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Organised crime gangs rake in €24 billion from EU drugs markets

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EU drug trade

The EU drug trade generates an estimated €24 billion ($28.3 billion) in revenue for organised crime groups, according to a new report from Europol.

Noting that the drugs trade is the largest illicit market in the EU, the study reveals that 35% of all organised crime gangs operating in member states are involved in the production, trafficking or distribution of narcotics, and that 75% of these groups deal in more than one illegal substance.

While the trade in cannabis remains the largest drugs market in the EU by far, the report reveals that the trade in new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as synthetic cannabinoid Spice is the most dynamic drugs market in the EU.

Over the past five years, 620 new synthetic substances were detected in member states.

The study also found the availability of synthetic opioid fentanyl and its derivatives has risen sharply in the 28-nation bloc

Twenty-four new fentanyl derivatives have been discovered for sale on Europe’s drug market since 2012, including 14 identified since January 2016.

Commenting on the contents of the report, Europol’s Deputy Executive Director of Operations Wil van Gemert said: “The illicit drugs market remains the largest criminal market in the EU.

“More organised crime groups are active in the production, trafficking and distribution of illicit drugs than any other phenomenon.

“Moreover, drug markets are increasingly diversified and globalised, and interrelate more and more with other illicit and criminal markets and activities.

“The latter include, although not systematically, terrorism. Fortunately, in recent years cooperation between law enforcement authorities to fight serious and organised crime, be it drugs or any other crime area, is improving and providing grounds for good results in dismantling organised crime groups and networks.”

Drugs are now widely traded on the dark web, according to the report, which notes that hidden illicit marketplaces offer the perfect environment for the distribution of not only narcotics, but also firearms, child sexual exploitation material, fake consumer goods and counterfeit ID.

It is estimated that around 57% of all dark web transactions are related to drugs, and that the top 1% most-successful vendors are responsible for 51.5% of the trade in narcotics on hidden marketplaces, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.

“[Dark web] marketplaces are attractive platforms for clients and vendors alike, the Europol report notes.

“They provide an anonymous and secure environment to trade all types of illegal drugs and other illegal commodities.

“The use of cryptocurrencies allows vendors and clients to exchange payments with little trace and represent a significant hurdle in the attribution of transactions to specific users.

“The trust and reputation system used by [dark web] marketplaces emulates those established by legal trading platforms on the surface web.

“The trade in illegal drugs on [dark web] marketplaces has resulted in a significant increase in the use of post and parcel services to traffic drugs across the EU.”

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Police in Spain smash sham marriage network that charged migrants €12,000 for bogus nuptials

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police in Spain smash sham marriage network

Spanish police have arrested 30 suspected members of a sham marriage network that facilitated illegal immigration by setting up partnerships of convenience.

In an operation backed by Europol, investigators from Spain’s Policía Nacional carried out 11 raids on multiple residential and business premises, seizing more than €10,000 ($11,093) in cash along with evidence that indicted those detained were involved in the facilitation of illegal immigration and document fraud.

Members of the network are said to have set up sham marriages between male illegal immigrants and Spanish women, allowing the men to formalise their stay in the European Union.

Migrants seeking to avail themselves of the gang’s services would be charged as much as €12,000, with their bogus partners being paid €3,000 for agreeing to enter into fake marriages.

Members of the gang, which was made up of members of both Moroccan and Spanish origin, used a complex web of shell companies to facilitate the conspiracy, and had also set up a sophisticated money laundering operation, through which their profits were funnelled.

The network was based in the Valencia town of Sagunto, but also had bases in Morocco, Belgium, France and Italy, a fact that triggered the involvement of Europol.

In a statement, the EU law enforcement agency said: “Europol provided coordination and analytical support and facilitated the information exchange.

“On the action day, Europol also deployed experts on-the-spot to cross-check operational information in real time against Europol’s databases and to provide technical expertise.”

The investigation that led to the dismantling of the network was launched after Spanish police were alerted to potential irregularities in residence permit applications in Sagunto.

The two alleged leaders of network, a Spaniard and a Frenchman both of Moroccan origin, owned several companies in Sagunto, through which the Spanish women to whom migrants were married were employed.

Migrants who used the network’s services would either remain in Spain or be transported by the gang to France or Belgium.

In January of last year, police in Belgium and Portugal broke up an organised criminal gang that paid mostly Portuguese women to enter into sham marriages with Pakistani men.

