Sino-Spanish laundry brought down in Operation Snake

The combined efforts of Europol and the Spanish Guardia Civil dismantled a six year old money laundering operation earlier this week. Investigators estimate the group sluiced more than EUR300m in the proceeds of crime since 2009. snakesmurfChinese citizens living in Spain operated the laundry, collecting and cleaning the proceeds of crimes from across Southern Europe. The majority of the cleaned money was sent across European borders, Europol said in a statement.

Members of the criminal organisation using the laundry generated funds from importing counterfeit goods into the EU, using false documents. The sales generated an estimated EUR14m in untaxed profits which was cleaned using ‘low-level’ associates who ‘smurfed’ the money back to China. Smurfing is the process of breaking down a large sum of money into smaller and less remarkable amounts, using many different people to transfer funds through personal bank accounts – which are also generally thought to be low risk and off the radar.

As they developed a robust system for moving their own dirty cash out of Europe, via smurfs, establishing complex corporate structures and relying on front men and third parties for transactions, the Chinese group offered their services out to other organised crime groups. In exchange for a percentage of the laundered funds the Spanish network cleaned filthy lucre for contacts in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. The going rate for laundering someone else’s money used to be a flat ten per cent, but stories from the past few years claim this has decreased to five per cent.

Proving that criminal networks will lend a hand to anything that turns them a profit, no matter how reprehensible, the group also ran clothing factories in Madrid which exploited Chinese workers.

Police officers arrested 32 people in Operation Snake, searching 65 private residences and company premises in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia and seizing of 20 high-value vehicles and more than EUR1m in cash.

‘The Operation is still on-going and new arrests and seizures are expected to take place over the next hours and days,’ read the Europol statement.

A good result for the Guardia Civil, which has never shied away from getting its hands dirty in organised crime Eurosinvestigations. Although the EUR1m haul represents a fraction of the total figure estimated. It will be interesting to know how much this operation cost Europol and the Guardia Civil. While there is no doubt that criminal enterprises that make fortunes from exploiting people must be stopped, and cost should not deter law enforcement agencies from doing their jobs, it is worth considering where the rest of the money has gone, via which financial channels, and whether it will ever be recovered.

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