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Police in Spain and Portugal disrupt major euro-counterfeiting gang

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Portuguese and Spanish police have closed down an illicit money-printing shop during a Europol-backed operation.

Investigators arrested two men and one woman, aged between 21 and 55, who were allegedly behind a conspiracy to produce bogus euro banknotes.

The group is said to have been behind the production of fake euro notes that were widely distributed around Spain and Portugal, but were also found in a number of other countries, including Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Nine houses were raided as part of the operation targeting the gang, which resulted in the seizure of 1,131 fake €20 notes, 401 €50 notes and 49 €500 notes, with a total face value of €67,170.

Fourteen 10,000 francs notes from the Central African Republic were also recovered during the operation.

Along with the counterfeit currency, officers also confiscated a range of equipment related to the production bogus banknotes, such as guillotines, press dies, holographic tape rolls, computers and printers.

Numerous computer files related to the illegal activity were also identified.

Europol, which is the European Union’s Central Office for Combating Euro Counterfeiting, facilitates the exchange of information on bogus currencies and provides expertise, criminal and forensic analysis, training, financial and technical support to law enforcement agencies inside and outside the EU.

At the end of last month, the Bank of Portugal (BdP) said it removed 9,800 counterfeit euro banknotes from circulation between July and December 2017.

According to a statement issued by the European Central Bank (ECB), 363,000 counterfeit euro banknotes were withdrawn from circulation in the second half of 2017.

During the second half of 2017, €20 and €50 notes remained the most counterfeited banknotes, accounting for around 85% of all bogus notes detected in the 28-nation bloc.

“The Eurosystem communicates in various ways to help people distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes, as well as to help professional cash handlers ensure that banknote-handling and processing machines can reliably identify and withdraw counterfeits from circulation,” the ECB said.

“The Eurosystem has a duty to safeguard the integrity of the euro banknotes and continue improving banknote technology. The second series of banknotes – the Europa series – is even more secure and is helping to maintain public confidence in the currency.”

The ECB has published guidance advising consumers and businesses how to spot fake euro notes, observing that the paper euros are printed on should feel “crisp and firm”, while higher value notes have a watermark – which becomes visible if the banknote is viewed against light.

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Scotland is drug death capital of Europe, new study reveals

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Scotland is drug death capital of Europe

Scotland has the highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe, and fatalities linked to the consumption of substances such as heron in the country are on the rise, according to a new report from a government agency.

A statistical update from Audit Scotland on the nation’s drug and alcohol services has revealed that drug-related deaths rose to 934 in 2017, a 71% increase on the 525 people who lost their lives as a consequence of drug consumption in 2009.

Seventy-six percent of those deaths occurred in the 35 years and over age group, suggesting that drug problems are increasingly affecting older people in Scotland.

The most significant increase in drug-related deaths in this age category was recorded in people aged 45 and over, who accounted for 37% of fatalities in 2017, up from 20% of the total in 2009.

According to the update, opioids are the most problematic group of drugs, and are implicated in the majority of drug-related deaths in the country.

The study also found that while use of new psychoactive substances such as the synthetic cannabinoid Spice has declined in the general population since the introduction of the UK government’s Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, these types of drugs are still causing significant harm among vulnerable groups such as prisoners.

Commenting on the findings outlined in the update, Auditor General for Scotland Caroline Gardner said: “The last decade has seen several notable achievements in drug and alcohol treatment in Scotland, including more recovery communities, improved drug harm reduction strategies and minimum unit pricing for alcohol.

“But without clear performance data around what measures are working, the government will continue to find it hard to achieve its aim of reducing deaths and better supporting people to recover.”

Earlier this week, the Press Association reported that former addicts had told UK Parliament’s Commons Scottish Affairs Committee that providing users of drugs such as heroin with replacement treatments such as methadone is leaving them wandering around “like zombies”.

Former heroin addict Sharon Brand, who now runs the Recovery Dundee charity, told the committee: “There’s people who have been on methadone since they were 15, 30 years now, there’s two generations in each family who are either on methadone or a chaotic user.

“I’ve not got a great opinion of methadone. I think done right, for a very short period, it could work but I think there are a lot more and better ways to help somebody get past that stage.”