Investigators arrested 17 suspects in Belgium and a further three in Portugal in a series of coordinated raids in an operation that targeted a network that was said to have paid women thousands of euros to marry the illegal immigrants.

Back in August 2018, law enforcement agencies in Romania and Poland held five members of an organised crime gang suspected of being behind the arrangement of sham marriages for Indian and Nepali nationals looking to gain access to the EU.

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US scientists develop edible security tags to thwart drug counterfeiters

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edible security tags

Researchers at Purdue University have created a small edible tag that can be embedded into medicines in order to prevent the counterfeiting of drugs.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, scientists from the institution explain that drug counterfeiters would need to decipher complicated patterns not fully visible to the naked eye to get round the new security system.

The edible tags serve as digital fingerprints for individual pills and capsules, and are intended to help pharmacists verify the legitimacy of their stock before dispensing it to patients as well as being a method to discourage the counterfeiting of medicines.

According to the researchers, their invention uses an authentication technique called physical unclonable functions (PUF) that generate a different response each time they are stimulated, meaning that even drug manufacturers would not be able to recreate tags.

Taking the form of a transparent film made of silk and fluorescent proteins, the tags are easily digestible, meaning they can be consumed by patients when they take their mediation.

Commenting on the new technology, Jung Woo Leem, a postdoctoral associate in biomedical engineering at Purdue, said in a statement: “Our concept is to use a smartphone to shine an LED light on the tag and take a picture of it. The app then identifies if the medicine is genuine or fake.”

The tags currently last for at least two months before the proteins start to degrade, but Leem and his team are working on extending their life so as they can last until the expiry date of the drugs they are intended to protect.

As well as holding a security key that can verify the authenticity of medication, the tags could also hold other information, such as dosage instructions.

Leem has made two patent applications to protect the tags through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialisation.

According to a report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in November 2017, 10% of all pharmaceutical products circulating in low and middle-income countries at that time were either fake or of substandard quality.

The WHO said the trade in illicit pharmaceuticals is controlled by major organised crime networks who often channel their profits into other forms of illicit activity.

In March of last year, Europol revealed that a crackdown it had led on the sale of illicit pharmaceuticals across 16 countries in 2018 resulted in the seizure of some 13 million doses of counterfeit or smuggled medicines.

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British charity Dogs Trust warns pet lovers about being ‘dogfished’ by puppy smugglers

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‘dogfished’ by puppy smugglers

UK animal protection charity Dogs Trust has revealed that thousands of Britons may have been conned into buying puppies smuggled into the country illegally by organised criminal gangs in a practice it has dubbed “dogfishing”.

In a survey of 2,000 owners of puppies designed to establish how many may have purchased their pet from gangs that smuggled young dogs into the UK from countries in eastern Europe, the charity spoke with many animal lovers who described puppy dealers offering discounts for quick sales and lying about the age and breed of dogs.

The poll found that more than half (51%) of puppy buyers were not allowed to see the animal they were purchasing more than once, while 43% were not offered the chance to visit the puppy with its mother, which Dogs Trust described as two signs all might not be well.

Nineteen percent of respondents said they were not able to collect their puppy from the seller’s home, of whom a “worrying number” said they were asked to collect their new pet in a carpark or layby.

One woman told Dogs Trust how she was left heartbroken after purchasing a puppy that she saw advertised online on Christmas Eve, only to have to rush it to a vet for emergency treatment on Christmas Day because it had contracted parvo virus, a highly contagious and potentially fatal condition that causes lethargy, vomiting and diarrhoea.

The puppy had to be put down.

Launching a new campaign named Don’t Be Dogfished, Dogs Trust Veterinary Director said: “People think they are getting a healthy, happy puppy but behind the curtain lurks the dark depths of the puppy smuggling trade.

“Many of these poor puppies suffer significant health conditions or lifelong behavioural challenges, and sadly some don’t survive, leaving their buyers helpless and heartbroken – as well as out of pocket.

“This is why we are touring the country in a van like those used by puppy smugglers to educate the public on the shocking realities of the puppy smuggling trade and advising them how they can take action to avoid being ‘dogfished’.

“If it seems too good to be true, as hard as it is, walk away and report it.”

Many organised crime gangs across Europe have moved into puppy smuggling owing to the huge profit it returns for relatively little risk.

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