BRUSSELS – Belgian police made 48 arrests Tuesday during an operation of unprecedented scale targeting organized crime, after investigators cracked an encrypted communications network popular with criminals, prosecutors said.
About 200 searches mobilizing more than 1,500 police officers including special units were carried out simultaneously throughout the country of 11.5 million people, the federal prosecutors' office said. Police seized 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) in cash, alongside firearms, jewelry, diamonds, police uniforms and luxury cars.
Meanwhile, Dutch police and prosecutors said in a statement that they arrested 30 suspects Tuesday throughout the country and searched 75 homes and offices.
Belgian prosecutors said investigators cracked the encrypted messaging service Sky ECC and intercepted a billion messages during their two-year investigation that also helped seize more than 17 tons of cocaine.
According to the investigation, there are about 171,000 phones equipped with the Sky ECC service across the world.
Searches started at around 5 a.m. and mainly took place in the region of Antwerp. There were no major incidents, police said, adding that the operation dismantled several international organizations specialized in drug trafficking.
With thousands of shipping containers reaching Antwerp every day, the Belgian port city is one of Europe’s main entry ports for cocaine. Trafficking in the city has led to a surge of violence recently, with gun battles and grenade attacks taking place.
Last year, authorities in Belgium and three other countries dismantled a drug trafficking network that shipped hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into Western Europe. The investigation, which started when a container with 2.8 tons of cocaine was found in Antwerp, uncovered an international network with connections in at least four European countries and South America.
Dutch police and prosecutors seized 28 firearms in the port city of Rotterdam. Earlier in the investigation, they intercepted thousands of kilograms (pounds) of cocaine, heroin and hashish, prosecutors said.
Law enforcement officials “succeeded in gaining access to hundreds of millions of messages” from users of encrypted messaging service Sky ECC, the statement by Dutch prosecutors said.
The Sky ECC server was taken offline Tuesday and seized by Dutch authorities, according to the prosecution statement.
Prosecutors said while monitoring the encrypted messages they were able to prevent dozens of planned crimes, including kidnappings and murders.
The operation followed a similar crackdown in July last year when European police cracked another encrypted communications network called EncroChat, allowing them to monitor criminals in real time as they planned drug shipments, arms deals and assassinations.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that many former EncroChat users migrated last year to Sky ECC.
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands.