Set up in the framework of Operational Taskforce Lotus, the forensic sprint gathered 15 experts from 8 countries to support the investigations against the largest Chinese sexual exploitation ring ever busted in the EU.
Between 6 and 9 March 2023, Europol set up the first forensic sprint at its headquarters. This sprint was set-up in the framework of Operational Task Force Lotus following an important hit on a human trafficking network within its focus. Indeed, back in February this year, Belgian, Spanish and Swiss authorities arrested 31 suspects for their alleged involvement in the sexual exploitation of Chinese victims.
The suspects trapped the women in debt bondage by facilitating their travel to Europe and subsequently demanding high repayments. It is believed that victims were forced to fund these repayments through prostitution, an almost impossible deed due to the imposition of very high “service fees” by the suspects. The criminal network advertised the victims on websites and managed call centres to connect victims with clients in multiple European countries.
During the raids, investigators uncovered a large number of mobile devices in both Belgium and Spain, which were used by the suspects to communicate with clients and send instructions to victims. This reveals that there was no direct victim-client communication and that the suspects could retain control over the victims. The victims had no choice but to accept any client, with the services to provide, location and payment already arranged by the criminal network. In total, authorities identified more than 200 victims. Over the past 3 years, the investigators monitored about 3 000 advertisements linked to that network, suggesting that the real number of the victims is much higher.
Forensic sub-focus of the operational taskforce Lotus
The online aspect was an important facilitation factor in the functioning of this sexual exploitation ring. The joint investigative activities enabled by Task Force Lotus has led to the dismantling of an important part of this network. The investigations are however not over; as part of this task force, Europol organised a one-week forensic sprint to coordinate and speed up the follow-up investigations.
During this week, 15 experts from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and Switzerland extracted together tens of terabytes of data from hundreds of seized devices. By carrying out this extraction jointly, as opposed to each participating country performing this work for itself, the process took a few days instead of potentially months. The result of these common efforts will serve operational analysis and further investigations into the activities of this human trafficking network.
Source – Europol