Britain’s biggest ever crime bust has captured 746 crooked kingpins and foiled hundred of plots after raids by every UK police force, with £54 million of dirty cash, two tonnes of drugs and 77 firearms seized after an impenetrable phone network was smashed.
A sting spanning the globe saw scores of raids carried out across the country in a major move in the battle against drugs, guns and illegal activity.
During the two-month operation officers seized the illegal cash along with firearms including hand grenade and machine guns.
But it was only made possible after the National Crime Agency and European forces managed to get inside a formerly secure phone system called Encrochat in an operation dubbed Operation Venetic.
It is a messaging system, which is similar to WhatsApp, and is only pre-loaded onto special phones which have to be specially bought.
Criminals paid £1,500 for a six month contract to use them and could send a ‘kill code text’ which wiped everything on the handset.
Experts in France and the Netherlands infiltrated the illegal communication network, which helped them understand what crimes gangs were planning, like in TV hit The Wire.
In the show one of the police officers built up cases against crooks by using a device called the Triggerfish, which collected data from their phones.
In the real world, investigators found 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK alone on Encrochat – the sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of drugs, guns, dirty cash, money laundering and plots to kill rival criminals.
It was a treasure trove of evidence as top level criminals could be monitored speaking freely about their operations and plans, thinking their network could never be cracked.
- The huge UK operation managed to pull in over £54million in criminal cash as from gun and drug dealers
- They seized 77 firearms, including an AK47 rifle, sub machine guns, grenades, and 1,800 rounds of ammo
- Major drug dealers who were targeted saw officers find more than two tonnes of deadly Class A and B drugs
- Among the finds were an incredible 28 million Etizolam pills – known as street Valium from an illicit laboratory
- Officers also seized expensive trappings of wealth including 55 high value cars, and 73 luxury watches
OLDHAM: A man was arrested in his underwear during a raid in Greater Manchester before being questioned by police
BIRMINGHAM: The haul from the nationwide sting found £54million in cash among drugs and guns
LONDON: A total of £13million was seized, including £5million recovered in just one sting, the Met’s largest individual seizure
BIRMINGHAM: Officers lead away a suspect among the 132 arrested during the worldwide sting carried out by the UK’s police forces
BIRMINGHAM: The National Crime Agency and police take part in raid on April 26 in relation to the Encrochat investigation
But as they chatted away, law enforcement officers were collecting clues in real-time to collect enough evidence to put them behind bars.
The Metropolitan Police alone detained 132 people – including some from the most serious organised crime network in the capital – with more than £13.3million in cash seized among machine guns and narcotics.
What is the ‘EncroChat’ smartphone system used by the mafia to move money, drugs and order murders
Encrochat was a secret platform where users were able to communicate privately between specially-designed handsets – often to run drugs, traffick people and even order murders.
These devices, costing £1,500, are usually Android-based smartphones that had their GPS sensors, microphones, and cameras stripped out, encrypted chat apps installed by default to allow people to sent private messages.
It is now emerging that criminal syndicates across the world had one – with one in six of the 60,000 users in the UK.
Marketed as the electronic equivalent of two people having a conversation in an empty room, it enabled users to send written messages or make voice calls through an encrypted system.
There were thought to be 60,000 users internationally, including 10,000 in the UK, with prices at £1,500 for a six-month contract.
Investigators say that the platform, which was not in itself illegal, was designed to be secure against unwanted outside access, and in the UK was used purely for criminal purposes.
Since the breach, the Encrochat platform has shut down.
According to the Encrochat website, customers had access to features such as self-destructing messages, that deleted from the recipient’s device after a certain length of time.
There was also panic wipe, where all the data on the device could be deleted by entering a four-digit code from the lock-screen.
The National Crime Agency said the handset could also be wiped remotely.
Encrochat made sure that there was no way to link the SIM or device to the user’s account, and its handsets had no camera, USB data port, GPS or microphone to make them extra secure.
Investigators became aware of the platform in around 2016, but it grew in popularity in the following two years after law enforcement hacked the encrypted Blackberry PGP system.
Before Encrochat, hosted in France, shut down, National Crime Agency deputy director Matt Horne said: ‘We assess there are up to 10,000 people in the UK using the Encrochat platform, and we assess that is completely for criminal purposes.
‘The platform is provided by internationally based individuals, and it allows those people that wish to participate in having one of these devices to have a specially-designed handset, which is hardened against law enforcement forensic techniques.
‘The device has a bespoke operating system, which is designed to frustrate law enforcement’s ability to collect intelligence or evidence from these devices. They utilise an encrypted messaging system in order to communicate between criminals.’
One of the operations seized £5million in one go – which is the force’s largest ever single cash haul.
