Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Police smash criminal ring of arms dealers moving weapons to Mena warzones

Spanish police launch raids and arrest seven over arms smuggling racket

Seven people were arrested during a Spanish-Europol operation targeting members of an arms smuggling group. Europol
Seven people were arrested during a Spanish-Europol operation targeting members of an arms smuggling group. Europol

Spanish police arrested seven suspects after breaking up an arms trafficking gang that was illegally shipping tanks to conflict zones in North Africa and the Middle East.

The gang – including Spaniards, Ukrainians and Latvians – hid the smuggled Russian-made munitions within legal consignments of weapons. They were sent by ship through the Mediterranean to conflict hot spots.

The sophisticated criminal operation stretched to springing a ship’s captain from a Greek prison after he was arrested for arms smuggling, policing organisation Europol said.

The criminals made millions of dollars from the operation selling tanks and other munitions, with the proceeds laundered through tax havens and back into legal businesses in Spain.

But the organisation came to the attention of the authorities during an internal feud over who controlled the maritime smuggling routes. The gang then split into two rival groups who proceeded to threaten each other.

Officials declined to specify the destination for the weapons owing to continuing investigations in Europe to track the money and other suspects involved.

Cargo ships were chartered by members of the gang in Spain, who sent weapons and explosives mainly to “conflict zones in North Africa and the Middle East, subject to international arms embargoes”, Europol said.

Arms embargoes imposed by the UN, EU or the League of Arab States are in place for countries including Libya, Syria, Sudan and Lebanon, as well as for groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. It was not clear how much of the weaponry successfully reached its intended destination and what was subsequently used in battle.

Police had been tracking the gang since 2018 and launched a series of raids last week in Alicante, Barcelona and Valencia. Three of the suspected leaders of the criminal gang were among those arrested and are being held in prison.

Armed officers stormed a luxury villa with a swimming pool and other high-end properties in a video of the operation released by police. The video showed officers opening safes in raided properties and counting bundles of money.

The operation, involving police and tax officials from Spain working alongside Europol, led to the seizure of 18 properties worth about €10 million ($11.8m). Phones, computer equipment and documents were also seized.

The money from the smuggling ring was laundered in the UK and Switzerland, before being returned to Spain for business investment.

“This scheme allowed them to invest the criminal profits in properties and finance their luxury lifestyles,” Europol said.

Updated: November 15, 2020 08:18 PM

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