In June 2020, tens of thousands of career criminals received the last message they wanted to see.
They were informed by the shady owners of EncroChat – the encrypted messaging system on their mobile phones that they had been using to discuss drug deals, money laundering and gangland violence – had been taken over by police.
Within a fortnight, police who’d been monitoring and storing millions of messages shared by Encrochat’s 60,000 users for the last two months, had carried out a blizzard of raids across Europe. In the Netherlands police arrested 100 people and found 19 meth labs and a gangland torture chamber. In the UK, police arrested 746 people and uncovered a drug-making factory containing 28 million fake Valium pills.
At the time, Nikki Holland, then director of investigations at the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), compared the success to “cracking the enigma code”, describing it as “the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime”.
The National Crime Agency and police take part in raid on a property in Birmingham in July 2020 in relation to an investigation on EncroChat. Photo: Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images
Intelligence gleaned from the EncroChat hack launched an unprecedented attack on organised crime that ended up targeting a generation of drug traffickers and other career criminals.
This month the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that as a direct result of the EncroChat hack UK police had arrested 2,864 people, charged 1,571, convicted 383, seized £77 million in cash, 20 tons of drugs, 170 firearms and 3,400 rounds of ammunition.
But two years down the line, how has the EncroChat hack – which handed detectives a unique glimpse of the criminal underworld and is widely accepted as being the most significant police intelligence coup in history – impacted Europe’s organised crime world, and in particular, its €10 billion (£8.6bn) cocaine trade?
There is no doubt the coup sent shockwaves through Europe's organised crime world, but the EncroChat earthquake has barely made a dent in Europe’s drug trade.
Of the 60,000 EncroChat users worldwide, 10,000 were UK-based. Tony Saggers, an organised crime consultant and former Head of Drug Threat and Intelligence at the NCA, told VICE World News that the criminals in possession of EncroChat phones, which cost around £2,000 a handset, tended to be “higher-level people and those trusted working close to them”, dealing drugs “above kilo level, including multiple or dozens or hundreds of kilos”.
Police data estimates there are around 4,600 organised crime gangs made up of around 30,000 people. The arrests of nearly 3,000 senior players and conviction of nearly 400, mainly for high-level Class A drug trafficking, due to the EncroChat hack, in such a short space of time is a huge bite.
It has become apparent that one of the immediate impacts of the breaking-open of EncroChat back in 2020 was that scores of criminals swiftly went on the run abroad.
Craig Ancrum, a criminologist at Teesside University, was told by one cocaine wholesaler from the north east of England: “The top lads fled abroad before they could be nicked. One lad was bailed, but fucked off anyway.”
A source with close links to Merseyside’s underworld, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “EncroChat got three or four of the top boys in Liverpool, but some of the others got off abroad. They were scared they’d get implicated. One went to Dubai, another went to South America.” This was backed up by a senior detective in Merseyside police, Mark Kameen, who said last month: “Some of our Encro criminals have now left the country. They have been using Encro, and seeing what has happened to other criminals and therefore decided it’s safer just to leave.”
Nevertheless, before they could evade the authorities, a deluge of big players from the UK and across Europe were caught up in the EncroChat busts. Investigators were able to sit back and witness the panic in real time, as criminals told each other over their compromised messaging system things like “the police scoring goals motherfuckers”.
The dragnet pulled in an array of characters not just from the criminal underworld, but the criminal overworld. The people caught were both seasoned drugs and gun suppliers known to the police who had managed to dodge the law for years, and those who had been operating in the legitimate economy to grease the wheels of organised crime.
Of the nearly 400 serious criminals convicted so far in the UK from the EncroChat busts, many have received sentences of over 15 years after being caught for drug importation and violence.
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A gang from Derby in the East Midlands who made £400,000 a day smuggling £165 million of cocaine from Dubai to the UK received sentences totalling 167 years after they were caught ordering and distributing the drugs using EncroChat.
Robert Brooks was sentenced to 21 years for running what prosecutors called a “truly massive” international drug smuggling operation from a Hertfordshire farm using his EncroChat handle JaguarPalace. This month, a 29-year sentence was handed to “cocaine kingpin” Ryan Palin, identified via photos he shared on EncroChat of a mural at his home of Irish fighter Conor McGregor.
In the Netherlands last month, one of Europe’s most notorious and shadowy gangsters, the CEO of a drug trafficking organisation known by his underworld alias ‘Piet Costa’, was jailed for 17 years for drug importation, money laundering and arranging the shipping container torture chambers found by Dutch police in July 2020.
As investigators hacked their way through a digital forest of interconnected criminal networks negotiating deals and trading gangland gossip, they came across mentions of extreme violence and murder.
