From the organized assassination of a journalist in the Netherlands to a deepfake video used in Slovakia’s parliamentary election
In Slovakia, a deepfake video was deployed in the run-up to an election in an attempt to manipulate the vote. Poles in the Netherlands organized the assassination of a journalist who was reporting on drug trafficking. The Embassy of Hungary in Washington paid a former Trump campaigner and lobbyist to defend the Hungarian government on social media. In the Netherlands, druglords hire hackers to locate their cocaine imports seized in European ports. In Malta, brawl turned fatal also led to an investigation that revealed an organized crime group from Romania; and in Bulgaria, consultants’ services include tax evasion schemes worth hundreds of millions of euros in neighbouring Romania. This is the Organised Crime and Corruption Watch, regional edition no. 11.
Slovak election targeted by pro-Kremlin deepfake video
The campaign period leading up to Slovakia’s parliamentary elections in 2023 will probably make history for a rather bleak reasoning: it was one of the first times so-called deepfakes – or, computer-generated audio and video – featured in the pre-ballot battle.
Two days before the vote, footage circulated online purporting to be of a local journalist from a daily newspaper and the chairman of Progressive Slovakia, currently the strongest opposition party and main challenger of Robert Fico’s SMER-SSD (Direction – Slovak Social Democracy) in the ballot. But, there was a problem: the alleged recording of a conversation between the pair had never happened. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people had already listened to it.
Some politicians shared the deepfake video widely, including former Supreme Court head and ex-minister Štefan Harabin and multi-party candidate and former MP Peter Marček who both share worldviews that are broadly accepted as being pro-Kremlin.
Could the video have been a part of a wider plan? The journalists ask in the investigation.
Polish drugs traffickers deep in the service of Dutch drug cartels
An article by frontstory.pl explains how Poles ended up at the center of the Dutch underworld, organizing the assassination of a journalist-turned-witness in the trial of a brutal mafia mob in the Netherlands. .
Dutch drug battles are a piece of a bigger picture. Polish ports are part of it: One of the smuggling routes cuts through here. It became one of the most important ones since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. The investigation, which was a part of the NarcoFiles project, also reveals how Polish labs mix cocaine before the drug hits the market.
“Poland has always been a kind of ‘hub’ for drug trafficking,” said an official from the Maritime Crime Suppression Division of the Pomeranian Customs and Fiscal Office. “Recently, this role has been further strengthened by what is happening across the eastern border.
US Department of Justice database reveals Victor Orbán’s lobbying attempts
“Evil George Soros demands Biden and the EU destroy Hungary and Poland. We must stand against this,” reads a post on DC lobbyist David Reaboi’s X account, the social media formerly known as Twitter.
Documents show that Hungary’s foreign ministry paid Reaboi $35,000 for various services, including defending Victor Orban’s government on social media.
Reaboi, who had previously campaigned for Donald Trump, tried to get Hungarian politicians invited to US talk shows but rarely succeeded. According to media reports, the Biden administration is increasingly concerned by the Orban government’s lobbying in Washington DC, which it views as interfering in domestic politics in the US amid a recent crackdown on foreign lobbyists.
Deadly altercation in Malta leads back to Bucharest organised crime gang
A violent altercation on the streets of Malta last autumn exposed an illegal enterprise profiting from drugs and prostitution that was linked to a criminal gang in Bucharest.
What initially appeared as a chance encounter outside a Malta bar quickly descended into a murder inquiry after a British citizen who lived in Romania was killed. The confrontation unveiled ties to a group entangled in illicit operations, including prostitution and drug trafficking, with initial suspicions pointing to financial motives.
Investigative reporting conducted by Rise Project revealed an intricate web of organized crime entrenched within a Bucharest district. The group, with members actively participating in drug trafficking and various illegal enterprises, accumulated significant wealth, such as luxury cars and high-value properties, without any credible sources of income. The investigation can be read here.
Drug lords hire hackers to get cocaine through port controls
Davy de Valk led a relatively uninteresting life in one district of Rotterdam. He had a girlfriend and two kids and went to football games, where he sometimes got into fights. At school, the otherwise unremarkable de Valk learned the basics of programming and gained a basic understanding of how to hack into systems to which he didn’t know the password.
His hacking skills were eventually put to profitable, but illegal use. Drug cartels began employing him to find out where drug containers they’d stashed on the other side of the ocean were located – and de Valk began to make millions. Read the whole story, which was also part of the NarcoFiles project, here.
Bulgarian consultants facilitate Romanian tax fraud on industrial scale
Several financial consultants in the Bulgarian city of Ruse, at the border to Romania, have been helping Romanian businesspeople commit VAT fraud and, in some cases, embezzle funds from the European Union, to which both countries belong.
OCCRP partner Context revealed the scam after it investigated it in partnership with journalists from the Bulgarian platform BIRD. The reporters found that the perpetrators used the so-called “missing trader intra-community” method, which exploits the zero tax rules for trade between EU members by creating fictitious exports.
Typically, a string of one or more shell companies are created and begin to trade goods between EU countries, which is VAT free as VAT in the EU applies only to domestic trades. In simple cases, fraudsters import goods that they sell domestically and then charge the local buyer without remitting the VAT value to the tax authorities. Read the whole investigation here.
This collaborative newsletter is based on the work of seven investigative news platforms that are members of The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. They include Investigace.cz (Czech Republic), Bird.bg (Bulgaria), Frontstory.pl (Poland), Rise Project (Romania), Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak – icjk.sk (Slovakia), Átlátszó (Hungary), Context Investigative Reporting Project (Romania). Cover photo: James O’Brian, OCCRP