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Cops drill into chat apps, sink plot to smuggle tonnes of coke into Europe

Video Efforts by cops to seize and shut down encrypted messaging apps favored by criminals, and then mine their conversations for evidence, appear to have led to more arrests — plus the seizure of about 2.7 tonnes of cocaine.

Europol on Friday celebrated its “dismantling of a large drug-trafficking organization,” following an investigation into a Balkan cartel that was suspected of smuggling coke into Europe from South America via sea. That Serbian-led police effort included help from Brazil, Croatia, France, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Slovenia.

Specifically, the plod said the cartel, which had been under investigation since January 2022, was slinging “multi-ton cocaine shipments” from Brazil to the EU using a large boat. We’re told the vessel’s skippers had also gone to West Africa to prep their craft for smuggling. Below is a video summary of the raids carried out against the crime ring.

Youtube Video

“Operational intelligence pointed out that the skippers of Ukrainian and Czech nationality traveled several times to Cabo Verde or other locations in West Africa to prepare their vessel for smuggling operations,” the European cops claimed.

“Recently uncovered operational information revealed that the vessel was located in Brazil.”

This operational info, we’re told, allowed Brazilian and Spanish cops to monitor the ship, and an “action day” on August 24 led to 15 house searches, six arrests, and the seizure of 2.7 tonnes of charlie along with two high-end cars, luxury watches, and around €550,000 ($593,000) in cash.

International authorities also froze a “large number” of bank accounts and ongoing real estate transactions as the financial investigation continues.

One of the people arrested, a Serbian national, is described as “one of the main organizers” of the cartel. Police said they monitored this suspect’s involvement in the boatloads of blow — along with the Serbian’s alleged cohorts — via encrypted messaging platforms.

From chat apps to arrests

Europol doesn’t specify which chat app or multiple apps they snooped around on to find the alleged Serbian drug lord. The cops do note, however, that “the takedown of three encrypted communication tools used by criminals, namely EncroChat, Sky ECC and ANOM, has given international law enforcement an unprecedented insight into criminal networks and how they function.”

All three of these subscription-based, encrypted messaging services were also infiltrated and shut down by police over the past few years. Criminals used these secure communication apps to plan operations and hide them from the prying eyes of law enforcement.

Data gleaned from all of these services has since been used as evidence to arrest thousands.

These comms platforms also highlighted “the important role of criminal networks largely composed of nationals of countries in the Balkan region play in the global cocaine trade,” according to Europol. The snappily named Operational Taskforce Balkan Cartel, the label under which the raids took place, was created in response to this threat, we’re told. 

This is at least the second such cartel takedown since May that European police have credited to an encrypted messaging app hack.

On May 11, police arrested three people in Belgrade described as “the biggest” drug lords in the Balkans, as well as 10 other suspects in Serbia, and 10 alleged members of the cartel in Belgium, Serbia, Peru, and the Netherlands, bringing the total arrests to 23. 

Law enforcement credited last year’s Sky ECC takedown with those arrests. ®