A police takeover of a secret phone network used by top criminals provides a unique window into what makes organised crime tick in 2020.
The full impact of authorities penetrating the hidden criminal world of EncroChat, the WhatsApp for gangsters – exclusively revealed by VICE News – is as yet unknown. Investigations are ongoing, and criminals are still being busted, arrested and charged across Europe.
What's certain is that this police coup, dubbed Operation Venetic, constitutes one of the largest assaults by law enforcement on organised crime in recent history. French and Dutch authorities' infiltration of EncroChat has led to a wave of busts around Europe, cementing the notion that drug gangs are international operations heavily reliant on their foreign counterparts.
In the Netherlands, Europe's drug production and trafficking hub, police made huge seizures relating to the drug trade, including 19 meth labs, 1,200kg of meth and 10 tons of cocaine. But the hack also revealed the increasingly brutal nature of a Dutch drug trade that is spiralling out of control. Gruesomely, after examining messages sent via EncroChat, Dutch police discovered shipping containers that had been converted by one gang into prisons and a torture chamber – containing a dentist's chair, handcuffs, pliers and scalpels – in a village near the border with Belgium. Six men have been arrested on suspicion of planning kidnappings and serious assault.
Two Irish crime gangs were relieved of €1.1 million worth of cocaine after a raid on a flat in Amsterdam, and of €5.5 million of cannabis concealed among melons and oranges in a trailer that had arrived into County Wexford from Bilbao, Spain. Arrests have also been made in Sweden.
Perhaps the worst-hit criminal networks, however, are those based in the UK, Europe's most lucrative drug market. So far in Britain there have been 746 arrests. Police have recovered two tons of drugs, 77 firearms and a treasure trove of high value cars and luxury watches.
This blow reveals a number of ways organised crime gangs – or at least the estimated 10,000 UK criminals who paid £1,500 for a six-month contract for the EncroChat handsets – are currently operating in the UK.
First, the fall-out from Operation Venetic has been truly nationwide: it's clear from the breakdown of arrests and seizures that organised crime is now a coast to coast, UK-wide concern, with big busts across East Anglia and the Midlands, the South East, Yorkshire, the North West and Scotland. It is also clear that the two most common threads linking most UK-based organised crime gangs – or at least those caught using EncroChat – are Class A drugs and cash. Over three-quarters of the 113 charged by the Met Police (88 people) face charges of conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Virtually every regional special operations unit that acted on information gleaned from the EncroChat operation found large stashes of cocaine, a drug that is becoming increasingly prevalent in Britain. In the top three regions for coke busts, intel from Venetic led the Met Police to 500kg of cocaine, the Eastern unit (Essex and East Anglia) to 354kg and the West Midlands unit to 233kg. It wasn't just cocaine, though: raids also uncovered large amounts of heroin, amphetamine, ecstasy, weed and black market prescription pills. Police were led to a factory in Rochester, Kent where they found 28 million Etizolam pills, ready for transportation to Scotland. Known as "street valium", Etizolam has become a deadly addition to the Scottish drug menu, causing one in every three drug deaths in the country in 2017.
During this flurry of raids, detectives have found themselves knee-deep in dirty money, with police seizing £54 million in cash so far. In one bust, the Metropolitan Police found £5 million in used bank notes, the biggest single haul of cash in British policing history.
The busts also revealed the favoured hiding places of Britain's organised criminals. One London gang hid its riches, in plain site, in three transit vans. One "hide" was specially built into the floor of a van and opened by remote control. The other two, found in piles of building equipment in two vans, looked like electrical generator boxes. To be opened, the boxes first had to be powered up using an electrical transformer device, before a specially made key fob was used to engage a hydraulic lock inside the box. Inside the three hides were hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of high value watches, jewellery and cocaine.
The busts give an insight into the never-ending transit of drugs and cash around the country. For example, the hack resulted in a string of vehicle stops in Scotland; in just one four week period, among other seizures, police found 40 kilos of cocaine, £200,000 of cannabis, 59 kilos of cocaine and £750,000 in cash, and finally 65 kilos of cocaine.
In May, police stopped a vehicle in Sheffield and found two suitcases containing £1.1 million. The driver, who also had £150,000 and two counting machines at his home address, was charged with money laundering. And it wasn't just domestic trafficking that police managed to hit: one gang was caught trying to smuggle cocaine from South America into the south of England on a cruise ship, with the help of one of its crew.
Significantly, Operation Venetic appears not just to have penetrated a highly secretive, encrypted communication system, but the higher echelons of Britain's most powerful organised criminal gangs.
The Met Police has described Operation Eternal, its arm of the EncroChat operation, as "the most significant operation the Metropolitan Police Service has ever launched against serious and organised crime". It said it had arrested "some of London's longest-standing and most dangerous criminals", and that the EncroChat hack was providing evidence to prosecute "a significant number of known criminals who regarded themselves 'untouchable' and remained beyond [our] reach – until now".
Scotland Yard said one investigation resulted in the arrest of members of "the most high-harm organised crime group in London, with long-standing links to violent crime and the importation of Class A drugs…the central figures of this group lead lavish lifestyles and 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."
The UK's National Crime Agency claims Operation Venetic has foiled 200 gangland acts of violence in Britain, including potential executions, for which four people have so far been charged with conspiracy to murder. The Met Police has so far charged 16 people with firearms offences.
Another organised crime gang infiltrated was involved in the importation and distribution of cocaine and firearms, and spanned the UK, Europe and United Arab Emirates. Police said the organisation "protected and advanced their criminality through serious violence on the streets of London".
In June, detectives became aware of a plan by one member of the gang to shoot and kill a member of a rival group. He was arrested for conspiracy to murder, and a loaded pistol – believed to be the intended murder weapon – was seized from an associated search of an address. Police in the West Midlands also revealed they foiled a gangland killing, just days before the hit was due to be carried out. While British police claim they may have prevented up to 200 gangland killings, the number of homicides linked to high level organised crime – as opposed to street gangs – in this county is relatively low.
In an increasingly globalised criminal world, EncroChat vastly improved the connectivity of Europe's organised crime gangs – and for a while provided a safe space to collaborate on the purchase and movement of drugs, money and guns. Yet its strength was also its weakness; once the police gained access to the network, they were able, in an unprecedented way, to tap into a major nerve centre of European organised crime.
But the crime world will take the hit. Already, a rival service to EncroChat is taking on new subscribers, and the cash cow of organised crime, drug supply, is almost limitless; it won't take long for any shortfalls in supply to be replenished. However, drug detectives are limited – and rival gangs will have no problem stepping into the spaces left by those who'll soon be serving time for the crimes they committed, having put too much trust in an app.