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382 arrests during joint actions against traffickers using Balkan route

Christian Fernsby |
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.

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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 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.

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.

Overall results:

• 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

Participants:

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).


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