A criminal network is said to have turned “dirt into diamonds” by buying horses that were written off and worth only €100 each, before selling meat unfit for consumption and generating illegal profits of about €1.5 million.
The operation, developed jointly by Europol and the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) uncovered a “large criminal network, which was altering the traceability of horse meat by falsifying transfer and identification documents”.
The untraceable meat was “sold on the Spanish, but also Belgian, German, and Italian markets”. During raids in Spain, authorities seized half a tonne of horse meat “unfit for consumption”.
The alleged criminal network is also believed to be linked to a number of other crimes including food fraud, money laundering, and document fraud.
During the operational activities, national authorities arrested 35 individuals, including the heads of the network, while targeting six companies linked to the criminal organisation.
Active international cooperation, facilitated by Europol, enabled the dismantling of the criminal scheme with six other arrests made by the Belgian Federal Police.
Those allegedly involved in the criminal network had different functions: from the ones who slaughtered the animals without the necessary controls to the individuals dealing with the transport, the veterinarians providing false documents, and the butcher facilities, which sold the meat unfit for consumption.
The suspects acquired horses from across Spain for free or by paying up to 100 euros per animal. Due to several factors, these animals were not destined for the food market and the potential illegal profit was substantial.
Once the alleged leader of the criminal network acquired enough livestock to activate the illegal scheme, they set up a complete cattle exploitation facility in 2019 and started exporting the meat to other European markets.
Spanish officers raided the clandestine facilities and uncovered 80 horses – they “had been abused and were suffering from various untreated diseases due to the lack of veterinary control”.
A Europol press release said: “This lack of supervision posed a significant risk for the development of zoonotic diseases transmittable to humans. Moreover, the animals endured poor conditions in the cattle facilities, a lack of food and water, as well as permanent stress situations during transport.”
Even a single illegal shipment allegedly generated €35,000 for the transporters, with an estimated turnover of €4.5 million in turnover on the logistical side.
Europol coordinated the operational activities, facilitated the information exchange, and provided analytical support to national law enforcement authorities.
During the action days, Europol deployed experts to Belgium and Spain to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases in real-time and provided leads to investigators in the field.
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