EUROPOL has supported Spain’s Guardia Civil in dismantling a criminal group believed to have been smuggling migrants – mainly Albanian citizens – from Spain to the UK, as well as refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
The gang used regular ferries from the northern Spanish ports of Santander and Santurtzi to carry out their criminal activities.
Their modus operandi was to smuggle the migrants through restricted areas at the ports and hiding them in trailers, containers, caravans and lorries waiting to board the ferries in restricted parking bays.
The gang also helped transport the migrants to the Spanish towns of Cantabria and Biscay from other countries and temporarily housing them there.
The investigation, known as investigation Hegira, began when the Spanish authorities detected a growing number of Albanian citizens had been intercepted trying to access the port of Santurtzi. Further investigations revealed there was an organised crime group operating in Cantabria and Biscay.
The Guardia Civil raided three houses in Bilbao, Portugalete and Santander, two of which were used as safe houses where the authorities seized numerous IT and mobile devices, bank cards and ID documents and passports from different countries.
The investigation also saw the collaboration of the Belgian police, who assisted with the house searches in Spain.
Seven members of the network were arrested – Iraqi, Albanian and Spanish nationals.
Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) supported the investigation by providing analytical and operational support and hosting an initial operational meeting at its headquarters in The Hague.
During the action days, Europol provided on-the-spot support by deploying an analyst to Bilbao equipped with a mobile office and a Universal Forensic Extraction Device.
This allowed for real-time cross-checks against Europol’s databases as well as data extraction from the seized devices for further analysis.