UK arrests hundreds after EncroChat criminal chatroom cracked

French and Dutch detectives cracked the secret system in May 2020 and shared evidence with other European police forces

IMAGE PIXELATED BY PA PICTURE DESK A man is led away by officers after he was detained during a raid by the National Crime Agency and police on a property in Birmingham on 26/06/20 in relation to an investigation on Encrochat, a military-grade encrypted communication system used by organised criminals trading in drugs and guns. Up to June 16, officers in the UK had arrested 307 suspects, of whom 69 had been charged, recovered 106 Encrochat devices and seized more than GBP 36 million and 916,000 euro (GBP 826,000) in cash. (Photo by Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images)
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The UK has arrested more than 1,500 suspects since European detectives cracked an encrypted messaging service 10 months ago used by criminals to organise major drug smuggling operations and gangland hits.

French and Dutch detectives were able to secretly monitor communications between criminals for weeks on the EncroChat service before its administrators realised it had been penetrated and advised users to throw away their phones.

The information gathered has been shared across European police forces, leading to the seizure of tonnes of drugs and the dismantling of drug laboratories.

British officials revealed that evidence drawn from Encrochat conversations had led to the seizure of five tonnes of Class A drugs, 115 guns, nearly 3,000 rounds of ammunition and £57 million ($65m) in cash.

The country’s National Crime Agency, which targets top level criminals, said operations across the country had “significantly disrupted and dismantled numerous crime groups”. Police in London said criminal gangs could be disrupted for “weeks and months and possibly years to come”.

EncroChat had 60,000 users worldwide with the operators behind the service selling special customised Android phones for €1,000 ($1,190) each with a six-month contract costing €1,500.

Criminals spoke freely about their illegal operations on the subscription-only service, believing the system could not be infiltrated.

Those snared in the haul included Thomas Maher, a haulage firm boss who once owned the lorry that was used to traffic the 39 Vietnamese migrants who died after suffocating in sweltering conditions in a sealed container.

Maher was never charged over the deaths of the migrants but was detained shortly after EncroChat was cracked. In one message Maher boasted of his involvement in organised crime for more than 20 years.

Police said that during this time he probably shipped tonnes of drugs and tens of millions of pounds around Europe. Maher used the messaging system to joke that he was in a great position to take advantage after the coronavirus lockdown was lifted.

Police outside the house of Joanna and Thomas Maher in Warrington, who have said they had sold the Scania lorry cab, which is registered in Bulgaria, to a company in Ireland, after 39 migrants were found dead in a refrigerated trailer in Grays in the early hours of Wednesday.

“Once we get this travel ban lifted … we'll be laughing mate I’m telling u that’s why I’m not stressing yet,” he said.

Dylan Broderick, 26, from Wembley, north-west London, was jailed for more than seven years last month after he was caught using EncroChat to run his drugs operation.

He was arrested in the underground car park of his home and police found the specialist phone when they searched his flat. It showed that Broderick, using the handle ‘Immensescarab,’ sent thousands of messages planning drugs deliveries in and around London during the Covid lockdown.

Police said they were also able to find 450 kilogrammes of ecstasy tablets hidden inside a mechanical digger that was shipped from London to Australia after cracking messages between criminals involved in the deal.

A British gang brought the drugs into the UK and then shipped them back out to Australia hidden inside a lead-lined compartment within the boom of the excavator. The messages recovered from Encrochat included sketches of the hidden compartment.

The drugs had a street value of £44 million, police said. Five men were arrested in the UK and Australia over the plot.