"Counterfeit €500 notes seized in Spain; Italy destroys mob infiltration of southern cocaine port

Two significant police operations in Europe have resulted in the discovery of mob infiltration of a significant Italian port and the confiscation of €4 million worth of the most convincingly counterfeited €500 notes.

On Thursday, 300 police officers in Italy conducted synchronized operations against a criminal organization connected to the 'Ndrangheta that sold cocaine worth hundreds of millions of euros through the southern Gioia Tauro port.

While in Spain, authorities made the announcement that they had found a print business that "produced one of the most sophisticated euro counterfeits ever detected in the EU."

According to Europol's announcement, the seizure was made last month during an operation coordinated by the Police of Catalonia (Los Mossos d'Esquadra) and the Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional). The organized crime organization responsible for the manufacture and circulation of the fake euro banknotes, according to the police, has been destroyed.

Some of the most sophisticated fakes ever found in the EU were being produced by the counterfeiters, who were employing cutting-edge technology.

These fakes are the most hazardous fakes manufactured in the EU in recent years due to their high-tech design and good condition. The primary suspect operating the print business was discovered by investigators from the Bank of Spain's Investigation Brigade to be a person previously jailed for related criminal activity in 2009.

These fake banknotes were of greater quality, yet they had characteristics with fakes made in 2009. Authorities were able to trace the counterfeits to the same person as a result of this.

In a separate operation, the Italian Financial Corps (Guardia di Finanza) destroyed a criminal organization that used dishonest port employees at Gioia Tauro to transport cocaine into Europe worth hundreds of millions of euros.

A total of 300 police officers conducted synchronized raids today against the members of this highly skilled gang that is connected to the 'Ndrangheta.

Property searches in the Italian provinces of Reggio Calabria, Vibo Valentia, Bari, Naples, Rome, Terni, Vicenza, Milan, and Novara have so far led to 31 arrests and the seizure of illicit property valued at 7 million euros.

Following a thorough investigation, which resulted in the seizure of almost 4 tons of cocaine that the criminals had imported and had an estimated street value of over €800 million, arrests have been made.

The inquiry led to the identification of a dishonest customs official who is accused of tampering with the results of an x-ray scan on a container with 300 kg of cocaine. He is thought to have been compensated for this with an amount equal to 3% of the illegal cargo's worth.

The Italian detectives were also successful in locating the further members of this criminal network, which was organized as follows, within the context of intelligence actions being conducted with Europol: 

  • Members of the 'Ndrangheta, who arranged for the cocaine to be shipped from South America.

  • Field coordinators, who recruited and managed the corrupted dockers, paying them a commission ranging from 7 to 20% of the value of the illegal cargo.

  • Complicit port operators who made sure the "contaminated" containers were not stopped as they were being smuggled into the port of Gioia Tauro.

The investigation also allowed for the identification of the organized crime figures behind the large importation of cocaine from South America to Calabria, which involved regular shipments of two tonnes of the drug. These crooks are included in the list of suspects detained today.

The growth of the Italian probe was greatly aided by Europol's assistance, which provided specialized knowledge and in-depth research. In order to bring down the whole network, Europol has been collaborating closely with Italian investigators and has gathered solid and essential intelligence regarding the actions of this criminal network.

"This investigation uncovered how the ‘Ndrangheta is using corruption to enable its criminal activity and undermine law enforcement’s efforts. Europol sees the use of corruption, in the private or the public sector, as a major enabler of organised crime," according to Jari Liukku, Head of Europol's European Serious and Organized Crime Centre.

"“In this particular investigation we are very pleased to have joined forces with the Italian Guardia di Finanza to support them in fighting large-scale drug trafficking as well as corruption at an EU entry point. In this regard this investigation sets an example. This investigation was supported by the EU-funded Project ISF4@ON, an Italian-led initiative to tackle mafia-type organised crime groups active in Europe."

While this is going on, authorities in Spain have connected the case to a different investigation from 2021, when investigators in Catalonia discovered a bag containing roughly EUR 4 million in counterfeit €500 notes. The Bank of Spain's Analysis Center verified that the fakes and those from the most recent batch of counterfeits were identical.

The investigators believe that the criminal network used this covert print factory, which was shut down in September, to print more than €8 million in as short as three months.

The members of the criminal organization performed a variety of tasks, from supervising the printing machinery to sourcing raw materials, primarily from China. Drug trafficking was one of the crimes committed with the phony money.

In order to facilitate access and secure the area, the police intervention also included members of the Bank of Spain Investigation Brigade, support units from the General Council of the Judiciary (Consejo General del Poder Judicial), and agents from the Anti-Riot Units (Unidades de Intervención Policial).

The operation from last month resulted in searches at nine sites in Alicante, Barcelona, Malaga, and Valencia, as well as 12 arrests. A number of printing machines, an insulation machine, a hot stamping machine, a paper guillotine, and raw materials were confiscated after a clandestine print shop was destroyed.


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