Multinational Drug Bust Shows Importance of Marshall Center Alumni Connections
By James E. Brooks
Public Affairs Office
George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (June 24, 2016) – Two years ago, an international investigation supported by many European law enforcement agencies culminated with the seizure of more than two tons of heroin in Greece.
Code named “Operation Mersoy”, the drug bust was one of the largest ever in Europe. With an estimated street-value of more than $220 million the heroin was destined for Belgium and Germany. The proceeds would finance a terrorist organization intent on overthrowing the Syrian government.
General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police Marius Ivanovici and Director, Central Port Authority Piraeus and Hellenic Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Georgios Katsoulis were leading case officers from their respective countries. They shared their personal experiences and lessons learned from Operation Mersoy during a Global Countering Transnational Organized Crime Alumni Community of Interest Workshop held at the George C. Marshall European Center, June 20-23.
Operation Mersoy’s success relied heavily on a multinational law enforcement effort to share police information. Language, cultural and political differences complicated the sharing of intelligence between case officers. The difficulty frustrated Ivanovici so much, he wondered if progress would ever be made in the case. But that changed after one meeting in Greece.
“At some point I heard about a drug seizure in Greece similar to one that I worked. And we decided to have a meeting with the Greeks. At that meeting, I met again with my colleague that I met at the Marshall Center. It’s a good thing I met Georgios again at that meeting because I found someone I could trust. Otherwise, I’m not so sure I could’ve continued this investigation. You do continue, but it’s difficult,” recalled Ivanovici.
Ivanovici and Katsoulis attended the Marshall Center’s Countering Narcotics and Illicit Trafficking 14-04 resident course for two weeks in the spring of 2014. CNIT was a new resident course that year and it focused on 21st century national security threats resulting from criminal activities. This year, the course was renamed Countering Transnational Organized Crime or CTOC, to focus more on the methods transnational organized crime and terrorist organizations engage in criminal activity for profit.
“I met Marius at the Marshall Center and I knew him. Because of that, I knew I could trust him and share information. If you have very sensitive information, and you don’t know him or who he is, it’s very, very difficult to share. You don’t want to have any leaks. But you can provide him information that you might not get through normal channels because you know him,” said Katsoulis.
According to Ivanovici, personal relationships are very important in a criminal investigation, especially as one as complicated as Operation Mersoy where heroin from Afghanistan is moved through the Balkans and transported by sea on middle eastern nation-flagged merchant ships then transported across other European borders in trucks licensed in many other different European nations. Attending the alumni community of interest workshop with other law enforcement professionals involved in combating transnational organized crime was even more rewarding to the Romanian police investigator.
“The people in this workshop can help me a lot. In our job, it’s true that our information can be sensitive or classified but it’s not always easy to get information readily. You can send a request through official channels but by the time you receive it back, it’s sometimes too late. It’s much easier to pick up the phone and call someone you know,” explained Ivanovici.
Katsoulis agreed with his international crime fighting partner.
“Without trust you can’t do anything. When you have information that you want to remain safe, and you don’t trust them because of the possibility of leaks, then you have the possibility of disaster. When you have a question, sometimes you need an answer right away. When I call Marius, I know he will immediately respond. We know who we are dealing with and it’s very important to us,” said Katsoulis.
Each year, the George C. Marshall Center delivers tailored resident courses to address the transnational challenges of terrorism, illicit trafficking and cyber insecurity. Coursework brings a foundational understanding of the various threats. But discussions and exercises in smaller work groups, or seminars, builds familiarity and trust among participants.
“Because of the nature of transnational criminals, it’s important to work like them and strengthen our own relations to try and stop them otherwise they will have a step forward,” said Katsoulis.
Despite the successes of Operation Mersoy, the investigative work into the illicit trafficking network is far from over. Prosecutions for those arrested are ongoing. Illicit drug trafficking ebbs and flows through centuries-old smuggling routes.
“One of the drug traffickers I arrested told me that despite how large of a shipment of heroin we think we seized, the traffickers didn’t see it that way. He told me, ‘it’s like driving down the highway and having your tire blow out. You will have to pull over and stop but you will replace it and start moving again’,” said Ivanovici.
Fighting transnational organized crime takes dedicated and focused police work. But for two alumni who reconnected during an important investigation, the need for trust became a necessary part to share information.
“The Marshall Center is a great place to start relationships and you need to stay in touch. You never know when you will need to call someone. I am working an investigation with Ukraine and I’ve tried the official channels to get some information but it doesn’t happen. But this past March I met some colleagues from Ukraine who went here. And they gave me the right channels to communicate in order to continue my investigation,” said Ivanovich.