@EUROPOL - In an operation codenamed “Matador”, law enforcement from France, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Spain and Ukraine arrested 13 persons responsible for large-scale luxury car theft across Europe. Ongoing investigations have revealed that the criminal group consists of over 50 persons from various countries and is responsible for the misappropriation of at least 36 high-end vehicles. During the action day on 21 May 2024, authorities conducted over 70 searches, leading to the seizure of six vehicles, forged documentation and license plates, as well as EUR 132 165 in cash. In Ukraine alone, police officers conducted more than 50 searches in the premises of persons involved in criminal activities, including those who recruited and assisted with logistics.

The international operation began as a Spanish investigation, initiated when car rental and leasing companies in the Málaga area reported missing luxury cars. Investigators soon uncovered a criminal network that was using the driving licences or passports of vulnerable persons to rent or lease prestigious cars. Europol formed an operational task force with France, Spain, Poland and Ukraine to thwart these criminal activities. On the judicial side of the operation, Eurojust launched a joint investigation team with the same countries.

Corporate-like criminal enterprise

Over the course of a year and a half, the authorities involved drew up an intelligence picture of the criminal network’s operations across Europe. The organisation, mainly based in Ukraine, hired Ukrainian citizens to travel to the EU to rent or lease luxury cars using their real identities. In other cases, forged identity documents were used. With the criminals arranging flights, hotel rooms and other logistics, each person would rent one to two cars, mainly in Spain or France.

Once rented or leased, the cars were handed over to contact persons who arranged for the vehicles to be taken, by land or sea, to various countries, including Lithuania, Germany and Poland. At these processing locations, a separate branch of the organisation, consisting of specialised car mechanics, prepared the cars for export. This included disabling the GPS transmitters installed in the vehicles and the forgery and replacement of licence plates and other numbered parts of the vehicle. In some cases, the cars were completely disassembled for sale on the spare parts market.

After the changing of the identification numbers, members of another branch used corrupted officials to legalise the cars and register them under their personal documents. This would enable them to sell the vehicles within the EU and abroad, to countries as far away as the United Arab Emirates or destinations in Asia. The whole process was financed by another branch of the organisation, mainly based in Spain.

A High Value Target successfully taken down

Given the scale of the investigation surrounding Operation Matador, as well as the advanced criminal expertise of its members, Europol classified the main leader as a High Value Target (HVT). He was in contact with other organisations specialising in vehicle theft, which could be taken down in the coming weeks. On the action day, one Armenian, one Lithuanian, two French, six Russian and three Ukrainian nationals were arrested, including the HVT.

Credits to Europol for a detailed and complex operation:

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