In a major operation coordinated by Europol and INTERPOL, law enforcement agencies from five countries have successfully disrupted a sophisticated intercontinental criminal network involved in smuggling migrants from Cuba into the European Union. The meticulous investigation led to the arrest of 62 individuals, out of which 25 were identified as Cuban nationals. Operating ruthlessly, this migrant smuggling ring utilized a popular messaging application to advertise their illicit services, targeting vulnerable Cuban clients seeking a better life in Europe. For a hefty fee of approximately EUR 9,000 per person, the criminals promised to organize the entire journey, including transfers and provision of false documentation, for these desperate migrants.
The criminals exploited a specific set of circumstances to execute their operation. They transported migrants from Cuba to Serbia, taking advantage of the lack of visa requirements for entry into Serbia. The migrants were smuggled into Greece and eventually reached their final destination in Spain. The operation was a highly profitable venture for the criminal network, with an estimated 5,000 Cuban nationals successfully smuggled into the EU, resulting in an astonishing profit of approximately EUR 45 million.
The investigation revealed the existence of a complex and adaptable criminal infrastructure spread across multiple cities in Spain, Greece, and Serbia. In an impressive display of international cooperation, police officers from all three countries conducted a synchronized action day in June 2023, resulting in the seizure of numerous criminal assets, including hundreds of forged documents, forgery equipment, 18 pieces of real estate, 33 vehicles, and a staggering 144 bank accounts, along with significant amounts of cash in various currencies.
What made this migrant smuggling route particularly notable was its unusually long and expensive nature. The investigation was triggered in October 2021 when authorities from Serbia, Greece, North Macedonia, and Finland reported a sharp increase in Cuban citizens attempting to enter Europe using falsified documentation. Responding to this alarming trend, Europol, the European Union Agency for Asylum, and Frontex jointly issued a “Joint Intelligence Notification” in January 2023, shedding light on the shifting routes and tactics employed by migrant smugglers due to geopolitical changes, including the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.
Before the Ukrainian conflict, Cuban nationals typically flew commercially to Russia, where smugglers would offer them options to enter EU territory illegally through the Finnish-Russian border or fly to Serbia for further transportation into Central or Southern Europe via the Western Balkan region. However, the route was modified with the onset of the war in Ukraine. Cuban nationals were now flown to Serbia via Frankfurt Airport in Germany. Once in Serbia, criminal network members facilitated their irregular entry into North Macedonia and Greece through various routes, often subjecting large groups of migrants to treacherous journeys on foot, without adequate supplies and under cover of darkness. The most vulnerable migrants, including minors and women, became targets for scams, robberies, and even sexual exploitation, further exposing the ruthlessness of the criminal syndicate.
Upon arrival in Greece, the smuggled migrants either applied for asylum or continued their journey to other EU countries with the assistance of the criminals. This involved using forged documents or the “lookalike method,” where genuine travel documents were stolen and distributed to migrants closely resembling the original passport holders.
Europol played a crucial role in the successful operation, organizing multiple operational meetings and facilitating seamless cooperation, coordination, and exchange of personnel among its partner countries. During the action day, three Europol analysts and specialists were deployed on-site in Spain, Greece, and Serbia, providing valuable support with intelligence analysis and cross-match reports. Additionally, a team of Europol investigators based at its Headquarters in The Hague offered vital coordination and guidance to the deployed personnel.
With participating authorities from Germany, Greece, North Macedonia, Spain, and Serbia, the successful bust underscores the significance of global partnerships in maintaining the security and integrity of Europe’s borders. Europol’s commitment to coordinating and supporting such complex operations further solidifies its role as a crucial player in the fight against organized crime, human trafficking, and migrant smuggling.