VIDEO: THE North West Organised Crime Unit has helped bring down a massive international drugs ring involved in supplying heroin and cocaine across the region, with 93 arrests, £3.6 million cash and 79kg of drugs seized in the UK’s biggest ever law enforcement operation.
The operation, which involved dawn raids across the region and the rest of the UK, came about when law enforcement partners in France and Holland took down a bespoke encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals to carry out their business.
With more than 60,000 users overseas and 10,000 in the UK, EncroChat is a secure mobile phone instant messaging service which is used by criminals to coordinate and plan the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plots to kill rival criminals.
Two months ago, following years of international intelligence sharing, an international law enforcement team made up of officers in France and Holland cracked the company’s encryption.
Since then – under codename Op Venetic – officers from the NCA and other law enforcement agencies across the UK have been assessing and interpreting this intelligence, keeping a close eye on the criminals involved.
Op Venetic has seen entire organised crime groups taken down as a result of the intelligence and nationally 746 arrests have been made and £54m criminal cash, 77 firearms and more than two tonnes of drugs seized.
Today (Thursday 2 July), French and Dutch authorities have shut down the EncroChat servers.
Assistant Chief Constable Chris Green, head of the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit said: “We work with all six North West forces, and alongside our regional forces and the National Crime Agency (NCA) to target those causing the highest harm in communities across the region from organised crime.
“Our mission is to protect our communities through targeting those who are involved in all aspects of organised crime including the distribution and supply of illegal drugs and the use of serious violence. When we talk about a whole system approach to tackling organised crime, today perfectly illustrates this. Across the North West we have been working flat out with our local forces and the NCA to assess and interpret the intelligence and to identify opportunities to take enforcement action and also to safeguard and mitigate risks of serious violence.
“This activity has been mirrored right across the country and internationally we have been part of this joined up collective operation, with a multitude of forces, agencies and partners, working to identify those engaged in the most serious forms of criminality, gather the evidence and take action to dismantle the criminal networks and bring them to justice.”
“As a result of this operation we have seen more than 93 people arrested across the North West for various offences including drugs and firearms supply and money laundering. More than £3.6m in cash has been recovered, along with 54 kilos of Class A drugs, 24 kilos of Class B drugs, 10 firearms and 220 rounds of ammunition.”
Jayne Lloyd, NCA Head of Investigations for the North, said: “Operation Venetic is the broadest and most significant co-ordinated assault on UK organised crime groups ever seen.
“Criminals who believed they were operating anonymously in the shadows of technology, have and are still being exposed, this is causing criminals grave concern.
“Together with our partners in the UK and abroad, we have protected the public by arresting those who thought they were untouchable as they conducted their illegal activities within our communities.”
Assistant Chief Constable Ian Critchley said: “Merseyside Police has always stood firm in its promise to tackle serious and organised crime and we have a proven track record in dealing with individuals who are responsible for the wholesale supply of illegal drugs both locally and across the country, as well as the use of violence, quite often involving gun and knife crime, to protect their business interests.
“In the last decade crime trends have changed significantly and we need to ensure that we move with the times so that we can effectively deal with those responsible for serious and organised crime on our streets.
“We have seen a trend amongst Merseyside criminals with the use of encrypted devices in a bid to evade detection, but the activity we have been involved with in recent weeks with the National Crime Agency and the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit and crime enforcement partners in Europe shows that nobody is infallible and we have the ability to come together and hit the criminals hard.
“Serious Organised Crime has a profound negative impact on our communities, whether it be through the drugs and violence that bring misery to our streets, the guns that can seriously injure or kill, cybercrime which can infiltrate people’s homes, or the exploitation of our vulnerable members of the community, particularly children involved in County Lines.
“As a result of this operation we have seen more than 30 people arrested for various offences including drugs and firearms supply and money laundering. More than £2m in cash has been recovered, along with 25 kilos of Class A drugs, 450 cannabis plants, 28 kilos of Class B drugs and 1.5 tonnes of mixing agents. And last night (Wednesday, 1 July) officers from our Firearms Investigation Team recovered three firearms (a Ruger 9mm handgun, a Beretta shotgun and a revolver) along with a quantity of ammunition from an unoccupied address on John Bagot Close in Everton.
“This operation was made possible after UK law enforcement, working with partners in Europe, was able to takedown a bespoke encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals.
“They mistakenly thought that by using the secure mobile instant messaging service Encrochat that they were untouchable, but unbeknown to them an international law enforcement team had cracked the company’s encryption and law enforcement agencies across the UK and Europe were monitoring their every move.
“As a result 60,000 users were identified worldwide and about 10,000 of them were in the UK and the use of the encryption service was purely for coordinating and planning the supply and distribution of drugs and weapons, money laundering and other criminal activity.
“This is the biggest operation of its kind in the UK and today Merseyside, as well as other forces areas around the UK, is safer as a result of the activity that has taken place in recent weeks.
“I can also reassure the communities of Merseyside that the force will continue its fight against those involved in serious organised crime to make our communities safer.”
North Wales Police’s Head of Crime Services, Detective Chief Superintendent Wayne Jones, said: “Officers and staff from North Wales Police played a key role in supporting Operation Venetic, working with colleagues in the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit and the National Crime Agency.
“For a number of weeks we have been receiving intelligence that has enabled us to carry out targeted operations into Organised Crime Groups operating in North Wales.
“We have already seized high purity Class A drugs and made a number of arrests.
“The taking down of the encrypted network only marks the beginning of further enforcement action we will be taking to arrest those who commit serious crime in North Wales.
“We have secured further evidence into criminal activity, and this will be used in further operations with more arrests and seizure of criminal assets to follow.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Tony Creely, head of GMP’s Public Protection and Serious Crime Division, said: “This has been a colossal piece of work that has required dedication from specialist and differing teams across Greater Manchester Police; and I would really like to thank them for their efforts, as they have no doubt been absolutely integral in dismantling the most sophisticated of organised crime operations.
“This has been a unique and complex series of investigations and the level of sophistication exerted by these criminal enterprises should not be overshadowed. It is thanks and testament to the huge partnership efforts across the UK, as well as further afield, that we are seeing a major breakthrough in the fight against organised crime.
“The impact that this operation will have on the people of Greater Manchester is hugely significant. Organised criminal activity blights communities and ruins people’s lives; and over recent years our communities have felt the full effects of this with violence sometimes erupting over drug and territory disputes. Breakthroughs such as this one are catastrophic for many criminal networks and leave them absolutely exposed, making them hugely vulnerable to prosecution.
“A top priority for GMP will always be to make our streets a safer place, protecting our communities and the people we serve. We will continue to work with specialist agencies and other forces, both nationally and internationally, and do everything within our power to tackle organised crime.”
Detective Chief Inspector Becky Smith from Lancashire Police said: “We continue to work with our partners in our fight against the criminals who exploit the most vulnerable in our communities.
“I hope this activity sends a clear message to the public of our determination to rid communities of this sort of criminalisation and tells the criminals that we will stop at nothing in our efforts to find them and take them down.”