Police in Wales have joined colleagues from around Europe in a major operation targeting serious organised crime gangs after the criminals’ communications were secretly monitored.
The huge international operation has seen 30 arrests in Wales while more than £2.5m in cash along with in excess of 60kg of cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin with an estimated street value of £6m being seized across the south of the country alone.
Around Britain almost 750 people have been arrested and large numbers of guns – including an AK47 assault rifle, sub-machine guns, and hand grenades – have been seized along huge quantities of drugs.
The arrests came after law enforcement agencies were able to hack a sophisticated and secure messaging system called Encrochat which was used by senior criminals around the world, including some 10,000 in Britain and at least seven in Wales.
In scenes reminiscent of the hit TV show The Wire officers were able to monitor the gangs’ communications and see members discussing and planning their operations – including plots to murder rivals.
In total some 60,000 criminals around the world were using Encrochat and had no idea their messages were being seen by police.
Around 10,000 people in the UK, including at least seven in Wales, were using the system for what law enforcement agencies claim were purely criminal purposes.
The company, which charged £1,500 for a device on a six-month contract, sent out a warning to users in early June to say that its servers had been hacked by a government entity.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) has likened the cracking of the communications to “having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country”.
Over the past two months Tarian, the Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU) for southern Wales, has been working with the NCA and the three police forces covering southern Wales to identify and target organised crime groups and individual drug dealers across the region.
Assistant Chief Constable Dave Thorne, who is responsible for Tarian, said: “Operation Venetic has seen huge successes throughout the UK, with over two tonnes of drugs and millions of pounds in cash recovered and hundreds of people arrested, charged, and remanded in custody so far.
“Locally Tarian, working closely with the three southern Welsh police forces, has executed 38 warrants and 16 people have been arrested, charged and remanded in custody so far. A number of others are also being investigated
“Officers have seized 60 kgs of cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin with an estimated street value of £6m. In addition more than £2.5m in cash has also been seized.
“Illegal drugs have no place in our society and we will continue to work together to target those whose criminal activities blight the lives of the communities of southern Wales.
“We are committed to disrupting and dismantling organised crime groups, bringing people before the courts, and removing drugs from our streets.”
Law enforcement agencies had been working on cracking Encrochat since 2016 – then two months ago experts in France and the Netherlands managed to secretly infiltrate the platform and share the results with Europol.
The UK policing response to the intelligence breakthrough was Operation Venetic – the biggest of its kind in the country.
Together the NCA, regional organised crime units such as Tarian in Wales, and police forces around the UK have arrested 746 suspects and seized:
- More than £54m cash
- 77 firearms, including an AK47 assault rifle, sub-machine guns, handguns, four grenades, and 1,800 rounds of ammunition
- More than two tonnes of Class A and B drugs
- More than 28m street Valium tablets produced in an illicit laboratory
- 55 high-value cars and 73 luxury watches
The NCA’s director of investigations Nikki Holland, a former assistant chief constable with South Wales Police, 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.
“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.”
She added: “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.”