Crime lords arrested after European police crack secret chat service

Hundreds of criminals caught in Europe after police infiltrate encrypted message service about gangland murders and drug deals

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Hundreds of top-tier criminals have been arrested across Europe after detectives cracked an encrypted messaging service used to organise major drug smuggling operations and gangland hits.

French and Dutch police broke into the EncroChat service two months ago and have been harvesting the data from the criminal-only service that has allowed countries across the continent to take down some of their most significant criminals.

Police in the UK said the information had led to the arrests of 746 people in the country’s biggest law enforcement operation and provided evidence to arrest known criminals who regarded themselves as “untouchable”.

Criminals had been speaking freely about their illegal operations on the subscription-only service believing that the system could not be infiltrated.

Police in the UK seized £54 million (Dh248m) in cash, 77 guns and more than two tonnes of class A and B drugs as part of the operation. In the Netherlands, police arrested more than 100 suspects, seized about eight tonnes of cocaine and dismantled 19 drugs laboratories.

EncroChat had 60,000 users worldwide with the operators behind the service selling the special customised Android phones for €1,000 each with a six-month contract costing €1,500, said the European police body Europol.

The operators of the system realised it had been cracked only on June 13 and sent an emergency alert to customers to tell them to throw away their handsets. But police had already been monitoring communications between criminals for weeks.

“The sole use was for co-ordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals,” said the UK’s National Crime Agency in a statement.

Its director of investigations, Nikki Holland, said: “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.”

One of the guns seized during an operation by London police using information from the cracked EncroChat network. Metropolitan Police

Police in London said the operation would lead to organised criminal networks being disrupted for “weeks and months and possibly years to come”.