, the hospitality industry and logistics.

"These structures are used to launder money, done through real estate and cash intensive businesses. While they are expanding in these legal sectors, they can stay under the radar for periods longer than ten years," de Bolle said.

Annelies Verlinden, Belgium's minister of home affairs, has identified the illegal drug market as "one of the main sources of violence within the EU" and one of the main sources of income for criminal organisations.

Actions have become "more visible", threatening the safety of EU citizens, while more minors were being drawn into the networks. Half of the drug gangs were involved in cocaine trafficking.

De Bolle said information on which gangs were active, and the names and locations of leaders and members were not in the public version of the report.

But Van Tigchelt revealed that in Belgium, the "Mocro maffia" drug traficking gang, is one of the most active groups.

It consists of Belgian and Dutch Moroccans and is controlled from Spain, the UAE and Morocco.

The Albanian mafia is also well represented, Van Tigchelt said, adding that Albanian was the language most used in Sky ECC messages, the encrypted messaging app that was infiltrated by law enforcement and taken down in 2021.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johanson added that last year, there were 350 shootings in Sweden alone and 700 arrests related to drug raids in France.

"Gangs are resilient, and able to maintain business even if the leaders are in prison. Gangs have end-to-end control. So we need an end-to-end police organisation," she said.

Previous reports 'incomplete'

While Europol has in the past published "Serious and Organised Crime Assessments" (Socta), they "remained incomplete" without much detail on the intentions and capabilities of the key players behind the crimes, Johanson said.

That's changed now, and the new report will serve as a stepping stone to "dismantle entire criminal networks."

Preceding Interpol's efforts, EU law enforcement already got a stronger mandate on the use of "e-evidence" – including checking emails, text messages or content from messaging apps, audiovisual content and information about a user's online account – to fight gangs, as "85 percent of criminal investigations involve digital data", according to an EU brief.

On 24 January, the European Commission launched the European port alliance aimed at strengthening security in all EU ports to fight drug trafficking and organised crime.

According to an EU factsheet, some 70 percent of all drug seizures made by customs take place at EU ports. Customs authorities seized 500 tonnes of drugs in 2023, more than half of which was cocaine.