This month Liverpudlian Jonathan Gordon, whose specialism was attacking people with acid (he charged £10,000 for blinding victims), was jailed for life after being caught on EncroChat discussing his crimes. In January Michael Hoy was given a life sentence after he was caught brokering deals to sell grenades, guns and drugs on the encrypted system.
In March, in what is believed to be the first murder plot conviction using intelligence from EncroChat, two drug dealers were jailed for planning a gangland hit in north London.
EncroChat also turned up some criminals in uniform. Police in the UK and Europe were caught up in the wave of arrests, including a crooked Met Police officer who helped a London gang to steal £850,000 during fake police raids on rival drug crews and a police officer in the Netherlands who handed criminals confidential information 300 times in exchange for cocaine. In May last year Natalie Mottram, who worked for the UK police’s North West Regional Organised Crime Unit was charged with passing on confidential information to suspected criminals.
“We got over-confident with Encro. It was like we thought we were untouchable,” said a wholesale heroin and cocaine dealer based in Bradford, West Yorkshire, who spoke to VICE World News via criminologist Dr Mo Qasim, a visiting research fellow at the University of Bradford.
“There were so many people talking so blatantly about drugs and what they got and for how much. No code words, nothing,” said the dealer, who started using EncroChat not long before users were alerted to the hack. “It was like we thought that the police would never find out about this chat. Some people around here were being watched for months, the police were just waiting their time. They had so much dirt on them from Encro there was no way they were getting away.”
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Another cocaine and heroin supplier from Bradford who spoke to Dr Qasim said he has seen an array of drug suppliers taken out by the hack, all of whom were swiftly replaced.
“Encro took out some big boys. But there were also people locked up who we didn’t even know were drug dealers; they were so secretive but Encro exposed them. People were being busted all over the place. After the first arrests [in 2020] business slowed down a bit, because prices [per kilo] went stupid. But it was not for long, because COVID came along and there was even more demand for drugs, people were sat at home and needed them. You saw more people around here start selling drugs after Encro who were not selling before.”
Amazingly, despite such unprecedented access into the inner workings of organised crime – most notably drug traffickers – there is little evidence to show that the EncroChat busts have had any deep impact on Europe’s drug trade.
In the wake of these mass arrests and such a large number of high value underworld scalps, all the signs are that the drug trade remains unaffected. Drug supply has not been strangled. There have been no droughts.
Members of Colombia's anti-narcotics police seize a cargo of molasses mixed with cocaine that was being sent to Valencia in Spain. Photo: Sebastian Barros/Long Visual Press/Universal Images Group via Getty.
When supply networks are majorly disrupted, gangs respond by either lowering purity to make limited stock go further, increasing prices, or both. Yet in 2022, price, purity and availability of drugs on Europe’s streets – even with the added impact of COVID lockdowns – remain largely unchanged.
Forensic drug data from the Netherlands, carried out by the government-backed Drugs Information and Monitoring System, shows that regardless of the wave of EncroChat busts since 2020, cocaine purity has continued its rise to record levels, from 65 percent in 2018 to 71 percent in 2021. The average price of a gram in the Netherlands has remained steady since 2018 at 50 euros a gram. In the UK, street drug observers told VICE World News that the purity of drugs this year is very similar to what it was before the EncroChat hack.
“Despite unprecedented levels of law enforcement cooperation and operational success based in part on intelligence from encrypted communications investigations, the cocaine market appears to have remained remarkably resilient, reflected in high purities and stable prices at retail level,” said Andrew Cunningham, head of drug markets and crime at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
The drug trade is the proverbial hydra. “EncroChat got three or four of the top boys in Liverpool,” said the source in Merseyside. “But people have just moved in to replace them. The cocaine trade has not been impacted here. Everyone between 18 and 35 is on coke.”
Tony Saggers said that while the EncroChat hack had generated undeniable success, its impact on drug trafficking could be misunderstood.
“The Encrochat revelations have been a success because they’ve brought to attention the high volume of criminals owning, directing or being in the workforce of wholesale drug distribution. I believe it’s reduced the volume of operators, particularly those in command and control of UK drug organisations. There were people who used to have access [to drugs] who didn't and people who had access abroad [to import drugs] but then had to focus on narrower margins by acquiring in the UK from people who could still get it.”
But he said that some of the biggest players appear to have avoided the EncroChat dragnet.
“There are a number of nominals [criminals] influential to the UK drug trade who were living abroad at the time of the EncroChat operations who are still at large, in places such as Spain, Thailand, Dubai and the Netherlands,” said Saggers. “These senior people need to be rounded up with priority, otherwise they will continue to build their international networks from afar, and target the UK.”
Saggers said that although the amount of criminals taken out by EncroChat was significant, the amount of drugs seized was less so.
