Police swoop across southern France in gang crackdown
Five hundred police swooped across southern France on Tuesday as part of a crackdown on organised gangs from eastern Europe, seizing drugs, weapons and money, officials said.
Officers seized more than EUR 100,000 (USD 150,000) in cash, a kilogramme of cocaine, several kilogrammes of cannabis resin, guns and a number of luxury cars as they raided areas of Marseille, Avignon and Toulon, Roland Gilles, director general of the French national gendarmerie, told reporters.
This operation is "the result of a year-long investigation so that we can stop the actions of organised criminal gangs from the Balkans," he said.
Olivier Rothe, public prosecutor in the city of Aix-en-Provence, said 34 people had been held in custody, some of whom had already spent time in prison.
A source close to the investigation said many of the names featured in the police dossier came from regional gypsy communities.
Authorities were first alerted to the possibility of organised criminal gangs operating in the area when reports emerged in February 2008 of criminals posing as policemen to steal cash and valuables from foreign tourists in motorway service areas.
The case, which covers more than one hundred different incidents, started with a number of assaults committed on the motorways between the Spanish and Italian borders, notably the motorway between Perpignan and Nice, prosecutor Rothe explained.
Officers later uncovered evidence of pimping, drug offences, violations of gambling laws, arms trafficking and money laundering, he added.
Those arrested will have to answer to a wide range of organised criminal charges.
The operation was carried by two units from France's elite CRS police and officials from the department of public security.
France national police also deployed a number of its own investigators as reinforcements to back up their local counterparts.
Prosecutor Rothe hailed the "united front" that state and judicial authorities had displayed throughout the operation, acknowledging it was difficult to fight against the "black economy."