Cops Dismantle 'Super Cartel' That Controlled One Third of Europe's Cocaine Trade

An international police operation involving the DEA led to the arrest of 6 cocaine kingpins including Dutch-Bosnian Edin "Tito" Gacanin, alleged to be one of Europe's biggest traffickers.
dubai cocaine cartel arrests
Image: Europol.

Police say they have arrested 6 drug lords in Dubai who are alleged to be part of a “super cartel” of traffickers controlling one third of the cocaine trade in Europe.

European crime agency Europol announced the arrests of 49 suspects and the seizure of 30 tonnes of cocaine as part of “Operation Desert Light”, a joint mission which also involved the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) alongside police from the United Arab Emirates, Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.


Last month an investigation by VICE Word News revealed how the Gulf city state, a notorious refuge for international gangsters on the run, is becoming an increasingly risky bolthole for criminals due to a series of clampdowns by UAE authorities.

Law enforcement sources in both Belgium and the Netherlands told VICE World News the arrests of the 6 “high value targets” included 40-year-old Edin Gacanin, a Dutch-Bosnian trafficker based in Dubai nicknamed “Tito” who is considered one of the 50 largest cocaine traffickers in Europe, according to a leaked DEA report that first flagged the super cartel in 2019.

The cartel, a consortium of traffickers from Ireland, Morocco, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands whose leadership is mostly based in Dubai, where they believed a lack of extradition treaties with Europe would protect the operation, was described by Europol as a "prolific criminal network involved in large-scale drugs trafficking and money laundering.”

"The scale of cocaine importation into Europe under the suspects’ control and command was massive," Europol said in a statement, adding that there is "no safe haven for drug lords.”


Gacanin was born in 1982 in Sarajevo and raised in Breda, Netherlands, where much of his extended family is believed to be involved in large scale international drug trafficking.

“It’s a family business for the Gacanin clan but Edin had taken things to a new level by making strong contacts throughout South America, primarily with the Colombian North Valley cartel and independent producers in Peru, that allowed him to source huge amounts of cocaine on a wholesale level,” a Bosnian police official told VICE World News earlier this year.

Since around 2015, these contacts put Gacanin in a critical position to source large amounts of cocaine imported to Europe by another alleged member of the super cartel, Dutch Moroccan drug lord Ridouan Taghi. Arrested in Dubai in 2019, Taghi is currently on trial in a high security courthouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam constructed specifically for cartel trials. Taghi faces almost a dozen murder charges and is suspected in the murder of Dutch bloggers, lawyers and journalists as well as threats against government officials and even the Dutch royal family.


Other alleged members of the cartel are Camorra boss Rafael Imperiale, arrested last year in Dubai and extradited to Italy this spring after a personal appeal by the Italian Justice Minister, and the Kinahan Organised Crime Group, an Irish outfit run by Christy Kinahan and his sons, Daniel and Christy Jr, who remain free in the UAE despite having been designated for massive sanctions by the US Department of Treasury earlier this year. 

The relationship – which was seen as more a partnership than a hierarchical operation - between Taghi, Imperiale, Gacanin and the Kinahan crew came to light in 2017, when a DEA confidential informant spotted the group celebrating Daniel Kinahan’s wedding at the 7-star Burj al Arab, Dubai’s highest profile hotel. The US then reported the connection to Dutch investigators and suggested the group might have controlled as much as €30 billion [$31.3 billion] in total cocaine imports to Europe through the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp over the last decade, although many experts dispute that value as unrealistic despite the massive amounts believed trafficked.


“We really don’t know how much it [the cocaine the cartel imported] is all actually worth or how much gets through,” admitted a senior European law enforcement official on the condition of background to VICE World News this summer. “We only know what we seize and that’s been a massive, record setting amount and it's clear we could be getting as little as 10 percent of what’s sent.”

The past two years have seen record seizures of cocaine in Antwerp in Belgium – with authorities unable to destroy the backlog of cocaine quick enough – and in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Both ports are expected to break these records in 2022, according to law enforcement authorities in Belgium and the Netherlands. Much of the increase of seizures came after a series of European police and intelligence operations to hack encrypted phones favoured by traffickers

The case against Gacanin, according to the prosecutors, is backed by evidence collected from a joint Dutch-French intelligence operation to hack the cartel-popular Sky ECC encrypted phone system. He’s accused of trafficking thousands of kilos of cocaine, as well as 8,000 kilos of amphetamine precursor to Europe. 

The other “high value” suspect arrested in Dubai at the behest of the Dutch was 37-year-old Zohair B, alias “Beertje”, who has both Dutch and Moroccan nationality. He is being prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service Rotterdam for importing thousands of kilos of cocaine into the Netherlands in 2020 and 2021, participating in a criminal organisation, laundering large amounts of money, official corruption and possession of firearms. The investigation into him has started with decrypted messages from Sky ECC crypto phones. An extradition request will be made to the UAE for both suspects.

Of the other four drug barons arrested in Dubai, two were being investigated by Spanish police and two were being trailed by French police.  

UPDATE 29/11/2022: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Zohair B's name.