Many of the arrests were of seemingly-respectable people living luxury lifestyles, but hiding their secret criminal empires.
Incredible footage of one raid showed armed officers deploy nearly a hundred flash bombs in a 1.45am mission two weeks ago on a high-end property in the Home Counties.
Heartstopping bodycam footage shows them get into the building screaming ‘armed police’ as they gain access, with one man in his boxer shorts standing with his hands up.
He was arrested on suspicion on large-scale importation of drugs and has been released pending investigation. An imitation firearm was seized.
A source said: ‘The flash grenades are used to disorientate when police arrive when they suspect the person could be armed.’
The vast Met operation – codenamed Eternal – was made possible through a team-up between the National Crime Agency and European partners.
Data from the encrypted Encrochat phone system was shared with them, identifying a number of serious criminal plots.
The international partnership revealed there were approximately 1,400 London-based users of the secret call network.
Criminals paid £1,500 for a six month contract which gave them a handset and access to the network which ran off a wifi signal.
If one should fall into the hands of police, the gang could simply send a ‘kill code text’ which destroyed anything stored on the device.
Their handsets had allowed them to plot crimes, but the teams managed to infiltrate it and dismantle the system.
Commissioner Cressida Dick said: ‘This operation is the most significant activity, certainly in my career, we have ever carried out against serious and organised criminality across London.
‘Organised crime groups have used encrypted communications to enable their offending.
‘They have openly discussed plots to murder, launder money, deal drugs and sell firearms capable of causing atrocious scenes in our communities.
‘They were brazen and thought they were beyond the reach of the law.
‘Organised crime does not respect geographical boundaries.
‘Those responsible for it adapt quickly and take advantage of every opportunity.
‘This operation has enabled us to target those at the top of the hierarchy and individuals we have known about for years but have not been able to tackle head on.
‘This offending has a direct impact on our communities – those involved appear to have an air of respectability, but their actions leave a trail of misery and are inextricably linked to the violent scenes we see play out on our streets. Our investigators, intelligence analysts, firearms officers, Territorial Support Group and our local officers have worked day and night over the past two months to progress our investigations as part of this operation.
‘Through this work with our international partners, we have significantly developed our understanding of organised criminality in London and the ways in which some of our most prolific and dangerous offenders operate.
‘This is just the beginning, there are many more people we are investigating. We know who they are and we have seen what they are doing and who they are doing it with. We will not rest until they have seen justice.’
Elsewhere officers from the NCA, supported by Merseyside Police, arrived at a home in Melling at about 7.30am yesterday morning.
The action was one of five separate swoops on Merseyside, including in Halewood and Anfield.
All the five warrants in the county were linked, and are connected to alleged high-level drug dealing and firearms offences, with guns used to “enforce” in criminals’ Class A turfs or patches.
The man arrested in Melling is suspected of working with others on a “national and international scale,” police added, and “how it comes back into Merseyside, and those people then control others and how that then leads to misery and corrosive effect on the community.”
The raids saw 14 firearms recovered, including Scorpion submachine guns and revolvers and 500 rounds of ammunition.
Officers who carried out the stings brought 1,800 rounds of ammo into custody stores that would have been sold illegally
Footage from the dramatic raids saw armed police storm a luxury complex in the Home Counties, as well as in Birmingham and Oldham
Raids saw gang members targeted and taken off streets with police saying they had ‘mitigated over 200 threats to life’
The National Crime Agency said crooks had been targeted over a two-month period after the network was compromised
Another of the organised crime groups was thought to have roots in Nottinghamshire, with links into Liverpool. A number of warrants in the county has led to the seizure of 7.5kg in cocaine and heroin, and £620,000 in cash.
How police smashed criminal gangs in the UK, Europe and the UAE by hacking their phones
Police today dismantled huge chunks of a criminal drugs, guns and people trafficking network spanning the globe after four years of trying.
After two months of planning officers in major cities across the UK simultaneously struck kingpins all over the country.
In April, at the height of lockdown in Europe, police in France and the Netherlands finally infiltrated the EncroChat platform.
The phone system, similar to a walkie talkie system allowed users to send encrypted communications and offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service believing that they were safe from detection.
There were 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK – the sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals.
But detectives infiltrated the system – and the crime syndicate collapsed like a house of cards in June.
This is what we know about they operation, known Venetic, with 746 arrests, and £54m criminal cash, 77 firearms and over two tonnes of drugs seized so far in Britain.
This is what we know so far:
March 2020: After four years of work, police in France and the Netherlands finally infiltrate the EncroChat system . The data harvested about who was used was shared via Europol, to countries all over the world all over the UK.
April and May: Officers continue to take down information from 60,000 users including 10,000 in the UK. There are also a series of raids
June 13: The owners of the EncroChat system realised the platform had been penetrated and sent a message to its users urging them to throw away their handsets.
