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49 house searches yield 30 arrests in international cocaine trafficking investigation

Belgian Federal Police drug trafficking investigation
18:09 15/02/2022

Belgian police raided 49 houses across the country on Tuesday morning as part of an international police investigation into cocaine trafficking through the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. 

Thirty people were arrested as part of the operation, VRT reports, which used information gained in part through the historic Sky ECC investigation.

Belgian Federal Police cocaine trafficking investigation

Most of the searches (30) were in Brussels, with 17 in the province of Antwerp, one in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw (Flemish Brabant), and another in Sint-Niklaas (East Flanders). All 30 people who were arrested must appear before a judge within 48 hours.

Europol collaborated with the action, and 60 simultaneous searches occurred in Croatia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. 

The operation is related to an ongoing Belgian/Spanish case file that on the Belgian side involves the Albanian mafia, which is also thought to have links to the Italian mafia. 

Belgian Federal Police cocaine trafficking investigation 15 February

International cocaine operation spans multiple countries

Authorities believe that cocaine has been regularly imported and traded through the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, where gangs in Belgium played a central role in furthering drugs to Italy and Spain, among other countries. 

The investigation has existed for some time, but data and information discovered as a result of hacking encrypted Sky ECC phones has shed new light and turned up new suspects. 

Belgian Federal Police drug trafficking investigation 15 Feb 2022

Investigators gained insight into new forms of criminal organisations, which the Federal Prosecutor's Office says are no longer exclusively family- or clan-based operations. Instead, these criminal organisations look more like classic commercial companies. 

“They invest in safe assets such as real estate and legal businesses. Crypto wallets are found in more and more cases, including this one, ”said the federal prosecutor, adding that this emerging trend will be more closely monitored. 

Fruits from Operation Sky ECC

Investigators in March last year conducted one of Belgium’s largest police operations in history when it raided 200 homes in the country after gaining access to messages sent between drug criminals. 

Belgian Federal Police cocaine traffic investigation 15 Feb 2022
Sky ECC was a Canadian company that sold expensive encrypted phones to those who could afford them, with a customer base that seemingly included a large number of people involved in organised crime. 

Its website, which has since been seized by the American FBI, promised a cash reward to anyone who could crack their encrypted phones. Belgian authorities joked after their massive operation that they’d be happy to pass along their bank info in order to collect the prize, but the company had maintained that the phones themselves were not cracked. They claimed that police instead infiltrated crime networks and sold fake Sky ECC phones to criminals, which were then monitored by authorities.

However it came about, authorities were able to intercept messages sent by top drug criminals and targeted their actions at the top of organised crime networks, arresting corrupt lawyers, police officers, civil servants and even a customs officer in the weeks and months that followed. 

Belgium’s Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne said that abround 500 suspects are currently in prison awaiting investigation and possible trial. 

Written by Helen Lyons