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More than 90 kilos of Class A drugs, seven firearms and over £180,000 in cash has been seized in Bedfordshire as part of the UK’s largest ever operation to combat serious and organised crime.
Twenty-four people have been arrested in the county and 11 people charged so far as part of a major coordinated period of action by law enforcement agencies across Europe.
Throughout June Bedfordshire Police worked alongside colleagues from the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU) to run two intensive days of action against suspected organised crime gangs.
This was followed up today (Thursday) with another wave of enforcement action, with more than 70 police officers and staff involved in warrants across Luton.
The massive breakthrough in the fight against serious and organised crime comes after the takedown of a bespoke encrypted global communication service used exclusively by criminals.
Encrochat offered a secure mobile phone instant messaging service, but an international law enforcement team cracked the company’s encryption.
There were 60,000 users worldwide and around 10,000 users in the UK. The sole use was for coordinating and planning the distribution of illicit commodities, money laundering and plotting to kill rival criminals.
The national response, coordinated by the National Crime Agency (NCA) with the full support of regional organised crime units (ROCUs) and local police forces, has ensured that by monitoring thousands of handsets and analysing millions of messages, a number of dangers have been mitigated, including threats to life, murder conspiracies, and the seizure of dangerous firearms and drugs.
ERSOU has used this information to run a series of operations targeting organised crime groups in Bedfordshire and across the wider region since April.
Kathryn Holloway is Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and chair of the East’s seven force Serious Organised Crime and Counter Terrorism Strategic Governance Board at ERSOU.
“The Covid pandemic has clearly not halted or proved a hurdle to the truly effective partnership working of all of the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit’s Regional Organised Crime team, together with the National Crime Agency, its connections within Europe and Bedfordshire Police, as the regional unit’s lead force,” said Commissioner Holloway.
“Together, they have produced some genuinely outstanding results with some of the highest values drugs hauls ever made in the east of England.
“This shows organised crime groups that this region is a truly hostile place in which to try to operate and cuts off, at source, the drugs which produce their profits and which destroy lives.
“What's so particularly praiseworthy is the way these law enforcement agencies, both in Britain and continental Europe, have combined forces, shared intelligence and got the job done this summer, despite a worldwide health emergency."
The NCA, ROCUs and police forces have punched huge holes in the UK organised crime network so far by arresting 746 suspects and seizing:
Between April and early July, ERSOU and local police forces have been undertaking a series of operations targeting prominent criminals, with over 370kg of cocaine, £2.6 million in cash and nine guns seized.
In addition, 63 people were arrested across 55 separate investigations.
The Class A drugs seized in Bedfordshire alone have a street value of more than £3 million.
Bedfordshire Police Deputy Chief Constable Trevor Rodenhurst is also the deputy lead for serious and organised crime for the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
He said: “We face a significant challenge from serious and organised criminal networks operating in our communities. However, this impressive operation has shone a light on those who have sought to avoid detection.
“It is a fantastic example of how the NCA, regional organised crime units and local forces like Bedfordshire Police can work with other partners to target serious and organised crime.
“A significant number of users of these phones have been identified in our county and across the region, and this operation has enabled us to focus our efforts on those at the top of the organised crime food chain.
“These individuals make their profits through the large-scale supply of controlled drugs, using and supplying firearms, and through the exploitation of vulnerable people.
“To tackle this problem we will continue to work with other law enforcement agencies to dismantle those networks involved in organised crime, as well as alongside partnership agencies and our communities locally to help protect those vulnerable to this exploitation.”
Almost £1.8 million worth of drugs were seized by the force from dealers across Bedfordshire last year, with more than £900,000 clawed back from criminal groups operating in the county.
Those linked to organised crime groups in the county were sentenced to more than 300 years behind bars across 2019 as a result of investigations by both Bedfordshire Police and ERSOU.
Serious youth violence fell by nine per cent in the county last year, with incidents of knife and gun crime often driven by organised criminal activity.
In April the force seized more than £100,000 in cash and a sports car from a suspected county drugs line.
Last month the force also safeguarded seven suspected modern slavery victims in a series of warrants targeting the sex industry, as well as safeguarding 10 suspected victims of modern slavery found living in a farm building.
Bedfordshire Police has also led work to develop a comprehensive profile of the local drugs market, with this approach now being replicated by police forces across the country.
Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Parkes, from ERSOU, said: “This is perhaps the most important law enforcement operation to take place in the Eastern region; the results are not just significant in terms of the cash, drugs and guns seized, but also represent a huge step forward in disrupting the operations of criminal gangs in our communities.
“Until now, some criminals have been able to function below the radar using the Encrochat system. This gave them means of communicating between each other which they thought were safe. They thought they were evading law enforcement but this same technology is now being used directly against them.
“These results are a testament to the dedication and relentless work of intelligence professionals, covert officers and investigators from ERSOU and the police forces across the east of England. This side of policing is seldom seen by the public but throughout the UK Coronavirus lockdown they have worked tirelessly to apprehend these dangerous individuals. I’d like to praise them for their extraordinary work over the last few months.
“To those continuing to cause misery to others through their involvement in serious and organised criminal; we have shown that we will find you, we will use all lawful means to capture the evidence against you and we will place you before the courts.”
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