Europol is the European Union’s law enforcement agency, and it assists the European Union’s member states in the fight against serious international crime and terrorism. Any member of the European Union (EU) is automatically part of Europol, and the agency also has information-sharing agreements with many non-member countries and agencies, including the U.S.
Europol is a support agency, collecting and analyzing data from across the world and assisting international criminal investigations. Some of the key areas of focus include terrorism, international drug trafficking and money laundering, organized fraud, counterfeiting of euro currency, smuggling, cybercrime, human trafficking and organized crime of all types (mobile, outlaw motorcycle gangs, etc.).
One example of a successful investigation is the dismantling of a Bulgarian gang of credit card fraudsters. Lasting more than a year, the investigation resulted in the arrest of 25 persons involved in the scam, with an additional 21 persons detained and charged. In addition, police confiscated 250 skimming devices, 2,000 blank credit cards and more than 50,000 euros in cash.
Europol played a key role by deploying on-the-spot specialists from the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)’s Operation Terminal to assist with in-depth analysis of itemized phone bills and hard disk drives linked to the criminal gang. In addition, Europol organized operational meetings to plan the arrests of the key figures within the gangs.
Another successful example is the arrest and jailing of a human trafficking gang, which was trafficking Hungarian women into the UK to take part in sham marriages to Pakistani men. The UK investigation was supported by Interpol. “We have worked closely with our partners in Europol and the Hungarian National Police service to successfully stop these criminals who have actively targeted and manipulated vulnerable young women,” Dave Magrath from the UK Home Office’s Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team said. “Trafficking is an abhorrent crime and I hope this case sends a clear message to those involved overseas that international borders will not stop us from tracking you down and bringing you to justice.”
In April of 2014, Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, addressed the Vatican Conference Against Human Trafficking at the Vatican’s Academy of Science, predicting that “by working together and leveraging the power of the fundamental human condition of doing the right thing the police community and civil society will succeed in eradicating modern slavery.”
LET caught up with Wainwright in his office in The Hague, the Netherlands, where Europol has its headquarters.
LET: What are the biggest challenges facing Europol right now?
RW: The global context of how organized crime is changing. Our mandate is to provide organization support to help agencies fight organized crime and terrorism. We are seeing a rapidly changing organized crime landscape, particularly online, which is making it much harder for cops around the world to deal with organized crime. We are trying to speed up the information exchange, invest in technology to investigate and to collaborate much more.
LET: How is cooperation between European law enforcement departments?
RW: The cultural aspects of policing are conservative in nature. So they don’t like change, they don’t like taking risks, and that tendency towards conservatism holds back evolution and change. Criminal investigators don’t like to let go of the control of their information, so the sharing of information can be a challenge. Policing is about localism, solving problems where you find them, which also suppresses collaboration on a global scale. What we have to do is educate police officers that the criminal world around them is changing. They need to cooperate in ways they haven’t before and to make use of global policing organizations, which should make their jobs easier. It’s also about leadership, having the right police chiefs in place to have the vision about modern policing, to take the work to the international level and to lead a new age of policing and inspire their rank and file.
LET: How does the EU structure help Europol?
RW: In Europe we benefit from the fact that the EU is the most integrated group of countries. We have a ready-made model of political, economic, and legal partnerships, which makes it easier to do police business across the 28 countries.
We draw our budget and the legal framework from the EU. We cooperate with other countries through the federal level. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Europol worked together on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). In Norway, we had a gunman kill a number of people. Shortly afterward we brought agencies and countries together for a major conference on CVE.
LET: What is your typical day like?
RW: A lot of my job is concerned with the political aspects of the EU. We are dealing with lots of different approaches. We have this concept of traveling gangs from Eastern Europe going into Western Europe—a politically charged topic.
Europol is not as well known in Europe as it should be, so I spend a lot of time getting our name out there. Our rate of casework is increasing about 20 percent a year. Our work is about acting as an information hub, connecting the intel flows across countries, analyzing those data flows and creating investigative opportunity, using our experts, and converting that into operational plans. Last year, we did 18,000 cross-border cases. These can be two-, three- and four-year long cases across countries.
LET: How do you work with the law enforcement agencies in the member states?
RW: In Europe, we work at the federal level, but they are linked into the state and local agencies in each country. To support their work, agencies have liaison officers at our headquarters. They still have the authority, and work alongside each other and they convert the intel into the cases. That community is very strong. They do the daily work to make sure we have an operational effect and are often coming from state and local agencies in the member countries.
LET: How challenging is it to deal with the varying levels of law enforcement professionalism?
RW: It’s a risk and an opportunity. It’s extremely challenging to try to forge a working relationship with agencies that have different norms. We have designed a common methodology and had it endorsed at the highest political level. We all work on a single way of setting priorities and converting those into operations.
In my office, I have a diversity of knowledge and expertise—I have access to an expert in everything. The other day, I met with a Romanian cyber analyst and he was amazing, with ideas I had never heard before. We may have different practices but some of them are brilliant. If we can tap into that, we have huge potential to make everyone more efficient.
LET: How do you liaise and cooperate with non-member states?
RW: We have to negotiate a formal legal agreement with these partners and maintain a high level of data protection. The legal capabilities that we have to collect, sort, and exchange large quantities of personal data makes it very sensitive—we have to operate under such scrutiny and have incredibly high standards of data privacy. Before we can share intel with another agency, we have to satisfy that the data privacy is high enough to match our EU norm.
We now have 11 full partnerships, including the U.S. And we have about 20 others that have a looser agreement that allows us to work with them without sharing sensitive data. We are working with 48 countries or international organizations that we have structured relationships with. When we have non-EU issues, Interpol is our gateway for that work.
LET: What are you the proudest of when it comes to Europol?
RW: Every day, we are making a difference, like some of the work we have done in shutting down child sex operations online. It’s hard work and we are not successful in every case, but when I can see the difference we are making in really important cases it makes me very proud. It is a real source of inspiration going forward. ■