In Slovakia, a deepfake was deployed in the run-up to the parliamentary 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 campaign aide 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, a fatal brawl led to an investigation that revealed an organized crime group from Romania; and in Bulgaria, consultants facilitate tax evasion schemes worth hundreds of millions of euros in neighboring Romania.
This collaborative report is based on research from seven investigative outlets, which constitute The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project: 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).
Journalists from these platforms collaborate for each edition of this publication to showcase their most significant investigations into organized crime and corruption in our region.
Slovak election targeted by pro-Kremlin deepfake hoax
The campaign leading up to the 2023 Slovak parliamentary elections will make history. Probably for the first time, deepfakes, i.e. computer-generated audio and video, were a part of the pre-election battle.
Two days before the vote, alleged footage that appeared to be of Denník N journalist Monika Tódová and the chairman of Progressive Slovakia, Michal Šimečka, circulated on social networks and via chain emails. There was just one problem: The “recorded” conversation never happened. Tens of thousands of people heard it anyway.
Some politicians shared the deepfake footage widely, including former Supreme Court justice and ex-minister Štefan Harabin and former MP Peter Marček. Both political figures worldviews’ are broadly accepted as being pro-Kremlin.
Polish drugs traffickers deep in the service of Dutch drug cartels
Frontstory.pl’s investigation explains how Poles ended up at the center of the Dutch underworld, organizing the assassination of a journalist-turned-witness in a mafia trial in the Netherlands.
Dutch drug battles are a piece of a bigger picture. Polish ports are part of it, too: One of the trafficking routes cuts through Poland, and. it actually became one of the most important ones since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The investigation, which was a part of the NarcoFiles project, also reveals how Polish laboratories mix cocaine before the drug hits the market.
“Poland has always been a kind of ‘hub’ for drug trafficking,” an official from the Maritime Crime Suppression Division of the Pomeranian Customs and Fiscal Office said, adding that “Recently, this role has been further strengthened by what is happening across the Eastern border.”
US Department of Justice database reveals the Orbán government’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 lobbying services, including defending Viktor 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. You can read the full story here.
Deadly brawl in Malta leads back to Bucharest organized crime gang
A violent brawl on the streets of Malta last autumn exposed an illegal enterprise profiting from drugs and prostitution, linked to a criminal gang in Bucharest.
What initially appeared as a bar fight in Malta has quickly descended into a murder investigation as 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.
Rise Project’s investigative reporting 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 their cocaine through port controls
Davy de Valk led a relatively uninteresting life in 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 IT systems.
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, bordering Romania, have been helping Romanian businessmen commit VAT fraud and, in some cases, embezzle funds from the European Union.
OCCRP partner Context revealed the scam in an investigation together with journalists from Bulgaria’s 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.
Cover illustration: OCCRP
Polish investigative outlet created by Reporters' Foundation.