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European police forces dismantle major organised crime network that made €680 million in two years

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A Europol-coordinated operation involving law enforcement agencies from the UK, Spain, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia has resulted in the break-up of a sophisticated organised criminal network that is thought to have raked in hundreds of millions of euros over a two-year period.

The gang, which is said to have been made of Lithuanian nationals and members from other EU countries, made huge profits from activities including drug smuggling, cigarette trafficking, assassinations and money laundering.

Police taking part in the operation, which was codenamed Icebreaker, and is reported to have been the largest of its kind to take place in Europe to date, carried out raids on 40 properties in Poland, Lithuania and Spain, during which €8 million ($8.94 million) in cash was seized, along with high-value items including diamonds, gold bars, jewellery and luxury vehicles.

During the raids, which were conducted on Wednesday and Thursday last week, a total of 22 suspects were arrested in the UK, Poland, Lithuania and Spain, where a 48-year-old Lithuanian man was detained on suspicion of leading the network.

Investigators estimate that the gang made a profit of some €680 million as a result of its illicit activities between 2017 and 2019 alone, during which time its members are suspected to have trafficked large quantities of drugs and illicit tobacco into Britain.

The proceeds of the network’s criminal activity was laundered through currency exchange offices before being invested in properties in Spain and other countries.

According to Europol, senior members of the gang used counter-surveillance and counter-intelligence techniques, as well as specialised encrypted communication devices, in a bid to avoid the attention of law enforcement authorities.

In total, more than 450 police and customs officers took part in Operation Icebreaker, with agencies contributing to the effort including Lithuania’s Criminal Police Bureau, the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs, the Polish Police Central Bureau of Investigation, and Spain’s Guardia Civil and Policia Nacional.

In a statement, Europol said: “The creation of an Operational Task Force between all five countries and Europol in November 2018 had a catalytic effect on the scale and the intensity of the investigation, facilitating the development of a joint strategy to target the whole network. It led to carrying out one of the largest covert police operations recently against an organized crime group.

“Due to the demanding investigative measures run on an international level, Joint Investigation Teams (JIT) were set up between the cooperating countries with the assistance of Eurojust.”

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Australian terrorist financing investigation results in disruption of major cigarette smuggling conspiracy

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An investigation into terrorist financing conducted by law enforcement agencies in Australia has led to the arrest of eight men on suspicion of involvement in an illicit cigarette importation conspiracy run from Sydney.

The counter-terrorism operation that resulted in the men’s detention, which involved officers from the New South Wales (NSW) Police Force’s Terrorism Investigation Squad, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Australian Border Force (ABF)-led Illicit Tobacco Taskforce, resulted in the identification of an organised criminal gang involved in the importation of illicit tobacco, drug trafficking and money laundering.

In a statement, NSW Police said three suspects were detained on Tuesday at Sydney Olympic Park, where one man was found by officers to be carrying A$12,000 ($8,245) in cash.

After those arrests, investigators carried out a series of raids on domestic properties, business premises and storage units across Sydney’s south-west, resulting in the seizure of illicit tobacco, A$50,000 in cash and a range of luxury items, including designer watches, jewellery and handbags.

During the raids, a further six suspects were detained, and were later charged with a number of offences including membership of a criminal organisation, tobacco smuggling, money laundering and the criminal possession of more than 500kgs of tobacco.

Police believe members of the gang were responsible for the importation and sale of more than seven tonnes of illicit tobacco products, estimated to be worth in excess of A$1.8 million.

Commenting on the success of the operation, ABF Acting Regional Commander for NSW Garry Low said: “We know illicit tobacco is an attractive market for criminal syndicates due to the lucrative profits that can be made in evaded tax, and as we can see here, the profits are often channelled back into organised crime.

“Illicit tobacco costs Australia about A$600 million a year in lost revenue. The ABF, working with our law enforcement partners, will continue to do everything we can to crack down on this black market, the criminals involved in it, and prevent illicit profits being channelled back into other criminal activities.”

In May of last year, lawmakers in Australia launched a crackdown on the sale of illicit tobacco that they claimed would raise some A$3.6 billion over a four-year period.

The Australian government said the initiative was intended to prevent the sale of 864 tonnes of illicit tobacco that is estimated to slip past the country’s customs officers every year.

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