ENCROCHAT HACK: British crime gang 'imported 450 kilos of MDMA to export to Australia in excavator'
THREE men were arrested in London and two in Sydney, Australia, following the seizure of 450 kilos of MDMA hidden within an excavator that was shipped into the Port of Brisbane from the UK earlier this year.
A joint investigation was launched by the National Crime Agency (NCA) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) after the haul was discovered within the specially adapted boom of the machinery.
Australian Border Force officers found the concealment when an x-ray revealed the anomalies on 15 March 2020. The boom had been lined with lead in an attempt to mask the 226 packages of MDMA.
After being emptied of the illicit load, the excavator (pictured above) was delivered to its intended recipient in Sydney.
NCA investigators analysing encrypted messages obtained as part of Operation Venetic – the UK investigation into the EncroChat network – uncovered the criminal conspiracy by a London-based crime group to import drugs into the UK, then export them in heavy plant machinery to Australia.
Messages sent on EncroChat devices between January and June 2020 detailed plans to purchase the excavator in the UK, hand-drawn illustrations of the concealment within the boom, costs relating to the importation and confirmation that it had been loaded onto a Vessel in Southampton on 24 January and arrived in Brisbane seven weeks later.
Two of the men believed to be involved in arranging the importation and exportation were arrested in Putney by NCA officers on 15 June. A third man was detained outside his home address in Greenwich on 1 October. All three were charged with conspiring to export class A drugs. On Wednesday 9 December AFP officers arrested two men aged 33 and 42 who have also subsequently been charged.
The NCA launched the investigation earlier this year as part of Operation Venetic – the UK law enforcement response to the takedown of the encrypted messaging platform EncroChat. This spring Dutch and French investigators broke through the encryption of the supposedly secure Encrochat encrypted phone communication platform which was being used by around 60,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK. They allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to real time messaging between organised crime groups. It led to hundreds of raids, arrests and seizures of drugs, cash and firearms.
The NCA says more than 1,000 people have been arrested as part of the probe, but many of them were not found to be in possession of Encrochat devices.
There have been a number of legal challenges by people charged under the operation that evidence from the phones as not admissible in court as it was a "live intercept".
The verdict in a test case is due.
Chris Hill, Senior Investigating Officer for the National Crime Agency, said: “This was a global conspiracy to import huge amounts of class A drugs into the UK, then out to Australia. “Through close working with our Australian partners and analysis of encrypted messages recovered as part of Op Venetic, we were able to uncover this highly organised conspiracy and prevent the criminals behind it from making millions in illicit profits. “In the UK, this amount of MDMA could potentially make close to £18 million. In Australia, profits would have been even higher – $79 million (£44m) if sold on the streets. “Drug trafficking incites violence, spreads fear and exploits the vulnerable. Disrupting the OCGs involved, particularly those at the top of the chain with international reach, is a top priority for the NCA.” Mark Bishop, head of the Asia and Pacific region for the National Crime Agency, who is based in Canberra, said: “Every day, we work closely with Five Eyes partners to share intelligence on the serious and organised crime threats impacting our countries. The AFP are a key partner in this effort and their ongoing support is vital in disrupting those international crime syndicates with links to Australia and the UK. “Throughout Operation Venetic alone, we have jointly seized two tonnes of cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine headed to, or in, Australia this year.” Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Southern Command, Bruce Giles, said: “Organised crime groups seek to move illicit goods in bulk whenever they can and however they can. In this case they thought that hiding the drugs in machinery would be innocuous enough to avoid detection by Australian authorities.” “The AFP, working with its national and international partners, will not stop in our commitment to protecting the Australian community from the harm caused by these drugs and our pursuit of those who seek to profit from peddling misery.”