event_note Press Release
Officers of the Catalan police force – Mossos d'Esquadra CID, together with the Italian Guardia di Finanza, in collaboration and coordination with Europol, have dismantled one of the most internationally established criminal organisations in Northern Italy dedicated to the trafficking of hashish and marijuana, which was expanding its operations to Catalonia. The operation, which was carried out simultaneously in Catalonia and Italy on 17 October, resulted in the arrest of 78 individuals (20 in Catalonia and 58 in Italy) who are accused of crimes related to public health for drug trafficking, money laundering, and belonging to a criminal organisation. This is the most extensive and far-reaching investigation that the Mossos d'Esquadra have carried out internationally.
The investigations by the two police forces uncovered two separate but interrelated criminal networks, one dedicated to drug trafficking and the other to money laundering and tax fraud.
During the investigation, police officers from the CID actively collaborated in the exchange of information with the Guardia di Finanza and travelled to Milan during the execution of the operation. Since October 2022, the Central Organised Crime and Financial Crime Departments of the DIC have been in charge of the investigation which has been conducted in coordination with Italian police through Europol. In Catalonia, the investigation was led by the Court of First Instance and Instruction 4 of Badalona, and in Italy, it was overseen by the Antimafia Prosecution Office in Milan.
The operation, which was carried out simultaneously in both territories on 17 October, involved 105 entries and searches, 30 of them in Catalonia and 73 in Italy. In Catalonia, where more than a thousand agents were deployed, including investigators from the DIC, public security officers, public order units, the Special Task Force, and the Canine Unit, the operations were primarily concentrated in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. In Italy, the searches were primarily conducted in the Milan area.
An opaque banking system without proper oversight
For the first time in Catalonia, an investigation has been conducted into a criminal organisation that uses a parallel and opaque banking system, primarily controlled by individuals of Chinese origin located in both countries. This system is known as "fei ch'ien" or "hawala" and is based on trust. It involves transferring large sums of money from one country to another through a network of trusted offices. In other words, the money is not physically sent from one country to another, but the offices settle the transactions among themselves. The settlements are concealed within the activities of various companies included in the business network controlled by the individuals under investigation. This settlement system is completely opaque and extremely challenging to detect when it comes to criminal activity related to money laundering.
Four key actors are involved in this method. First, the members of the organisation themselves in both countries: those who sent the money in Italy and those who received it in Catalonia. Simultaneously, the organisation in both countries established two external business structures, separate from the core organisation, which were responsible for receiving and paying the money.
The Italian payer handed over the money in person as payment for a drug shipment to the business structure in Italy. At the same time, the Italian business structure contacted the Catalan business structure and provided them with a code, which the part of the organisation in Catalonia would use to receive the previously agreed-upon sum of money. Subsequently, the two business structures would reach an agreement to settle the remaining debts exclusively between these two companies. The settlements were concealed within the activities of the various companies included in the business network controlled by these individuals.
Results of the operation
Once the activities and roles of the individuals under investigation had been established, a joint and coordinated operational plan was devised between the Mossos d'Esquadra and the Guardia di Finanza of Milan. This operation took place on 17 October and involved a total of 105 entries and searches in Milan, Barcelona city, and the metropolitan area.
In total, the operation in Catalonia resulted in the seizure of a total of 716,726 euros in cash, 80,000 euros in cryptocurrencies, six high-end vehicles, three properties, as well as luxury watches, along with various pieces of evidence related to money laundering, drug trafficking activities, and criminal organisation. In Italy, the Guardia di Finanza seized ten high-end vehicles and confiscated assets worth 129 million euros.
Since the beginning of the investigation, in 2022, the Mossos d'Esquadra have seized more than 1,200 kg of hashish and 44 kg of marijuana with a black market value of around three million euros. Since 2020, the Guardia di Finanza has seized 30 tonnes of hashish and marijuana.
In terms of assets, the judicial authority ordered the freezing of various bank accounts and other movable and immovable property. High-end vehicles were also seized and digital assets were frozen.