A global sting in which organised crime gangs were sold encrypted phones that law enforcement officials could monitor has led to more than 800 arrests in 17 countries, officials said on Tuesday.
The operation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Australian and European police ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East involved in the global narcotics trade, the officials said.
More than 800 suspected members of organised crime gangs and $148 million in cash were seized in raids around the world, along with tonnes of drugs, cryptocurrencies, weapons and luxury cars.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had "struck a heavy blow against organised crime – not just in this country, but that will echo ... around the world".
Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield, conceived by Australian police and the FBI in 2018, was one of the biggest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialised encrypted network.
It began when US officials got involved in the development of An0m, a supposedly secure encrypted messaging app, which was then sold to organised crime networks.
The FBI helped to infiltrate the phones into 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, Calvin Shivers of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division told reporters in The Hague.
In a pattern repeated elsewhere, one Australian underworld figure began distributing phones containing the app to his associates, believing their communications were secure because the phones had been customised to remove all capabilities, including voice and camera functions, apart from An0m.
As a result, there was no attempt to conceal or code the details of the messages - which police were reading.
COCAINE IN FRUIT
"It was there to be seen, including 'we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point', 'this is who will do this' and so on," Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.
"We have been in the back pockets of organised crime ... All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered."
Shivers said the FBI had been able to see photographs of "hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit".
Australian police said they had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs.
On Monday alone, they seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as almost A$45 million ($35 million) in cash, including A$7 million from a safe buried under a garden shed in a suburb of Sydney.
In Europe, there were 49 arrests in the Netherlands, 75 in Sweden and over 60 in Germany, where authorities seized hundreds of kilograms of drugs, more than 20 weapons and over 30 luxury cars and cash.
The operation also revealed that gangs were being tipped off about police actions, which prompted "numerous high-level public corruption cases in several countries", according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.
Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded, had "essentially set up his own colleagues" by distributing the phones, and was now a marked man.
"The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family," he said.
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