Global agencies react to take down of mafia, bikie members in 'sting of the century'

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New Zealand Police say they have dealt a “huge blow” to organised crime after a major trans-national sting resulted in 35 arrests and $3.7 million in assets seized.

The FBI and Europol have revealed more details of the massive crime bust that dealt a significant blow to organised crime gangs in just 24 hours.

In a press conference overnight, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said that along with the Australian Federal Police (AFP), authorities had had “turned the tables” on criminals and criminal organisations after fooling them to use a covert encrypted app.

Across 16 countries, including New Zealand, more than 800 suspects have been nabbed, eight tons of cocaine seized and more than $51 million recovered, officials confirmed.

Europol, including members of the Dutch National Police (Politie) and the Swedish Police Authority (Polisen), bragged they had carried out “one of the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement operations to date in the fight against encrypted criminal activities”.

They warned that “serious criminals wrongly believe that they can operate anonymously and out of sight of the police and that they cannot be caught”.

Operation Ironside was formed three years ago as a collaboration between the AFP and the FBI to bring down underworld figures.

Austria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom (including Scotland), and the United States joined Australia.

The bust yielded drugs, guns, and vehicles. Photo / NZ Police
The bust yielded drugs, guns, and vehicles. Photo / NZ Police

On Monday, more than 300 New Zealand police staff executed 37 search warrants across the North Island. At least 35 people appeared yesterday in Auckland and Hamilton district courts facing nearly 1000 drug dealing and money laundering charges.

More are due to appear today.

Senior members of the Comancheros in Waikato, Waikato Mongrel Mob and the Head Hunters were among those arrested.

$3.7m in assets had been seized, along with 20 ounces of methamphetamine, large bags of cannabis, multiple kilograms of iodine, four firearms, 14 vehicles, including two boats, mobile phones and more than $1m in cash.

Nearly 9kg of meth had also been seized at the border during the course of investigations linked to the joint operation.

Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division, said the sting, dubbed Operation Trojan Shield by the FBI and Europol, involved more than 9000 police officeras across 16 countries.

“Criminals and criminal organisations often use encrypted platforms to shield their illicit activity from law enforcement,” Shivers said.

“These platforms help criminals facilitate and coordinate drug trafficking, violent assaults, murders, public corruption, money laundering, many other crimes that are committed throughout the world.

“Through Operation Trojan Shield the FBI and our international law enforcement partners from across the globe were able to turn the tables on criminal organisations and gain access to their communications to disrupt their criminal activity.”

Hundreds of alleged offenders were tricked into communicating via AN0M, an encrypted app designed by police, which grew to service more than 1000 encrypted devices in 300 criminal syndicates operating in more than 100 countries, including Italian organised crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs and international drug trafficking organisations.

Armed police during a raid on a property at Pt England on Monday night. Photo / Hayden Woodward
Armed police during a raid on a property at Pt England on Monday night. Photo / Hayden Woodward

Users communicated in 45 languages on the app, according to officials, conversing about contract killings, drugs and much more.

“Over the past 18 months, the FBI provided criminal organisations in over 100 countries encrypted devices that allowed us to monitor their communications,” Shivers said.

“There were a number of things that resulted from this. Not only have we heard about the number of arrests and number of seizures but there were over 100 threats to life that were mitigated.

“To give you an idea of the magnitude of our penetration, we were actually able to see photographs of hundreds of tonnes of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of food, we were able to see hundreds of kilos of cocaine that were concealed in canned goods.”

New Zealand

More than 300 NZ staff – including National Organised Crime (NOCG), Armed Offenders Squad, Special Tactics Group, Asset Recovery, High Tech Crime and Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Central and Wellington District staff – executed 37 warrants on Monday.

The 35 people arrested appeared at the Auckland and Hamilton District Courts yesterday facing a range of drug-dealing and money-laundering charges.

More than 900 charges have been laid. More will be arrested, National Organised Crime Group director Detective Superintendent Greg Williams said.

Police have seized $3.7m in assets and more than $1m in cash. Photo / NZ Police
Police have seized $3.7m in assets and more than $1m in cash. Photo / NZ Police

One of the police operations linked to Trojan Shield – dubbed Operation Van – had specifically targeted the transnational organised crime group linked to the Comancheros.

“This is a stunning piece of work,” Williams said.

“It’s a great day for New Zealand.

“We believe the termination of these operations will have a significant impact on New Zealand’s organised crime scene.”

Europol reacts

“This operation is an exceptional success by the authorities in the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the other European members of the Operational Task Force,” Europol’s deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe said.

“Europol coordinated the international law enforcement community, enriched the information picture and brought criminal intelligence into ongoing operations to target organised crime and drug trafficking organisations, wherever they are and however they choose to communicate.

“I am very satisfied to see Europol supporting this operation and strengthen law enforcement partnerships by emphasising the multi-agency aspect of the case.”

FBI

“Encrypted criminal communications platforms have traditionally been a tool to evade law enforcement and facilitate transnational organised crime,” Shivers said.

“The FBI and our international partners continue to push the envelope and develop innovative ways to overcome these challenges and bring criminals to justice.

“We are grateful to Europol for their commitment to fighting transnational organised crime and their partnership with the FBI.”

A plot to brings drugs to NZ using this boat was foiled by Operation Trojan Shield. Photo / NZ Police
A plot to brings drugs to NZ using this boat was foiled by Operation Trojan Shield. Photo / NZ Police

Swedish Police

“This operation, with an extensive strike yesterday, is one of the largest intelligence-led police operations against violent crime and drug networks ever in Sweden,” said Linda H. Staaf, Police Commissioner and Head of Intelligence of the Swedish Police.

“We highly appreciate this type of co-operation between law enforcement agencies. The criminality spreads across borders and international co-operation is crucial to fight serious crime.”

Netherlands Police

“Operation Trojan Shield is a fine example of innovative and daring police work that is unparalleled,” said Jannine van den Berg, Chief Constable of the Netherlands Police’s Central Unit.

“Each partner provided its own unique expertise and together we delivered a fantastic international performance.

“Thanks to the excellent technical skills of the Dutch police, the millions of messages could be analysed and interpreted.

“Just like the investigations into EncroChat and Sky, Operation Trojan Shield also shows that serious criminals wrongly believe that they can operate anonymously and out of sight of the police and that they cannot be caught.

“Nothing turns out to be less true. My compliments and thanks go to all participants of Operation Trojan Shield.”

New Zealand Police say they have dealt a "huge blow" to organised crime after a major transnational sting resulted in 35 arrests and $3.7 million in assets seized. Photo / NZ Police
New Zealand Police say they have dealt a “huge blow” to organised crime after a major transnational sting resulted in 35 arrests and $3.7 million in assets seized. Photo / NZ Police

Australian Federal Police

“The AFP and FBI have been working together on a world-first operation to bring to justice the organised crime gangs flooding our communities with drugs, guns and violence,” said Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw.

“Europol has been a trusted and committed partner during this time.

“Very few matters unite law enforcement like bringing to justice those who seek to do our citizens harm.

“The FBI provided an encrypted communications platform while the AFP deployed the technical capability that helped unmask some of the biggest criminals in the world.

“The intelligence shared by Europol has helped to ensure this is one of the most significant global task forces for law enforcement.

“This week the AFP will execute hundreds of warrants and is expected to arrest hundreds of offenders who were linked to the platform.

“This is the culmination of hard work, perseverance and an invaluable, trusted relationship with Europol.

“We thank Europol for their long and integral partnership with the AFP.

“Crime is local but when we work together our reach is global.”

– Additional reporting, NZ Herald