Police have arrested hundreds of suspected top-tier criminals involved in murder, gun smuggling and drug trafficking after infiltrating their encrypted phone system.
In an operation led by the UK’s National Crime Agency, investigators say they have seized £54m in cash, two tonnes of cocaine, 77 firearms including assault rifles, sub-machine guns and grenades and prevented contract killings.
Many of the targets are said to have considered themselves “untouchable” – posing as respectable, wealthy tycoons with lifestyles built on the profits of legitimate businesses.
One source said: “Many were seen by friends and neighbours as pillars of society, but in reality were leading secret, glamorous lives they thought would go on forever.”
Every police force in Britain was involved in Operation Venetic, which was launched in April after analysts managed to infiltrate the secretive Encrochat mobile telephone system used by organised criminals around the world.
The system which was hosted in France was taken down during the police operation.
Users paid £1,600 a month for a bespoke Encrochat handset which offers a highly encrypted communication platform.
The NCA says there were 60,000 users around the world and 10,000 in the UK, all off them suspected criminals.
Organised crime gangs used Encrochat to underpin their operations, swapping images of guns and drugs for sale and building in codes and timers that wiped data automatically.
The NCA said some law enforcement officers – fewer than ten – were among those arrested after being “compromised” in intercepted messages.
The Metropolitan Police played a key role, arresting 132 suspects and seizing £13m in cash and 14 firearms including Scorpion sub-machine guns.
In one dawn raid, officers used specialist counter-terror firearms officers and stun grenades to arrest a dangerous suspect involved in firearms and major drug trafficking.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said: “This is an amazing moment. We’ve known for ages that some organised criminals we have dealt with over the years but have never been able to bring to justice for the most serious offences, have been turning to encrypted devices they thought were completely impenetrable.
“They thought they were never going to get caught and were able to use those devices without worry and this shows that law enforcement will be able, in the future, wherever you hide to come after you. These people have been hiding for far too long.
“So this is just the beginning. We have arrested large numbers of people. We have many more to arrest and we will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result of these operations for weeks and months and possibly years to come.
“I think it is a game changer because it shows people that you need to be very frightened because we may already be after you now on the basis of what you have been doing.”
The National Crime Agency said investigators had seized 106 Encrochat mobile handsets during the operation so far and prevented the murder of several individuals who were the targets of rival gangs.
NCA Director of Investigation’s Nikki Holland said: “These are people who are causing vast amounts of misery and harm acrossd the UK.
“These are what we would call iconic untouchable, these are people that have worked with impunity and evaded law enforcement and now we have been able to get inside and see exactly what they are doing.”
The operation involved law enforcement agencies across Europe and is thought to be the biggest ever against organised crime groups.
One gang it targeted was thought to be smuggling guns and drugs through a network spanning Europe and the United Arab Emirates.