June 14: Users are sent a ‘kill code’ that disables their phones and wipes its memory.
June 15: Police forces in 30 areas across the UK carry out raids using counter-terrorism armed officers to arrest the bosses of the gangs selling drugs and arms in the UK.
Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Kirby, who heads up East Midlands Special Operations Unit said they were tracked using Encrochat.
He said: ‘It was an encrypted app used entirely by criminals.
“It was used for criminality across what we call ‘threat areas’ – money, drugs, firearms, and the ability to endanger lives through criminal feuds.
“It is a drugs supply gang dealing in kilos and large amounts of money. It told us about criminal networks in our area and what they are up to.
“They really thought they were safe but it was a gold mine for law enforcement.
“We had the keys to that code and we were aware of everything that was going on.
“It was like the Enigma code.”
Elsewhere more than 90 kilos of Class A drugs, seven firearms and £88,000 in cash has been seized in Bedfordshire as part of the UK’s largest ever operation to combat serious and organised crime.
Twenty-one people have been arrested in the county and 11 people charged so far as part of a major coordinated period of action by law enforcement agencies across Europe.
Throughout June Bedfordshire Police worked alongside colleagues from the ERSOU to run two intensive days of action against suspected organised crime gangs.
This was followed up today with another wave of enforcement action, with more than 70 police officers and staff involved in warrants across Luton.
The data harvested from Encrochat was used by specialist detectives to build a case against criminals identified in the chats through analysis of hundreds of handsets and thousands of messages.
Crooks who had been previously completely unknown to the police were among those discovered at the centre of the web of illegality.
Arrests in 34 separate operations so far in London saw arrests for conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms, money laundering and conspiracy to supply Class A and B drugs.
It has seen 99 people charged and 14 firearms recovered, including Scorpion submachine guns and revolvers and 500 rounds of ammunition.
A total of 36 encrypted devices, 620kgs of Class A drugs and 12kgs of Class B drugs were also nabbed by officers.
One compromised network linked international organised crime and serious violence across London through a gang spanning the UK, Europe and UAE importing and distributing cocaine and firearms.
This unit planned to shoot and kill a member of a rival group, but they were able to be stopped before they acted with a loaded pistol believed to be the intended murder weapon found.
Where the Operation Venetic raids took place
- Hullbridge, Essex
- Basildon, Essex
- South Woodham Ferrers, Essex
- Oldham, Greater Manchester
- East Kilbride
- North Lanarkshire
- Newry, Northern Ireland
- Newport, South Wales
A Met spokesperson added: ‘This is the most significant operation the Metropolitan Police Service has ever launched against serious and organised crime
‘Those arrested under one investigation were identified as being part of the most high-harm OCN in London with long-standing links to violent crime and the importation of Class A drugs.
‘The central figures of this group led lavish lifestyles, live in multi-million pound properties with access to top of the range vehicles.
‘They appear to be successful, respectable business people but they are dangerous individuals. Our enforcement activity against them reflects this – we used our most highly trained firearms officers and sophisticated tactics to arrest them at their addresses.’
NCA Director of Investigations Nikki Holland, said:
‘The infiltration of this command and control communication platform for the UK’s criminal marketplace is like having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country.
‘This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.
‘The NCA is proud to have led the UK part of this operation, working in partnership with policing and other agencies. The results have been outstanding but this is just the start.
‘A dedicated team of over 500 NCA officers has been working on Operation Venetic night and day, and thousands more across policing. And it’s all been made possible because of superb work with our international partners.
‘This year the police are winning’: How criminals sent frantic messages as the net closed in on them
Frantic messages exchanged between criminals using EncroChat revealed how they knew their time might be up as the net closed on the encrypted communications system. Here is what the messages said:
- ‘This year the police are winning’
- ‘NCA as u know well are sophisticated and relentless’
- ‘If NCA then we have a big problem’
- ‘The police are having a field day’
The phones – which have pre-loaded apps for instant messaging, the ability to make VOIP calls and a kill code which wipes them remotely – have no other conventional smartphone functionality and cost about £1,500 for a six-month contract.
‘Together we’ve protected the public by arresting middle-tier criminals and the kingpins, the so-called iconic untouchables who have evaded law enforcement for years, and now we have the evidence to prosecute them.
‘The NCA plays a key role in international efforts to combat encrypted comms. I’d say to any criminal who uses an encrypted phone, you should be very, very worried.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the action showed how determined law enforcement was in tackling the threat of crime.
She said: ‘This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar.
‘The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.
‘I will continue working closely with the NCA and others to tackle the use of such devices – giving them the resources, powers and tools they need to keep our country safe.’