Drug Criminals Bought Art to Launder Profits

Stephen Andrews
17 May 2022

Last week, European police made multiple arrests to bust an international drug gang that purchased works of art to launder profit. The coordinated action involved a search into an Amsterdam art gallery. Members of the crime network reportedly hid their identities by using characters from films, literature, and arts, including prominent contemporary names such as street artist Banksy.

Allegations of the international drug network include shipping cocaine from Latin America, smuggling cannabis into Spain via North Africa, and ketamine from Lithuania to Dutch ports. The activities of the international criminal network were disrupted last week as Europol coordinated actions in Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.

The Italian interior ministry informed that they had issued warrants against 31 persons, primarily Italian nationals. Police also seized approximately $150,000 in cash and over 150 kilos of illegal substances.

Initially, two restauranteurs in Milan suspected of drug trafficking were identified. The network used bank accounts of two transport companies to launder money from the illicit operations. Network members used encrypted chats and monikers such as Pinocchio and Banksy to conceal their identities. 

According to Italian news media, a modern art gallery in Amsterdam, ART3035, which has been searched as part of the recent action, was suspected of laundering drug profits through art by purchasing paintings and other works of art and issuing fake invoices.

The coordinated police action was conducted on May 11; it involved the search of 47 locations and the arrest of 24 individuals in total. 

Coordinated European drug investigations and busts are routine on the continent. However, one of the questions that are now being raised is whether the upcoming cannabis legalisation in certain European countries will to some capacity, change the collaboration between national authorities? As new drug regulations are enforced, will it strengthen this collaboration or weaken it? 

The European police are pretty successful in busting big, lucrative criminal networks, for all that we can say. Just last April, Spanish authorities seized 415,000 hemp plants in what has been dubbed Europe's biggest weed haul. This operation also had an international character as illegal exports involved countries such as Switzerland and Italy.

Stephen Andrews