‘Infuriating’: Super Cartel Drug Lords Freed After Just 2 Months

A police official told VICE World News that Dutch and US authorities would be despairing after two accused cartel bosses were released from custody in Dubai.
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Police arrested 49 people in in Europe and Dubai as part of operation Desert Light in November. Photo: Europol

Two alleged drug lords said to be kingpins in a European “super cartel” have been released just two months after being arrested in Dubai.

In late November Edin Gacanin, a Dutch-Bosnian national described by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as one of the top 50 drug traffickers in the world, and Zuhair Belkhair, a Dutch-Moroccan accused of trafficking huge amounts of cocaine through the port of Rotterdam, were among 49 suspects arrested in a massive, highly-publicised, international police operation.

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Police said the two men were one of six “high value targets” captured during a series of raids co-ordinated by the EU’s law enforcement agency Europol, the DEA and multiple police forces across Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. 

But, in a development that will be intensely embarrassing for law enforcement, it has been revealed that authorities in Dubai have released Gacanin and Belkhair, leaving officials baffled.  

Gacanin, 40, nicknamed “Tito”, was considered the most powerful member of the so-called “super cartel” composed of Irish, British, Italian, Bosnian, Dutch and Chilean traffickers, until his arrest during an operation police dubbed “Desert Light”. 

Yet he was freed completely – neither on bail nor facing extradition – on the 29th of December amid claims in the Dutch media that the Netherlands failed to provide proper extradition paperwork within 40 days, despite Dutch prosecutors arguing the paperwork was properly submitted on time. Belkhair was granted bail around the same time, while he awaits the extradition process to the Netherlands, according to a statement from his lawyer, Guy Weski, to local media in the Netherlands.

The release of the two men, reported yesterday for the first time by Dutch media, has shocked and angered Dutch authorities who believed the significant US involvement in the case would force the UAE to deport both men. 

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“At the moment, the client has indeed been released after payment of a bail. He is awaiting extradition proceedings,” Weski told the newspaper Het Parool.

But the situation with Gacanin, whose Dutch attorney has so far refused comment, is far less clear, according to Dutch prosecutors and law enforcement sources, who told VICE World News it appeared the request for his extradition had been rejected out of hand, but were pressing the UAE for more details.  

An international law enforcement official who agreed to speak without attribution confirmed Belkhair had been released on bail but said there has been “little clarity,” as to the “status or location,” of Gacanin.

“This is frustrating and infuriating for the Dutch and the Americans,” said the Belgian police official of the releases of the two men. “The involvement of the DEA in [the operation] was supposed to get the Emiratis onboard, they’d received assurances the UAE judiciary was taking this seriously.” 

Gacanin, born in Bosnia but raised in the Netherlands, is alleged to be a high profile figure in the cocaine industry, according to multiple law enforcement sources in the European Union and Bosnia. 

“The DEA thinks he’s a top 50 trafficker – we think he might be in the top five European traffickers,” a European police official who cannot be named for security reasons told VICE World News in an interview last year. 

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“Tito controls significant production capabilities in Peru,” said the cop. “At least five [cocaine] production labs are directly controlled by Tito and some local partners. Control of labs is incredibly rare for European traffickers, in fact I can't think of another, and this allows him to source large quantities of cocaine at wholesale prices.”

His release infuriated Dutch officials, who denied that the request for extradition was late or lacked complete paperwork, despite multiple news organisations reporting that Dubai had refused the Dutch request to deport him to Holland.

The Dutch Public Prosecution Service (OM) emphatically denied any failure to properly request Gacanin in a statement to the Dutch media.

“We know the stories about the documents being submitted too late. That is not true. We are working to find out what exactly is the cause," spokesman Wim de Bruin told Het Parool

Although Belkhair remains indicted and awaiting his Dubai extradition process while on bail, Gacanin was released without apparent conditions.

In the past UAE and Dubai authorities have been quietly criticised by prosecutors in multiple countries for allowing a slew of major cocaine traffickers from Ireland, the UK, Morocco and the Netherlands to operate openly with little fear of arrest. As a result, over the last year the UAE has begun clamping down on mega-rich criminals using Dubai as a bolt-hole and to launder money.     

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Adding to the tension between the UAE and Netherlands, it seems, according to the Dutch prosecutors, that both men have disappeared and might have left Dubai for some unknown location. Belkhair theoretically cannot leave the UAE while the extradition process remains ongoing, while it appears that Gacanin no longer faces any legal issue in the UAE and could travel freely to another country.

“We don’t know where the two suspects are now. We have no information about their whereabouts and their possibilities to cross the border,” an OM spokesperson told the online news portal NU.nl.

The police official in Belgium, a country which has multiple arrest and extradition requests out for traffickers operating from Dubai and Antwerp, said the UAE generally only arrested drug suspects at the request of other countries after extreme political pressure and negotiations.

“Dubai keeps insisting that Belgium and Holland need to negotiate a proper treaty,” said the Belgian cop. “But they have moved incredibly slowly despite our requests, then use the excuse that there’s no official agreement or procedure. And so these cocaine bosses remain free.”

Gacanin and Irish mob boss Daniel Kinahan, boxer Tyson Fury’s former promoter, are now the only major members of what the DEA once described as a “super-cartel” in a 2017 confidential report, to remain free. The other members, Dutch trafficker Ridouan Taghi, Ricardo Riquelme Vega aka “Rico the Chilean, and Italian mafia boss Rafeal Imperiale, all spotted alongside Kinahan and Gacanin at the Irish man’s 2017 wedding in Dubai by a confidential informant, have since been jailed or are on trial. 

Vega is serving 11 years in the Netherlands, Imperiale was arrested in 2021 in Dubai and extradited to Italy after a months long diplomatic fight that included multiple Italian officials flying the the UAE to negotiate in person. 

“Getting these fuckers in Dubai to do anything [on cocaine traffickers] is like pulling out your own teeth,” one Italian law enforcement official told VICE World News. The official cannot be identified for diplomatic sensitivity reasons.

Taghi is on trial for six murders in a specially built high security courthouse nicknamed “Ze Bunker,” on the outskirts of Amsterdam and is suspected of ordering a slew of other killings including the 2021 murder of prominent Dutch journalist Peter de Vries in central Amsterdam. Dutch officials were only able to try Taghi after members of his family in Morocco accidentally murdered the son of a famous Moroccan judge in a case of mistaken identity.

“Taghi would probably be sitting in Dubai right now but he fucked up and killed the son of a [Moroccan] judge,” said the Italian law enforcement source. “That meant the king of Morocco got involved and sent his guys to Dubai. The UAE might ignore the Dutch but they aren’t going to deny another Arab king revenge. That’s how Taghi got sent to Holland.”