A top-secret communications system used by criminals to trade drugs and guns has been “successfully penetrated”, says the National Crime Agency.
“Iconic” crime figures were among 746 arrests after messages on EncroChat were intercepted and decoded.
More than two tonnes of drugs, several dozen guns and £54m in suspect cash have been seized, says the NCA.
The NCA worked with forces across Europe on the UK’s “biggest and most significant” law enforcement operation.
Officers are said to have prevented people being murdered after covertly monitoring planned attacks and threats to life on the encrypted service.
The NCA says the Europe-wide operation, which lasted over three months and involved police forces across the UK, has had the biggest impact on organised crime gangs it has ever seen.
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The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, whose force made 132 of the arrests and seized £13.3m in cash, described it as a “game changer”.
She said: “This is just the beginning. We will be disrupting organised criminal networks as a result of these operations for weeks and months and possibly years to come.”
An estimated 60,000 people, among them up to 10,000 in Britain, subscribe to Encrochat, which works on customised Android phones and, according to its website, provides “worry-free secure communications”.
But the NCA says the messaging system has been used as a “criminal marketplace” to co-ordinate the supply of Class A drugs across the world, and import weapons including assault rifles, sub-machine guns, shotguns, pistols and hand grenades.
Gangs are also believed to use the handheld devices to plot attacks on rival groups, plan ways of enforcing drug debts and arrange for money to be laundered.
Many of those arrested are said to form the “middle tier” of crime gangs while some are described as the “Mr and Mrs Bigs” of the underworld.
In London, those targeted in the Met operation, codenamed “Eternal”, are alleged to include members of “high-harm” organised crime networks with longstanding links to violent crime and drug dealing.
Dame Cressida said: “These people are in business to make enormous amounts of money. Many of them lead a very respectable lifestyle – and definitely a high-end lifestyle in fancy houses with big cars going to… clubs and restaurants, splashing the cash sometimes, but sometimes being very discreet about it.”
The Met said that earlier this month, its detectives had identified a plot by an international drugs and firearms gang to shoot dead a member of a rival network.
According to the force, it managed to prevent the shooting by arresting an individual for conspiracy to murder and seizing a loaded pistol, which was believed to be the planned murder weapon.