Law enforcement agencies from five countries collaborated in a major operation to dismantle an intercontinental criminal network involved in smuggling migrants from Cuba into the European Union (EU).
The joint investigation, led by Europol and INTERPOL, resulted in the arrest of 62 individuals, 25 of whom were Cuban nationals. The smuggling ring used sophisticated methods and operated across Spain, Greece, and Serbia, facilitating the illegal entry of over 5,000 Cuban migrants into the EU for a staggering price of €9,000 per person.
The criminal network employed a widely-used messaging application to target vulnerable Cuban clients seeking to escape their circumstances. For a substantial fee, the network offered to arrange transportation, transfers, and provide forged documentation to facilitate the migrants’ passage into the EU.
€45 million profit
The intricate smuggling operation utilised a circuitous route: the criminals flew the Cuban migrants to Serbia, taking advantage of the visa-free entry policy into Serbia at the time. From there, the migrants were secretly transported to Greece before finally reaching Spain. The network’s illicit activities are estimated to have generated an astonishing profit of approximately €45 million.
The investigation revealed the sophisticated nature of the criminal infrastructure, with multiple cells operating in various cities across Spain, Greece, and Serbia. The network displayed adaptability, enabling it to continue its illegal activities despite changing circumstances and increased law enforcement scrutiny.
During the operation in June 2023, police officers from the three involved countries seized numerous criminal assets, including hundreds of forged documents, forgery equipment, 18 pieces of real estate, 33 vehicles, and 144 bank accounts. Additionally, significant sums of cash in various currencies were confiscated, dealing a significant blow to the criminal organisation.
The investigation into this smuggling network was initiated in October 2021 when authorities in Serbia, Greece, North Macedonia, and Finland noticed a surge in Cuban citizens attempting to enter Europe with falsified documentation. In January 2023, a Joint Intelligence Notification issued by Europol, the European Union Agency for Asylum, and Frontex further highlighted the changing migrant smuggling routes due to the geopolitical landscape reshaped by the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.
Before the war, Cuban nationals used to fly commercially to Russia and were then offered various routes to enter the EU illegally. However, the conflict in Ukraine led to a shift in the smuggling route, with Cuban nationals being flown to Serbia through Frankfurt airport in Germany. From there, they were clandestinely transported to Greece and North Macedonia, enduring perilous journeys in harsh conditions, including walking for hours without adequate supplies.
The criminal network exploited the vulnerability of the migrants, including minors and women, subjecting them to scams, robberies, and extortion. Shockingly, in some instances, women were even transferred to other criminal groups for sexual exploitation.
Europol played a crucial role in the operation, facilitating cooperation and coordination among the participating law enforcement agencies. Europol analysts and specialists were deployed to Spain, Greece, and Serbia, providing on-the-spot support with intelligence analysis and cross-match reports. Additionally, a team of Europol investigators based at their Headquarters in The Hague offered coordination and guidance throughout the operation.
The participating authorities included Germany’s Federal Police (Bundespolizei), Greece’s Hellenic Police and Hellenic Coast Guard, North Macedonia’s Ministry of Interior, and Serbia’s Ministry of Interior, Criminal Police Directorate, Service for Combating Organised Crime.
This successful operation signifies a significant step in combating transcontinental migrant smuggling and sends a clear message that international law enforcement agencies are committed to safeguarding the EU’s borders and protecting vulnerable migrants from exploitation.