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Organised crime foots the bill for Operation Sky

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Belgium’s largest police operation ever, which targeted organised crime both across the country and beyond its borders, was paid for in part thanks to money seized from organised criminal enterprises.

The operation known as Operation Sky involved 1,600 police officers who were deployed in 200 raids across Belgium, arresting higher-ups in the criminal underworld who were caught after Belgian authorities cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC.

It was an ambitious crackdown, and some of the financing for the operation came from €585,000 in fines paid by Polish-Italian gangster Riccardo Fanchini, who Belgium helped bring down back in 2007, according to reporting from De Standaard.

Fanchini was a drug smuggler convicted in Belgium for fraud involving a vodka company. He had set up an international smuggling route in the early 2000’s, transporting not only cocaine and other illegal substances but also electronics and cigarettes. One of the ways he laundered the money from the smuggling enterprise was with investments in real estate projects on the Black Sea.

The money laundering was investigated by detectives in Antwerp, where Fanchini kept his address, while American authorities in the United States looked into the drug smuggling.

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Eventually, Fanchini was successfully arrested in London and stood trial in the US, where he was sentenced to ten years in prison and given a fine of USD 2 million, around half of which the Americans donated to their Belgian colleagues as a token of gratitude: the €585,000.

The money was gifted in 2012, but remained in the accounts of the Central Office for Seizure and Forfeiture (COIV) until last fall, when it was given to the federal police in Antwerp in order to invest in new technology that led to the cracking of Sky ECC.

The consequences of that cracking are expected to be felt over weeks and months to come. The initial operation primarily targeted people involved in the distribution of the special phones customised with the encrypted messaging service, and high profile arrests have already included lawyers and police officers.

“I would not be surprised if members of the judicial system are also implicated,” Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said on Saturday in an interview with Het Nieuwsblad and Gazet van Antwerpen.

About €1.2 million and 17 tonnes of cocaine were seized, along with diamonds, jewellery, luxury vehicles, police uniforms and weapons, in searches conducted throughout Belgium as part of the Operation.

Helen Lyons
The Brussels Times