Europol Busts Cryptocurrency Drug Money Laundering Ring

A joint operation between global law enforcement agencies and Europol has put an end to a criminal ring that used cryptocurrencies including bitcoin to launder drug money through a Finnish crypto exchange.

The operation, dubbed Tulipan Blanca, saw authorities from Finland, Spain, the United States and Europol arrest 11 individuals related to an organized crime ring that saw drug money laundered from Spain to Colombia using credit cards and several cryptocurrencies, a statement revealed.

A total of 137 individuals were investigated in the criminal ring wherein, initially, drug money was split into small quantities deposited as cash in hundreds of bank accounts. Criminals then acquired credit cards linked to these bank accounts before traveling to Colombia with to make cash withdrawals from the bank accounts using those cards.

A total of 174 bank accounts were used, the investigation revealed, with deposits over €8 million in cash between them. It wasn’t long before the criminals turned to cryptocurrencies, according to the statement.

An excerpt from the statement revealed:

Once the criminals realised that cash withdrawals and bank operations were easy to track, they changed their laundering methods and turned to cryptocurrencies, mainly bitcoin.

The investigation, which saw guidance from Finnish law enforcement, revealed that the criminals had used an unnamed local cryptocurrency exchange to convert their cash into bitcoins before subsequently converting them to Colombian pesos.

Europol, the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, established a working group alongside Interpol to combat money laundering through cryptocurrencies, last year. With its announcement this week, the agency stressed it would continue to fight against criminal elements using (abusing) cryptocurrencies.

“With cryptocurrencies increasingly used to finance and carry out criminal activities, Europol will continue to coordinate across EU Member States and beyond, to effectively respond to this rising threat,” the agency said. “Europol has organised specialised training courses to assist law enforcement officers in identifying the use of cryptocurrencies by organised crime networks.”

Europol Director: Fight Against Money Laundering Lacking

By Alex Cooper

The outgoing Europol director, Rob Wainwright, says that Europe’s work to curb money laundering is insufficient as illegal cash moves too easily through its banking system.

Europol Headquaters, the Hague (Photo Credit: OSeveno By CC 3.0)“Professional money launderers—and we have identified 400 at the top, top level in Europe—are running billions of illegal drug and other criminal profits through the banking system with a 99 percent success rate,” Wainwright said in an interview with Politico.

The European Union agency has became more prominent as a result of terrorist attacks across Europe, yet financial crimes have not faced the same scrutiny even though dirty money plays a significant role in financing these operations.

Money laundering is understood as a country by country issue instead of being tackled as it flows: transnationally. An issue Wainwright acknowledges.

Communication to combat it becomes derailed since the EU lacks an organization capable of providing the needed lines of data sharing to appropriately deal with this illegal cash. Crime groups then maintain their shady wealth and expand their operations.

“While structures exist to facilitate cross-border cooperation between national units, significant barriers in international cooperation and information exchange remain, revealing the urgent need for supranational overview in increasingly global markets,” Wainwright said in September 2017 when Europol released its report on anti-money laundering efforts.

The report said that communication between financial intelligence units across the EU had increased since 2014. However, only two EU countries, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, received 65 percent of total suspicious transaction reports. Then, only ten percent were investigated after being collected.

Europol’s money laundering assessment urged supranational cooperation and reporting as well as recommending countries address possible uses of new technologies in cyber-related financial crimes.

Wainwright leaves Europol in May after almost ten years to join Deloitte’s Cyber team in its European cyber security practice.