Spanish police said on Thursday they had arrested the head of one of Europe's biggest money-laundering rings, which had ties to the Kinahan drug gang and used the sale of high-end vodka to restaurants as a cover.
A police spokesman said John Francis Morrissey, the high-profile ringleader and head of the Spanish operation, was arrested on Monday.
In total, three people were arrested in Spain and one in England, police said in a statement.
The ring was dismantled during a joint international Europol operation known as "Whitewall", they said.
The criminal network laundered more than €200 million in under a year and a half, or up to €350,000 a day, they said.
The money-laundering ring used the so-called "hawala" traditional money transfer system, widely used in Pakistan and the Middle East, that allows money to be exchanged between traders through a handshake, a piece of paper or on trust.
Police said that Morrissey had ties to the Kinahan crime gang, a drug trafficking group operating out of Spain's Costa del Sol, and was "dedicated to collecting large amounts of cash from criminal organisations that operate in our country".
He was arrested during an operation supported by operatives from An Garda Síochána, UK's National Crime Agency, the American Drug Enforcement Administration, the Dutch police and Europol's Financial and Economic Crimes unit.
Police said they had started tracking the group after seizing cocaine and cash hidden in cars in Malaga last year.
The network traded in premium brands, one of them a luxury vodka brand promoted in top restaurants and nightclubs in southern Spain, but the Spanish tax agency said this trade "could in no way support" the ring's lifestyle, police said.
Morrissey was among seven criminals in the Kinahan gang – including cartel founder Christy Kinahan and his sons Daniel and Christopher Jnr – targeted by sanctions imposed by the US Department of the Treasury in April.
He is the first member of the cartel’s leadership to be arrested since the measures were announced by the American authority, which said Morrissey was close to cartel leader Daniel Kinahan and invited to his wedding in Dubai in 2017.
The 62-year-old has already appeared before the courts in Spain and was remanded in custody, along with another man, after a hearing on Wednesday. A woman arrested at the same time has since been released.
Former assistant garda commissioner John O’Driscoll, who had responsibility for organised and serious crime, said the arrest of Morrissey highlights the importance of cooperation between international law enforcement agencies.
The success provided a template for tackling criminal organisations and highlighted the need to collaborate, he told RTÉ’s News at One.
The arrest of Morrissey in Spain was “significant” and the latest stage in moves to dismantle organised crime groups all over the world.
Mr O’Driscoll said the involvement of members of An Garda Síochána in the arrest of Morrissey was important.
While international agencies had announced their intention to join forces to target organised crime last April, authorities in Spain had not been ready to move at that stage, which was why the arrest did not take place until this week, explained Mr O’Driscoll.
Morrissey had been an “enforcer” for the Kinahan gang and had facilitated drug shipments from South America. He was involved in money laundering through his position as director of a UK-based alcoholic beverage company.
The quantity of funds going through that company had given rise to the suspicion of money laundering, Mr O'Driscoll said.
He said organised crime groups were “reckless” in how they laundered money and did not care if their profits were used to fund international terrorism. – Additional reporting: Vivienne Clarke