Dubai arrest in $1bn cocaine gang raids across Europe

Twenty people arrested after five-year investigation to break up Albanian Kompania Bello criminal syndicate

Raids were conducted across 10 countries as part of Operation Los Blancos in the early hours of Tuesday. Courtesy: Eurojust
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A five-year investigation to break up Albania's Kompania Bello drugs gang has resulted in 20 people being arrested in connection with murders and cocaine trafficking.

One person was arrested in Dubai on Tuesday as raids took place across 10 countries as part of Operation Los Blancos .

Dubai Police said Denis Matoshi, a member of the criminal group, helped smuggle hundreds of tonnes of drugs to Europe through sea ports.

“A team of elite officers from the Wanted People Department at Dubai Police was immediately assigned to the task after exchanging necessary information with the Italian authorities and Interpol,” said Maj Gen Khalil Al Mansouri, assistant commander-in-chief for Criminal Investigation Affairs.

The team placed the suspect under close surveillance for several days until they received the Interpol notice against him.

“Our officers, aided by the Criminal Data Analysis Centre at Dubai Police, located the suspect and arrested him in Dubai,” said Maj Gen Al Mansouri.

Matoshi will be handed over to Italian Interpol after his extradition warrant is processed and he faced prosecutors in Dubai.

It is one of a series of international operations that Dubai Police have been involved in.

Last December, it helped with the arrest of Dutch crime lord Ridouan Taghi.

Hundreds of officers have taken part in the raids, which were led by police in Italy, to capture members of a "highly professional criminal syndicate", Europol said.

The cocaine was smuggled across European borders concealed in vehicles equipped with sophisticated hidden compartments

More than four tonnes of cocaine estimated at $1bn (Dh3.67bn) and €5.5 million (Dh23.82m) in cash had been seized over the course of the investigation.

The gang was using vehicles with hidden compartments to smuggle the drugs through borders across Europe.

Officials say that the ringleader is a 40-year-old Albanian man living in Ecuador.

Five people have been arrested in Italy, five in Albania, two in the Netherlands, two in Germany, one in Romania, one in Hungary, one in Spain and one in Dubai.

The suspects have been placed in pre-trial detention for international narcotic substances trafficking, illegal possession and distribution of drugs and brutal assaults, including murder.

Eurojust describes the operation as the largest of its kind against an Albanian-speaking organised crime gang, and says it is the result of a Joint Investigation Team with the participation of Italy and The Netherlands working closely together for five years.

"For years, international importers of cocaine worked separately from the wholesalers and the gangs distributing the drug on the streets," Eurojust said.

"In this case, the Albanian-speaking network under investigation ditched the entire model and controlled the whole chain – from arranging huge shipments directly from South America to distribution all across Europe.

"Using sophisticated encrypted communication means, the organisation’s ringleader – a 40-year-old Albanian based in Ecuador – negotiated directly with the South American drug cartels, arranged huge shipments of cocaine to the major ports of Europe and, with the help of accomplices based in Italy, the Netherlands and Albania, organised distribution throughout Europe.

"The cocaine was smuggled across European borders concealed in vehicles equipped with sophisticated hidden compartments."

More than 80 people have already been arrested from the group in Italy, Ecuador, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany.

The criminals laundered their proceeds using an underground alternative remittance method of Chinese origin, known as the fei ch'ien system.

"Much like the Islamic hawala transfer system, people using the fei ch'ien deposit a sum in a network 'agency' in one country," Eurojust said.

"Another operator withdraws the equivalent amount elsewhere in the world and passes it on to the intended recipient. Leaving not a trace of tell-tale evidence for law enforcement investigators, the network is believed to have laundered millions of euros through this system."

The investigation was launched in 2015 by the Italian State Police, under the direction of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Florence.

A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was set up between Italy and the Netherlands with the assistance and financing of Eurojust and Europol.