Police have arrested 746 suspected top-tier criminals involved in murder, gun smuggling and drug trafficking after infiltrating an encrypted phone system.
In an operation led by the UK’s National Crime Agency, investigators say they have prevented contract killings – seizing £54m in cash and 1.5 tonnes of cocaine.
Almost 80 firearms have been taken into custody, including an AK-47 assault rifle, sub-machine guns, handguns, four grenades and more than 1,800 rounds of ammunition.
About two tonnes of Class A and B drugs, including more than 28 million Etizolam pills (street Valium) from an illicit laboratory have also been confiscated, plus 55 high-value cars and 73 luxury watches.
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.
Users pay £1,600 a month for a bespoke Encrochat handset which offers a highly encrypted communication platform used legitimately by celebrities and investigative journalists who fear being hacked.
But organised crime gangs used it to underpin their operations, swapping images of guns and drugs for sale and building in codes and timers that wiped data automatically.
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.
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.