28 European countries join forces to target drug and firearms trafficking, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings
Law enforcement authorities jointly targeted firearms trafficking, drugs trafficking, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings during coordinated EMPACT Joint Action Days between 26 and 29 October. The actions, which included intensified checks on the EU’s external borders, were coordinated by Spain and Europol, and financially supported by IPA/2019.
The operational activities involving 28 countries across Europe were also supported by Eurojust, Frontex, INTERPOL, SELEC and other international organisations. The EMPACT Joint Action Days were planned based on an intelligence-led approach, which involved the cooperation of a wide range of law enforcement authorities including police, customs, immigration agencies and border control agencies.
382 arrests and 130 new investigations
The operational activities mainly took place in the Balkans and Southeast Europe. Other countries from across Europe contributed criminal intelligence and conducted operational actions at the national level. Almost 16 000 officers were involved in the actions on the ground. Simultaneously, between 24 and 29 October, national authorities coordinated special activities that targeted human trafficking networks involved in sexual exploitation, forced begging and forced criminality. The results of these actions will be released in a second communication.
In total, the activities led to 382 arrests of suspects, the majority of whom were alleged to be involved in drug trafficking, facilitation of illegal immigration, document fraud and the trafficking of firearms. Officers on the ground detected a number of offences related to the facilitation of illegal immigration and related legal violations such as document fraud. The arrests and evidence retrieved has allowed law enforcement authorities to initiate 130 new investigations.
Drugs and firearms traffickers targeted along the Balkan route
The Balkan route is notorious for its use in a number of crime areas, including migrant smuggling and the trafficking of firearms and drugs into the EU. Multinational criminal groups source the weapons predominantly from countries in the Western Balkans, where human resources with expertise in firearms are widely available. The firearms are then trafficked to the EU – mainly to Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Balkan route is a key entry point for heroin traffickers, while cannabis and cocaine traffickers also use this transition point.
Drug trafficking and the illegal trade in weapons are closely connected, especially in connection to cocaine trafficking networks. In some cases, criminal networks exchange weapons for drugs. They also use the weapons to gain and maintain control over lucrative drug markets. The illegal market for weapons has remained stable in recent years, both in terms of products offered and intensity of trade. The firearms present on the black market range from old to new military grade weapons. Blank-firing weapons, later converted into real ones, are also an issue. Coordinated activities of national authorities in the Western Balkans contribute to detecting this trafficking and, during the Joint Action Days, led to the interception of both drugs and firearms.
Intensified checks to detect trafficking along the Silk Road
Weapons are often smuggled as part of multi-commodity shipments or hidden in vehicles. This is similar to how drugs are smuggled, examples being cocaine concealed in construction material or fruit shipments, or heroin in hidden compartments in vehicles. Drug traffickers still utilise the ancient Silk Road network of routes to bring heroin to the EU market. Migrant smuggling activities are also intense in these areas.
As an important logistical hub, the Balkan route sees thousands of trucks entering the EU with different goods, including food and construction material. National authorities focused therefore on major entry points. An example is Europe’s biggest land entry point – Bulgaria’s Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint at the border with Turkiye – which sees about 1 500 trucks with different goods enter the EU every day. As criminal networks are highly international, their supply chain and markets affect multiple countries and pose a threat to the EU as a whole. Europol’s EU SOCTA 2021 outlines that 80% of the criminal networks active in the EU use legal structures to facilitate their criminal activities.
The EMPACT Joint Action Days were made possible through the cooperation of border guards, customs authorities and national units. The exchange of operational information and joint investigations during the operation contributed to more interceptions and the development of ongoing cases. Europol supported the coordination of the EMPACT Joint Action Days and facilitated the exchange of information between the participating countries. During the course of the operation, Montenegro, with the support of the CSC WB IPA 2019 Project, hosted an operational centre to enable the swift exchange of operational information between the participants. A Europol analyst was deployed to the operational centre to provide live analytical support to field operatives. During the action week, Europol also deployed an expert to Bosnia and Herzegovina to facilitate the real-time exchange of communication between the participating authorities. Europol also deployed officers to support the Moldavian authorities. Further support has been provided in the context of the war of aggression against Ukraine to mitigate the threats of arms trafficking into the EU.
- 74 924 people checked
- 998 locations searched
- 32 665 vehicles inspected
- 2 004 packages/parcels checked
- 382 arrests: 159 related to migrant smuggling, 112 related to drug trafficking, 38 related to firearms trafficking, 2 related to trafficking and human beings 71 related to other crimes.
- 2 476 illegal entries detected
- Seizures include:
- 106 firearms: 43 rifles, 42 pistols, 6 air guns, 1 anti-personnel mine, 1 air defense system, 15 grenades, 2 machines for assembling, 2 antitank missiles and 12 250 pieces of ammunition
- Drugs: 304 kg of heroin, 147 kilograms of cannabis, 5 402 plants of marijuana and 1.3 kg of cocaine
- 130 new investigations initiated
EU Member States: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden.
Non-EU Countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Switzerland, Türkiye, Ukraine and United Kingdom.
EU Agencies: Europol, Eurojust, Frontex
International and institutional partners: EUBAM, IPA/2019 (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) countering serious and organised crime in the Western Balkans, INTERPOL, PCC-SEE (Police Cooperation Convention For Southeast Europe Secretariat), SEESAC (The South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons) and SELEC (Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre).
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.