The French National Police (Police Nationale), the Romanian Police (Poliția Română) and the Spanish National Police (Policía Nacional), supported by Europol and Eurojust, dismantled a criminal network involved in human trafficking for sexual exploitation. For the purposes of this investigation, Europol established an operational task force which led to the identification of the leader of the criminal gang. He was also recognised as a high-value target for this investigation.
The action day on 22 March led to:
- 16 house searches (10 in France and 6 in Romania);
- 7 arrests (2 in France and 5 in Romania, including the high-value target identified by the law enforcement authorities involved);
- 32 victims identified, most of whom were Romanian nationals (13 in France and 19 in Romania);
- Seizures included digital equipment and mobile phones, cannabis from an indoor lab, luxury vehicles and over EUR 23 000 in cash.
The evidence collected during the investigation suggests that the criminal network had been active since 2014. The members of the criminal gang manipulated their victims into prostitution for the financial benefit of the criminal network. They targeted vulnerable victims from financially and emotionally unstable situations using the so-called lover boy method. The criminal network forced victims to continue working by using threats and acts of violence against them or their family members. The investigators have already identified 28 victims exploited by the gang in France. Based in France, Spain and Romania, the members of the criminal network operated out of rented locations in France and Romania. Evidence suggests that the criminal network channelled around EUR 1.3 million in illegal proceeds to Romania via money transfer companies, and transferred more assets via cash couriers. This money originated from 250 localities in 25 different states. 80 % of the money transfers were made from internet cafes in Barcelona and addressed to the leaders of the organisation in Romania. They laundered the criminal proceeds in Romania through investments in real estate and luxury goods. They also used part of the illegal profits to finance different criminal activities.
The lover boy trick
The lover boy technique is widely used by criminals to recruit victims confronted with economic and social hardship. The suspects target their victims’ vulnerabilities and seduce them with expensive gifts and promises of a better life abroad. This is the reason many women leave their families in search of love and new opportunities in other countries. However, once they find themselves in their new home, they are forced into prostitution to earn money for their handler. The victims are lured with affection, violence and threats against them and their families back home. In this particular case, the victims were captured in Ploiesti (Romania) using the lover boy trick and transferred by plane to Barcelona (Spain), where they were housed in flats for several days which had been arranged by the organisation. This gave the organisers enough time to buy suggestive clothes for the victims. They were then transferred to accommodations rented by the organisation in different locations, including the south of France (Marseille, Nice) and Spain (Costa Brava and Ibiza). The victims were then ‘advertised’ on internet platforms specialising in sexual services.
In 2020, together with France, Spain and Romania, Europol established an operational task force to jointly target this criminal network. The specific set-up of this task force enabled the investigators to easily identify the modus operandi of the criminal group and use the intelligence gathered to identify the leaders and their associates.
Europol coordinated the operational activities, facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support. Europol deployed an expert to Romania to cross-check operational information in real time and support the investigators on the ground.
Eurojust set up a joint investigation team (JIT) between France and Romania. Five suspects were arrested as a result of five European arrest warrants.