Transnational Fight Against the Trafficking of Cultural Goods: Operation Pandora III

October 02, 2019
pandora operation

A multinational police operation against the illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts has led to the seizure of more than 18,000 items and the arrest of 59 people.

Operation Pandora III was led by the Spanish Civil Guard (Guardia Civil) and supported by Europol, the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) and the World Customs Organization (WCO). Authorities in 29 countries took part and focused on online sales in particular.

Although the operation took place between Oct. 22 and 30 last year, the results were only available to be announced recently.

The size and scope of the investigation is staggering.

• Locations inspected and raided included archaeological sites, auction houses, border crossings, mail centres, art galleries, museums, ports, private houses, airports, seaports and land crossings.

• Among the 18,000 goods recovered and seized were archaeological items, furniture, coins, paintings, musical instruments and sculptures.

• Most were found in European countries, but items were discovered as far away as Colombia, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco.

• One raid alone, carried out by the Guardia Civil, seized 10,000 archaeological artefacts.

• In the Netherlands, law enforcement officials uncovered a 15th-century bible that had been stolen in Germany over 25 years ago.

A concerted effort across borders

What distinguished this operation from others was how many countries cooperated—and across so many areas. During Pandora III, Europol, Interpol and the WCO established around-the-clock coordination units. This enabled the free flow exchange of information, so parties could alert and warn each other quickly. It also allowed knowledge-sharing between law enforcement agencies following cross-checks across the vast international and national databases.

Specialists from across the units provided analytical, on-the-spot support:

• Several hundred searches were performed on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database.

• The Dutch police organized a cyber-patrol week, coordinating teams to chart global online activity and target suspicious websites and sellers. Six experts from around the world, Europol, Interpol and WCO mapped active targets and developed intelligence packages, resulting in 169 suspicious websites targeted and 682 objects seized.

• Europol provided analytical and operational assistance, setting up a mobile office to support the cyber-patrol activity.

The rise and role of the internet

Pandora III demonstrated how the internet has transformed the movement of goods, removing traditional intermediaries and opening up new avenues for modern criminal networks to exploit. It is an ever-changing threat for law enforcement agencies to fight against, as Interpol noted following the raids: “Fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural goods online is a key challenge. Criminal groups take advantage of digital platforms such as websites, social media and instant messaging apps to sell cultural artefacts of unlawful origin.”

Pandora III follows Pandora I and Pandora II, the first operations to tackle the theft and illicit trafficking of cultural goods in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2016, 3,561 cultural goods were recovered; in 2017, over 41,000 items were seized.

The numbers show the issue is far from being solved. And to eradicate the illegal activities that hurt the economy and threaten society’s security is a goal too challenging for any one group, government, or company to achieve alone. “Pandora III has shown that no item, be it a modern-day treasure or an ancient artefact, is safe from the hands of organized crime. It is only by coordinated international efforts and cooperation that the flow of illicit trade can be  eradicated,” said Matteo Mattei, PMI’s Director of Illicit Trade Prevention for the EU.

Pandora III once again highlighted the importance of the internet and its role in illegal activity around the world. StopIllegal recently discussed the dark web’s role in facilitating online illicit trade and criminal activity around the world. Read here to find out more.


Written by STOP: ILLEGAL

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