While courts and press reports have seen a series of high-end traffickers convicted for smuggling large amounts of drugs, Saggers points out that most were caught with relatively small amounts of drugs on the day police raided them, providing only a snapshot of their prior activity reflected within encrypted conversations.
“People would perhaps expect the impact of the EncroChat arrests to have stifled the supply of cocaine in Europe. But there’s no signs of a reduction in cocaine purity.”
This he said was due to continued high demand for cocaine in Europe and record cocaine production in South America. Colombia is now producing 1,200 tons of cocaine a year, three times more than it was in the 1990s. Saggers points out that the nine tons of cocaine seized by UK police, over two years as a result of the EncroChat busts, makes up less than one percent of Colombia’s annual production.
“We’ve seen over-production of cocaine on such a massive scale it’s counter-balancing the impact of law enforcement,” said Saggers. “It is also difficult to be precise about the impact of EncroChat disruptions because of overlaps with the implications of Brexit and COVID measures upon drug trafficking and markets.”
Deprived of their beloved Encro phones, what are Britain’s top drug criminals now using to communicate with their importers, transporters and distributors? Crime experts who spoke to VICE World News said most were using a combination of encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal, and old school face-to-face meetings. In an interview last year, Julian Richards, head of complex crime at Reeds Solicitors, said that criminals were restricting their use of encrypted messaging systems to “devices where the servers are based in countries where they are less likely to be compromised by the police” such as Eastern Europe, Dubai or even Thailand.
However despite the successes of the busts in injecting a heavy dose of paranoia into Europe’s underworld, there could be a sting in the tail for law enforcement.
“There are multiple issues around the legality of using EncroChat messages as evidence,” said Peter Sommer, a visiting professor of Digital Forensics at Birmingham City and De Montfort Universities. “The issues vary between different European jurisdictions but all arise from the novelty of the investigatory method and the refusal of the French authorities to provide detailed explanations.”
Ever since the hack was announced two years ago, there have been a series of legal challenges to the legitimacy of using the data to arrest, prosecute and convict people. Police and prosecutors in the UK were accused of using the wrong warrant in order to access the encrypted messages, but this was rejected by a high court judge.
Then it was alleged that the information could not be used as evidence in criminal proceedings because it was “intercepted” data. But a Court of Appeal judge said the messages were not grabbed during transmission, but when they were stored, and therefore the data was admissible.
A group of defendants has lodged a complaint about the police’s use of the EncroChat evidence and the warrants they used with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is due to make a judgement in September. Similar challenges have been made across Europe and earlier this year a group of defence lawyers and criminal justice watchdog Fair Trials published an open letter to the European Parliament saying that the use of the hacked data would prevent a fair trial.
In April France’s constitutional court ruled that French police were allowed to keep a veil of secrecy over exactly how they hacked EncroChat, even though there are strict rules over how evidence used in courts is obtained. French investigators do not want to reveal how they hacked EncroChat for fear it will make it easier for those using encrypted systems in the future to take evasive action.
“Some prosecutions may collapse entirely, if the arguments from defence lawyers prevail. But in other instances defendants have been found in close proximity to large quantities of drugs, firearms and unexplained quantities of cash. They can still be prosecuted on that basis,” said Sommer.
Duncan Campbell, a specialist in forensic communications, has been an expert witness in EncroChat trials. He said evidence from the EncroChat data is unreliable and potentially unlawful.
“There’s never been a case like this. Because where the information [obtained from the French police’s hacking of EncroChat] comes from, where it goes to, who has control of it and whether it has been changed or not is completely secret. Therefore the whole basis of this police operation violates every code of practice of evidence and principles. Normally in situations like this when an unlawful method has been used, you don’t try and use the material as evidence, it’s used as intelligence to get evidence.”
Campbell said the fact people are being found guilty using messages sent over EncroChat rather than solid evidence is “compromising all your forensic principles” on the use of evidence in court. “You can’t tell if this evidence is a complete fabrication. It might be completely true but it might not be.”
Despite the challenges, there have been a steady stream of prosecutions and convictions. Merseyside police force, which covers the major UK drug distribution hub of Liverpool, says it’s still only half way through prosecuting a backlog of EncroChat offenders.
According to Tyrone, a long-term cocaine supplier from London who has so far avoided any major convictions, the EncroChat hack will have only caught a particular type of criminal, leaving those who avoided it with more of the pie.
“Most of the smart people didn’t get on EncroChat at all. It was just a matter of time before it got compromised. It’s stupid,” he told VICE World News using only his first name. “Didn’t these people think that police were going to make it their mission to unlock it and get hold of the information and whatever they want from there? The police can’t allow something like EncroChat, because terrorists could be planning on blowing up something up using it. It’s just common sense.”