Operation Desert Light: Europol take down massive cocaine ‘super cartel’

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UK
Spanish police standing in a flatPolice handout

A drug “super cartel” that controlled about a third of Europe’s cocaine supply has been dismantled, police have announced.

Dubbed Operation Desert Light, 49 people were arrested across six European countries, the EU’s police agency, Europol, said.

They included a British national, who is suspected of heading the operation.

Over 30 tonnes (30,000kg) of drugs were seized during the two-year-long investigation, Europol said.

Operation Desert Light saw authorities in Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) work together to bring down the cartel, Europol said in a statement.

Those arrested included six “high-value targets” – those most wanted by international police.

Europol said the “drugpins” had formed a “prolific criminal network involved in large-scale drugs trafficking and money laundering.”

It added that the scale of the drug operation was “massive”.

It is the latest in a series of police efforts to hack encrypted phones used by organised crime networks to traffic drugs and launder money.

Cocaine imported from South America via the Netherlands was the main focus of the investigation, and most of the arrests were made there in 2021.

The others were made earlier this month, between 8-19 November, during coordinated raids across the other six countries, Europol said.

A video posted to the agency’s YouTube page showed teams of investigators and sniffer dogs searching homes filled with luxury cars, although it is unclear if any assets were seized during the arrests.

The British man suspected of heading the “super cartel” had fled to Dubai after earlier avoiding arrest in Spain, the country’s Guardia Civil said in a statement.

He allegedly continued to lead the cartel from the UAE.

An anonymous Europol source told the AFP news agency that another “big fish” Dutch suspect, with alleged links to high-profile Dutch crime boss Ridouan Taghi, was also detained.

Dutch prosecutors said they would request the extradition of the suspects from the UAE who now face large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

Analysts say data from the past decade suggests access to cocaine in Europe is increasing yearly.

Offences related to cocaine use or possession are also rising, with an estimated 3.5 million adults consuming the drug in the past year.

Earlier this month, police in Spain conducted a series of raids that resulted in the discovery of the largest haul of cannabis ever found.

The packaged marijuana found was equivalent to approximately 1.1 million plants.

A leading expert in drug policy suggested the operation was “unlikely to have a significant impact on the cocaine market in Europe”.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of charity Release, which supports the decriminalisation and regulation of illegal drugs, said it was a “resilient market”.

She said the 2020 international policing operation that brought down EncroChat, a mobile network and maker of modified smartphones used by organised crime groups, led to the seizure of 20 tonnes of drugs in the UK.

“At the time, this was described this as ‘the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime’,” Ms Eastwood told the BBC. “However, cocaine and other drugs continued be easily available across the country.”

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