The arrest of a top Balkan drug trafficker in Dubai has revealed how some of Europe's leading drug traffickers were able to work together to procure cocaine in bulk from producer countries in Latin America.
Operation Desert Light, coordinated by Europol, saw dozens of suspects arrested in the United Arab Emirates, France, Spain, and Belgium between November 8 and 19. The arrest of Edin Gačanin, alias "Tito," in Dubai was seen as the most important of the entire operation.
Believed to be the head of a drug trafficking network known as the Tito and Dino clan, Gačanin was born in Bosnia and raised in the Netherlands. He ran a profitable drug trafficking business between Latin America and the Balkans despite being based in Dubai, according to Balkan Insight.
"The arrest of Edin Gačanin will significantly weaken the position of his criminal group, but it is likely that another organized crime group will take over its role within a couple of months," Anesa Agovic, field coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told InSight Crime.
In 2019, the Tito and Dino clan was named as part of a "super cartel," run by Gačanin alongside Irish drug kingpin, Daniel Kinahan, Italian mafia boss Raffaele Imperiale, and Dutch-Moroccan trafficker, Ridouan Taghi, Bosnian newspaper El Zurnal revealed, citing documents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Who’s Who in the Super Cartel
In 2017, four men were photographed by undercover DEA agents while celebrating Daniel Kinahan’s wedding at the luxurious Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. They were Bosnian-Dutch Edin Gačanin, alias "Tito," Daniel Kinahan from Ireland, Dutch-Moroccan citizen Ridouan Taghi, and Raffaele Imperiale from Italy. Together, representing some of Europe’s largest criminal groups, they would handle up to a third of Europe’s multi-billion-dollar cocaine trade. But in the years since that meeting, all but Kinahan have been arrested, with Edin Gačanin being the latest to be arrested in November 2022.
Arrested in November 2022 in Dubai. Dutch-Bosnian citizen and alleged head of the Tito and Dino Clan. Allegedly sourced wholesale quantities of cocaine in Peru and Colombia to be sent to Europe. After his arrest in Dubai, he was charged with trafficking cocaine into Europe and importing precursors for the production of amphetamine.
Arrested in November 2022 in Dubai. British citizen Ryan Hale is a drug trafficker linked to the Irish Kinahan clan. He was wanted by Spanish authorities for leading a cocaine trafficking network from Marbella, Spain, and had fled to Dubai out of fear of being kidnapped by other criminal networks.
Arrested in November 2022 in Dubai. Anthony Alfredo Martínez Meza is a Panamanian citizen who provided cocaine to his European partners. He was based in Dubai and would organize shipments from the port of Manzanillo in Panama to Spain. Authorities suspect that he imported up to 10 tons of cocaine into Spain in the past two years, together with Hale.
Former professional boxer and Irish citizen, Daniel Kinahan, is a leader of the Kinahan Clan This organization was created in Dublin in the 1990s by his father, Christy Kinahan. Daniel Kinahan is believed to direct the organization’s drug trafficking activities from Dubai. He, his brother, and his father were sanctioned by the United States in April 2022.
Arrested in August 2021 in Dubai. Raffaele Imperiale was one of the most important drug traffickers affiliated with the Italian Camorra mafia. He started as an international cocaine broker in the early 2000s and, due to his independent status, was able to survive various feuds within the Camorra. He was on Italy’s most wanted list until his arrest.
Arrested in December 2019 in Dubai. Ridouan Taghi is accused of leading a drug trafficking organization that imported tons of cocaine into Europe. He is currently on trial for his alleged role in multiple homicides in the Netherlands.
InSight Crime Analysis
The so-called super cartel was likely not a formal alliance but a successful example of "crowdsourcing," with different criminal actors pooling their money to buy cocaine cheaper in bulk.
The members each had their contacts in cocaine-producing and transit countries, enabling them to buy drugs at reduced prices and sell them in Europe at a hefty markup. But either way, with most of the partners behind bars, this profitable collaboration may be over.
Gačanin would purchase wholesale quantities of cocaine from partners like the now-dismantled Colombian Norte del Valle Cartel and independent Peruvian producers, according to a Bosnian police official quoted by Vice News.
Imperiale would work with some of Italy's largest mafia groups, such as Camorra and 'Ndrangheta, and Colombian groups, including the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan or the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC). Europol caught him in Dubai in August 2021.
Ridouan Taghi allegedly sent some of his closest allies to South America to negotiate cocaine deals. One top lieutenant, Saïd Razzouki, was arrested in Medellín, Colombia, in 2020 while allegedly operating under the protection of the Urabeños. Other Taghi allies were arrested in Suriname.
Ireland's Daniel Kinahan also turned to the Urabeños after another route set up by Dutch-Chilean Ricardo Riquelme was dismantled upon Riquelme's arrest in 2017. Kinahan partnered with Panamanian Anthony Alfredo Martínez Meza as well, shipping cocaine from Panama's port of Manzanillo to Spain. Martínez Meza was among those arrested in the latest Dubai sweep.
The partners are also believed to have jointly invested in mega-shipments, including the one containing almost 18 tons of cocaine seized in Philadelphia en route to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam in 2019.
Kinahan is the only one left outside. But how long he can avoid authorities with him and his family under US sanctions is up for debate. In September, Irish media reported he may have fled Dubai in search of a safe haven in Asia.
The city's reputation as a safe haven for criminals is certainly being re-examined. The United Arab Emirates signed a liaison agreement with Europol in September, which proved crucial to the recent arrests. But real change may not be forthcoming. "To an extent, the UAE authorities do not want to look at it too hard because there's billions of criminal money being invested in Dubai," one European intelligence officer told VICE News.