Among those rounded up were underworld kingpins and drug lords. Loot seized included £54million in cash, 77 firearms, 1,800 rounds of ammunition and £80million of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The National Crime Agency (NCA) boasted that entire organised crime networks had been dismantled and 200 lives saved from murders and gangland executions.
Nikki Holland, the NCA’s director of investigations, said being able to infiltrate the mobile phone network was like “having an inside person in every top organised crime group in the country”.
She added: “This is the broadest and deepest ever UK operation into serious organised crime.”
The NCA also revealed Operation Venetic had snared a few allegedly corrupt law enforcement officials but declined to give further details.
Dame Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, which made 171 of the arrests, described the operation as a “game changer”.
She added: “We will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result for weeks, months and possibly years to come.”
The wave of arrests – with more across Europe – was made possible by specialist officers in France deciphering the gangsters’ military-grade EncroChat system two months ago. The breakthrough, after four years of painstaking work by police throughout Europe, was akin to cracking the Enigma code in the Second World War, according to the NCA.
EncroChat, based in France, was set up in 2016 and used exclusively by criminals. Handsets were Android and cost £3,000 a year to lease.
It is thought there were 60,000 users, with 10,000 in Britain. Features of the system included self-destructing messages and “panic wipe”, where all the data on a device could be destroyed by entering a code from the lockscreen. Officers uncovered details of plots to cut off arms, legs and hands, attack rivals with acid and shoot competitors as part of turf wars.
Forensic tests are now being carried out on seized firearms to identify weapons used in murders.
Other crimes being investigated include drug-running, money laundering, kidnap and acid attacks. NCA deputy director Matt Horne said: “This is very much about the organised crime gangs operating on street corners, on estates and across communities across the entire UK.”
Every British police force was involved. Suffolk Police’s Chief Constable Steve Jupp said: “This has sent a shockwave throughout a tier of criminals who considered themselves to be untouchables.”
Police were congratulated on their “significant achievement” by Home Secretary Priti Patel. EncroChat had been a thorn in the side of law enforcement for many years.
Drug dealers Andrew Venna and Matthew Cornwall, who operated in Stroud and Gloucester, used Encro Chat before they were jailed last May.
Mark Fellows and Steven Boyle, jailed for life in Liverpool last year for the killings of John Kinsella and Paul Massey, also used it.