Police have smashed a huge drugs "super-cartel" that controlled around a third of Europe's cocaine trade, arresting 49 people in various countries, including six chief suspects in Dubai, Europol said on Monday.
The international operation codenamed "Desert Light" seized 30 tonnes of the drug and led to arrests in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, the European Union's police agency said in a statement.
The crackdown in Dubai netted a "big fish" from the Netherlands, who reportedly had links to alleged Dutch crime boss Ridouan Taghi, himself seized in the Gulf emirate in 2019.
"The drugpins, considered as high-value targets by Europol, had come together to form what was known as a 'super cartel' which controlled around one third of the cocaine trade in Europe," Europol said.
"The scale of cocaine importation into Europe under the suspects' control and command was massive and over 30 tonnes of drugs were seized by law enforcement over the course of the investigations."
The Dutch suspect had allegedly formed an alliance in Dubai with the leaders of Irish and Italian drug gangs who had also been arrested, Dutch public broadcaster NOS said.
A video released by Europol showed agents including some from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Spanish Guardia Civil arresting suspects and seizing luxury cars and hidden stashes of cash.
'Extremely big fish'
Europol said Dubai had arrested two "high-value" suspects who are linked to France, two connected to the Netherlands and another two linked to Spain.
Ten people were arrested in Belgium, six in France and 13 in Spain. Another 14 people were arrested in 2021 in the Netherlands as part of the same operation, the Hague-based organization said.
"One of the Dutch suspects is an extremely big fish," a Europol source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"He was just as important as Taghi, if not more important."
The arrests from November 8 to 19 were the latest in a series around Europe that followed a police hack of sophisticated encrypted telephones used by organized crime networks last year, Europol said.
Police secretly used the SKY ECC phone platform to listen in on what were supposed to be secure communications between drug traffickers.
Most of the drugs targeted cocaine coming from South America through the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, although some had passed through South Africa.
Dutch prosecutors said they would request the extradition of the two suspects from the United Arab Emirates.
One was a 40-year-old dual Dutch-Bosnian national, suspected of smuggling 1.8 tonnes of cocaine via the German port of Hamburg in 2020, and of preparing to import 8 tonnes of raw materials for producing amphetamines via Antwerp in Belgium.
Dutch media named him as Edin G. and said he was wanted by the US DEA for his links to alleged drug kingpin Ridouan Taghi.
Moroccan-born Taghi was arrested in Dubai in 2019. He is now on trial in the Netherlands on charges of murder and running a huge Amsterdam-based cocaine smuggling group.
'Serious criminal offences'
The other suspect is a 37-year-old dual Dutch and Moroccan national, whom Dutch media named as Zouhair B. and said had allegedly smuggled three tonnes of cocaine to the Netherlands worth more than 200 million euros.
He was also suspected of money laundering and firearms possession.
The investigation into both men was launched on the basis of decrypted messages from SKY phones, the Dutch prosecution service said in a statement.
"These are serious criminal offenses pertaining to international drug trafficking, mainly from South America via the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam," it said.
Spain's Guardia Civil said a total of 13 people had been arrested in Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga on November 8 after 698 kilograms (1,539 pounds) of cocaine were found in a container in the port of Valencia.
The head of the smuggling operation, a British national, fled to Dubai after an attempted arrest in Spain and was continuing to direct operations from there, it said in a statement.
The cocaine was imported from Panama in central America and his supplier, a Panamanian, also lived in Dubai, it said.